was arguably – said the Guardian in 2001 – ‘the most frightening philosopher in the country’. On 27 February 2013, Simon Jenkins found her, in her book-lined house in Newcastle, charming but still combative at 93.
Photography: James Glossop
You were born in 1919. Can you say how you were shaped by growing up in the Twenties and Thirties?
The Great War loomed in the background all the time. It was like a great, dark hill behind everything – the grown-ups were always talking about it and you didn’t know what it was, but there it was. My father was a parson and had been a chaplain briefly in the war and had had to explain to men why they were dying; and it made him an extreme pacifist.
My parents were very politically aware and there was a great deal of discussion of how to stop the next war. And my friends, I suppose, were also involved in this. When I come across people who say they aren’t interested in politics, I find it puzzling, because to me it’s like the weather, you know? It was always there.
What values did your parents inculcate in you, and which of them did you consciously accept or reject?
Well, although like anyone I got a bit cross with them when I was a teenager, on the whole I think my parents’ ideas and ideals were jolly sensible and they have remained with me. They were terribly keen on peace and internationalism; they voted Socialist – but they were never extreme: there was never any question of being Communist or anything of that sort.
My father had been brought up by his father (who was a judge, and pretty much a Victorian atheist) to be a lawyer; but he had some sort of religious experiences and eventually he said: ‘I’m sorry, I don’t think I can be a lawyer. I think I’m going to be a parson.’ ‘Oh!’ said his father. ‘All right!’ And they seldom spoke after that.
You yourself did not become a Christian, though.
Whatever my father [experienced], I have never doubted that it was real – and I still don’t doubt, when people have [such] experiences. But the trouble is that I didn’t, and don’t – not really, you know. I was quite happy to go to church and go along with the praying, and I very much enjoyed singing psalms and hymns, which my school did in a big way – you know, I was very happy being a passenger; but serious religious people, including my father, were inclined to say: ‘That’s not good enough. What do you actually think?’
When I was a student, or a bit later, I explained to him that I hadn’t got it and he didn’t really know quite what to do about it – we didn’t discuss it. In spite of his legal training, he didn’t want to discuss things, often. I think that isn’t a bad idea as far as these large metaphysical questions go: you don’t necessarily get far by exchanging propositions. You just need to get an understanding of where the other person is.
I think there are things out there extremely obscure to us, and we express our insights, our suspicions, our guesses about them in ways that suit the culture of the time
What kind of religious experience had you expected to have? A still, small voice, or a sense of the numinous?
Well, I do remember being rather worried about getting confirmed. I thought: I’m sure something is supposed to happen. Perhaps it will happen when the bishop puts his hands on. But it didn’t. And I was always uneasy going to Communion, for much the same reason. When I said my prayers in the evening, I would kneel down and hope there would be Somebody there.
I don’t know what’s wrong with me, so to speak. You know, considering the number and the quality of the people who do get something from religion, there is something wrong with me. But whether there is Somebody there or not is not a trifling matter, you know. You really do need to…
What I think was a mistake [is that] I thought: ‘In that case, I’d better stop going to church.’ I now think that ritual itself is terribly important. You know, you’ve got to do it in order to feel it, so to speak. And it seems to me that whatever the beliefs and reverences of the time are – the positive ones – you should join with them where you can. I think I could probably have sort of sat on the borderlines a bit more profitably. I know plenty of people who go to church who would not stand by the literal meaning of the Creeds.
How do you reconcile being sure that your father’s experience was genuine but questioning whether there actually is Someone there?
I think it’s just that he could see it and I can’t – which could be said about physical perception also. Our powers of seeing and hearing vary greatly – somebody who really understands Mozart hears very much more than I do. No, my thought is that there is something out there – or things out there – extremely obscure to us; and we express our insights, our suspicions, our guesses about them in ways that suit the culture of the time.
My father was quite educated enough never to have been a fundamentalist and he was very good at explaining to everybody in sermons that Genesis didn’t have to be taken literally to be taken seriously. We always believed in evolution – there was no hang-up about that. That wasn’t where my problem was. My problem was in not being able to identify personally what there was. When I started reading C S Lewis, I thought: ‘Ah! Now, this is really helpful’ – and so it was, up to a point.
