At the Midgley Archive Launch we heard a series of wonderful short talks from distinguished guests. We’ll be sharing them here over the next week. The first is David Midgley’s discussion of his philosopher parents. 

I need to preface this paper with a double apology – in the first place I must confess to being gravely under-prepared, due to the circumstance of having been completely preoccupied until last Friday with the arrangements for Mary’s funeral; much of this paper was written in the car on the journey from London to Durham, perhaps less than ideal circumstances for considered philosophical reflection.

In the second place, in talking about my father’s work I shall perforce be referring largely to hitherto unpublished material, since, as I shall be explaining, some difficulties of personality caused him to be almost pathologically shy of publication, depriving the philosophical world (apart from his fortunate students at Newcastle University) of the insights of a very gifted philosophical mind. This apology is somewhat mitigated in the case of my Durham audience (parts of this paper were read last night to the Royal Institute of Philosophy in London), by the fact that the University Library has enthusiastically included Geoff Midgley’s surviving papers as part of the Midgley Archive, for which I and the rest of my family are deeply grateful.. Thus this material is now technically in the public domain; however I hope that it will soon become more widely available in published form, provided there is sufficient interest.

At first view, the contrast between the two styles of philosophy represented by my two parents could not be more striking. For Mary, originally a classicist in the Oxford mould, philosophy was first of all a branch of literature, and had it not been for an early, passionate love affair with Plato’s Dialogues, I suspect she would now be remembered as a novelist, poet or playwright, careers in which I am sure she would have excelled, though I strongly feel that we have reason to be grateful to Plato for steering her in the direction of philosophy. Averse to formal logic, physics and mathematics, and what one might call ‘heavyweight’ metaphysics (Kant, Hegel and the early Wittgenstein, for example), her early published work, nearly all in the field of moral philosophy, clearly bespeaks this literary heritage; such papers as ‘Is Moral a Dirty Word?’, ‘On Trying Out One’s New Sword on a Chance Wayfarer’, and ‘The Concept of Beastliness’ display a level of creative imagination and stylistic elegance rarely found among 20th century British (or American) philosophers.

Geoff, by contrast: A radar engineer during the war, and a pioneer of early computing; one of the few people at the time to have achieved a thorough understanding of Gödel’s Theorem and Relativity Theory; a specialist on Kant, Spinoza and Wittgenstein – surely we have here a classic instance of the gender paradigm of ‘Women – Right Brain, people-oriented, creative imagination, uninterested in science; Men – Left Brain, mathematical, technologically oriented, analytical thinking, uninterested in people’.

But, as Mary would so often remind us in many different contexts, this simple picture is highly misleading. Geoff was also a classical scholar; read French and German fluently and was familiar with most of the great English and European writers; loved poetry and was a close friend of the war poet Drummond Allison. Though unlike Mary he engaged with the highly technical debates in formal and philosophical logic that were considered, by the male-dominated Oxford establishment in the mid-20th century to be the heart of philosophy, his targets were very much the same ones that Mary also attacked, as it were from an external standpoint. Geoff’s opposition to scientism and scientific reductionism, I think, predate Mary’s by a number of years (not that she was formerly in favour of these things, but until her 40s or thereabouts she was not much interested in them), so it may well be that in this area, as in others, he was a primary influence on her thinking. Certainly much of Mary’s critique of utopian technological fantasies such as artificial intelligence, trans-humanism, and cosmic speculations such as the Singularity and the Omega Point (if these are different – I am not sure), bears unmistakeable marks of his influence. Consider this passage from a very early paper, ‘Ethical Responsibility in Scientific Research’ (1946):

