Thinking As Complex as the World:
an Obituary for Mary Midgley (1919-2018)
by Ian James Kidd
Mary Beatrice Midgley died last week, aged ninety-nine, after a sixty-nine career as lecturer, researcher, and respected and admired public intellectual. She was the last living member of a remarkable group of British women philosophers, whose other members were Elizabeth Anscombe, Iris Murdoch, and Philippa Foot—a group whose intermingled lives and careers are explored by the In Parenthesis project, based jointly at the Universities of Durham and Liverpool.
Mary was born in 1919, inheriting a life-long love of literature, classics, and philosophy from encouraging teachers and her father, a curate at Kings College Cambridge. Studying Mods and Greats and graduating with first-class honours, she dabbled in socialist politics, then, after a stint in the Civil Service during the War, returned for graduate studies in 1947. Although her thesis—on Plotinus—was never finished, Mary never regretted her lack of a doctorate; years later, she explained that doctoral training of the time tended to focus myopically on arguments, ignoring the wider contexts which lent them salience. (In any case, Durham awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1995, followed by another from Newcastle in 2008). A sense of the importance of the big picture, as well as the little details, was to recur in her later emphases on the importance of ‘myths’ and ‘imaginative visions’ (which was what attracted her to Plotinus in the first place).
In 1949, Mary took up a lectureship at the University of Reading, after a tip-off from Foot about the job. In those days, academic salaries increased, the further one went from Oxbridge. A good salary was compensation for the necessary self-exile from the centre of intellectual life. Reading was a smaller, newer university, whose climate was much more to Mary’s taste. Collegiality and informality were the rule, creating a receptive atmosphere, where one could float ideas without their being shot down straightaway by sharp-eyed cognitive snipers:
If someone said, ‘That’s really a biological question’, this did not lead to an anguish-ridden silence, but to finding a biologist at once and asking him about it. Nobody seemed frightened of having their reputation destroyed; nobody considered that a chance question over a coffee cup demanded an ex cathedra pronouncement […] I cannot express how much I liked this.
Collegial encouragement and collaborative enquiry would be a theme of Mary’s style of thinking, whether in person—with colleagues at Newcastle, her subsequent professional home, during talks and in correspondence. In her autobiography, The Owl of Minerva, she speculated on the underlying sources of the aggressive, adversarial climate of post-war Oxford philosophy. “It stuck out a mile”, she later recalled, “that what really frightened analytic philosophers of that time was the danger of being thought weak—vague, credulous, sentimental, superstitious, or simply too wider in their sympathies.” If one is tough-minded, then one can stay safe, albeit at the cost of sealing oneself off from dimensions of life that one really cannot do without. One can survive in such a chilly climate, but not flourish—as Mary put it, though Oxford “never managed to stop my mouth”, it came “very near to freezing up my pen.”
Iris Murdoch—her contemporary and friend—shared this sense that fear played a deep role in the thinking of the Oxford philosophers of the time. As she advised in Existentialists and Mystics, “it is often revealing to ask of a philosopher, ‘What is he afraid of’”, a remark that could have easily been made by Mary. Since our fears are personal, a good philosopher should scrutinise their own, not least when it comes to moral matters. Emotion, feeling, love, uncertainty, worry, concern—all these play a vital role in our life, even if they complicate our efforts to sense of that life. Much of Mary’s writing is driven by an unflagging effort to assure us that—to quote one of her slogans—“complexity is not a sin”. Such feelings, fears, and concerns are constitutive of human life, so we should feel neither guilt nor shame when we try to put them back into the picture.
Mary’s efforts to scrutinise major prevailing “visions” and “myths” had to wait, though, since there were important developments in her own life. In 1950, she married Geoffrey Midgley, a fellow philosopher, and took five years off to raise her three sons, Tom, David, and Martin. ‘Time off’, though, was never a concept that fitted Mary Midgley. Bottle-feeding and playtime was punctuated by reviews of novels for The Listener and The Twentieth Century, later followed by writing talks for the radio, the early groundwork for her later career as a public philosopher. (Only one radio script was ever rejected, entitled ‘Rings and Books’, a reflection on fact that almost all the great philosophers of history had no first-hand experience of living with women and children. Luckily, the script has been recovered and made available by the In Parenthesis project.)
By 1964, her time of babies and book reviews completed, Mary had resumed lecturing duties at Newcastle. She found it friendly and congenial, much like the city itself, and her many recollections of her colleagues, friends, and students are striking for their acute sensitivity to their characters—their particular and often charming little habits, quirks, and preoccupations. Such attentive sensitivity finds expression in her philosophising, too, as when she warned of the all-too-easy dangers of getting lost in a tangling web of abstraction, theory, and other “narrowings” of our vision. Mary never argued that there was any sin in narrowing one’s vision—in reducing wholes to parts, or simplifying the complex—just as long as one remembers that is what one was doing. Problems only arise when abstraction or reduction stop halfway, thereby leaving out the concrete complexity.
