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A Golden Manifesto, Part II

Mary Midgley continues her recollection of a golden age of female philosophy.

In the first part of this essay (in Issue 116), I suggested that philosophers have been wrong in thinking that they were engaged in a hunt for a single and infallible answer to moral questions. They can hope to get nearer to right answers, to get further from some demonstrably wrong ones, and to get a better grasp of the kind of wrongness that is causing most trouble here. But none of this will be final.

Mary Midgley
Mary Midgley
© Martin Midgley 2011

In his book of 1739, A Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume famously claimed that it was impossible to logically derive judgments about values, about what ought to be the case, solely from facts about the world. Here Hume showed no interest in the detailed meaning of the value-judgments themselves, simply treating them as solid, ultimate units. His point was only that they were matters of feeling, not of reason.

When I and my Oxford friends Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch began to look into ethics in the early 1940s this was still the prevailing view. It had just been reinforced in 1936 by the publication of A.J. Ayer’s best-selling book Language, Truth and Logic, which outdid Hume in preaching an extreme emotivism, a reduction of all moral matters to various kinds of feeling. Philosophers in general tried to accept this message of Ayer’s in spite of its alarming implications. They were still convinced by Hume’s account of the matter. But there was a good deal of uneasiness about its details.

When we were first on the scene, the newest variant was R.M. Hare’s formula of Prescriptivism, which described moral judgments not as isolated feelings but as comprehensive orders, directions or prescriptions which one’s feelings might lead one to impose systematically on the rest of the world. People were, of course, somewhat puzzled about how these various individual orders or directions were to be brought into harmony, but Hare replied that, in general, these rulings would not disagree much with one another because they would all flow from a basic Utilitarianism. Apart from that, people would just have to be sensible. Because these were matters of individual feeling, no general rules could be imposed about what these judgments would require. Moral freedom had to be preserved.

So can just anything be a moral principle then? It sometimes looks as if it can. Hare at one point mentions someone who believes that torturing is morally permissible, but Philippa Foot pointed out in response that for this to be possible, we need to know how it can be done. Is this man supposed to have answered the objection that to inflict torture is to do harm? It is not enough (she says) just to proclaim that in principle anything can be called good. Calling it good has to be made intelligible. And this requires an appropriate context – a background against which the claim makes sense.

For instance, can it be good – can it be a matter for pride – to clasp one of your hands on top of the other three times in an hour? If we want to make sense of such claims, we have to try to find plausible ways of filling in the background: “Perhaps he is ill, and it is an achievement even to do this; perhaps this gesture has some religious or political significance and he is a brave man who will defy the gods or the rulers.”

But these stories must still be made plausible, and without that plausibility the claim is still unintelligible. In fact, it turns out that emotivism cannot provide any escape from that requirement. “In this way,” says Philippa, “even feelings are vulnerable to facts.” As she points out, there are many aspects involved here:

“How exactly the concepts of harm, advantage, benefit, importance are related to the different moral concepts such as rightness, obligation, goodness, duty and virtue is something that needs the most patient investigation. But that they are so related seems undeniable, and it follows that a man cannot make his own personal decision about the considerations which are to count as evidence in morals.”
(Philippa Foot, Virtues and Vices, 1978, p.106)

So the background by which moral judgments are explained cannot just take human feelings for granted. It cannot treat them as separate, ultimate units. If we say, for instance, that Iago resented Othello because he thought his dignity was not being well enough appreciated, we are supplying a familiar explanation from human nature and we will naturally go on to give details. But, at the time that we are talking about, in the mid twentieth century, there was not supposed to be any such thing as human nature at all. Behaviourism tabooed this whole concept because it insisted that behaviour was entirely reactive – caused only by previous behaviour – and any reference to motives was therefore merely an irrational excuse given for ignoring that causality. Existentialism tabooed it too, though for a quite different reason – because the Existentialists insisted that we are entirely free to act on our own decisions, so our claims to be blocked by natural emotions can (again) only be bad excuses (‘bad faith’). Marxists, meanwhile, considered all real causes of action to be essentially economic, so they too outlawed all talk of human nature.

