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Brief Lives

Mary Midgley (1919-2018)

Nat Dyer looks at the humanity of a philosopher who tried to make philosophy more human.

Virtually all the famous philosophers in Western history were lifelong bachelors, pointed out Mary Midgley. Plato, Descartes, Hobbes, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, and more, never married nor lived with children. This helps explain, she said, why European philosophy was so abstract and detached from human life. She spent a lifetime trying to make it breathe again.

Midgley – one of the most important philosophers of recent times – took a different path. She published the first of her eighteen books at almost sixty, only after raising her children. She was ‘jolly glad’ for the delay, she told an interviewer: “I didn’t know what I thought before then.” Once her mind was made up, though, she expressed her ideas with uncommon clarity and force. As well as her books, she wrote hundreds of articles [including some for this magazine, Ed], on human nature, evolution, animals, myths, and poetry. She wrote in a vivid, jargon-free style rare for contemporary English-speaking philosophers, using striking, down-to-earth images: of aquariums, Lego, the plumbing under the floor…

Her penetrating style was never more apparent than when she kicked off the intellectual brawl for which many still know her. In 1979, when Midgley was a comparatively little-known thinker working in a provincial university, she wrote an article for the journal Philosophy on the moral consequences of Richard Dawkins’ global smash hit, The Selfish Gene (1976). Midgley wrote that there is “nothing empirical about Dawkins”. His book was a total failure, she continued, with “crude, cheap, blurred genetics” propping up “his crude, cheap, blurred psychology”. Steam was still gushing from Dawkins’ ears when he replied two years later in the same journal. He accused her of gross misunderstanding, complained of ‘malice’ and a ‘venomous tone’, and wrote, “it is hard for me not to regard the gloves as off.” Her article also left him confused about her ‘inexplicable hostility’.

There is something puzzling about the fierce attack – even more so when you hear stories of the immense care and kindness she showed her students, and her gifts for friendship and conversation. Her appearance also gives few clues: short silver hair, rosy cheeks, often wearing a chunky necklace and a wide-brimmed black hat.

Mary Midgley cat by fireplace
Cartoon © Erin Kavanagh 2020. Please visit geomythkavanagh.com

The Guardian’s Andrew Brown had a memorable way of explaining Midgley’s mixture of fierce and friendly. He imaged her sitting by the fire in her Newcastle flat “like a round-cheeked tabby cat”, warm and sociable. Then, the next moment, she would pounce, claws out, to “dissect some error as a cat dissects a living mouse.”

She wasn’t short of prey. She also pounced on some of the biggest beasts in twentieth century science, including American superstar biologist E.O. Wilson, and the co-discoverer of DNA (and spokesman for materialist philosophy) Francis Crick. Nevertheless, Midgley saw herself as building bridges between the sciences and the humanities. She had a deep admiration for Charles Darwin and thought our place in the world only makes sense in the light of evolution. But in her view, philosophy is not just a pretty adornment to the real, scientific, business of civilization, “like the bed of tulips in front of a nuclear power station.” Rather, it is an essential remedy for mistaken ideas which can ruin people’s lives. Midgley was obsessed with seeing things as a whole: “Integration alone is something of enormous value,” she wrote in Beast and Man (1978)– for our view of ourselves, for human knowledge, and for the world.

To understand how Midgley became a fierce philosophical rebel, we have to go back to Oxford in the Second World War.

The Tortoise & the Ayer

Mary Midgley’s childhood was bookended by the World Wars. Born in London in 1919 to Lesley (nee Hay) and Tom Scrutton, a chaplain in the First World War and later a vicar, she went to Downe House boarding school, where she fell in love with philosophy one wet Saturday afternoon upon reading Plato in the library. She won a place at Somerville College, Oxford, to study Classics, which includes ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. Before she started, two weeks into her gap year trip to Austria in March 1938, Nazi Germany invaded. She saw huge swastikas appear, her Jewish host arrested, and shops looted and smashed.

Once safely back in Britain, Midgley lapped up Oxford’s rich intellectual climate, but despaired at the state of its philosophy. The Philosophy Department of this ancient university had fallen under the spell of Language, Truth, and Logic (1936) by the Oxford don A.J. Ayer. Like the hare in Aesop’s fable, Ayer had raced to the front of the field at lightning speed: it was a ‘young man’s book’, published when he was just twenty-five. The book promoted the philosophy of logical positivism, which says that only statements that can be verified are meaningful. The larger questions of metaphysics and ethics were meaningless, said Ayer – the job of philosophers was to logically analyse language. So while the Luftwaffe blitzed Coventry, philosophical discussion at Oxford, as Midgley put it, was “squabbling about the meaning of a few words.” But Midgley found tutors and fellow student rebels who wanted to do things differently. She wanted philosophy to be about the meaning of life, not just the meaning of words. She also met lifelong friends Iris Murdoch [see last Issue’s Brief Life], Elizabeth Anscombe, and Philippa Foot at Somerville. These four – imaginatively known as ‘the Quartet’ – became the first group of prominent female philosophers in Britain. This was helped by the more inclusive role given to women during the war: “In normal times a lot of good female thinking is wasted because it simply doesn't get heard,” Midgley later wrote.

