Mary Midgley

(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Midgley combined critique and constructive commentary to bring philosophy to bear on contemporary issues. Her philosophy is marked by an emphasis on the importance of human nature and biology, the recognition and rejection of nonsense, and a resistance to smoothing out significant differences.

Early Life

Mary Midgley (née Scrutton), like German philosopher Immanuel Kant, flourished as a published philosopher in the later portion of her career. Born in London on September 13, 1919, she read “classical greats” at Somerville College. Leaving Oxford in 1942, she worked as a civil servant and a teacher of classics. She then became secretary to the distinguished classicist Gilbert Murray. After the war, she tutored students at Somerville College and began research on Plotinus, then took a position as lecturer at Reading University.

She married philosopher Geoffrey Midgley in 1950, when he was teaching at the University of Newcastle on Tyne. They had three sons, and while raising them, she worked in broadcasting, reviewed books (especially for the New Statesman), and conducted research on animal behavior, work that prepared her for her later flurry of writing. Her British Broadcasting Corporation appearances illustrate her deep commitment to bringing philosophy out of its isolation and reestablishing it as a significant contributor to culture and society. She began to teach again, part-time in 1965 and full-time in 1971. She retired in 1980 to devote herself to writing.

Life’s Work

In 1978, Midgley published Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature, a book stimulated by her preparation for an adult education class she taught at her home university and for lectures at Cornell University, given at the invitation of the well-known philosopher Max Black. In this volume and in her Animals and Why They Matter in 1983, her concern is to assert the status of human beings as animals, members of the biological community, without reducing them to mere animals or diminishing their unique qualities. Her interest in science was again evident in her 1985 work, Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears, in which Midgley distinguished between evolutionary theory in biology and evolution as myth, and her 1992 publication, Science as Salvation: A Modern Myth and Its Meaning, a collection of essays based on her Gifford Lectures, which critiqued a variety of quasi-scientific proposals and prospects that optimistically offer different sorts of panaceas to problems of the human race.

In many of her other publications, Midgley examined issues of morality and knowledge. In her 1981 publication, Heart and Mind: The Varieties of Moral Experience, she argued that the supposedly sharp distinction between mind and heart, or thought and feeling, does not correspond to our actual mental states, which are typically affective and cognitive. Two years later, with Judith Hughes, she published Women’s Choices: Philosophical Problems Facing Feminism, which focused on philosophy and feminism. Her 1984 publication, Wickedness: A Philosophical Essay, is concerned with evil in human affairs and the human heart. In 1989, she published Wisdom, Information, and Wonder: What Is Knowledge For?, in which she discussed the importance of understanding and the integration of theoretical and practical knowing. The mutual relevance of theory and practice, and of theoretical and practical reason, is one of her major themes. In Can’t We Make Moral Judgements?, Midgley noted that those who answer the title question negatively make a considerable degree of moral commitment, and she argued that the reasons for answering the question negatively presuppose that the answer is in fact positive. While being sympathetic to and taking note of the reasons to be suspicious of moral judgment, she argued that accepting this position would leave us without sound basis for protesting both what those who embrace this suspicion deplore and what they ought to deplore.

Midgley’s philosophical writings, considered as a whole, form an impressive, creative, and coherent body of work. Midgley, as part of her effort to bring philosophy back into public discourse, aimed her writing at the intelligent layperson at least as much as the professional philosopher or academic. Whether one agrees with her on specific points, her work can fairly be described as balanced, sensible, informed by relevant empirical data, and seasoned with a bit of iconoclasm toward views she regards as influential but simplistic. The result is accessible discussions of practical topics with recognition of the importance of theory to practice. Without writing down to her audience or avoiding relevant complexities, she wrote understandable prose on important topics.

Apparently as a matter of principle, though many of the topics on which she wrote are matters on which religious traditions have taken stances, she...

(The entire section is 2067 words.)