What did you read? Mere Christianity?1First published, by Macmillan, in 1952, though the transcripts of the original radio broadcasts first appeared in print as three separate pamphlets: ‘The Case for Christianity’ (1942), ‘Christian Behaviour’ (1943) and ‘Beyond Personality’ (1944)
I started with the science-fiction books2Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Perelandra (1943) and That Hideous Strength (1945) – we thought they were marvellous. And then one day my eye fell on the paper where they [were serialising] The Screwtape Letters,3Originally published weekly in the Anglican periodical The Guardian in 1941 and I thought: ‘Gosh, this is good!’ You know, it is so astute psychologically and so honest, and I could see the sort of direction in which Lewis was saying to go; but when I looked into it more thoroughly, he did appear to end up with a kind of fundamentalism. So, I only got so far with Lewis – but I did feel he brought it within range, so to speak.
I did once hear him preach when I was a graduate student at Oxford and that was quite good, but I didn’t really chase it… I have to say that at Somerville [College] there was a rather distasteful pious set. There was a sort of Christian revival going on – people who had assumed that religion was not their business suddenly began to think that it was, you see, and it got quite fashionable among the undergraduates. My friends were fairly sharply put off by this, and I was rather, too. So, I fear I missed what I’m sure was an important opportunity to understand a bit more…
Let’s move on to your career as a philosopher. You were quite a late starter in a sense. First, you took time out in your thirties to bring up a family, and then you didn’t start writing books until you were nearly 60.
The difference between people and animals is really not as big as we thought. Which is not to say that people are rather despicably animal but that animals are much more subtle and complicated than we thought
Do you think it was an advantage to you as a thinker that you had brought up three children?
I’m sure it was. I think I said in the introduction to my first book, Beast and Man,4Beast and Man: The roots of human nature, published in 1978 by Cornell University Press and thereafter by Methuen in 1980 and Routledge in 1995 and 2002 that having children is extremely valuable when one comes to talk about the difference between people and animals! It’s really not as big as we thought – which is not to say that people are rather despicably animal but that animals are much more subtle and complicated than we thought.
Recently, I’ve been watching [the BBC1 series Penguins] – I had no idea that the life of penguins was so complicated! And the extraordinary energy and jollity of the rockhoppers…
They actually seem to have an inner life, don’t they?
That’s right. I’m a sucker for wildlife films altogether and I think that is because I enjoy all the complexity of life, and I think we need to be in touch with it.
I think the main reason I didn’t start writing books earlier was that I was not confident enough that I’d got things right. It wasn’t that I was unwilling to commit myself – I did use to review books, and I used to write articles sometimes when people asked for them – but I didn’t have anything big enough to write a book about, that’s the point. If I had a more naturally assertive personality, I suppose I would probably have got round to writing something about something earlier, whether or not I was ready for it! I mean, people do write, earlier in life, all sorts of (often rather wild) books.
Well, young academics are required to write nowadays, aren’t they?
Yes, there’s much more insistence on it now. I think it’s awful. People have to write articles whether or not they have anything to say – and the only way to do that, if you haven’t, is to be contradicting somebody. So, they contradict each other and they get committed by these early articles to positions they should never have taken.
I started writing articles in Philosophy in the early Seventies which were not just book reviews and it was one of those, on the concept of beastliness, that was picked up by [the philosopher] Max Black in Cornell [University]. He said: Let’s have this woman over for a week of seminars and I had this extremely exhausting time talking to everything from an anthropologist to a physicist to a poet. And the Cornell Press then said: Will you write a book?
I wasn’t impatient for a career in the way that a lot of other people are, and I wasn’t bothered to do so by my academic mentors. I was supposedly working for a DPhil, wasn’t I? They wanted someone to write about Plotinus and I liked the idea and took it on, but I didn’t realise how much grind of a more or less grammatical and philological kind there is in this kind of thing and I never finished it! There are a lot of wasted opportunities in my past, and I think that’s one.
