Illustration by James Ferguson of Mary Midgley
© James Ferguson

Mary Midgley doesn’t get out much for lunch these days. Her hearing, explains our intermediary, is not so special. So would it be possible for me to meet her at home, where she will rustle up something? Gladly, I reply.

I use the time on the train to Newcastle to get to grips with her new book, which has a disturbing title: Are You an Illusion? The problems of philosophy, she says, have been reduced to matters of physical science. There is a concerted effort to dismiss the issue of personal experience altogether. We are under serious existential threat, regarded as nothing more than jumbles of brain cells working along predetermined patterns.

It is disorienting stuff. I take a taxi to Midgley’s home in Jesmond, an affluent suburb of the city. There is a debate on the radio about the aftermath of the first world war, which prompts an extraordinary thought: my lunch guest, who is actually my host, was born in the year of the Treaty of Versailles. So if she, at the age of 94, is still busy writing books to express concern about something, it is, perhaps, worth taking seriously.

She greets me at the door, upright and friendly, and asks me to come into her small kitchen, from which there drifts a delicious smell. She points to a bottle of white wine on the table. She won’t have any but she bids me to open it. I politely decline. She pours out a couple of bowls of soup, and pops some bread into a toaster. I ask if I can do anything to help. “No you can’t,” she says briskly, in a tone of voice that brooks no argument.

Midgley is a moral philosopher who cares more than most for the clarity of her pronouncements. Her books are designed to be accessible to the general reader, and she often takes arms against academic orthodoxy. She is relatively rare in her belief that common sense – the way we do things and the manner in which we actually live our lives – is an important consideration in philosophical argument, rather than a weird piece of folk superstition that gets in the way of elegantly postulated theories.

We compare notes on our philosophy teachers at Oxford. I read Philosophy, Politics and Economics in the 1970s; she was there studying Mods and Greats nearly 40 years ahead of me. Here was my frustration: a tutor who lay back in his armchair as if he were in a Joseph Losey movie, and spent an entire term pressing me to explain how I knew that the tree in the middle of the college quadrangle was really there. Midgley nods in sympathy. “Shouting and protesting against the state of philosophy at Oxford has been a busy part of my life,” she says firmly.

So lopsided has the world become, I say, that a champion of common sense such as her is described on the book’s cover as a “heretic”. Is that a description with which she feels comfortable? “I suppose that the thing I am objecting to is the orthodoxy of scientism,” she replies in good humour. “It’s a kind of label that publishers like to use. They have been jolly helpful to me.”

Midgley’s argument in her new book is against a form of scientific arrogance that seeks to “reduce our direct, everyday experience of reality to terms of something more distant, preferably involving statistics and (where possible) machinery”. Scientists and psychologists are turning their backs on the complexity of human interactions by attempting to explain everything in neuro-biological terms. “There is this increasing faith that physical science is the answer to all our terrible questions,” she says. “I want to fight against the whole idea that it is where you go to for enlightenment.”

Prominent among her antagonists is Richard Dawkins, with whom she has exchanged some lusty blows. At one point in the early 1980s, Midgley explained her previous disinclination to engage with Dawkins’s 1976 book The Selfish Gene by pronouncing it superfluous to “break a butterfly upon a wheel” (Alexander Pope’s famous put-down is the academic equivalent of a footballer’s headbutt: straight red card).

Dawkins’s response was forthright: “I have been taken aback by the inexplicable hostility of Mary Midgley’s assault,” he wrote in an article for the journal Philosophy. “Some colleagues have advised me that such transparent spite is best ignored, but others warn that the venomous tone of her article may conceal the errors in its content. Indeed, we are in danger of assuming that nobody would dare to be so rude without taking the elementary precaution of being right in what she said.”

Powerful stuff, I say, but she is not in the mood to resume hostilities. She says their spats “have all been conducted very discreetly, at a great distance. I didn’t read The Selfish Gene when it came out, but when I did read it, it shocked me deeply, because of its explicit egotism, all this talk about Chicago gangsters.” (“Like successful Chicago gangsters, our genes have survived, in some cases for millions of years, in a highly competitive world,” wrote Dawkins in his provocative first chapter.) “It was shockingly crude.”

She says that the adulation for Dawkins fitted in with the time. “During and just after the war people had been very unselfish. But by the time of Reagan and Thatcher I think they got tired of doing that and when something came out saying you were basically selfish, they were very pleased. It simplified the idea of evolution, and people wanted something simple. He wrote very clearly so it was no surprise that it caught on.”

She tells me to help myself to more soup. It is very tasty, I say. “It doesn’t have a name. I’ve been making it for a long time: it’s lentils, onions, a tin of tomatoes, a few herbs. I am not an enterprising cook, so when I find something that I like I stick at it.” She asks me if I enjoy cooking, and I say that my wife and I get home too late to spend very much time on it. “That’s one of the dreadful consequences of feminism,” she replies, “that to be equal you both have to be working all day.” It may be lunchtime but I decide not to open that particular can of worms.

Midgley went to Oxford during the war, and she has fond memories of a time, she says, when there was a spirit of genuine inquiry in the air. “When I was at Oxford, I suppose some people thought about their careers but not the sort I talked to.” Her “sort” included Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot, Elizabeth Anscombe. “There has been a surge in interest in us today because here we were, four women philosophers [who became prominent], and that hasn’t happened since! The important thing was that we were not put under this kind of cheese grater, with a lot of people from Harvard shouting at us. The men who were there were conscientious objectors, disabled, or ordinants, they weren’t so keen on putting everybody down all the time. I really think it is a vice in professional philosophy, a real crime.”

