R.I.P Mary Midgley, 1919-2018

The excellent and hugely underrated philosopher Mary Midgley has died at the age of 99, shortly after completing yet another book.

Mary_MidgleyShe was a subtle, scientifically literate scourge of scientism – career highlights included high-temperature roastings of what she saw as the presumption and intellectual laziness in Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene and E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology.

(She later admitted that her irritation with Dawkins had caused her sharp tongue to cross a line into intemperance – something she seems to have regarded as an intellectual sin rather than a social one – but her opposition to scientific reductionism never wavered.)

She was a member of that great cohort of brilliant women philosophers, all born between 1919 and 1924, that included Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot, Mary Warnock, and Elizabeth Anscombe. Even now, even in philosophy, she is perhaps the  least well known – but perhaps in the end she will be the most influential.

Her first book, Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature, is a treasure, and her delightful, acerbic, novelist’s style comes out clearly in a quotation I scribbled down and kept when I first read it, in 1978:

“Man, civilised western man, has always maintained that in a bloodthirsty world he alone was comparatively harmless. Consider the view of the African jungle given by Victorian hunters. The hunter assumed that every creature he met would attack him and accordingly shot it on sight … it would be described in his memoirs as ‘the great brute’.”

Here’s a nice bit of video in which she shows all her easy, humane wit while being quizzed on her book about the self, Are You An Illusion? How wonderfully unlike our every stereotype of the philosopher she is! And how liberating and wonderful that is, even before you get to what she actually says.