There is, I have admitted, something heroic about the scientific virtue of seeking objective knowledge for its own sake. Nevertheless to take it as the sole ethical value is so one-sided as to constitute sin, the very grave sin of intellectual pride. Furthermore it misconceives the nature of the very knowledge which it takes as the supreme value. Scientific truth is not Truth any more than scientific explanation is explanation. We do not possess reality in its concreteness when we know merely how to exploit it. Yet very many scientists deny the existence of anything which does not come within the purview of discursive knowledge, and many philosophers have followed suit. They regard knowledge how to handle the world as the only kind of knowledge, and this attitude is the ultimate denial of the Christian valuation of worship. To know the world as it is, to possess the truth, in that sense in which Our Lord claimed to be the truth, requires an intuitive knowledge in which, as Aristotle says, the mind becomes one with its object. For us such knowledge is exceedingly restricted. We can never escape sufficiently from self-centredness to see much of the reality around us; what we see is for the most part a reflection of ourselves. We go furthest with other human beings, but even here a lifetime of devotion to one single person gives only a most superficial realisation of his essential nature. And yet even this restricted knowledge requires a self-surrender which is more spiritually significant than all the arduous discipline of Science. Its development into what we commonly call Wisdom, that Wisdom which is accessible to the uneducated peasant as much as to the University graduate, requires, as we know, a true holiness of life. To cast this aside as unscientific, merely because the shadow world of Science ranges wide, while Wisdom digs deep, is sin in the full sense, and the wages of sin is death. I have tried to show how organised Science has the power to mould and to control, if it so wills, the whole structure of human relationships, and to mould the fundamental attitudes of ordinary men. If the outlook of scientists and their presentation of it casts out Wisdom to make room for technology, we will all bear the consequences of such a sin.

‘Science can of its very nature take no account of the spirituality of the individual. Its fundamental valuation in the sphere of knowledge is of a clear intelligible system of simple elements which makes the control of nature easy. If this valuation be extended beyond the realm of the construction of theories, then when individual freedom comes into conflict with efficiency, the scientific outlook can admit only the claims of the latter. The modern tendency towards centralisation of government, and to a social organisation which shall not be untidily free, but rather intelligible to the scientific mind of the organiser, the outlook which regards the problems of society as economic or psychological problems, and not at all as human problems, these are in danger of producing a dehumanised society in which life will not be worth living. It would be the ultimate denial of God as a living force in history.’

(N.B. – This paper was written at a period when Geoff was deeply engaged in Christian spiritual practice, and was, I believe, read to a group of Christian students at Heidelberg University (in GM’s own translation); not long afterwards he lost his faith, and would not have expressed the positive ethical doctrines found in this passage in the same way. However, I am certain that, though he would have expressed them differently, he would always have endorsed the essential sentiments expressed here.)

Even Geoff’s most technical paper on logic, ‘Gödel’s Theorem and the A Priori’, is directed against the formalist viewpoint that proof in logic and mathematics can be reduced to a mechanical procedure, insisting instead (and rigorously demonstrating) that truly significant advances in logic and mathematics, such as Gödel’s Theorem, necessarily demand the application of a type of creative intelligence that is fundamentally impossible for a machine. Dating from 1949, the relevance of this paper to contemporary debates about artificial intelligence, such as those discussed by Mary in What is Philosophy For? (Ch. 18, ‘What Kind of Singularity?’), is strikingly clear.

There exists a certain type of narrowly scientific education that tends to bring about, at least in suitable subjects, a chronic deficiency of the imaginative faculty, or rather of a particular aspect of that faculty. Certainly scientistic fantasists such as Barrow and Tipler (The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, Oxford, 1986), J.D.Bernal or Edward O. Wilson possess, in abundance, one sort of imagination – the ability to extrapolate from established scientific concepts to fantastic and amazing fictitious universes – but in other sorts of imagination, readily available to people without a scientific education, seem to be sadly lacking. What would it actually be like to live in Bernal’s or Wilson’s scientific utopia, where computer aided, supposedly super-rational scientific specialists decide all social and political questions by means of a grand, reductive, all-embracing mathematical theory? To fully convey the horrors of such a world would require the literary gifts not of Isaac Asimov but of Franz Kafka. In this understanding, and in the consummately skilful use of the kind of literary language that – as Geoff showed so clearly in his essay on the importance of literary style in philosophy (Housman and Wordsworth, 1957) – are an essential element in any really important philosophical writing, Geoff and Mary were at one; both clearly perceived the dangers of the disease of contemporary culture whereby a narrowly specialised form of thought, designed for an aspect of life very remote from the situations in which human beings normally find themselves, comes to dominate wide fields of general culture and increasingly to provide the guiding vision, or myth, in Mary’s language, of the age.

An interesting contrast between the two is reflected in a passage from Michael Frayn’s hilarious – and philosophically astute – novel about an Institute for Artificial Intelligence, The Tin Men. One of the researchers, Goldwasser, worries about whether his brain belongs to the species ‘Cerebrum Dialectici’, that of a brilliant analytical mind which peaks early in life, perhaps around the age of 25 or 30, and then gradually declines, or ‘Cerebrum Senatoris’, the wise old man’s brain that matures and deepens with age. If the former, and if his rival Macintosh’s brain is of the latter type then even if Macintosh is not already cleverer than him, he is certain to become so – for Goldwasser, a gloomy prospect indeed. Though Geoff was the younger by two years, his last published paper appeared in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society for 1959, twelve years before Mary’s first published philosophical article, ‘Is Moral A Dirty Word?’ – Mary’s final opus appeared nearly 60 years later – so it would appear that the diagnosis of their respective brain types is quite clear.