There was a certain kind of machismo about the winning of arguments, I say. “It’s quite interesting isn’t it? Plato gives this very good explanation of why we shouldn’t just be trying to win arguments all the time, and then look at what Socrates does – he utterly and single-mindedly does precisely that! I think the Athenian law courts have a lot to answer for. All right, it is an important part of our reasoning, but it is not everything. It has to be balanced.”

I ask her what the spirit was like in her university days. “We were all seriously political. Of course the big question was whether to join the [Communist] party or not. I am puzzled sometimes when people today say they are not into politics, my parents [her father was a Cambridge college chaplain] were New Statesman people, I have always taken it as very important.”

We have finished our lunch: I am tasked with making the tea and carrying a tray into the sitting room where we will continue our conversation. In the course of our move, the doorbell rings, and Midgley asks me to answer. It is the grocer, who is on first-name terms with her, and he leaves a box of food on her table.

While at Oxford, she met her husband Geoffrey, who also lectured in philosophy, and she followed him to Newcastle in 1950. She has lived there since. (Geoffrey Midgley died in 1997.) “I know academics are supposed to be buzzing off to America and all that sort of thing but Geoffrey wasn’t at all interested in that. He just wanted to sit in the common room and talk to his students. It’s so important to do that, colossally educational.”

Midgley concentrated on raising their three sons before joining the philosophy department at Newcastle University herself in 1962. She wrote her first book, Beast and Man, in 1978 at the age of 59. It postulated that we have more in common with animals than may be thought, but was anti-behaviourist. She began to oppose some of the dominant strains in philosophical thinking, particularly those that came from Britain.

“I think there is an anti-intellectual tradition here,” she says. “Even the intellectuals are anti-intellectual. [Thomas] Hobbes and [John] Locke were very willing to say, ‘We don’t want all this fuss.’” Perhaps things were better in the swinging Left Bank cafés of Paris, I offer. “It seems like a good idea. I haven’t been in enough cafés to know if it works! The problem with philosophers who become very well known, such as Sartre, is that they become spoilt, and they end up just repeating themselves.” She makes this charge sound grave indeed. “But I think it is a less disastrous state of mind. Your café may turn out well. I greatly admire the French for their approach.”

Sometimes it is hard to understand what they are talking about, I say. “Oh yes. A son of a friend of mine was reading philosophy and came across something called ‘post-Derrida feminism’. I tried to read some of it once. Dreadful! Of course it bored him silly. It is supposed to be nearer to life but it isn’t.”

I ask how closely she follows the scene. “I don’t read the journals. I never read them very much, and now it is only if someone sends me something.” She points to a book on the table. “I am just reading this new book by John Searle [the eminent American philosopher, a whippersnapper at 81]. “Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. I am sorry about this because he makes great efforts to be clear. But he is swallowed up now by this mindless materialism. He is engaged with how we got from the Big Bang to the president of the United States – from electrons to elections – and the answer is a certain kind of speech act. This obsession with language!”

The punches are swinging freely now. “Do you know Language, Truth and Logic?” she asks me. Certainly, I say, AJ Ayer’s precocious masterpiece from the 1930s that brought the dubious joys of logical positivism to the world. “That is a great book for discouraging people to do philosophy. It says that everything is meaningless apart from science. What?! What about history? And I don’t think Ayer knew any science. But he respects it so much.”

The vehemence of Midgley’s conversation makes it clear that she believes there is a lot at stake: trying to find a way that allows philosophy to ask the big questions – about love, life, spirituality, the soul – with rigour, empathy and imagination. “It is not that I have a special theory to put forward,” she suddenly says. “But it is important to ask those big questions. It is like a map of Africa in the 1820s. We just haven’t looked hard enough!”

She ends her book with an emphatic statement of her views. “In spite of the huge differences between cultures, all that we know about human behaviour shows that it can be understood only by reference to people’s own thoughts, dreams, hopes, fears and other feelings. This is not something invented by a particular culture. It’s universal.” I ask her if she is an optimist. “I am temperamentally an optimist. I find it difficult not to be one. But it does seem to me that the world is heading towards some sort of catastrophe.”

We say our goodbyes. As I walk through what appears to be her study, I notice a row of folders on the desk. Each is labelled, denoting its contents. On the folder marked “Philosophy”, there is also a large question mark.

Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer


Mary Midgley’s home

Jesmond, Newcastle

Lentil, onion and tomato soup

Toasted bread

Pot of tea

Total: Free


Timeline: a philosopher’s life

1919 Born September 13, in London, to Lesley and Thomas Scrutton, chaplain of King’s College, Cambridge.

1935 Reads Plato for the first time as a student at Downe House boarding school and finds it “tremendous stuff”.

1938-42 Reads Classics, Philosophy and Ancient History at Somerville College, Oxford.

1943 Spends the rest of the second world war teaching and working for the civil service.

1947 Starts a PhD on Neo-Platonism but abandons it, later claiming that she is “proud” not to be a doctor.

1948 Appointed philosophy lecturer at Reading University.

1950s Marries fellow philosopher Geoffrey Midgley and moves to Newcastle upon Tyne. Stops working after having three sons in five years, but begins to read about animal behaviour in the works of Jane Goodall and Konrad Lorenz, finding it to be “of enormous relevance to moral philosophy”.

1962 Appointed senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle.

1978 Publishes her first book Beast and Man at the age of 59. In it, she argues that human nature is influenced by both biology and culture.

1980 Retires from lecturing.

1983 Commissioned, with Judith Hughes, to co-write Women’s Choices, which aimed to “find a way between equality and sisterhood”.

1992 Argues, in her book Science as Salvation, that science has become a kind of secular religion.

1999 Referred to in JM Coetzee’s novella The Lives of Animals as a modern equivalent of Aristotle or Descartes.

2014 Publishes her 16th book Are You An Illusion? Most recent biography states that she is working “on the concept of Gaia”.

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