Today, it may seem strange that so many quite bright people should, for so long, have resolutely refused to use such an obviously indispensable floorboard in the whole structure of our motives. But I have lived through too many examples of this kind of thing in my time to be much surprised at it now. I do, however, remember that I knew I was in for trouble when I set out to defend the notion of Human Nature – including its close connection with the natures of other species – in my first book, Beast and Man. I began the book boldly like this:

“We are not just rather like animals; we are animals. Our differences from other species may be striking, but comparisons with them have always been, and must be, crucial to our view of ourselves… People have a lot of obvious and important things that other species do not – speech, rationality, culture, and the rest. I have tried to discuss some of the most important of them, not attempting at all to deny their uniqueness, but merely to grasp how they can occur in what is, after all, a primate species, not a brand of machine or a type of disembodied spirit.

This attempt must invade the territory of a dozen subjects, but the project still belongs to philosophy, because finding how the basic concepts of any subject work is a philosophical problem… Philosophy, like speaking prose, is something we have to do all our lives, well or badly, whether we notice it or not. What usually forces us to notice it is conflict. And on the matter of our animal nature a pretty mess of conflicts has arisen – between different elements in the common sense tradition, between common-sense and various learned studies, between those learned studies themselves, and between all these and the remarkable facts turned up by those who, in the last few decades, have taken the trouble to observe dispassionately the behaviour of other species.”

The mid to late Twentieth Century saw important shifts in the way we humans perceive our relation to the rest of creation, including the protests of moralists like Peter Singer against the blank insensibility of our whole civilization towards other animals. Awareness of issues about climate-change has been much slower than this to reach the public – indeed it still seems to have difficulty in reaching the kind of people who could do something about it. But about animals there has been a real change.

Readers will notice that on these matters, as with the other topics that we four discussed, I and my friends did not try to claim credit for introducing any beautiful new simplicity. Far from that, we rather emphasized that these matters are really difficult and complicated – that we do indeed seriously need to think harder about them, so as to evolve concepts that will fill in the vast blank spaces that have been allowed to accumulate around the narrow ranges of our own experience. In fact, we all need to do some serious philosophizing here. And we ourselves have tried to suggest ways in which this could be done.

On the matter of animals, I think this last half-century has indeed seen some real progress, as people have learnt to think differently about them. Better-informed prophets, from Jane Goodall to David Attenborough, began to be heard above the clamour of those straightforward admirers of the human race who merely told us how extraordinarily intelligent we were. On this topic, as on many others, what has brought about the change has not been a persistent concentration on standard puzzles about borrowed books or choices involving trolleys, but a careful attention to the complexity of the actual facts – an examination of them which shows the need for new concepts.

And here again, the choice of everyday examples – such as ones involving potatoes – makes it clear that facts are indeed relevant to the understanding of principles. Thus, David Hume’s declaration that there could be no reasoning from facts to values had been confidently accepted as a general truth. It was expressed, in our time, by dismissing these arguments as resting on a ‘naturalistic fallacy’. All right then, said Elizabeth Anscombe, if I can’t use facts to prove that something is my duty, what sort of evidence can you use to prove that I owe a debt? “Suppose, for instance, that I ordered potatoes, you supplied them, and you sent me a bill”, that surely constitutes a debt. But the whole point about debts is, of course, that the debtor has a duty to pay them; indeed, that is just what the word ‘debt’ means. So it seems that truths about facts can indeed be a proper basis for truths about values. (See ‘On Brute Facts’ by G.E.M. Anscombe, Analysis 18, 1958)

This must, I think, be the end of my Bovrilesque attempt to boil down the main points of our philosophical message, and to explain why it has created a certain stir. I am conscious that, in trying to explain this, I have laid more emphasis on its destructive side – on our protest against existing attitudes – than on clarifying what ought now to be done to replace them. This is, I think, partly because the whole issue is simply too large to allow of summarising any new proposal here.

