International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

The Essential Mary Midgley

by Mary Midgley

edited by David Midgley

Introductory Essay by Michael Ruse

Mary Midgley is a philosopher well-known for her crisp style and pungent remarks on ideas that she judges second-rate, especially those she finds shoddy in a morally suspect sort of way. This is a collection of her writings, often extracts from longer pieces, giving a full overview of her interests and commitments and evaluations.

The first of five parts, “The Roots of Human Nature,” covers issues having to do with our psychology, broadly conceived. It is written in dialog and unease with the view of human nature being promoted by such evolutionary biologists as Richard Dawkins, people who argue that genes (as fashioned by selection) give an entire guide to human functioning. Midgley is strongly opposed to such atomistic thinking, arguing for a significantly more holistic approach.

Next, “Philosophizing Out in the World” takes on what she regards as another of the shibboleths of the age, the doctrine best represented by G. E. Moore in his Principia Ethica that the job of dealing with actual moral problems belongs to the preacher or the social worker. The philosopher, by contrast, concerns him or herself with the theoretical foundations of morality. Midgley has little time for this and, in a lovely metaphor, urges on us the need for “philosophical plumbing” [146]. Society is always springing moral and social leaks, and the trained thinker has much to offer in repairing them.

The “Myths of Science” section digs into science, showing how beneath the surface are all sorts of dubious and unsupported metaphysical foundations. Those who draw a rigid line between science and religion should do their homework. Evolution, she tells us, is the “creation myth of our age” [246]. It gives a story of origins, of our important place in the scheme of things, as well as providing guidance on morality and behavior generally.  Whether or not this is a good thing – someone like Edward O. Wilson thinks that it is indeed a very good thing – it is something that should be recognized. Although much of her writing was done before the emergence of the New Atheism phenomenon, its contemporary relevance cannot be overestimated.

The fourth part, “Reason and Imagination,” is perhaps slightly more technical, as Midgley takes on some of the perennial problems of philosophy like questions of objectivity and subjectivity. Unsurprisingly, she does not like the separation brought on by Cartesian dualism. My sense is that there is more of a parallel here with continental thinking than the very English-educated and -thinking Midgley quite recognizes.

Finally, we have a section on “Gaian Thinking: Putting it All Together.” Perhaps it was inevitable that the Earth-focused hypothesis of James Lovelock, that the world is a living organism, would appeal to Midgley. She hopes that we can break down our obsession with humans and realize that the whole world within which we live is part of the moral discourse. Without such recognition, we will continue in the unthinking manner that has wrought such environmental and other disasters on our home. Circling back to the beginning, we must be holistic not atomistic.

Mary Midgley is a controversial thinker, one who upsets many self-important and satisfied thinkers. Whether you agree with her or not, she must be read. This collection is an excellent start.