Mary was at her best when engaged in her determined efforts to expose and combat various efforts to “narrow” our visions and imagination. Across her most famous books, the bête noires were broad ‘isms’, such as reductionism and scientism: their titles often announce the target—Evolution as a Religion, Science as Salvation, or The Solitary Self, an attack on ‘social atomism’. Other books focus on her positive theses, such as Animals and Why They Matter—radical, at the time, for affirming that they do—and Science and Poetry. Unlike some attacks on these ‘isms’, Mary preferred to target their specific forms, using the big-picture perspective to approach recent or emerging problems. This is the strategy of her first book, Beast and Man, which appeared in 1978, at the height of the sociobiology debate spurred by E.O. Wilson. Immersed in ethology and other sciences, Mary’s criticisms were met as a welcome alternative to extravagant, overexcited talk of finally replacing ethics with biology. Some critics painted her as anti-scientific, although anyone who reads her sees that isn’t at all true. Sciences have an important role to play in studying human nature, but aren’t the only stars of the show—a fact we forget or ignore at our peril. Subsequent work by philosophers of science endorsed this pluralism, and I’m always struck by how ahead of the game Mary’s views on science were. (Think of her prescient emphasis on the pluralistic, disunified, value-charged nature of the sciences, which came to be a major theme of 1990s philosophy of science.) Although she always described herself as a moral philosopher, though she was also a full-time philosopher of science, even if few of them read or know her work.
The same impulse to rescue complexity from abstraction is also the abiding theme of Mary’s work on animal ethics. A lot of work on non-human animals tends to ignore or downplay our actual relations to animals, which jeopardises our ability to grasp fully why they matter morally. Some are pets, some pests, some ‘companions’—terms that register a range of subtly textured forms of affective, personal, and cultural significance. Trying to theorise about animals means attending to our actual relationships with them, not talking grandly but vacuously of their moral ‘rights’ and ‘status’. Start from our “actual arrangements”, as they are ordered by practices and animated for us by poetry, seeking out those people with expert insights into those arrangements—a tendency that, in turn, helps attract allies to one’s cause, such as Mary’s friend and admirer, Jane Goodall. If these lessons sound obvious, the reply is that they’re too easily forgotten. Much of Mary’s work is characterised by a patient, almost plodding determination to steer clear of the dramatism of dogmatism, to stay close to what actually goes on, to try to restore calm to an overexcited arena. Let’s employ abstraction, but only as long as we remember to go back and restore what we had to take out in order to get started. Attend to the small details, but step back, at least at times, to look at the big picture.
It is this moderate, pragmatic, careful spirit that is most characteristic of Mary’s work. We can see it in her earliest article, although it’s at its clearest in her books, where she had space to explore a theme across its different aspects. She was born to write books, even if she waited a long time to start writing them; she once famously explained, “I wrote no books until I was a good 50, and I’m jolly glad because I didn’t know what I thought before then”. Luckily for us, once she got going, she wasted no time in saying what she thought. In the thirty-year eight years since her retirement, she wrote over two hundred books, articles, and chapters, for philosophy journals and environmental magazines, for New Scientist (for whom she was the go-to philosopher), and for The Guardian and the UK’s newsstand magazine, Philosophy Now. (You can find a full bibliography of her works here).
By the early 1980s, Mary’s reputation grew in line with her productivity, even as she made her plans for retirement. Despite the upturn in her own fortunes, the wider situation for British philosophy had taken a turn for the worst. The Newcastle department was one of half a dozen earmarked for closure, victims of Thatcher’s animus against the universities: an article published the year before the Iron Lady was forced out was defiantly entitled, ‘The Value of “Useless” Research’. Before retiring, though, Mary wrote letters to “all the distinguished philosophers I could think of”, pleading for their support in defending their beleaguered colleagues. Only one did so—A.J. Ayer. Worse, though, some responded by denying any need for action, with Michael Dummett and Peter Strawson replying that they “really did not see the need for all these departments”, since philosophy was only worth doing if done well, which clearly wasn’t possible in the north-east of England. (Some years later, David E. Cooper pointed out that many of the politicians and civil servants who presided over these closures would have done PPE at Oxford in the ‘50s and ‘60s, where their tutors taught them—too well, it seems—that philosophy was ‘useless’).
