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Mary Midgley - The Gifford Lectures
"An interviewer from the Guardian newspaper once wrote that Mary Midgley ‘may be the most frightening philosopher in the country: the one before whom it is least pleasant to appear a fool’. In a series of books, particularly Beast and Man (1978), Evolution as a Religion (1985),Science as Salvation (1992; her 1990 Edinburgh Gifford Lectures) and Science and Poetry(2001), Midgley offers a trenchant critique of science’s pretence to be much more than it actually is, of the ways in which science often becomes a religion.

Perhaps appropriately, Midgley the scourge of ‘science as religion’ was born to an army and Cambridge college chaplain, Canon Tom Scrutton, and educated in a boarding school in Charles Darwin’s old home, Downe House. Perhaps Midgley’s fascination with science came from her mother’s side; Lesley Hay’s father was an engineer who built the Mersey tunnel. It was in the Downe House library that Midgley first picked up Plato, and, in her own words, ‘thought it was tremendous stuff’ (although in later life perhaps Aristotelian questions have proved more fascinating). By this time, Midgley also realised that she was not a Christian, a position her clergyman father accepted rather matter-of-factly. Nevertheless, Midgley remains convinced that ‘the religious attitude’ is essential to human thriving, and in her work has repeatedly defended the place of religious belief (rather than particular religious beliefs) against its arrogant critics from the sciences.

A number of Midgley’s contemporaries at Somerville College, Oxford, went on to achieve philosophical distinction in later life, including Iris Murdoch, another Edinburgh Gifford Lecturer, with whom Midgley became a close friend. Midgley relished doing philosophy in wartime Oxford, partly because there wasn’t ‘an endless gaggle of young men’ to offer distraction. But she considered it ‘providential’ that she did not get the post she applied for at St. Hugh’s College, and left Oxford, since she thought that the then-prevailing climate of Oxford philosophy would have destroyed her as a philosopher.

She met Geoffrey Midgley while at Oxford. They married in 1950 at Newcastle, where Geoffrey had a job. She then raised a family and did not take up a post in the Department of Philosophy in Newcastle until 1962, where she remained until she retired as Senior Lecturer when the department closed.

Midgley’s animated critique of scientism—science become religion—has been taken by some, especially scientists, as an attack on science itself. This may partly be because Midgley seems much more adept at demolishing others’ positions than in stating her own clearly. In fact, Midgley’s critique of science should be seen against her own metaphor of the philosopher as plumber: the philosopher, like the plumber, engages in an activity that civilisation depends on, but it is an activity which people only notice and require when certain rather essential workings have gone wrong. At her best, Midgley is a ‘science critic’ (using the word ‘critic’ in the way it is used in ‘literary critic’), seeking dialogue with the important activity called science to enable it to do more good and less harm in the modern world. Midgley’s contribution to this project is perhaps largely that of negative criticism. However, her friendship with and support for James Lovelock, the scientist who developed the Gaia hypothesis (that the planet earth as a whole is a living system), tells us a lot about her positive beliefs. Presumably, in Lovelock, she finds a scientific approach that is more congenial and conducive to human flourishing."
marymidgley  scientism  2018  philosophy  behavior  humans  richarddawkins  eowilson  evolution  thinking  science  religion  theselfishgene  selfishness  society  feminism  cognition  humannature  animals  sociobiology  reductionism  christianity 
october 2018 by robertogreco
Mary Midgley, 99, Moral Philosopher for the General Reader, Is Dead - The New York Times
"The biologist Stephen Rose, writing in The Times Literary Supplement in 1992, called Dr. Midgley “a philosopher with what many have come to admire, and some to fear, as one of the sharpest critical pens in the West.”

Andrew Brown, writing in The Guardian in 1981, called her “the foremost scourge of scientific pretension in this country.”

Dr. Midgley unhesitatingly challenged scientists like the entomologist Edward O. Wilson and the biologist, and noted atheist, Richard Dawkins. By her lights they practiced a rigid “academic imperialism” when they tried to extend scientific findings to the social sciences and the humanities.

In place of what she saw as their constricted, “reductionistic” worldview, she proposed a holistic approach in which “many maps” — that is, varied ways of looking at life — are used to get to the nub of what is real.

One challenge came in 1978 in her first book, “Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature,” based on a conference she had organized on that slippery, perennial subject as a visiting scholar at Cornell University.

She was later asked to revise her original manuscript to reflect her critical reaction to Professor Wilson’s best-selling 1975 book, “Sociobiology: The New Synthesis” (“a volume the size of a paving stone,” she wrote later in a well-received 2005 autobiography, “The Owl of Minerva”). She described the field of sociobiology as a kind of reactionary “biological Thatcherism.”

Sociobiology — the application of gene-centered theories of natural selection to the social life of organisms — was not itself overly controversial, especially, as Professor Wilson originally used it, in the study of ants and insects. Dr. Midgley, given her own interest in emphasizing humans’ animal nature — that “we are not, and do not need to be, disembodied intellects” — praised parts of Professor Wilson’s book.

What provoked her and others was his hypothesis that the tenets of sociobiology could be applied to humans. That idea, according to scholars, threatened to radically revise generally accepted notions of human nature.

“The term ‘human nature’ is suspect because it does suggest cure-all explanations, sweeping theories that man is basically sexual, basically selfish or acquisitive, basically evil or basically good,” Dr. Midgley wrote in “Beast and Man.”

In “The Owl of Minerva,” she wrote that the need to address Professor Wilson’s concepts had distracted readers from her crucial topic: “the meaning of rationality itself — the fact that reason can’t mean just deductive logic but must cover what makes sense for beings who have a certain sort of emotional nature.”

