Mary Midgley (1919-2018) (updated)


Mary Midgley, a well-known British moral philosopher, has died at age 99.

Professor Midgley studied philosophy and classics at Oxford, worked in the British civil service during World War II, returned to Oxford for graduate study in 1947, taught at University of Reading for several terms, and eventually took up an appointment at Newcastle University, where she taught from 1962-1980. She never received a doctorate in philosophy; as she explained, “I ended up unqualified—and grateful for it.”

Midgley wrote her first philosophy book at age 59. She is known for her writings on ethics, animals, the environment, scientism, and the nature of philosophy. Her last book, What is Philosophy For?, was just published last month.

Midgley was one of number of prominent 20th Century British women philosophers who studied at Oxford together in the 1940s who, she says, “were all more interested in understanding this deeply puzzling world than in putting each other down” and who “in our various ways, all came to think out alternatives to the brash, unreal style of philosophising—based essentially on logical positivism—that was current at the time.”

In 2007 she published her memoir, Owl of Minerva.

(This post will be updated with links to obituaries elsewhere. If you see any, please share them in the comments or  email them to me. Thank you.)

UPDATE: Obituaries elsewhere:

  • “Mary was at her best when engaged in her determined efforts to expose and combat various efforts to ‘narrow’ our visions and imagination.” —  Ian James Kidd, in a beautiful and detailed obituary that first appeared at SWIP-UK and is now available here.
  • “She will be remembered and missed by many as an unfailing source of challenging ideas and generous friendship.” — Jane Heal at The Guardian.
  • “An accessible, persistent and sometimes witty critic of the view that modern science should be the sole arbiter of reality.” — John Motyka at The New York Times.
  • “We should accept that we must understand ourselves and the world from many different perspectives, which make it impossible to reduce moral questions to one simple synthesis.” — at The Telegraph. (via Andrew Gray)
  • A philosopher who turned “again and again to the human scene, our shared forms of life, our human nature, and our capacities to create myth, image and narrative” — Rachael Wiseman and Clare Mac Cumhaill at IAI News.

 

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Patrick S. O'Donnell
2 years ago

This is one of my favorite philosophers. I have many of her books (the first one of which I acquired by good fortune when browsing through a used book store many years ago), which are such gems. She could write accessible prose for non-philosophers without “dumbing down” the material. Her insights on human nature, animal ethics, and science and technology, for example, are invaluable and have in no way diminished with time. I’ve always felt her fellow philosophers did not accord her the measure of respect and recognition that they readily granted more than a few of their male colleagues (perhaps that was only on this side of the pond).Report

Daniel Kaufman
2 years ago

This one really hurts. She was one of the best among the best … Midgley, Foot, Anscombe, Murdoch. They don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Love and comfort to her family and friends. Report

Kate Norlock
2 years ago

Ah, sorry to learn of her departure from us. Mary Midgley’s _Wickedness_ was a building-block of my PHIL101 class for years, and my students loved her clarity and her ability to bring them to see their readings of Nietzsche and Ryle and Hume and Clifford as related to each other and related to practical problems including how to go about thinking about evil. I think her work has been material in converting curious students into majors in philosophy.Report

Cal Desmond-Pearson
Cal Desmond-Pearson
2 years ago

Sad to here of her death. I met her many times at events here in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Report

Hugh Weldon
Hugh Weldon
2 years ago

I was very fortunate to have been taught by her at Newcastle University. Perhaps the best ‘teacher’ I had there. You could see and almost hear her think and struggle towards getting at the truth of anything. Report

Gareth Lavan
Gareth Lavan
2 years ago

I saw Mary Midgley speak on the philosophical repercussions of immortality at Durham University when I was an A-Level student (a green 16 year old). It was the first *proper* philosophy lecture that I had ever been to. She was in her nineties then, but still an absolute force of nature. I stuck my hand up and asked her a (probably) very jejune question. I don’t quite remember exactly what I asked, nor precisely what she replied, but I do remember her listening intently to my question, treating it seriously, and answering it with the same amount of care and thought that she reserved for people much more senior and learned than I. Made me feel good. I really appreciated the engagement.

What a stunning mind as well. Report

Michael Reiss
Michael Reiss
2 years ago

A lovely person and a great mind. Really sad.Report

Geoff Teece
Geoff Teece
2 years ago

A very sad coincidence as I have just ordered her Science as Salvation. I was hugely influenced years ago by Beast and Man and Evolution as a Religion. A truly great philosopher and a real example of why we need more female voices. Report

Martin Boyd
Martin Boyd
2 years ago

A truly great mind, without doubt one of the most astute and clear-thinking philosophers of the past 50 years. She will be sorely missed.Report

Andrew Gray
Andrew Gray
2 years ago

Telegraph obit at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/obituaries/2018/10/12/mary-midgley-moral-philosopher-took-richard-dawkins-obituary/ but you’ll need to have an account to access in full.
“…one of Britain’s leading moral philosophers, though she was more effective in wielding philosophical objections to other people’s beliefs than promoting a coherent philosophical viewpoint of her own.” Which perhaps says more about the obit writer’s desire for a simplistic theory of everything than about Mary’s coherence as a thinker.Report

Andrew Gray
Andrew Gray
2 years ago

There’s an illustration in tribute at https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=2214399112180807&id=100008322183019 but not sure how the author has set permissions.Report

Andrew Gray
Andrew Gray
2 years ago

And an obit on p.15 of the Newcastle Journal for 13/10/2018.Report

Clifford Sosis
2 years ago

David McNaughton on Mary Midgley from his What Is It Like to Be a Philosopher? interview: “Mary Midgley mainly lectured on ethics and would, in moments of intensity, close her eyes and run her hands through her hair. I remember two special incidents. The first was when, in the course of explaining why she preferred Kant’s moral theory to utilitarianism, she gave the example of an old people’s home where they had taken away people’s glasses, hearing aids, etc. and filled them full of tranquilizers, making life easier for all. Rightly shocked by this, she explained Kant’s stress on the importance of rational autonomy before apostrophizing, ‘You see, Professor Britton, life is just more complicated than you realize.’ (Karl gave the lectures on Bentham and Mill.) The other was a conversation with Colin who claimed to be both a hard determinist and a utilitarian. ‘But, Colin, it is important to people’s dignity that they be held responsible for their actions’ to which he replied, ‘I’m very happy to blame people, Mary, if it will make them happier.’ She and Geoff were cheerful and bohemian, living in a large and untidy house. Incredibly kind and caring they always had at least one angst-ridden student lodging with them, so that they could look after them. I was totally unaware at the time that Mary’s contemporaries at Somerville were Anscombe, Foot, and Murdoch. When I went to stay with her later while giving a talk to the Philosophy Group in Newcastle (the department having been axed by a technocrat Vice-Chancellor) I asked her about them. She was a great admirer of Iris Murdoch’s philosophy and wished she had continued with it, instead of writing ‘those novels’.” whatisitliketobeaphilosopher.com/david-mcnaughton/Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Clifford Sosis
2 years ago

Now that’s really interesting, as I would say her novels were an even greater contribution than her philosophy, which, of course, was great in its own right.

In particular, three of them:

The Bell
The Black Prince
The Sea, The Sea
Report