Mary retired from Newcastle in 1980, aged sixty-one, and the department was closed after an enforced battle for survival with the Department of Music. ‘Retire’, though, seems the wrong word. The survivors of the department formed a discussion group, APIS—the Applied Philosophy Ideas Section—whose would meet at Mary’s home in Jesmond on Wednesday evenings. I spoke there a couple of times, well-supplied with tea and biscuits, among philosophers, poets, artists, and interested and interesting others. Mary would hold court, eyes tight shut in thought, concentrating through a furrowed brow, her questions afterwards invariably always straight to the point, often prefaced by a favourite line, “There’s a lot of muddled thinking, here…”
Many philosophers are rightly impressed that she remained so philosophically active, even as an advanced nonagenarian. An astonishingly prolific writer, she was still working the day she died, having just finished a new book. Much of Mary’s reputation as a public philosopher is due to her clear and accessible philosophical writing. (All but one of her books—1983’s Women’s Choices, co-authored with Judith Hughes—is still in print.) Unlike the ponderous tone of some philosophy books written for the public, her writing is crisp and clear, with an attractive economy and lightness of style coupled to a talent for apt images and metaphors. Her unfussy, unaffected attitude to philosophy is clear in her characterisation of it as ‘plumbing’, each being complex systems, serving vital needs, although usually unnoticed until something goes wrong. At that point, we must take up the floorboards—or examine our concepts—and set about trying to find and fix the problem. ‘Philosophical plumbing’ might lack the glamour and grandeur of other, more popular visions of our disciplinary enterprise. But that’s precisely what made it attractive to Mary and accessible to so many of her readers.
I suspect some people underrate her work because of its readability. It’s easy for academically trained readers to mistakenly think that simplicity of style can’t mean depth of thinking. It’s of course possible, if difficult, to think and write well at the same time—to achieve rigour, without rigor mortis. Mary did it exceptionally well, marked by her characteristic virtues of modesty, good sense, straightforwardness, and a pleasing sardonic wit—not to mention her tenacity, precision, and unwillingness to suffer fools. Most of her interviewers remarked on the latter, as when a Guardian reporter once described her as “the most frightening philosopher in the country: the one before whom it is least pleasant to appear a fool”. The tender-hearted virtues like modesty enjoy less prestige in a lot of academic philosophy than the tough-minded, ‘masculine’ ones like tenacity. Mary often protested that imbalance, warning that too much that matters is lost if one has a well-developed critical spirit without a similarly nurtured collegial disposition. Such restless criticality makes one into a sort of solitary self which privileges egoism over enquiry. We should try to help one another advance, not stamp one another. What’s really needed is for our thinking to be as wide and complex as the world that stands in need of understanding, which can’t be achieved by oneself. What we need is balance. Reason alone just won’t do, without emotion playing its role. Science cannot fulfil its functions without its guiding imaginative myths. Philosophy stumbles when it closes its eyes to the wider scene of human life.
Mary’s work was, in a sense, a continuous effort to point out these injurious tendencies. We’re at constant risk of lapsing into dogmatism, rigidity, simplification. Simple stories travel faster. Easier explanations are easier to sell. It therefore takes real effort to keep bringing oneself back to the complexity of the world, to attend to “actual arrangements”, to step back and look at the big picture. Throughout her writing, we are offered a vision of philosophy as one way—or a set of ways—for trying to help us resist the “narrowing” of our hearts and minds. If done well, we are reconnected with those profound goods celebrated in the titles of her books—the varieties of moral experience, the myths we live by, and science and poetry. But philosophy can be corrupted, until it cuts itself off from everyday experience and human relationships and the arts and the sciences. It’s therefore fitting that Mary gave us a crisp statement of a richer, soberer vision of philosophy in her most recent published book, What Is Philosophy For?, published this year by Bloomsbury:
Philosophising, in fact, is not a matter of solving one fixed set of puzzles. Instead, it involves finding the many particular ways of thinking that will be the most helpful as we try to explore this constantly changing world. Because the world—including human life—does constantly change, philosophical thoughts are never final. Their aim is always to help us through the present difficulty.
With the sad death of Mary Midgley, we are deprived of a wise, sensible, very humane philosopher. She was a most wonderful exemplar of a philosopher, who wrote clearly, read widely, and thought deeply about our nature and situation within the world. It’s an irony that the upcoming year sees a set of events intended to celebrate, that will now do double duty to commemorate. The Mary and Geoffrey Midgley papers are held by the University of Durham and will be officially opened this November, organised by the In Parenthesis project, which itself offers an invaluable body of videos, interviews, and other resources. Scholars and admirers of Mary’s work owe deep thanks to the project director, Clare MacCumhaill and Rachael Wiseman. In 2019, the first book-length study of Mary’s work is due to appear, authored by Gregory MacElwain. The current London Lecture series of the Royal Institute of Philosophy is devoted to Murdoch, Midgley, Anscombe, and Foot.
The best tribute to her, though, is to carry on the sort of work she exemplified and encouraged. At the International Women’s Day Conference at Durham in 2016, Liz McKinnell and I formally presented Mary with a copy of the festschrift we co-edited for her, entitled Science and the Self: Animals, Evolution, and Ethics: Essays in Honour of Mary Midgley. Duly grateful, she offered her thanks, then turned to us and asked, “So, what’s next?” I don’t recall our answer, but it ought to be been a promise that we would crack on with the philosophical plumbing and do our best to help stop the flood of “muddled thinking”.