Not so different from ourselves?
Bonobos © Psych ASD 2012

Positive ideas can, of course, be found elsewhere in our writings, but I can’t reduce them all to Bovril form here. What we need now is not just a matter of replacing crows with jackdaws or apples with bananas. We need a real change of approach. We need to stop splitting philosophical ideas up into separate items and setting them to compete against each other. The best tool for this may be the logic of question and answer developed by philosopher of history R.G. Collingwood. This is a way of treating awkward proposals not as isolated propositions, but as answers to questions, searching out the particular question which has arisen to require just this answer, and thereby finding the wider pattern of further questions behind it. As Collingwood himself explained, this idea originally grew out of his interest in the nature of historical enquiry:

“History did not mean knowing what events followed what. It meant getting inside people’s heads, looking at their situation with their eyes, and thinking for yourself whether the way in which they tackled it was the right way… It was a doctrine of [the contemporary creed called] ‘realism’ … that in this sense of the word there is no history of philosophy. The ‘realists’ thought that the problems with which philosophy is concerned were unchanging… they thought that the same problems which were discussed in modern ethical theory were discussed in Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Ethics, and that it was a man’s duty to ask himself whether Aristotle or Kant was right on the points over which they differ.” (Collingwood, An Autobiography, 1939 pp.58-9)

In short, they believed that philosophy dealt in doctrines which were fixed units like tiles or tablets of stone, each inscribed with its own permanent message. Instead of this, Collingwood was suggesting that we may need to find out in our search a question which is quite unexpected, perhaps a question that has never actually been formulated before – as, for instance, clearly happened when people began to think about quanta. And this new question will itself have come from the answers to further questions, so that we need to look round to find the whole structure which is the source of the trouble. When somebody’s thought puzzles you (says Collingwood):

“At first sight you cannot tell what he is trying to say. But if you will think carefully about the passage you will see that he is answering a question which he has taken the trouble to formulate in his mind with great precision. What you are reading is his answer. Now tell me what the question was? …

For me, then, there were not two separate sets of questions to be asked, one historical and one philosophical, about a given passage in a given philosophical author. There was one set only; historical.” (pp.71-2)

Someone who has grasped this approach is not likely to shift to, for instance, the combative style in which Colin McGinn was taught to philosophize (see part 1). But the temptation to tidy everything up into a fixed set of stone tablets is evidently still a strong one. And the heirs of the realists still continue to haunt us in the orthodoxies that reign today.

This suggestion of ours – this sweeping (or ‘comprehensive’) call for an end to the artificial separation between values and facts – may seem a bit drastic. It is not, of course, usual for philosophers, or for scholars generally, to call for destructive changes on this scale. Doing so always invites reprisals. And I probably would not now be dipping my computer in this pot of acid if I were not already old enough to more-or-less ignore my own future career, or if I did not feel that my duty to my friends and colleagues actually demands it.

There is, indeed, one fact about the present state of our culture which does, I think, anyway call for a protest of this kind. This is the immense increase in specialization which has followed on the sheer increase in student numbers. As universities proliferate and departments subdivide themselves into ‘institutes’ and ‘centres’, this naturally produces a tendency to classify and standardize philosophical methods, so as to keep everybody telling the same story. Thus I now find that people to whom I have mentioned some quite ordinary topic murmur apologetically, “Oh dear, I’m afraid that’s not my area…” as if I had started to talk Chinese.

I think something will need to be done about this runaway specialisation before we all become mutually incomprehensible. On the other hand, this enlargement and subdivision of the field may, of course, make possible all sorts of fertile developments of different approaches. If each separate university and institute managed to go its own way, thinking out its own problems independently but sharing its results with its neighbours, possibilities could light up indeed. The scene could also surely be enlarged outside the current system of universities and graduate schools by twittering and making use of other social media and related networks.

