Mary Midgley: A Combative Philosopher

Mary Midgley, who died on the 10th October 2018, at the age of 99, belonged with Elizabeth Anscombe, Iris Murdoch and Philippa Foot to a formidable quartet of gifted philosophers, all educated at Somerville College, Oxford, in the late 1930’s. Midgley was a late developer as her first noteworthy article on ‘The Concept of Beastliness’, appeared in the Journal of Philosophy in 1973, five years before the completion of her book Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature, published when she was 59.

From then on, she engaged with a wide spectrum of philosophical issues, ranging from religion, animal rights, the holistic importance of James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis and more generally on the hegemony of science over the still powerful influence of myth and poetry in our interpretation of the world. She addressed head-on the sensitive issue of the implications of scientific and technological progress and what she regarded as the dangerous ‘worship of science’, leading to uncritical scientism as notoriously illustrated, in her view, by Richard Dawkins in his defense of Darwin’s theory of evolution against any other possible theory. 

In response to Dawkins’ claim in his most celebrated book The Selfish Gene (1976) that everyone of us is genetically programmed to lead a selfish existence, Midgley wrote, after more than thirty years of polemical debate with her ‘bête noire’, The Solitary Self: Darwin and the Selfish Gene (2010) in which she points out that behaviourism and the reduction of emotions to simplified psychological categories take away the sheer complexity and uniqueness of the human personality. For this reason, she looked for new answers in her study on Animals and Why They Matter: A Journey Around the Species Barrier (1983), a book informed by her close reading of the pioneers of ethology, Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz.

Midgley’s prime concern was not to focus on one particular branch of philosophy but to highlight possible contradictions in dominant paradigms. In the spirit of Wittgenstein’s intellectual enquiries, she attempted to clarify what was perhaps wrongly assumed to be a ‘received truth’. Indifferent to the logistic and linguistic issues of her day, she preferred to concentrate on the big picture, admitting that her task was ‘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.’

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