However it is far from the case that after 1959 Geoff ceased to philosophise, as any of this former students will abundantly testify. The curtailment of published work was due to a combination of two related factors – the extreme perfectionism with which he approached writing for publication, and a kind of shyness which gave him a horror of being subjected to public criticism. But in what was, in his case, the informal atmosphere of the lecture and seminar room – and the famous Cave, the departmental common room where endless philosophical discussions, with staff and students participating in equal measure, ranged over all possible subjects of philosophical interest – Geoff’s intense philosophical thinking continued unabated throughout his long career as a teacher.

It was in this small-scale, almost domestic environment, in intense engagement with a small group, that Geoff’s qualities particularly shone. Mary, by contrast, was from an early age at ease in the public square. Though coming late to professional academic life, apart from a year teaching at Reading immediately after her graduate work, she appeared regularly on radio and in publications like the Listener and New Statesman from an early age, speaking and writing on a wide range of literary, political and social questions. Though she was also a fine teacher, and took an energetic part in discussions in the Cave and at the family home in Collingwood Terrace, her career really took off after the publication of Beast and Man just one year before her retirement, which enabled her to travel freely to international conferences and develop her ideas in collaboration with a wide range of eminent scholars from around the world. Many of these, including Jane Goodall, James Lovelock, Steven Rose and others, met and corresponded with her over decades and became, and remained, close friends. Mary always situated her philosophical concerns with great clarity within the context of contemporary currents of thought, not so much within the academic philosophical community as in how they were playing out in wider intellectual life both within and beyond universities. She spoke less to her professional colleagues than to the educated public at large, and this was no dumbing down of her thought, but an abiding commitment to bringing philosophical thinking to bear on public life. It is very hard to imagine a book by Geoff Midgley (if such an unlikely thing were ever to have appeared in his lifetime) enjoying the sort of wide popularity of Beast and Man, Evolution as a Religion, or The Myths we Live by.

It would not be at all true to say, however, that Geoff, like some of his Oxford contemporaries (as documented by Mary in What Is Philosophy For? in the case of Michael Dummett and Peter Strawson) was uninterested in or unconcerned about the impact of philosophy on the wider world; his surviving papers who clearly the he was deeply concerned about this, and indeed in several of these he makes an admirable effort to communicate difficult philosophical ideas to a general audience. But his real forte was in the demanding, direct confrontation with challenging technical problems in logic, epistemology and metaphysics which cannot, with the best will in the world, be made fully intelligible to people without a specialist training. Though such ideas do change the world, they do so in a way which does not require their originator to debate in the public square; and in this environment Geoff was never really at home. It is too easy, in that environment, for intellectual dishonesty – a thing which Geoff truly hated – to win out against deeply thought and well-motivated contributions.

Or apparently so. Mary’s tireless, and fearless, engagement with what Philosophy Now terms ‘The Forces of Stupidity’ (they recently presented her with an award for this which she proudly displayed atop the bookcase in her Jesmond flat), seems to me to have resulted in the growth of a now unstoppable groundswell of opinion that is increasingly sceptical about claims that we are just selfish genes, or should be replaced by computers, or do not actually exist at all as conscious beings (see Mary on Francis Crick in Are You An Illusion? , passim.) Persistence of this order – sixty years of relentless commitment to reason, humanity and common sense – pays off, it would seem. If I am right in my reading of the runes, for this result we have also to thank, in no small measure, the skilled and determined advocacy of the ‘In Parenthesis’ team – and of course many other collaborators over the decades, including the rest of the original ‘Gang of Four’, Iris, Philippa and Elizabeth. But since her reappearance on the philosophical scene in the mid-1960’s, it has been Mary, for the most part, who has led the charge, and her unwavering commitment to the defence of the whole person against the atomised and mechanised substitute for it put forward by the prophets of Scientism now seems to be paying off.

What I have realised in the course of preparing for this talk, however, is that it may have been the prescient and penetrating insights of the young Geoff Midgley, continued over the course of their long personal and professional relationship, that may have been the original stimulus for this immensely worthwhile intellectual campaign.