Mary Midgley has arguably achieved for philosophy what several science writers have achieved for their own field in recent years: namely a very large audience. And whilst her scientific colleagues have benefited from the prestige of their subject, her own achievement has been in the face of nation-wide department closures and a general public not overly impressed by her unfashionable occupation.
This much is true but tells us little more than why she is a valuable asset to her publisher. How does she herself see her role? Philosophy first arose, she maintains, as life in 5th Century BC Athens grew more complex. As drama, mathematics, politics, history, poetry and anthropology each developed into its own specialised expertise, so there arose the need for a discipline that would set these ever more divergent spheres of life in a pattern. Out of this need sprang philosophy, “the general clearing-house for resolving disputes by relating different kinds of thought.” It would help the Greeks to orient themselves as their culture underwent this spectacular change.
“To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralysed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it,” wrote Bertrand Russell in his History of Western Philosophy (1946), a line which Midgley has quoted with approval. It is perhaps something like these two functions which she attempts, to negotiate the different claims on our lives whilst avoiding the easy comforts of an extremist position.
Her tone of voice reflects this and must account for at least some of her success. It was one of the reasons I wanted to interview her. Face to face, as on paper, the voice is both learned and forthright – a wry fusion of the canny and the Oxonian. It is a style formed perhaps partly in reaction to the rhetoric of those science writers whose work began to appear at the same time as her own, in the late 1970s. If the earliest philosophers sought to relate the different spheres of life to each other as they threatened to sheer apart, then tearing overblown scientism off a strip in the name of a more balanced outlook has been one of Midgley’s life-projects. Hers is a voice which suggests the existence of a world in which people will hold off the drums a minute and listen, actually admit genuine evidence of all kinds first. Will take some trouble and maybe fall to thinking, as a result. Maybe hold off the drums for good in fact. Even disband the militias entirely.
This is how she thinks philosophers can help. “One obvious trouble about controversies,” she wrote in Wisdom, Information and Wonder – What Is Knowledge For? (1989) “is the way in which they tend to assimilate opposing arguments to one another, so that life-long opponents can end up as almost indistinguishable from each other… The religious wars and persecution that followed the Reformation make an instructive example here. For a long time, Catholics and Protestants shared the view that only one of their creeds could survive… For rulers therefore, the question was simply ‘Which towns are to be put to the sword? Which believers must be burnt?’ Certain people, however, such as Montaigne and Locke, saw a possibility of approaching the problem differently, so that this kind of question would not arise. They proposed a way of viewing the disagreement as a normal one, containable within the scope of a decent human life.”
In a more recent context, she has seen the primacy of economics in both Communism and Capitalism as a way in which the ‘opposing arguments’ of the Cold War became “assimilated to each other”. As she put it to me: “For both of them the economy is the reality and everything else is a kind of fluff.” Certainly the ease with which old elites in Eastern Europe not only retained control after 1989 but proceeded to ‘do business’ very smoothly with their western counterparts, might seem to confirm this notion of an underlying consonance between the two systems. In their negligence of the environment, for example, both groups and both systems have thus far proved equally inadequate to the dangers which we now face.
Another recurrent trait has been her readiness to see any given thinker, however Great, in the context of his or her time and place. So the atheism of a Voltaire, she argues, for example, is the product of a revulsion at the religious wars of the previous century which was both natural and laudable. In Wickedness (1984), however, she remarks “the idea that if once we got rid of religion, all problems of this kind [i.e problems of wickedness] would vanish, seems wild. Whatever may have been its plausibility in the 18th Century it is surely just a distraction today. It is, however, one often used by those who do not want to think seriously on the subject, and who prefer a ritual warfare about the existence of God to an atrociously difficult psychological enquiry.”
If the disputes of the 17th Century can be laid at religion’s door, likewise many of the worst crimes of the 20th Century were perpetrated by regimes which were avowedly atheist. So a way of thinking which started out as a necessary and useful corrective in time may become distorted into something every bit as tyrannical as what it originally opposed. Absolutising itself, it loses the power of self-criticism, stops philosophising, and so loses its immunity to the failings of its old adversary.
This outspoken insistence on the longer historical view has of course been most controversial in her criticisms of socio-biology. She has sought to place Darwin’s writings in the context of both his literary tradition and his remarkably balanced psychological make-up (in Evolution as a Religion, 1985), as well as his position as heir to a philosophical (empirical) tradition (in Wisdom, Information and Wonder, 1989). She has pointed up his manifold endebtedness to the cultural context from which he and his great idea emerged. On the way his theory of natural selection has been absolutised and distorted by socio-biologists she quotes (in Man and Beast, revised edition 1995) Darwin’s own response to being misread, included in the 6th edition of The Origin of Species: “As my conclusions have been much misrepresented, and it has been stated that I attribute the modification of species exclusively to natural selection, I may be permitted to remark that in the first edition of this work and subsequently, I placed in a most conspicuous position – namely at the close of the Introduction – the following words, ‘I am convinced that natural selection has been the main, but not the exclusive means of modification.’ This has been of no avail. Great is the power of misrepresentation.”
“Words,” Midgley comments, “as near to downright bitterness as that patient man ever wrote.”
Similarly again, the rise of socio-biology during the 1970s and 1980s, with its emphasis on the ‘naturalness’ of competition, selfishness and greed, seems incoherent to her without the political and intellectual backdrop, in open revolt by then against the more co-operative ideals of the post-war generation. And she has not only described the way this played out in her own personal context of British university life (The Owl of Minerva, 2005). She has further sought to trace the development in the West of this “strange, isolated, specialised ‘I'” which “has had to be invented to own knowledge” and much else besides. In “debunking the spiritual pride of this tradition” she has explored its origins variously in Lucretius (Science and Poetry, 2001) as well as in the thought of Descartes and Hobbes through to that of Rousseau and Sartre (Utopias, Dolphins and Computers, 1996).