In the race to philosophical glory, Ayer seemed to have won. Midgley, like the tortoise, was moving slow, and often in the ‘wrong’ (i.e. unfashionable) direction. After war work, she started a doctorate in philosophy but never completed it. She left her friends in Oxford, and taught a few terms in Reading University. In 1950, she married fellow philosopher Geoff Midgley, gave up her lecturing post, moved to Newcastle, and started a family.

In the early 1950s, Midgley found a little fame. She became a regular on BBC TV discussing big questions, and wrote think pieces for radio and magazines. One of these was ‘Rings and Books’, in which she talked about most famous philosophers being single men. Her (female) radio producer rejected it as irrelevant gossip, and it never aired. But Midgley was already honing in on her major themes, centering around how contemporary ways of understanding ‘the many-sidedness of human nature’ were inadequate. Philosophers weren’t even looking in the right places: it ‘makes one scream’, she wrote. But then the screams around her multiplied. By the time her third baby arrived in 1957, she’d given up all writing, except to review children’s books for the New Statesman.

Mary Midgley
Mary Midgley © Martin Midgley 2011

Children & Other Animals

As the rest of the Quartet were making names for themselves in philosophy, Midgley in Newcastle looked into neglected areas. She got hooked on learning about animal behaviour, and devoured books on every creature from aardvarks to lemmings and wolves, to Jane Goodall’s chimpanzees. She also thought about being pregnant, breastfeeding, and raising young children – “so literally and unmistakably both animals and human beings”. In the 1960s she joined her husband in the Philosophy Department at Newcastle University, teaching part-time. In 1973 she published an article, ‘The Concept of Beastliness’, which argued that since we are animals, detailed studies of animal behaviour can illuminate human nature and society from fresh angles. It ranged widely from Freud, Kipling, and Tolstoy, to Aristotle, Nietzsche, and Sartre. It also caught the attention of Cornell University, who asked her to turn it into a book.

Midgley didn’t set out to pick a fight with the new class of evolutionary biologists. Her first target was the ‘blank slate’ theory in the humanities, which held that there was no such thing as an inherited human nature, and that nurture and culture moulded all. She sent the finished manuscript to Cornell. They returned it and asked her to include a response to a book, as she put it, ‘the size of a paving stone’ – E.O. Wilson’s path-breaking Sociobiology (1975). Cursing at the extra work, she rewrote the text, which was published in 1978 as Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature. She was fifty-nine.

What did it say? For Midgley, it matters who is asking philosophical questions: philosophy is done by sociable primates evolved on a particular planet, not free-floating intellects or machines. Reason, held by some to be an almost supernatural guide, has its own evolutionary history, and is woven through with our emotions and imaginative visions. For Midgley, to call a person ‘rational’ does not mean they are clever; it means that they have organised themselves – their natural yet conflicting needs and wants – into a coherent whole, in this messy world.

She also lamented the atomised vision that stops us seeing the world and the intellectual disciplines which reveal it as parts of a larger whole. Specialisation splinters our sense of ourselves, and divides human knowledge into gated communities, said Midgley. Like fixing a car, understanding means taking something apart, and crucially, then putting it back together. The atomised worldview is a fantasy, she argued, which fuels the destruction of human potential and the natural world: “People are different to Lego,” as she put it. The true, and healthy, view, is that all aspects of ourselves make up a whole human, inalienably part of society, and of a vast, living world that simultaneously makes us feel tiny and is our home. Perhaps then Midgley’s war of words with Dawkins was inevitable: before Dawkins published The Selfish Gene, Midgley was already criticising “cure-all explanations, sweeping theories that man is Basically Sexual, Basically Selfish or Acquisitive, Basically Evil or Basically Good” (Concept of Beastliness, 1973). Here she was thinking of Freud and Marx; but those lines are just as applicable to Dawkins’s universal law of genetic selfishness. As he wrote, “We were born selfish,” and any limited deviations from that law – ethically, or to use the biological term, altruistically – were a puzzle that had to be explained.

