Animals and Us   /   Spring 2019   /    Notes And Comments

Mary Midgley, 1919–2018

“Reading the English moral philosopher Mary Midgley, who died October 10 at the age of 99, made my life better.”

Phil Christman

Mary Midgley, photographed by James Glossop.

“The philosopher who leaves us no better off than we were” is a familiar enough comic figure. In some ways, he—generally he—is an excuse: a culture’s self-absolution from doing its homework. In this way he resembles “the batty feminist” or “the modern artist who paints like my kid.” All these types are, on occasion, real enough, but no more so than, say, “the contractor who takes your money, knocks down a single wall, then skips town, seemingly forever,” or “the small-business owner who drinks and yells at the TV all day.” Civilization is, on all sides, an unfulfilled promise.

In any case, I want to say, directly and unambiguously, that reading the English moral philosopher Mary Midgley, who died October 10 at the age of 99, made my life better. First of all, reading her books brings deep pleasure. She had a pellucid prose style, a quick mind, a dry wit. Watching her bring clarity and order to complex ideas was like watching a great athlete’s momentary triumph over entropy. In particular, she was a master of concision. On the value of the humanities: “We spend much of our time living out the dreams of others, a fact which makes it worthwhile to understand them.” On epistemology and emotion: “Heart and mind are not enemies or alternative tools. They are complementary aspects of a single process.” On cloning: “What would-be cloners are probably really seeking is not resemblance but identification—extension of their own egos. This is a bad basis for any relation with a child.” On the futility of efforts to reduce all problems to “practice” rather than “theory”: “Philosophy, like speaking prose, is something we have to do all our lives, well or badly, whether we notice it or not. What usually forces us to notice it is conflict.” On Descartes’s view of animals: “Animals are not machines.… Actually only machines are machines.” On kestrels: “The world in which the kestrel moves, the world that it sees, is, and always will be, entirely beyond us. That there are such worlds all around us is an essential feature of our world.”

Her writing was profound but rarely technical; she trained her sights on general problems. She credited the development of her approach in part to the dearth of men in wartime Oxford, where she did her undergraduate work alongside Philippa Foote, Elizabeth Anscombe, Iris Murdoch, and Mary Warnock:

The trouble is not, of course, men as such—men have done good enough philosophy in the past. What is wrong is a particular style of philosophising that results from encouraging a lot of clever young men to compete in winning arguments. These people then quickly build up a set of games out of simple oppositions and elaborate them until, in the end, nobody else can see what they are talking about.… It was clear that we were all more interested in understanding this deeply puzzling world than in putting each other down.

After Oxford, Midgley joined the civil service, started (but did not finish) a PhD, married and raised children with her husband, Geoff (also a philosopher), and, for decades, taught undergraduates, seeking, as Jane Heal quoted her as saying in The Guardian’s October 12 obituary, “to bring academic philosophy back into its proper connection with life, rather than letting it dwindle into a form of highbrow chess for graduate students.” Her success in doing so can be seen in a moving tribute by a former student, Giles Fraser, who wrote of her and Geoff, “Under their care, I grew up.”

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