Is there something in philosophy that benefits from maturity and experience?
Oh, I think so. I don’t think Aristotle was being silly when he said, ‘Don’t do moral philosophy until you’re 40.’ I don’t mean, don’t do it at all…
It goes against the grain of our present culture, which semi-worships youth. It’s an interesting contradiction.
It is, isn’t it? Yes, indeed. In recent times, the exaltation of youth has become absurd, hasn’t it? And it’s not only in the academic sphere that people are supposed to hurry up and do something notable and important.
A lot of your work has been devoted to the philosophy that underpins science and what goes wrong when scientists don’t have a sense of philosophy or history. What was it that first attracted your attention there?
The worship of science is really quite widely practised now. When I began to look at the way people talk about science, I realised that there is this grotesquely exaggerated notion of what it is and what it does
It was when I got interested in animal behaviour, at the end of the War. Until then, I don’t think I had thought about science as a kind of rival field of thought; but once you start… The thing I was bothered by was the behaviourist suggestion that really you can’t do psychology about the self, you’ve got to do it about ‘facts in the world’. Physical science is really the authority and so you study behaviour patterns because they’re physical, they’re empirical, they can be checked; and the assumption is that [someone’s] previous behaviour patterns are the cause of what [they do] now.
This [idea that physical science is the real authority] was coming up in other contexts as well, I think, but it became jolly central when you started to think about the continuity between people and animals. It was so obviously important that the genuinely psychological, the motivational, bit was there in animals, too, and if you started reducing that to the behaviour of cells, the same then applied to people – and philosophy had already made it clear to me what’s wrong with that kind of determinism.
So, I then started to read much more science than I ever had – I hadn’t had a decent science education at all – and I started to take New Scientist. On the whole, it has helped to educate me over the years. (But, oh dear! they do have such bad think pieces! There has just been one about the self and how it is an illusion – your brain is somehow fooling you into thinking you’re conscious, you know?5www.newscientist.com/special/self. See also Pete Moore’s 2010 interview of Susan Blackmore for High Profile. It’s so ludicrous! They can’t even take in what Descartes said, you know?6Descartes posited that everything he perceived was the work of ‘a great deceiver’ and concluded: ‘Doubtless, then, I exist, since I am deceived; and, let him deceive me as he may, he can never bring it about that I am nothing, so long as I shall be conscious that I am something’ (Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, 1641). What the ‘I’ is is a big question, but that it is there…)
And of course I got interested in Darwin and what evolution is and so forth, and then I started getting cross with [Richard] Dawkins,7Interviewed for High Profile in February 1995 which I’m not tired of being after all these years! He is quite an interesting example of simply not bothering at all to look at what he’s denying, you know? Religion as such doesn’t interest him, never mind what [religious] people are actually saying. I find it a bit surprising that he does this, being British. I can see why people brought up in America, like [the philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel] Dennett, pick up [the idea that religion is] totally irrational.
It’s all part of the worship of science, which is really quite widely practised now – I mean, the notion that science is what you rely on, it’s what can tell you the actual truth, and everything else is kind of constructed. The most basic and indispensable kind of consciousness is dismissed as ‘folk psychology’. When I began to look at a bit more science and the way people talk about science, I realised that there is this grotesquely exaggerated notion of what it is and what it does.
Your row with Dawkins has been going on for 30 years now. He still says he thinks you haven’t read The Selfish Gene  –
This is a lie, which has been pointed out many times. This Swedish scientist, Ullica Segerstråle, had been interviewing me and she reported to him what I’d said, which was that I had not read The Selfish Gene for a long time. I just didn’t happen to read it, and that is why it shocked me so much when I eventually did. He managed to persuade himself that she said I’d never read it! Well, how I could have put six long quotations from it in my article8bit.ly/YGuUw8 and discussed them, I don’t know.
