PHIL 291 The Somerville School of Philosophy

Spring 2022; Professor Yang Xiao

This course is an introduction to one of the most original visions of philosophy articulated by a group of four women philosophers, all of whom are associated with Somerville College (the first women college at Oxford University): Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001), Iris Murdoch (1919-1999), Mary Midgley (1919-2018), and Philippa Foot (1920-2010). Recently some scholars have argued that they should be recognized as some of the most important and original philosophers in the twentieth-century. This is a major correction of the “official” history of analytic philosophy, such as the Oxford Handbook of the History of Analytic Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 2013), which lists 150 most important analytic philosophers, only four of them being women. However, Oxford University Press is catching up – it will publish a group biography of the four women philosophers in November: The Women Are Up to Something: How Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch Revolutionized Ethics. The author of the book, Benjamin Lipscomb will be a guest speaker in the class. 

There have been more and more people recognizing the profound importance and originality of the “Somerville School of philosophy”, a term we will be using primarily to refer to these four “Somervilleans”, as well as those who have been influenced by them, such as Cora Diamond, Michael Thompson, Raimond Gaita, Peter Winch, Martha Nussbaum, John McDowell, and Bernard Williams, and those who share their vision and style of philosophizing, such as Wittgenstein, Simone Weil, Stanley Cavell, and many ancient philosophers and religious thinkers – some of them are the sources, upon which the Somervilleans draw their inspirations, such as Wittgenstein (in the case of all four of them), Thomas Aquinas (Anscombe and Foot), Simone Weil (Murdoch), and Daoism and Buddhism (Murdoch and Simone Weil). We will also read some of the texts that have influenced them.

In this course we will be focusing on the four Somervilleans’s work in ethics, ontology, philosophy of language, philosophy of action, theory of human nature, philosophy of literature, and their arguments that these sub-fields of philosophy are intimately connected to ethics. We will explore how they have articulated an original and unique vision of ethics, which should be recognized as the better alternative to “ethical theory”, which is the dominant way of doing ethics today, taking ethics to be “theory-construction” in isolation from not only other subfields of philosophy, but also the humanities in general. As we will see, one of the best ways to characterize the Somerville School’s style of doing ethics is to say that they are doing “big ethics'' – “big” in the sense that ethics is not a “departmental philosophy”, it has no subject matter because everything is “ethical”. Ethics cannot be done in isolation from other parts of philosophy, or other parts of the humanities, such as history, religion, literature, and the arts. It fulfils one of the area requirements for philosophy majors: The Philosophical Figures, Schools and Movements. No prerequisites.

PHIL 391 Spinoza

Spring 2022; Professor Jason Waller

This course will be an in depth study of Spinoza's masterpiece The Ethics (1670). We will study all five parts of the book spending three weeks on each part.  The book is written in a "geometrical" form (like Euclid's Elements or Newton's Principia) and we will work through each one of Spinoza's proofs.  This book defends a revolutionary naturalistic theory of the universe, human nature, the mind-body relation, the emotions, and freedom.  Fulfills the Great Thinkers requirement for the major.