The NY Times has a collection of remembrances of some people who died in 2010. One remarkable fact is that it includes two philosophers. Even more remarkably, both are women. Let us celebrate their recognition separately. We will look at their piece on Mary Daly next week. For now, it is Philippa Foot.
The articles captures both some of the originality of Foot’s thought, and the interesting progression of her thought:
Incrementally, over many decades, first at Oxford and then at U.C.L.A., Foot shaped an alternative moral vision. In the late 1950s, she questioned whether you can have a recognizably moral attitude about just any set of facts. (Can you really believe that it is immoral to look at hedgehogs in the light of the moon?) By the ’70s … In the ’80s, after considering how we evaluate what is “good” for plants and animals, she developed the argument, presented in “Natural Goodness,” that vice is a defect in humans in the same way that poor roots are a defect in an oak tree or poor vision a defect in an owl: the latter two assessments have clear normative implications (“oughts”), yet are entirely factual.
Looking back, she seemed to appreciate the connection between her distinctive talents and the long arc of her career. “I’m a dreadfully slow thinker, really,” she said. “But I do have a good nose for what is important.”
Her final book, Natural Goodness, was published in 2003. The earlier Virtues and Vices is a collection of her essays.
The article captures a style of interacting in philosophy in Somerville College that perhaps was once common, but which seems to me to have becomes quite uncommon. Here is a bit of it:
In the wake of the news of the concentration camps, Foot was haunted by the notion that there was no way to rationally overcome a moral standoff with a Nazi. She wanted to argue that moral evaluation (“It is wrong to kill innocent people”) is not fundamentally different from factual evaluation (“It is incorrect that the earth is flat”). … It was Anscombe, a devoted Catholic, who liberated Foot, a lifelong atheist, to dare to think in this outmoded fashion. Foot had been speaking of the conventional contrast of “ought” and “is,” and Anscombe feigned confusion. “She said: ‘Of what? What?’ ” Foot recalled. “And I thought, My God, so one doesn’t have to accept that distinction! One can say, ‘What?’!”
Fresh from the APA, I’m inclined to wonder whether this style has completely disappeared. I can certainly easily imagine Anscombe, adjusting her glasses and drawing on a cigar, saying “Really, come, come. You think there are these things in the brain that you call “mental representations,” which refer to things outside our heads. I do know that philosophers in the 17th and 18th centuries said something similar, but on the face of it, it is a very stupid opinion.”
(That philosophers held a position was a good reason to think it was suspect, but Anscome would certainly have reasons for saying this, which she was happy to share.)
It is a challenge to reexamine, with a view to rejecting, basic assumptions current in one’s philosophical society. Terribly impractical, of course. I do know Philippa worried seriously that such approaches did not prepare her students for academic life as it is now conceived.
But I wonder if our field has so configured itself that today the fact that philosophers think something is a reason to take it very seriously indeed. Despite Kuhn, I think one could make a good case for saying that something similar is true of many science fields. But do we think philosophy is the same? Should we? Or is it just too easy to question everyone else’s assumptions?
What do you think?