He can’t deal with being criticised. I think he finds it unbelievable, and unbearable, that people disagree with him. He doesn’t take up the serious points that are made against him – he’s been dodging on a lot of central issues over the years. And when he’s supposed to debate, he finds some helpless fundamentalist to do the Christian bit.
No, I think I have said, and I certainly should say, I have a high opinion of Dawkins insofar as he tells the story of evolution and explains its workings. Our continuity with animals he does jolly well, and, you know, he writes well and he celebrates evolution – he’s got a nice sort of enjoyment of it. I like all that.
But I think the suggestion that everything is selfish is particularly pernicious because it’s very close to a lot of market economics and, you know, similar, pernicious political thinking today. And providing that with what appears to be solid scientific backing [is] particularly disastrous given the status science enjoys. I mean, the way the idea caught on shows that. And the state of the world at the time was so obviously such that you’d make it worse by encouraging selfishness, you know?
If Richard Dawkins was a little more arguable-with, I’d get on with him much better
You see, he really had not worried about this word ‘selfish’. He hadn’t seen all the sort of sociological and economic and moral [implications]. He just thought it was quite fun – and I do think that he’s rather prone to think that things are quite fun and go on doing them regardless.
And then, 30 years after The Selfish Gene came out, Dawkins said that perhaps it would have been better to call it ‘The Co-operative Gene’! It didn’t seem to strike him that it’s not just a trifling alteration –
It’s the whole point.
Yes, it’s the whole point. I don’t think I was mistaken in thinking: This is terrible! The sort of things about that book that made me indignant still make me indignant. I think it was pretty bad.
However, I think the article I wrote in response to it was careless and a bit crude in some ways. I was so upset when I wrote it that I wasn’t controlling myself.
No, no, I knew I’d better apologise some day. I could see that some of his objections were reasonable and that I could make suitable concessions.
You see, if he was a little more arguable-with, I’d get on with him much better.
You said of your latest book, The Solitary Self , that you thought you had already written too many but then you felt very indignant about something. Is indignation a feature of your work?
Yes! Yes. On occasions, anger is the proper reaction, if you see something to be wrong and see people to be, as it were, deliberately doing it.
I am trying to write something now against [this claim that] the self – all your ambitions, your loves and hates and so forth – is an illusion. This is all part of an attempt to simplify the idea of a human being, to boil it down to some sort of minimal elements – if possible, to find the atoms of which it’s made, and then you won’t have to think about the whole thing, so to speak. I think that what makes me indignant about this anti-self line is that it distracts people from pursuing self-knowledge (which they should be doing) and deprives them of [the chance] to get hold, to some extent, of the greater complexity of life. I think it’s a disgraceful thing to say to people, you know?
That’s another interesting word: ‘disgraceful’. Are you thinking about the social impact of these ideas?
Not only, but of course that comes into it.
Behaviourism was in many ways an evil view, and it did have very destructive consequences, I think. I’m sure that [B F] Skinner [the inventor of Radical Behaviourism] was not unaware of his influence. For a great part of the 20th century, psychologists did not dare to mention consciousness, or subjectivity or emotion or anything like that – they knew they’d lose their jobs. Now, that’s a disgraceful state of affairs!
If I work on a subject at all (and it is hard work), it has got to seem important to me – and that probably means that some point of view has got to seem terribly wrong
What are the things that really fuel your indignation?
Well, the reason I’m in philosophy at all is that I think it matters to try to bring together the various thoughts we have in a harmonious whole to deal with the sort of gross conflicts that [arise in life]. And if philosophers are moving in a direction that impedes that, that goes positively contrary to it, they are doing wrong. I mean, one thinks about oneself: I ought not to ignore this obviously important matter, I ought not to exaggerate this rather unimportant thing, I ought to hone my responses in such a way that they make sense as a whole and will help other people to make sense. And if that’s true of oneself, it’s true of other people, too, isn’t it?
The British don’t really treasure their philosophers, or even know who they are – unlike the French, say; but you are quite well known now, if only because of the controversies.
I suppose that’s it. In the last decade or so, I think, people seem to know about me more.
