“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.”
For most of the era in which Midgley wrote, British intellectual journalism and American pop-science writing alike often adopted, in describing human nature, the style of a manipulative pickup-artist who woos his quarry with insults. Author after author seemed to hail the reader thus: “Your interiority is an illusion. And since you’re not real, you might as well read my book.” She began her second, parallel career as a writer of books with a pathbreaking work on animal and human nature, 1977’s Beast and Man. But her classic 1979 review of Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, “Gene-Juggling,” initiated her long public resistance to what she perceived, in Dawkins’s book and elsewhere, as a turn toward reductionism. This turn was itself perhaps an epiphenomenon of a decades-long reorganization of the world economy that required all of us to think of ourselves as indistinguishable nodes. With her usual flair for addressing larger problems, Midgley described and critiqued this system as deftly and as succinctly as anyone ever has in an October 4, 2001, Guardian piece:
The bankers’ vision shows the globe as essentially hollow. What is real is merely a network of trade routes—lines on the planet’s surface, a pattern of wires much like those toy spheres on the surface of which you can push colored beads around. The aim of these visionaries is to make their beads—saleable products and money—move round their network as fast and as freely as possible.… In contrast, the people outside the conferences have got the idea that the terrestrial globe is solid. They think of it as a real planet, populated by plants, animals and people who are complex items and have grown up on its surface in extremely complex ways. They do not believe that these people can survive unless they adapt themselves…more carefully to the workings of the whole system.
In the last few sentences we can hear an allusion to the Gaia hypothesis, an idea portrayed as essentially dotty by its critics and, perhaps even more so, by its advocates, but one that Midgley considered a useful myth in an age of purblind capitalist expansion.
In this context, reading Midgley could restore the ability to notice one’s own existence. Many of her books published since the 1980s—Evolution as a Religion (1985), Science and Poetry (2001), Myths We Live By (2001), Are You an Illusion? (2014)—work simply as forceful reminders that we are, in fact, complex, rational beings. But perhaps her farthest-reaching critique is the one she began to develop in her first book, Beast and Man (1978), which taught many readers to really see animals for the first time. Illustrating the many continuities between animal and human nature, and the indispensability of open instincts (“general tendencies to certain kinds of behavior”) in explaining much human activity, she teaches us simultaneously a greater respect for ourselves and for our cats. Midgley reminds us, as does the contemporary thinker and defender-of-elephant-ensoulment Caitrin Keiper, that the champions of human dignity are not always stark human exceptionalists. We cannot love ourselves truly if we do not love the animals, our predecessors and companions.
I am speaking generally here, but also autobiographically. My wife and I have shared a house with the same cat throughout our marriage, but before I read Beast and Man I thought of that cat, Descartes-style, as an unusually cute machine. If she liked me to kiss her on the nose, it was most likely the instinctual residue of some minor practical benefit once enjoyed by nose-kissed tigers on a savannah somewhere. In fact, she likes it because she is a good girl. Only machines are machines. I live in a richer, more interesting world, and my cat has a guardian who is, I hope, slightly worthier of her because he has read Mary Midgley.