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The Myths We Live By by Mary Midgley

Bob Sharpe applauds Mary Midgley’s exposé of some modern myths.

Mary Midgley’s latest book, a set of nearly thirty brief inter-related essays, might have been called more aptly The Myths We Die By such are the dangers of some of the errors she tackles. By ‘myth’ she means an imaginative pattern, rather than a fable or a lie. Sometimes what she describes are pervasive metaphors, such as seeing society as composed of atoms (individuals who contract together to form the societies in which they live), or such as regarding nature as a machine or humankind as machines. Other cases reflect dubious values, for example the overweening privileging of natural science, which gives rise to the plans for cloning and genetic engineering, to the scandal of BSE and, more generally, to reductive programmes such as the replacement of ‘folk psychology’ by pukka neuro-science. So ‘myth’ is something of a catch-all conception.

Against these fashionable ideas, Midgley argues that explanation comes in many forms and that they do not necessarily compete. She uses the metaphor of having different maps for different purposes. As she points out, you can’t explain Einstein’s discoveries or even make them intelligible through a story about brain construction in terms of neurons.

Some of the errors she discusses are deep seated. Mostly, I think, these arise from the distorting effects of religion or from the understandably proud place science has in our culture. Others seem unaccountably foolish, for example the concept of ‘memes’ as ‘cultural entities’, on which she launches a decisive attack; as so often, she articulates confusions of which one was uneasily aware without perhaps having worked out the detail. This concept is indeed ripe for the metaphysical dustbin. It not only explains nothing but hampers the genuine explanation of how cultures change and ideas spread, which is something which belongs to the realm of intellectual history and not pseudoscience.

Once upon a time, the description ‘philosophical journalist’ would have been an honourable way to describe Mary Midgley. The status of journalism is now such that this no longer an acceptable way to describe a commentator on the illusions of the age. What she does in this book is what philosophy should do – to reveal the unwitting confusions of scientific imperialism and other forms of ideology. It is a properly Socratic enterprise. But it is not merely scientists going walkabout who create mischief; philosophers all too easily become apologists for various nostrums, such as utilitarianism and social contract theory, theorising which feeds the very distortions which required her attention in the first place. Midgley, if at times a little brisk, is formidably well read. Read this!

© Professor R.A. Sharpe 2005

Bob Sharpe is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wales, Lampeter.

• Mary Midgley. The Myths We Live By. Routledge 2003 pb £10.99/$19.95.

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