I mean, you’re asking why is philosophy in Britain really not of wide interest at all, and I think that the last century has seen a shrinking of the subjects dealt with, a withdrawal from the sort of political matters which people like [John Stuart] Mill and T H Huxley, and the Victorians in general, were not at all frightened of talking about. There has been a withdrawal into the academe, so naturally people don’t notice them, and don’t know whether they even mind not being noticed. And I’ve always deplored this – I think it’s absurd. I mean, the more philosophers are only answering each other, the less they’re going to say. And what’s the use of only talking to a few extraordinary people who agree with you already? Or disagree.
[Your friend and fellow philosopher] Philippa Foot said that your forte is ‘being witty and sane’…
Well, I do aim at that.
Do you aim for wit?
I don’t exactly aim for it, but it comes natural. I mean, whatever I was writing about, I would be looking for the more interesting, the more intriguing angle. And you’ve got to use your imagination. If you’re trying to say something slightly new, you must give an example of what it would be like. This strikes me as absolutely central to what you’re doing – but of course it’s also amusing.
So, in that sense you see eye-to-eye with Dawkins?
Oh, he’s good on this.
John Cornwall, the director of the Science and Human Dimension Project at Jesus College, Cambridge, has said that you do ‘very good knockabout’ and that you ‘go as close to playing dirty as you can get’. Do you recognise yourself in that description?
I know what he’s talking about – but I don’t go about abusing people. I’ve been reading Dennett’s Consciousness Explained  again and he’s constantly picking quarrels with people, because he enjoys a quarrel. (Of course, he’s very witty and puts in all sorts of interesting imagery that makes it kind of worthwhile.) But I really don’t do that.
I have never been bothered about death. I’ve tried to bother myself from time to time and to think, ‘Well, what do you expect to happen?’ and I just say: ‘I don’t know’
You don’t enjoy a quarrel?
Well, not much. I’ve had a lot of quarrels with a whole lot of people… I mean, if I can be bothered to work on a subject at all (and it is hard work), the subject has got to seem important to me and that probably means that some point of view has got to seem terribly wrong, you see. I mean, I spent a lot of time in Beast and Man attacking Behaviourism and also Existentialism because they were contemporary trends I thought were really both mistaken and pernicious; and that’s the sort of motivation that causes me to – to work at all, really.
People don’t attack me as much as I would have expected – I mean, I dare say they do when I’m not there, but on paper and so on I’ve got away with more than I would have expected, because, I think, I’ve always gone to great lengths to make it clear that it’s the cause and not the person that I’m distressed about. Some philosophers certainly go out of their way to find things their enemy has said which can be quarrelled with. I do try not to do that sort of thing – and I think that I find it easier not to because I didn’t start so frightfully early. I think in young people aggression is much more sort of free-flowing, and I think it is pretty important to a lot of these people to be top dog. I don’t think I have that.
Many philosophers have said that preparing for death is one of the great tasks of life. Do you feel that you are prepared?
I have never been bothered about it. I’ve tried to bother myself from time to time and to think, ‘Well, what do you expect to happen?’ and I just say: ‘I don’t know.’ As [David] Hume says, either you’re not there, in which case it doesn’t matter, or you are and then you’ve got to tackle wherever you are – which we don’t know. I’ve got no further than that. I dare say this is an unrealistic response but I’ve been quite ill lately and at the time I rather welcomed the idea ‘Can I go now, please?’ You know? It seems to me a perfectly sensible position. [The thought of death] doesn’t bother me. These people who want us to live forever seem to me gravely mistaken.
Obviously, I don’t see any way of being cheerful about the fact that people have to die and leave their children and so forth. And, in one’s own case, it certainly prompts this thought: I had hoped to do so-and-so. Well, I’d better get on and do it! You know? If I can.
Your autobiography, The Owl of Minerva,10The Owl of Minerva: A memoir (Routledge, 2005) quotes another friend from Somerville days, Iris Murdoch: ‘It is always a significant question to ask about any philosopher; “what are they afraid of?”’ May I ask you that question?