She added that “Beast and Man” remained “the trunk out of which all my various later ideas have branched.”

Dr. Midgley took pains to distinguish between the important contributions of science and the philosophy of “scientism,” in which “prophets,” she wrote, decree that science is “not just omnicompetent but unchallenged, the sole form of rational thinking.”

“We do not need to esteem science less,” she continued. “We need to stop isolating it artificially from the rest of our mental life.”

Dr. Midgley did not align herself with any specific school of thought: She wrote that moral philosophy and plain “common sense” often covered the same ground. She targeted what she saw as some of the basic errors of modern scientific orthodoxy, including misplaced objectivity, the exclusion of purpose and motive, and the propensity to depersonalize nature.

The very titles of her books — among them “Science as Salvation: A Modern Myth and Its Meaning” (1992) and “Evolution as a Religion” (1985) — and even irreverent chapter headings, like “Knowledge Considered as a Weed Killer,” conveyed her stance against what she called the “parsimonious” worldview of science.

In 1979, in the journal Philosophy, she issued a scathing critique of Professor Dawkins’s widely popular book “The Selfish Gene,” taking issue with what she called his “crude, cheap, blurred genetics.”

In that book, Professor Dawkins suggested that evolution is a product of an innate drive in genes to perpetuate themselves, “selfishly,” through the vehicle of a given species, and that the behavior of living things is in service to their genes.

Dr. Midgley explained her disagreement years later in The Guardian, writing: “Selfish is an odd word because its meaning is almost entirely negative. It does not mean ‘prudent, promoting one’s own interest.’ It means ‘not promoting other people’s’ or, as the dictionary puts it, ‘devoted to or concerned with one’s own advantage to the exclusion of regard for others.’”

She refuted the notion that selfishness underpinned all life.

“Just as there would be no word for white if everything was white, there could surely be no word for selfish if everyone was always selfish,” she wrote, adding, “Selfishness cannot, then, be a universal condition.”

In a long career as a published philosopher, Dr. Midgley addressed a great number of subjects. Evolution, the importance of animals, the role of science in society, cognitive science, feminism and human nature all came under her scrutiny.

She ranged more widely in “Science and Poetry” (2001), in which she considered the place of the imagination in human life. She found excesses of materialism and fatalism in human life, discussed the unusual compatibility of physics and religion, and approved of philosophical and metaphorical aspects of the Gaia hypothesis, which looks at the earth as a living system.

“With this book,” Brian Appleyard wrote in The Sunday Times of London, “Professor Midgley establishes herself as the most cool, coherent and sane critic of contemporary superstition that we have.”"
marymidgley  scientism  2018  philosophy  behavior  humans  richarddawkins  eowilson  evolution  thinking  science  religion  theselfishgene  selfishness  society  feminism  cognition  humannature  animals  sociobiology  reductionism  christianity 
october 2018 by robertogreco
Mary Midgley obituary | Education | The Guardian
"Philosopher who brought a sharp critical intelligence and a gift for vivid metaphor to her writing on human behaviour"

"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."
marymidgley  scientism  2018  philosophy  behavior  humans  richarddawkins  eowilson  evolution  thinking  science  religion 
october 2018 by robertogreco
How Mary Midgley rescued me - UnHerd
"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.

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.

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.

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."
marymidgley  philosophy  education  2018  gilesfraser  humans  reductionism  scientism  christianity  religion 
october 2018 by robertogreco
Human Nature, Education, Ecology – Dewey, Darwin, Midgley, Kropotkin [Part I] « Lebenskünstler
[All but one of the parts in bold are here.]

"Our humanity is not expressed through developing our individual talents and abilities, but by building bonds outward into the world…"

"The good for the human species, like all species, emerges from within the evolutionary story, and is not independent or opposed to it."

"While education needs to foster growth, it also needs to help celebrate the meaning of the moment."

"The notion that we “have a nature,” far from threatening the concept of freedom, is absolutely essential to it."

"The very idea of dehumanization is predicated on the idea that there is a human essence which has, in some fundamental sense, been degraded."

"…equality is not sameness. A belief in sameness here is both irrelevant to the struggle for equal rights and inconsistent with the facts."

"We need the vast world…"

"Children, poets and scientists – that is, human beings who relate to life with a sense of humility and awe – have a particular prescience for wonder."
deschooling  unschooling  leisurearts  society  evolution  humans  human  equalrights  equality  variety  variation  humility  networks  peterkropotkin  marymidgley  community  connectivism  attention  presence  present  humanism  dehumanization  sameness  scientists  poets  curiosity  darwin  diversity  learning  education  ecology  wonder  religion  eilonschwartz  johndewey  2012  randallszott  neoteny  artleisure  charlesdarwin 
october 2012 by robertogreco
Mary Midgley - Against humanism | New Humanist
"The moral of all this is, I think, that Hitchens is simply wrong. The poison does not come from religion itself but from political misuses of it. The kinds of idea that we class as religious actually range from the excellent to the awful, from the poisonous to the most nourishing. But there is a general tendency for new imaginative ways of understanding life to emerge from religious thinking – that is, from thoughts which go beyond current human horizons…<br />
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In this way many of the moral insights we value highly today – for instance, the coherence of the cosmos and the value of the individual soul, as well as the conviction that All is Number – have originally been shaped in religious contexts. If we decide to drop those contexts as obsolete we lose half the meaning of the ideas themselves." [via:]
atheism  humanism  religion  marymidgley  belief  humans  understanding 
november 2010 by robertogreco

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