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Call the Midwife

Ellen Miller considers birth, wonder, and care as philosophical frameworks.

When I was an undergraduate I heard numerous times that I should think of philosophy as a boxing match: set up the argument, knock down your opponent’s arguments, set up your argument again, knock down the counterarguments to your position… We should keep attacking until our strongest points prevailed.

Looking back, I’m surprised I found this attractive. After all, I had spent most of the previous years in a ballet studio setting up pirouettes and grand jetés. Even though ballet dancers are tougher than many people assume, the ballet studio is hardly a boxing ring. I’m sure the physicality of the metaphor appealed to me, and the suggestion that the abstract linguistic world of philosophy had a competitiveness to it was intriguing. Boxing is a stereotypically male world; perhaps that’s part of the reason I liked the idea. I was entering a world I had never dreamt of occupying. The professional philosophy world sometimes does operate like a boxing match. This is in part because philosophy is less fact- and data-driven than some other disciplines.

As a philosophy instructor, I still share the boxing model of philosophy with my students; but I emphasize that I now see philosophy as a conversation. So I often ask students to say what constitutes a good conversation. Aspects they frequently mention include listening, fairness to opposing viewpoints, and the courage to express one’s views. Good conversations entail reciprocity, exchange, and patience. They are not simply a match of wits; they are an opportunity to engage with another person and with multiple opposing viewpoints. They are not just an opportunity to win arguments, they are an opportunity for transformation. (I am indebted to Dr Joan Mason-Grant’s approach to teaching philosophy as an artful conversation. She exemplified attentive listening and reciprocity in her classes.) I also ask students to think about how they see philosophy, and which frameworks for understanding philosophy speak to them. This invites them to think about how philosophers have done this framing in their writings . It also invites us to think about beginnings, and how we’re initiated into philosophy.

Call the Midwife
Call the Midwife stills © BBC TV

Philosophy & Midwifery

The TV series Call the Midwife – now in its seventh season – also invites us to think about beginnings, how we are initiated into the world. The show is based on the real life memoirs of Jennifer Worth, a midwife and staff nurse who worked in Poplar, London in the 1950s, where “the death of children was taken for granted and poverty was frankly regarded as a moral defect” (Call the Midwife: Shadows of the Workhouse, 2013).

The series focuses on birth, relationships, and care: beginnings. Along with this comes deaths, disconnectedness, and indifference: endings. The show’s focus on midwifery also invites us to think about one of philosophy’s original ways of being framed, as a practice similar to the art of midwifery. In the Theaetetus (150 b-c), Plato has Socrates say about his attempt to bring to birth peoples’ ideas:

“My art of midwifery is in general like [real midwives]; the only difference is that my patients are men, not women, and my concern is not with the body but with the soul that is in travail of birth. And the highest point of my art is the power to prove by every test whether the offspring of a young man’s thought is a false phantom or instinct with life and truth. I am so far like the midwife that I cannot myself give birth to wisdom, and the common reproach is true, that, though I question others, I can myself bring nothing to light because there is no wisdom in me.”

So Western philosophy begins with a symbolic and enduring connection drawn between philosophy and giving birth, in that philosophy might birth new knowledge. Yet we know there are other possibilities. The baby, the idea, the philosophical thought, might not arrive.

Socrates (Plato) presents philosophy as a process and conversation where character and personality traits matter. In this they serve philosophy and wisdom in much the same way that midwives serve women, birth and wisdom. Call the Midwife contains many philosophical themes: embodiment, ethics of care, class and social justice issues, epistemological issues about expertise, and gender issues.

In Call the Midwife, we enter a world of women. Men are present, but not as the primary characters. The midwives are central to the show. Yet in each birth scene we witness the midwife working to allow the woman giving birth to become attuned to her own wisdom. Midwifery invites female practitioners to serve as experts, and to extract this expertise from female bodies becoming more attuned to their expertise.

These scenes also present a more physical representation of what Plato describes in the Theaetetus. The show brings midwifery practices up close, where we can see them in action.

The series brings us to the life of the body in all its complexity, and invites philosophers to think about how we frame our discussions of knowledge-seeking, wisdom, love, care, and embodiment. The show is helpful for articulating a more embodied model of philosophy that involves real people relating, caring, and healing others. The bodies of those who are not giving birth are also featured, since many of the characters labor in physically demanding jobs that significantly affect their wellbeing. Indeed, the rhythms and lives of hard-working inhabitants of Poplar are central to these stories.

Each show is a case study filled with philosophical questions that demand answers since they are not merely abstract issues. Moreover, the show emphasizes that every ethical dilemma has multiple sides, and that we need to listen to all voices involved. It is impressive that the series does not reduce moral issues to only two sides. We also often see religious characters possess progressive views. Otherwise, Call the Midwife faithfully represents Nineteen-Fifties and Sixties Western society with its prejudices and problems. The main characters are all white, although there are individual storylines that involve race. The show is strongest when it depicts the realities of poverty and how gender intersects with class.Yet, progressive voices fill the episodes, in large part because the show focuses on concrete instances of care.