Well, at present I’m afraid of inactivity. That is, I have been quite afraid while I was recovering that I would not recover sufficiently to do anything much. I dislike times when nobody turns up for several days – I do like life to go on sociably. I suppose I’m afraid of solitude in that respect.
As far as philosophy goes, I think [Murdoch] was probably thinking largely of things like being afraid of being wrong, wasn’t she? Well, I try to get things right, but I know one is wrong from time to time. I mean, I suppose I am frightened of going wrong in the sense of saying something mistaken which really has serious consequences. I think that would be very bad. I have, in fact, tried quite hard over the years not to say things that might give unnecessary offence to people and I’ve made quite considerable efforts not to overdo an attack on somebody by going beyond what’s absolutely relevant. I try to concentrate on the cause rather than the person (and I think that’s true of the philosophers that I think well of). In general these days we do tend to think that we ought not to attack people, and indeed we ought not to, but we have still to attack things.
What do you hope for?
I hope to get by. I have been very lucky. Compared with most people, I’ve had a very easy life.
This edit was originally published in the April 2013 issue of Third Way.
|⇑1||First published, by Macmillan, in 1952, though the transcripts of the original radio broadcasts first appeared in print as three separate pamphlets: ‘The Case for Christianity’ (1942), ‘Christian Behaviour’ (1943) and ‘Beyond Personality’ (1944)|
|⇑2||Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Perelandra (1943) and That Hideous Strength (1945)|
|⇑3||Originally published weekly in the Anglican periodical The Guardian in 1941|
|⇑4||Beast and Man: The roots of human nature, published in 1978 by Cornell University Press and thereafter by Methuen in 1980 and Routledge in 1995 and 2002|
|⇑5||www.newscientist.com/special/self. See also Pete Moore’s 2010 interview of Susan Blackmore for High Profile.|
|⇑6||Descartes posited that everything he perceived was the work of ‘a great deceiver’ and concluded: ‘Doubtless, then, I exist, since I am deceived; and, let him deceive me as he may, he can never bring it about that I am nothing, so long as I shall be conscious that I am something’ (Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, 1641).|
|⇑7||Interviewed for High Profile in February 1995|
|⇑10||The Owl of Minerva: A memoir (Routledge, 2005)|
Mary Midgley, née Scrutton, was born in London in 1919. She was educated at Downe House School in Cold Ash and read classics (Mods and Greats) at Somerville College, Oxford, gaining a first.
At Somerville, she became friends with Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe and Philippa Foot. She sat on the committee of the university’s newly formed Democratic Socialist Club alongside Tony Crosland and Roy Jenkins.
She graduated in 1942 and worked for a time as secretary to the great classicist Gilbert Murray, then as a civil servant in the Ministry of Production and then as a classics teacher at Downe House and Bedford Schools.
In 1947, she returned to Oxford to embark on a doctorate under the supervision of E R Dodds, which she never completed.
In 1949, she went to Reading University to teach philosophy, but in the following year got married, to her fellow philosopher Geoffrey Midgley, and gave up academia to bring up a family. She reviewed children’s books and novels for New Statesman.
In 1962, she was appointed as senior lecturer in philosophy at Newcastle University, a post she held until she formally retired in 1980.
Her first book, Beast and Man (1978, revised 1995), was followed by Heart and Mind: The varieties of moral experience (1981), Animals and Why They Matter (1983), Wickedness and, with Judith Hughes, Women’s Choices: Philosophical problems facing feminism (both 1984), Evolution as a Religion (1985), Can’t We Make Moral Judgements? and Wisdom, Information and Wonder (both 1989), Science as Salvation (1992), The Ethical Primate (1994), Utopias, Dolphins and Computers (1996), Science and Poetry (2001), Myths We Live By (2003), The Owl of Minerva (2005), Earthy Realism: The meaning of Gaia (2007) and The Solitary Self (2010).
She has been awarded honorary doctorates by Newcastle and Durham Universities.
She has three sons and three grandchildren. Her husband died in 1997.
Up-to-date as at 1 April 2013