A remarkable philosopher passes at 99

Photo: Sarah Lee for The Guardian

British philosopher Mary Midgley died earlier this month at 99, shortly after publishing her twentieth or so book.

Not being one of her colleagues, I speak with the authority of a man whose philosophical vocabulary stops at “ignoramus”. But in my experience there are two sorts: those who soar effortlessly through the clouds far above the “foul rag and bone shop of the heart” and those who plod through the paddock grazing and ruminating and ruminating and grazing and eventually crapping on the thistles.

Little old white-haired lady that she was, or became, Midgley belonged to the latter species. With her colourful gift for forensic demolition of fuzzy thinking without fear or favour, she was once described as “the most frightening philosopher in the country”.

She applied her talent to great effect upon the philosophical pretensions of uppity scientists, notably Richard Dawkins, although E.O. Wilson, Francis Crick and Stephen Hawking were not ignored. She found herself in hot water over a stinging 1979 review of Dawkins’s magnum opus The Selfish Gene in the journal Philosophy. Later on she confessed to being contrite, well, just a little bit contrite, for writing:

Genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological... Dawkins, however, simply has a weakness for the old game of Brocken-spectre moralizing—the one where the player strikes attitudes on a peak at sunrise, gazes awe-struck at his gigantic shadow on the clouds, and reports his observations as cosmic truths.

And so on for 20 pages. Very enjoyable. And very frightening to imagine her as your philosophy tutor.

Midgley’s lifelong foe was scientism, the belief that science is responsible for defining and answering all of life’s significant problems. As she wrote in one of her sparkling essays, again in the context of Dawkins:

Worship ... is not only something carried out in Gothic buildings by people singing Hymns [Ancient and Modern]. It has many other forms and can be entirely informal. It is certainly the mood most strongly suggested by Dawkins’s discussions of the gene.

Her larger concern was turning philosophy back towards human life as it is lived, not as theorized, abstracted, idealised or mathematicised. This led her to write about respect for the imagination, about humans as animals and about respect for the environment.

In a typically vivid image, she often said that plumbing and philosophy have much in common. They are both complex, ancient and intricate and are noticed only when something disastrous has happened.

When the concepts we are living by work badly, they don’t usually drip audibly through the ceiling or swamp the kitchen floor. They just quietly distort and obstruct our thinking.

Although her father had been an Anglican curate, she was not a religious woman. Nonetheless she respected what she could not understand. As she said in one of the numerous interviews which she gave newspapers in her later life:

I don’t know what’s wrong with me, so to speak. You know, considering the number and the quality of the people who do get something from religion, there is something wrong with me. But whether there is Somebody there or not is not a trifling matter, you know. 

I’m less enthusiastic about her interest in the Gaia hypothesis, that the world must be understood as an organic whole in which everything is interrelated and that the biosphere is a self-regulating, self-sustaining natural system. But for her it was probably a suggestive image, a way to rethink the atomistic, reductionist framework through which contemporary science tends to see the world.

Back to Midgley’s rag and bone shop, though. In the mid-50s she wrote an essay for the BBC called “Rings and Books” (a typically erudite reference to Robert Browning’s epic poem The Ring and the Book) about marriage and philosophers. It was never published but a copy of the typescript from the Midgley archive surfaced recently on the internet. It begins:

Practically all the great European philosophers have been bachelors. In case you doubt that, here are some figures:

Unmarried: Plato, Plotinus, Bacon, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant.

Married: Socrates, Aristotle, Hegel.

This was a matter of no little interest to Midgley, because she took family responsibilities seriously. In 1950 she had abandoned a thesis on Plotinus to marry another philosopher, Geoffrey Midgley, with whom she raised three sons. She only returned to academia in 1962, at the University of Newcastle, teaching there until 1980. She was 58 when her first book was published, although she subsequently made up for the drought, with about 300 books, articles, prefaces, interviews and podcasts to her credit before she died.

In “philosophic celibacy”, Midgley detected a baneful influence.

The objection to such a way of life lies in certain obstacles which it puts in the way of intellectual development. Because independent thought is so difficult, the philosophic adolescent (even more than other adolescents) withdraws himself from the influences around him to develop ideas in harmony with his own personality. This is necessary if the personality is to be formed at all.

But once it is formed, most people recoil towards experience, and attempt to bring their own strengthened self to terms with the rich confusion from which it fled. Marriage, which is a willing acceptance of the genuinely and lastingly strange, is typical of this revulsion. The great philosophers did not return. Their thoughts, unlike yours and mine, had power enough to keep them gazing into the pool of solitude.

For her, the paradigm figure of the philosophic adolescent was 23-year-old René Descartes, who grasped the central feature of his philosophy, Cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am, while meditating in an oven (editor: long story, look it up). This set scepticism about the real world as the central problem of modern philosophy. “Philosophers did not want the human soul to be mixed up in the world of objects, as it must be to make knowledge possible,” she says.

This 300-year detour in philosophy was avoidable, in Midgley’s view, had Descartes and his followers been more sociable:

People leading a normal domestic life would not, I believe, have fallen into this sort of mistake. They would have taken alarm at the attitude to other people which follows from Descartes’ position. For Descartes, other people’s existence has to be inferred, and the inference is a most insecure one.

... nobody who was playing a normal active part among other human beings could regard them like this. But what I am quite sure of is that for anybody living intimately with them as a genuine member of a family, Cogito [I think] would be Cogitamus [we think], their consciousness would be every bit as certain as his own. And if this is not sure for men, it certainly is for women. And women are not a separate species...

Philosophers have generally talked, for instance, as though it were obvious that one consciousness went to one body ... I wonder whether they would have said the same if they had been frequently pregnant and suckling, if they had been constant faced with questions like, “What have you been eating to make him ill?”, constantly experiencing that strange physical sympathy between child and parent, between husband and wife ... if in a word they had got used to the idea that their bodies were by no means exclusively their own.

Why isn’t this experience a part of philosophic inquiry, she demands. And she closes her essay with a remarkable example of philosophical prejudice against experience:

I saw a singular instance of this lately in a correspondence about the law of abortion. A writer pointed out that many women who had wished to be rid of their child two months after conception were eager to bear it three months later, and finished apologetically, “Expect no logic from a pregnant woman”.

But of course there was nothing wrong with the logic. The premises were changed. A child at two months feels like an ailment; at five months it feels like a child. The women had passed from the belief, “I am not well” to the belief, “I am now two people”. And the only thing wrong with that belief is that it is one which is unfamiliar to logicians. This, I suspect, is an unphilosophic objection.

As I said, this was an unpublished radio talk. And why was it not published, you may ask. According to Midgley, it was because the editor thought that it was a “trivial, irrelevant intrusion of domestic matters into intellectual life.” He entirely missed her point, which is that the intense experience of human society in a family is a healthy corrective to the unhealthy self-absorption of philosophic adolescents.

Perhaps what philosophy needs is more wives and mothers like Mary Beatrice Midgley, née Scrutton.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.


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