The show depicts love and caring as activities that must be continuously remade: worked out, negotiated, earned, lost and won through hard effort. It highlights the spaces between characters, between scenes, and beneath the surface, where love and death are most potent. Here we see another connection with Plato. Plato depicts Love as an intermediary spirit born from Poverty and Resource (Symposium 201d-204c).

It’s A Wonderful Life

Plato writes that philosophy begins in wonder (thaumazein), and it returns to wonder again and again. He makes this connection most clearly in the Theaetetus, where the source of wonder is a mathematical puzzle. In the Symposium we see that beauty can be linked with wonder through the beauty of bodies, souls, laws, mathematical formulas, and ultimately, philosophical thoughts. Plato thought wonder should not cease, as it is the foundation both for humanity and for philosophy. In his Metaphysics, Aristotle also tells us this it is through wonder that we began to philosophize.

The French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) also emphasizes philosophy’s connection with wonder. He thinks phenomenology – the systematic attempt to describe the structures of conscious experience – can help philosophy maintain the awe and wonder we feel when we’re attentively engaged in the world.

For Merleau-Ponty, experience includes everything we live through our bodies. He emphasizes the foundational role of the perceiving subject within the world, and our complete selves include perceptual, social, emotional and tactile as well as cognitive-linguistic dimensions. Furthermore, he emphasizes the newborn infant as the starting point. To be human, he says, is to be natus – born. “The perceiving subject is not this absolute thinker; rather, it functions according to a natal pact between our body and the world, between ourselves and our body” he writes (Primacy of Perception, 1947, p.6). In this passage Merleau-Ponty defines the perceiving subject through a natal pact, and so focuses on life and birth. Call the Midwife similarily highlights the natal body in all its ecstasy, wonder, awesomeness, and fragility.

Merleau-Ponty’s work stands out for his emphasis on the lived body and the integration of embodiment with rationality, emotionality, and sociality. However as feminist phenomenologists have pointed out, Merleau-Ponty talks of a more generalized embodiment rather than one that takes gendered experience into account. Iris Marion Young describes how pregnancy presents a challenge even to philosophers of the body such as Merleau-Ponty. She suggests that for those who have freely chosen pregnancy, it “reveals a body subjectivity that is decentered, myself in the mode of not being myself” (‘Pregnant Embodiment: Subjectivity and Alienation’ in Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, 9:1, 1984, p.49). Call the Midwife calls our attention especially to female bodies in action: birthing, recovering, flourishing, nurturing, caring, wondering, ailing, crying, dying.

Call the Midwife viscerally shows that midwifery focuses on beginnings and endings. It is helpful to frame philosophizing as a series of beginnings and endings too. We give life to ideas, and put others to rest. Sometimes this occurs in solitary spaces; other times it occurs in dialogue with others. Even in the seemingly solitary spaces, we are in dialogue with others, with parts of ourselves, with parts of ourselves that are receding, and with parts of ourselves that are just now blossoming forth. Unlike philosophical accounts that assume we arrive on the scene as independent agents, Call the Midwife reminds us that selves exist in relationship with others. These connections might be severed by abuse and neglect, but we all begin in connectedness.

Giving Birth to Philosophy

It is not surprising that Call the Midwife gives us numerous examples of midwifery in practice. What is surprising is how it also provides a helpful framework for philosophical practice. As we turn back to Socrates’ idea of midwifery as a model for philosophy, we can ask whether his use appropriates feminine language and practice in a problematic way. This question overlaps with questions about Plato’s flashes of feminism, especially his use of the prophetess and philosopher Diotima as a paradigm of wisdom in the Symposium. Even though Plato’s writings grew more conservative, and contain problematic descriptions of and claims about women, his use of midwifery as a model for philosophy is instructive and important. It stresses that reciprocity, care, and pain are required for good philosophizing. In the Symposium, Socrates is both lover and beloved, the one who entices others to join him in philosophizing. He is also portrayed as one who is spiritually pregnant, needy, and seeking. Throughout Plato’s writings Socrates is both passive and active.

Call the Midwife exemplifies an individual and collective virtue ethics that is found throughout classical Greek philosophy. Virtue ethicists advocate personal and social practices that encourage desired character traits – virtues – to flourish. The classical virtues include honesty, wisdom, temperance, and courage. I suggest that the capacity to maintain wonder is a virtue required for philosophers, and Call the Midwife reminds us repeatedly of this. When philosophers give birth to their ideas and questions, it is important for us to understand relatedness, connection, conversation, and attention to otherness and difference. It is also important to call forth the childhood awe and wonder philosophers have sought since philosophy’s birth.

© Dr Ellen Miller 2019

Ellen Miller is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Rowan University in New Jersey. She’s grateful for her mentors who made philosophy wondrous, and is passionate about doing this for her college and pre-college philosophy students.

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