Grand Dame of Philosophy: Philippa Foot


Philippa Foot died on October 3, 2010. Her ninetieth birthday. She was an Oxford-educated philosopher. She was Iris Murdoch’s best friend and sometime lover. Yesterday a tweet alerted me to an excellent obituary published in the Guardian, written by Jane O’Grady.

For Philippa Foot, virtuous meant well-rounded and human. She condemned moral faults as “the kind of timidity, conventionality and wilful self-abnegation that may spoil no one’s life but one’s own.”

She pooh-poohed prissy moralistic tones that lost touch with real life. “I do not know what could be meant by saying that it was someone’s duty to do something, unless there was an attempt to show why it mattered.”

Foot was a philosopher who challenged the Oxford orthodoxy by stating that the grounding of a moral argument is ultimately found in the facts about human life.

She said arbitrary moral strictures are subjective, capricious, and might just as well extend to “the wrongness of running round trees right-handed or looking at hedgehogs in the light of the moon.”

Foot was a life-long socialist and labour supporter. She voted, along with only three other academics, to prevent President Harry S. Truman (architect of Hiroshima) from having an honorary Oxford degree.

Before yesterday’s tweet, I hadn’t heard of Philippa Foot. Nor had I read Iris Murdoch’s 1968 novel The Nice and the Good, in which her friend is portrayed. Yesterday’s tweet, in fact, was only the second tweet I’ve ever received. It’s a brave new world to me.

I’ll end this posting with one more comment by Philippa Foot.

As a philosopher, she once said, she felt like a geologist tapping away with a tiny hammer on a huge cliff. If you replace the word philosopher with social networker the quote works excellently for me as well.

Thanks to my new twitter friend for mentioning the obituary and thanks to Jane O’ Grady for writing it.

And happy birthday to Philippa Foot. I wish you were still around to enjoy it.


About Nor

I'm a creative non-fiction writer, with a special interest in memoirs and obituaries--life stories, local histories with flesh & blood anecdotal details. I'm also beginning to create podcasts of people's stories and expanding their audiences. I'm a diarist, an editor, and a political activist. I live in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and spend days tapping keys or staining my fingers in ink.
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