I also suspect that this modern hope of standardizing the whole subject of philosophy must be the source of a quite alarming change that has gradually taken place in the nature of philosophical journals. During the last century, these journals have become steadily more influential and more technical. They used to be regarded chiefly as steps on the way to Real Books. Now, however, philosophers longing to achieve career success do not expect to do it by writing an interesting book. They know that their route to glory is to get an article published in a prestigious peer-reviewed journal. And they know that the article will, of course need to deal with some topic with which that journal has lately been concerned, because that is what interests its current editors.

So in what style can our ambitious young prophet hope to write this important article? How can philosophy best express itself today? John Cottingham took up this painful question in a disturbing article called ‘What Is Humane Philosophy and Why Is It At Risk?’ By way of illustration he supplied an extract from a recent book:

“Let us define what it is for a proposition to be (practically) realizable by A at t, that is, realizable by means of A’s intentional behaviour at t. To say that a proposition p is practically realizable by A at t is to say that there is some way of behaving, W, such that there are possible worlds in which all the actual truths that are causally independent of what A might do or think at t hold, and A intentionally behaves in way W at t, and in all those worlds p is true.”
(Ralph Wedgewood, The Nature of Normativity, 2007)

This passage is not intended as a contribution to some highly technical branch of logic. It comes from a discussion of that most widely-discussed of topics, Free Will. Yet it is hard to see how anybody could follow this reasoning at all unless they were already deeply dipped in the background of that particular controversy. And, though this particular example is from a book rather than a journal, this is the sort of style that journals increasingly adopt and editors increasingly expect their contributors to use. It seems to me that the natural result of this can only be that soon nobody will read these journals at all except the people who hope to contribute to them, since nobody else can understand them. And once the contributors realise this, the journal itself will surely evaporate.

We may surely ask, then, why this style of writing has become so prevalent? John Cottingham rightly explains that it is used in order to imitate the approach of the natural sciences. This, however, is not going to work:

“It would be sheer self-deception to suppose that such definitional and conceptual work could offer the kind of explanatory enlightenment that scientific research into a given phenomenon can provide.

The basic disparity between the scientific case and the conceptual case is this. In the scientific case, the aim is to find some inner constitution, mechanism, or micro-structure whose workings will account for the phenomenon to be explained… [Then] we can see that a certain key will open a certain lock… But if we wish to understand meaning-involving activities or states like consciousness, belief, knowledge, intention, desire, goal, purpose… there is not even in principle the possibility of this kind of explanation. We may break the concepts down into their conceptual components, but, however deep we go, we shall never (as we may hope to do in the scientific case) discover a simple explanatory key that make us say, ‘ah, that’s how it operates’.” (p.5).

Thoughts, in fact, are not machines. Pseudo-science will get us nowhere. In fact, everything mentioned in this manifesto urges us to look at philosophical issues on a larger, more appropriate scale than is used in current orthodoxies, perhaps starting by asking why the ghost of that old, divisive mind-versus-matter dualism, with its insoluble ‘hard problem’ of consciousness, still haunts and distorts philosophical orthodoxy today. And is my idea of shifting to a wider perspective itself entangled with the other interesting question that still awaits us, namely “How much does it matter that we four revolutionaries all happened to be female?”

But these puzzles will, I fear, have to wait for another time.

© Dr Mary Midgley 2016

Mary Midgley lectured at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne until 1980. Her best known books include Beast and Man; Wickedness; The Ethical Primate; Science and Poetry and a memoir, The Owl of Minerva. She was given Philosophy Now’s 2011 Award for Contributions in the Fight Against Stupidity.

• Clare MacCumhaill, Rachael Wiseman and Luna Dolezal, from Durham University, and Liza Thompson of Bloomsbury Publishing, are working with Mary Midgley to recover the ‘Golden Age of female philosophy’. They will be publishing a series of companions to these women’s work, starting in 2017 with Human Nature. Find out more at or @parenthesis_in.


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