Photo: Leon Harris/eyevine

Looking at the world as a whole: Mary Midgley, 1919-2018

The great philosopher had a pluralistic view and made puncturing scientific pretension into an art form. She spoke to Prospect a few weeks before her death, aged 99
October 23, 2018

Just a few weeks before her death in October, Mary Midgley agreed to meet and discuss her new book, What Is Philosophy For? It seemed astonishing that someone about to celebrate her 99th birthday had a new book out, but I was less in awe of that than the reputation of one of the most important British philosophers of the 20th century and beyond.

People who have encountered Midgley often use the word “formidable” to describe her. Journalist Andrew Brown called her “the most frightening philosopher in the country: the one before whom it is least pleasant to appear a fool.” During my email correspondence with her to set up a date to talk about those philosophical problems “which are exercising both me and the public,” she worried that publications like the ones I write for “occasionally give rather half-witted answers to large questions of this kind.”

A lot of people were on the receiving end of her sharp intellect. She made puncturing scientific pretension into an art form—going after DNA discoverer Francis Crick for saying that human behavior can be explained simply by the interactions of brain cells, the physicist Lawrence Krauss for claiming that only science can solve philosophical problems, those theorists who insist we must look to machines for our salvation, and, most famously, Richard Dawkins for the idea that a gene could be selfish. In person, though, Midgley was kind, generous with her time and as engaged as ever with philosophical ideas—even if her voice was soft and she had a little trouble hearing me. She sat in an armchair, sipping tea, surrounded by books. Having just celebrated her approaching birthday with friends and family, she had a kitchen full of cakes.

One of her bibliographies lists nearly 300 books, articles, prefaces, interviews and podcasts. That’s all the more remarkable considering her late start—her first book appeared when she was in her late 50s. In the decades following, Midgley had a consistently solid swing at what she took to be glaring mistakes in a certain sort of orthodox, academic thinking about human nature, animals, morality, and science. “What makes me write books is being furious,” she said, laughing a little. “But,” Midgley added, “I think I’ve been furious about all the things I can be now.”

The positive side of her thinking was a defence of a kind of pluralism. Building on the legacy of the ancient Greeks, she took the view that philosophy is a holistic enterprise undertaken by real people living down here on earth, trying to make some sense of a puzzling world.

Midgley was “appalled and shocked at the way in which the Oxford people were going wrong”
There’s truth in many ways of looking at the world. “It’s distributed,” she said, “It’s in lots of different places.” And the philosopher’s job is not to drill down or pick apart, but to look at the whole and try to fit things together. This, by the way, is an unusual approach. Most philosophers get on with the job by making ever finer distinctions, teasing concepts apart, considering one aspect of one question. Midgley was never going to follow in the footsteps of a logician like Gottlob Frege, devoting pages to understanding such things as clauses beginning with “that,” “who” or “although.” But she said people seemed to be coming around to her more holistic way of thinking. “I do know, because I’ve now lived a long time, that things change.” Her way of doing things, she said, “just seemed obvious to me” from the beginning.

Midgley was part of an extraordinary group of women studying philosophy at Oxford during the Second World War. In what’s been called the “golden age of female philosophy,” Midgley became lifelong friends with Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe and Philippa Foot, all around the same age. They shared philosophical ideas in a unique intellectual environment—most men were away in the war. Does that explain why they were the first generation of women in Britain to have such success in philosophy?

As Midgley wrote elsewhere, “I can only say: sorry, but the reason was indeed that there were fewer men about then. The trouble is not, of course, men as such—men have done good enough philosophy in the past. What is wrong is a particular style of philosophising that results from encouraging a lot of clever young men to compete in winning arguments.” She told me she was “appalled and shocked at the way in which the Oxford people were going wrong,” and this brought her and her three friends together. “Though these Oxford discussions were very polite and controlled, they were also highly personal and competitive. They always revolved essentially on who was right in this argument, and still more, on who was wrong. Who wins and who loses?” I asked if she meant JL Austin, a centre of gravity at Oxford at the time. She said she thought he wrote good books, but told me that his lectures "gleamed with self-satisfaction."

That’s not the way she approached philosophy. Instead of emphasising the competition to win arguments, Midgley, as her new book makes clear, tried to make sense of a puzzling world in all its diversity. She compared philosophy to drawing maps or chasing rabbits (as opposed to digging for golden nuggets of scientific truth). It was a way of standing back and looking at life as a whole. She called philosophy a practical art, one which brings together parts of our lives that, on the face of it, do not quite cohere. Her prose can be quite wonderfully down to earth. Philosophy, she famously wrote, “is best understood as a form of plumbing.” Our thinking depends on hidden assumptions, and “we don’t notice this background till things start to go wrong—until, so to speak, the smell coming up from below is so bad that we are forced to take up the floorboards and do something about it.”