The fiery debate in Philosophy only spanned three articles. After Midgley’s first zinger (‘Gene-juggling’), Dawkins replied angrily (‘In Defence of Selfish Genes’), saying that she had failed to grasp how biologists define ‘selfishness’ and ‘altruism’. He was not even that interested in humans or their emotional motives, he insisted. Midgley responded again two years later (‘Selfish Genes and Social Darwinism’). That article is written in the clear and calm voice of a deep-breathing parent trying to get through to a shouty teenager. She apologised for the ‘impatient’ tone of her first article, but said her ‘basic objections remain’: Dawkins had ignored the awkward parts of Darwinism and oversimplified the rest. She argued that in its language, and some of its substance, The Selfish Gene echoed nineteenth-century Social Darwinism, which had justified economic and social policies that threw the weak to the wall: “This, and not some mysterious personal spite, was what made me indignant.” They continued to rattle each other from afar for years. She would call his work ‘biological Thatcherism’. He in turn called her attacks ‘a superhuman feat of misunderstanding’. But Midgley believed it was Dawkins who had not fully understood the implications of what he had written. Midgley and Dawkins never met, only once passing on the stairs.

Know Where You’re From

We all have an accent, even people who think only other people do. Midgley thought the same was true of worldviews: everyone sees from somewhere, and no mountain top gives you the whole picture. A single science such as physics is only part of the story, a view from one place; biology is another part of the view. Philosophy’s job, she said, was to put these different views together into a coherent picture. The honest thing to do, then, is to be upfront about your philosophy and expose it to the reader so it can be judged. The least helpful is to claim you are only relating ‘objective’ facts and have no world picture from which you’re expressing them. Some accused Midgley of being anti-science: she saw herself as rooting out bad philosophy smuggled into science. Part of the problem was thinkers wanting to be the next Newton. Intoxicated with finding universal laws in their discipline, as Newton did for motion, they end up with an overly-simple theory – one that ignored large parts of reality and distorted our view of the rest, insisted Midgley. Far better, she argued, to follow the examples of Charles Darwin and Aristotle. They were both broad-minded philosophical empiricists who sought a middle way between extremes; and, like her, both men looked to animal behaviour to understand human morality. Both also happen to be exceptions to her observation about most great thinkers being lifelong bachelors.

What was Midgley’s worldview? She saw the root of many of our modern social and psychological problems in an excessively individualistic vision: life seen as a competition between lonely, Lego-brick people. This social atomism was everywhere she looked: in economics and politics, in Descartes, Hobbes, and French existentialist philosophers, and in the neo-Darwinian biologists. It was a reasonable philosophy for a teenager leaving home for the first time, she wrote, but a rotten guide for society: it left us ‘Peter Pans of eighteen’, seeing our natural needs as weaknesses, and driving the destruction of a living world that we fail to acknowledge sustains us. It was dead thinking, which would give us a dead planet. Much better, she believed, to see the world as one – as in James Lovelock’s Gaia theory – and humans as a part of each other and the larger whole. She did not believe in God, but many saw in her work a religious sympathy.

For four decades after Beast and Man, Midgley published a book almost every two years. They all grew out of the first. She wrote about how humans and animals are part of a mixed community (Animals and Why They Matter, 1983), and why equality between the sexes should not depend on sameness (Women’s Choices, 1983). Other books explored human nature and freedom (Wickedness, 1984, The Ethical Primate, 1994, and others), and the role of philosophy (Wisdom, Information and Wonder, 1989). She also developed her thinking on the role of imagination and myth in science (Evolution as Religion, 1985, The Solitary Self, 2010, and others).

Midgley kept going while others slumbered, and stayed in the north-east after retiring from Newcastle University. In 1995, she made up for abandoning her PhD when Durham gave her an honorary doctorate. Two years later, her husband Geoff died.

As more people read her books, she won recognition – including the first Philosophy Now Award for the fight against stupidity – and became well-known enough to be interviewed by BBC Radio 4’s prestigious Desert Island Discs. But her work is still not routinely taught on academic courses.

She wrote her final book What is Philosophy For? on a specially-adapted giant keyboard in her flat in the Jesmond area of Newcastle. In it, she recalled writing to eminent philosophers in the 1980s to ask them to protest the closure of philosophy departments in the UK. Only one did: A.J. Ayer.

The end came quickly for Mary Midgley. She was ninety-nine when What is Philosophy For? was published, in late 2018. Less than three weeks later, she woke up, wrote a little, and started to feel unwell. She called a friend to ask him to let her sons know. Forty-five minutes later, she died. Obituaries in all the major British papers brought new readers, and increased sales of her books. Six days after her death, and sixty years after it was rejected, her piece on the failings of the famous bachelor philosophers was, at last, broadcast by the BBC.

Midgley hadn’t changed the world. She had not pulled philosophy away from introverted abstract thinking and games. But she had let her thoughts swim out into the vast ocean of human experience. The insights she gleaned from that adventure are an essential guide for those searching for wisdom.

© Nat Dyer 2020

Nat Dyer is a freelance writer and historian based in London. He’s on Twitter @natjdyer.

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