How Mary Midgley rescued me

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I arrived at Newcastle University in 1983, a troubled and troublesome student, more interested in girls and nightclubs than in philosophy. At school, I had cared little for studying. I was in the bottom of the bottom set, alongside other no hopers. For me, university meant three more years of loafing about.

But there I met the Midgleys, Geoff and Mary – both considerable philosophers, and both with an extraordinary gift for inspiring wayward students. Under their care, I grew up. And graduated with a passion for philosophy and stamped forever by the desire to join the dots between abstract thought and real life. The Midgleys turned me around.

Mary and Geoff had an open house for the mixed bag of students that came within their orbit. Teaching and pastoral care and philosophy all blended together, creating an astonishing sense of solidarity amongst us all. I was the last of this generation – the University closed the philosophy department the year I left. It wasn’t financially viable, they said. It broke the Midgley’s hearts. Geoffrey passed away a few years later. Mary died last week, aged 99.

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The connection between philosophy and pastoral care wasn’t incidental. Mary started teaching in Oxford, but left in 1950 and was glad to have left. She travelled up to Newcastle with a desire, she said, “to bring academic philosophy back into its proper connection with life, rather than let it dwindle into a form of highbrow chess for graduate students”. With this aim, Mary was a part of a number of extraordinary women philosophers who had met at Oxford: Philippa Foot, Elizabeth Anscombe and Iris Murdoch among them. Mary was old school. “Huzzar!” she would exclaim, if she approved of what you were saying. Not “hurrah”, not “horray”. She felt like a blast from the past, even back in the 80’s.

Professor Jane Heal, another of the Newcastle teaching staff of that era, summarised Mary’s thought admirably in the Guardian: “She identified the limitations of only trying to understand things by breaking them down into smaller parts and losing sight of the many ways in which the parts are dependent on the wholes in which they exist.”

Mary was suspicious of the idea that an explanation for something could only be found by breaking it up into smaller and smaller questions, thus missing the wood for the trees. Some explanations involve understanding what is before your eyes, open to view. Many explanations for things are hidden in plain sight. Geoff was the more conventional Wittgensteinian, urging students to appreciate that “nothing is hidden”, that the meaning of a thing reveals itself in and through the way we use it. Mary had an equally hostile attitude to reductionism. And her subject of interest was the human animal.

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It was probably this distrust of reductionism that made her so suspicious of scientism – the inappropriate, as she saw it, extension of the scientific method to those phenomenon that do not benefit from it. She famously fell out with Richard Dawkins for offering what she felt to be his highly reductive understand of human beings as being driven by “the selfish gene”, as if selfishness were built into our DNA. This was Thatcherism dressed up as scientific explanation, she thought. From the perspective of the North East of England, with the Miner’s Strike devastating local communities, and the Bishop of Durham thundering from his pulpit about the evils of economic competition determining all value, Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene (published 1976) felt like the philosophy of the enemy.

Mary wasn’t obviously religious, but she had grown up in an Anglican vicarage, and to me she seemed like a fellow traveller, sympathetic to the broader Christian ethical impulse. The Midgley house felt like the very best of what an Anglican vicarage should be: welcoming, compassionate, fizzing with ideas. I arrived at university, from a broadly non-religious family, assuming that religion was simply pious mumbo-jumbo, clearly discredited by the likes of David Hume. I emerged, open to giving it a chance. I was less interested in breaking religion down into its parts where confusion and contradiction abounded. I wasn’t interested in the so-called proofs of God’s existence. They didn’t work, for one thing. And that never bothered me.

In terms of the lived experience, looking at the way God functioned in the lives of real believers, Christianity made a great deal more sense to me. Under the Midgleys, I came to see that explanation is not always like the foundations of a building, keeping it up – as if, without a proper explanation, the building falls. On the contrary, an explanation is a way of making sense of what is already there, not a way of re-arranging it. Understanding is after the fact. So St Anselm’s ‘Faith seeking understanding’ – i.e. faith is not built on understanding but goes looking for it – opened up, for me, a way of being a Christian, without having resolved any of the underlying contradictions. And that hasn’t stopped being true. For me, believing in God names a certain sort of commitment, not the conclusion of an argument.

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There is a particular love that a student has for a teacher who made a difference to their lives. I was in McDonalds with my small son when I got a text to say that she had died. I felt like a bit of an idiot ordering a Happy Meal with tears rolling down my cheeks. But this was the end of an era. She was perhaps the last of a generation of moral philosophers that looked as much to classical literature and fiction as to empirical inquiry. Iris Murdoch was more famous, but Mary Midgley was every bit as formidable. Looking back, there is no way my life would have turned out like did if it hadn’t been for the Midgleys. Wonderful people. May they rest in peace.