[h/t Gerald Midgley – no relation]
Mary Midgley, who has died aged 99, was an important writer on ethics, the relations of humans and animals, our tendency to misconstrue science, and the role of myth and poetry. From the mid-1970s onwards she published many books and articles in which 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 parts are dependent on the wholes in which they exist. These atomist and reductive approaches are particularly unhelpful when it comes to human self-understanding and, in trenchant and witty style, Midgley pointed the way to a saner and more helpful overview of ourselves and our world.
Her first notable article was The Concept of Beastliness, published in the journal Philosophy in 1973. It impressed Max Black, professor of philosophy at Cornell University, who in 1976 invited her to lecture there and encouraged her to expand her ideas into a book. The result was Beast and Man (1978), which was warmly received. In this article and book, she opened discussion of a question to which she returned many times, namely the implications of advances in science and evolutionary theory for understanding human behaviour.
It is clear that human achievements have their roots in abilities and patterns of response which we share with other animals. So we are not (as some existentialist thinkers have imagined) totally free to create ourselves. But, Midgley insisted, we should not extrapolate from this insight to some depressing biological determinism. More careful reflection shows that our biological endowment includes a capacity to develop a shared culture, and our culture in turn sustains individual creativity.
Other ramifications of these ideas are discussed in her later books, including Heart and Mind (1981), Animals and Why They Matter (1983), Wickedness (1984), Biological and Cultural Evolution (1984), The Ethical Primate (1994), The Solitary Self: Darwin and the Selfish Gene (2010) and Are You an Illusion? (2014).
Often the original impulse to her writing was polemical. In a Guardian interview of 2001 she said, “I keep thinking that I shall have no more to say – and then finding some wonderfully idiotic doctrine which I can contradict.” Her friends noted with amusement that one of the targets she attacked with particular vigour was the regrettable liability of humans to fall into overly combative debate. And she could herself be guilty of unsympathetic interpretation of her opponents. But her major targets were the tempting muddles to which we are all prone, in particular when we do not keep in check our tendencies to simplify and exaggerate.
Her article Gene Juggling, which appeared in Philosophy in 1979, was the start of a famously acrimonious debate with Richard Dawkins in which Midgley was accused of wilfully misrepresenting his claims about the “selfish gene”. It is true (as she herself acknowledged) that her tone was intemperate and that she did not give weight to his explicit claim that the phrase was intended only as a metaphorical way of presenting ideas in evolutionary theory. Nevertheless, it may be that she was right to think that the overall message conveyed by Dawkins’ memorable coinage was the misleading idea that our genes doom us to individual selfishness.
Another topic, which came to the fore in her later books, is the prediction by some scientific writers of future utopias, when science and technology will answer all our questions and solve all our problems. Here she had important points to make about the limitations of science, the significance of poetic and religious vision and the need to integrate our many sources of insight into the human condition. These and related ideas are explored in Evolution as a Religion (1985), Wisdom, Information and Wonder (1989), Science as Salvation (1990), Utopias, Dolphins and Computers (1996), Science and Poetry (2001) and The Myths We Live By (2003).
Mary was born in London, the younger of two children of Lesley (nee Hay) and Tom Scrutton. Her father had served as a chaplain in the first world war and shortly after Mary’s birth became chaplain of King’s College, Cambridge. When she was five h moved to become vicar of Greenford, west London, where Mary and her elder brother, Hugh (later a distinguished art gallery director), were brought up.
In 1931, Mary was sent to Downe House. This progressive boarding school started in Charles Darwin’s old home, although by the time Mary was a pupil it had moved to Ash Green, near Newbury. She won a scholarship to Oxford to read Classical Greats and, arriving at Somerville College in 1938, became one of a strikingly able and forceful group of women philosophers. Elizabeth Anscombe had arrived at Oxford the year before, Iris Murdoch, who became a close friend, was an exact contemporary, and Philippa Foot arrived a year later. The work of this interesting quartet of thinkers has recently become the object of revived interest in the contribution of women to philosophy during the last century.
Mary graduated with a first in 1942 and for the remainder of the war worked mainly as a civil servant. From 1945-47 she was secretary to the classical scholar Gilbert Murray, after which she returned to philosophy, starting a thesis on the psychology of Plotinus. She tutored at Somerville and lectured at the University of Reading from 1948 until 1950.
At this point it looked as if an academic career of a familiar shape might be opening up. But instead, in 1950, she married a fellow philosopher, Geoffrey Midgley, whom she had first met in Oxford in 1945. He was lecturing at what later became the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, but was then King’s College of the University of Durham. He and Mary set up house together in Newcastle and had three sons over the next five years.
Mary turned to journalism, reviewing children’s books and novels for the New Statesman and the BBC Third Programme. She also read extensively in (among other things) psychology, anthropology, evolutionary theory and animal behaviour, becoming particularly interested in the views of such pioneers of ethology as Lorenz and Tinbergen. Her excellent autobiography, The Owl of Minerva (2005), gives a vivid account of this first half of her life.
It is unlikely that she would ever have become a professional philosopher in quite the mould of many of her contemporaries, since she had little taste for the logical and linguistic issues that were the focus of mainstream work in the 1950s and 1960s, and which remain the focus of much contemporary work. She said later that she was glad to have escaped when she did from the ambience of Oxford, finding it overly narrow and competitive.
The break in her career kept her very much aware of the need for philosophy in wider debate and, as she said herself, she was concerned “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”.
In 1965 she returned to teaching philosophy, as a lecturer and later senior lecturer at Newcastle. It was not until this point, when she was over 50, that she began to publish the work for which she later became famous.
In 1980 she took early retirement to have more time to write and travel, and she was writing up to the end. Her final book What is Philosophy For? was published last month. Her work had already begun to be widely known at the time she retired, and she was invited to address numerous conferences and festivals. She became involved in campaigning for animal welfare (and for several years she chaired the RSPCA’s committee on animal experimentation), for environmental awareness and against the arms trade. She also appeared frequently on television and radio, presenting the case for animals and the environment and against scientific hubris. Her speaking and writing were always direct and vigorous and were informed by wide reading, a sharp critical intelligence and a gift for vivid metaphor. The drive of her thought is throughout sane and humane.
In 1995, she was awarded an honorary DLitt at Durham, in 2008 an honorary DCL from Newcastle and she was the recipient of the 2015 Edinburgh Medal.
For nearly half a century, she and her husband Geoffrey (himself a remarkable and admirable man) kept open house in Newcastle for friends, colleagues and pupils. At parties and frequent informal gatherings, tea, homemade beer and good whisky were freely dispensed while robust discussion flowed. She will be remembered and missed by many as an unfailing source of challenging ideas and generous friendship.
Geoffrey died in 1997. Mary is survived by their sons, Martin, Tom and David, and grandchildren, Tenzin, Sheridan and Jessica.
• Mary Beatrice Midgley, philosopher, born 3 September 1919; died 10 October 2018