She was born on 13th September, 1919, in Dulwich, to Lesley and Tom Scrutton. Her father was a chaplain and then a vicar, and while Midgley thought there was much to recommend the religious life and had positive things to say about Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism, she was not a believer. “I could never actually get to saying my prayers and listening and hearing something coming back,” she said. “Nothing came back.”

She went to boarding school in Charles Darwin’s former home, Downe House, where she first started reading philosophy. “I started with Plato before I ever went to college… One day, I picked a little book off the bookshelf and said, ‘this might be quite fun.’ I decided it was quite fun.” There was a pause. “I could have picked up Spinoza.” She looked slightly alarmed at the possibility.

After Oxford, she worked as a civil servant during the war, then taught philosophy briefly at the University of Reading. While her friends had all taken jobs at Oxford by 1950, Midgley’s life followed a different course. She married the philosopher Geoffrey Midgley, moved to Newcastle and started a family. They had three sons, Tom, David and Martin. Geoffrey died in 1997.

She was in her 40s when she took up teaching again, in 1962, this time at Newcastle, and eventually began work on her first book, Beast and Man, published in 1978. In it, she argued that moral philosophy cannot get started without an understanding of human nature, which requires a balance of perspectives, drawing on both the burgeoning field of sociobiology as well as traditional philosophy.It was, she said later, “the trunk out of which all my various later ideas have branched.” She taught at Newcastle until she retired in 1980, but never stopped publishing. She became involved in campaigns for animal welfare and the environment, giving lectures, writing for the popular press and appearing on television and radio.

For some influential philosophers and bioethicists like Peter Singer, other animals are more like humans than we give them credit for. Reading Midgley you sometimes get the sense it is the other way around: we’re not Cartesian ghosts in machines or just matter in motion in space: we’re a social mammal with an evolutionary history that matters, not all that different from other animals. But that does not mean biology can pronounce confidently on ethics in the way that socio-biologists, evolutionary ethicists, or social Darwinists think it can.

At the time sociobiology was in the ascendant: Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape was a bestseller and of course Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene in 1976. Midgley famously took against Dawkins at one point arguing: “genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological.” Dawkins replied as though through gritted teeth: “we are both in my corner, and it is hard for me not to regard the gloves as off.” Both sides accused the other of misunderstanding, and the debate was never settled. When asked in an interview if she ever actually met Dawkins, she said they passed on a staircase once, but fortunately “nothing dreadful happened.”
"Genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological"
Nearly 20 books followed Beast and Man, and Midgley often gave them provocative titles: Heart and Mind; Animals and Why They Matter; Wickedness; Evolution as a Religion; Science as Salvation; The Ethical Primate; Utopias, Dolphins and Computers; The Solitary Self; and Are You an Illusion? She considered James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis in several books and lectures too—much taken by the idea that the living and non-living things on earth form an interacting, interlinked system, which itself is conducive to life. It suited her inclination towards holistic thinking as well as her environmental concerns.

Midgley told me she was proud of her new book and was looking forward to taking part in a series of lectures in London devoted to her philosophy and the work of her Oxford friends. It will now have to continue without her. There’s a new research group called In Parenthesis which takes up their thinking too, and the Midgley Archive will open in Durham this year. She was on a roll, philosophically speaking, and seemed pleased by the attention, if not entirely sure what to do with it. “I’ve got used to doing what I do and other people not being too amazed. In recent times I’ve come around into fashion slightly more, which is a bit funny as an experience.”

On 11th October, the philosopher Ian Ground broke the news: “Mary’s death came quickly with the lack of fuss and drama and with the pragmatic sanity that all who had the privilege of knowing [her] would recognise as her signature. She felt unwell, called a close friend to ask him to let her sons know and 45 minutes later had passed.” Ground pointed to the ideas of Midgley and her Oxford friends, “I entreat colleagues to bring the philosophical work and spirit of these amazing women to the attention of the coming generation. They need each other.”

In an obituary Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman, collaborators on the In Parenthesis research project, had this to say about Midgley:

"An obituary gives notice of an ending. It does so by isolating an individual, treating her as a single organism whose complete life can now be told. But Mary’s story is… for us, only just beginning. That story places Mary back in context, among friends, one dazzling half of a hundred conversations still unfinished—she was writing to collaborators on the morning of her death… It is up to us to weave Mary’s work into our lives to, in her words, ‘make sense of this deeply puzzling world.’"