by Mary Midgley

Mary Midgley Considers How What Is Called Philosophy Has Changed Since She And Her Friends First Plunged Into It

  1. Changes In World-Pictures.

When we four people started studying Philosophy at Oxford in the early 1940s, quite a lot of the topics that we might have expected to discuss – most importantly, Human Nature, the Spiritual Life and the Behaviour of non-human Animals – simply could not be mentioned in philosophical circles at all.

First, Behaviourists had shown that there was `no such thing as Human Nature’. All behaviour was simply reactive – produced by other behaviour. Next, Animal behaviour was part of Zoology. A few Comparative Psychologists were studying the differences between human and animal thought. but this chiefly meant showing that animals can’t do certain things which humans can. And finally, as for the Spiritual Life, religious concepts were being studied on their own as separate topics by people who were not necessarily interested in their importance, or keen to relate them to other aspects of life.

Thus the only mental heritage that was deemed to be common to the whole human race was Rationality, which was seen as its central legacy from the Enlightenment. More sweepingly still, however, even that legacy was then being fiercely attacked by a miscellaneous group of theorists – ranging from Right to Left, from Behaviourists through Existentialists to Marxists – who denounced the whole concept of Human Nature as meaningless on political grounds, saying that all human conduct was due to cultural influences. Indeed, one cannot really convey to people trained in today’s conventions and decent silences the depths of unspeakability that then attached to those two apparently innocent words `Human Nature’.

If we now compare this view with today’s perspective, we shall surely be struck by seeing how much the area of Human Life has apparently expanded. Our map of it must now include, first, an exploration of the difference between our own and other life-forms and then a sketch of the evolutionary paths by which we have somehow developed from among them. And, although the social causes of human conduct are still taken seriously today, we now understand that, like any other species, humans do also have their own particular species-tendencies, their own inherited repertoire of feelings and behaviour. As Franz de Waal has pointed out, in some respects we do differ from the other primates, but in others we are quite like them. In fact, we humans are not just a rather oddly-shaped branch of octopi who happen to have become civilized. It is an essential fact about us that we have our own distinctive tastes and motives – our own nature among other primates.

This human nature must, however, then be seen against a still wider background than that perspective of other species. It has its own place in the cosmos, however mysterious that place may be. Ved Mehta reports (Fly And The Fly-Bottle, p.52), that when Iris Murdoch was asked how far she agreed with Miss Anscombe and Mrs Foot about moral philosophy, she replied that, despite their various differences, they were all `united in their objection to Hare’s view that the human being was the monarch of the universe, that he constructed his values from scratch’. They were concerned, she said, about `the reality that surrounds man – transcendent or whatever’. And, as Tom Nagel has since pointed out (Mind and Cosmos), this is surely right. Whether it is a search for divinities or a search for dolphins that takes you beyond the human world, your curiosity surely can’t be satisfied with the small, highly abstract human social scene depicted by recent philosophy.

I have written two books to examine the connexion between these two approaches – between the spiritual and the scientific exploration, in today’s thinking (Evolution As A Religion, 1985 and Science As Salvation, 1992) Since writing them, I am increasingly struck by how ready people are to fill the imaginative gap left by traditional religion with material derived somehow from science, whether it is relevant or not. And I have pursued this matter in another book now in press, Why Philosophize? (Routledge, 20??).

  1. Changes in Ethics

Turning now from these changing thoughts about the great world to those within the smaller world of Oxford, I can record that, when we first started studying Moral Philosophy in the 1940s, the subject seemed to revolve entirely round forbidding people to derive value-judgments from facts. This ruling, officially based on a rather obscure remark of Hume’s (Treatise of Human Nature book 1, part 1, section 1) had been formalized by G.E.Moore in 1903 as the duty to avoid the Naturalistic Fallacy – to stop deriving values from facts altogether. Since Natural Facts were believed to include all the facts about the real world, the veto on connecting them with morals was promptly used to attack, not only its obvious target, Utilitarianism, but all attempts to show that morality was important by connecting it with central aspects of life.

The result was something quite contrary to Moore’s intentions. Moore had wanted to show that we perceive the goodness in the world directly, through responding to beauty in the context of art or love, rather than by reasoning our way to it through discovering facts. And he thought that this direct perception of goodness provided the central theme for our lives. But his more negatively-minded followers simply used the language of anti-naturalism to detach the whole topic of morals from the scientifically-perceived natural facts which (as they thought) constituted the whole of reality. By thus shifting the entire subject of ethics into the realm of the unreal, they made it seem to be only an outlying area of philosophy, a move which – not surprisingly – undermined its academic prestige.

This was not a complete change. Twentieth-century philosophers had already gradually moved their enquiries further away from ethics than would have seemed natural to either Plato or Kant. And meanwhile. a simple Materialism – a Materialism so taken for granted that it felt no need to proclaim itself – had become the favoured metaphysic of those who wanted to show that they were on the side of Progress. In this way, ever since Descartes, philosophical enquiries had increasingly come to centre on problems about knowledge of the physical world, while Russell had been focussing on Logic in a way that narrowed and formalized them still further.

Thus certain materialistic Forms of Thought were increasingly seen as the real subject of philosophical enquiries, and it seemed like a distraction from these to study the more varied and detailed ways of thinking that prevail in real life – such as ethics. Moral judgments were seen, at first just as emotional attitudes, then (rather more realistically) as `prescriptions’, social attitudes which must be consistent but which could not be explained or defended. Questions about what is right or wrong had become matters on which you could take up a position, but which were essentially outside the realm of reason.

In this way, though Moral Philosophy was still unavoidably a part of the Oxford syllabus, it was seen as something marginal, perhaps even something it would be frivolous to attend to, almost like theology. And this happened at a time when, in the real world, moral problems were obviously even more pressing and obstreperous than usual – a time of war and violent change. It was not, I think, surprising that people like ourselves, coming fresh to this situation, thought something ought to be done about it.


  1. Looking For Signposts: Wittgenstein?

Did that make us four into a Philosophical School?

This is a loose term, but the point is worth discussing. We did not at once become a 4-headed unanimous squad of prophets. We each followed our own diverging paths in various directions. But what, for me, makes the unanimity-story still important is a persisting memory of the four of us sitting in Philippa’s front room and doing our collective best to answer the orthodoxies of the day, which we all saw as disastrous. As with many philosophical schools, the starting-point was a joint `NO!’. No (that is) at once to divorcing Facts from Values, and – after a bit more preparation – also No to splitting mind off from matter. From this, a lot of metaphysical consequences would follow.

These conversations happened repeatedly during the five years when we were all in Oxford, 1945-50. And during that time I’m sure there was no marked disagreement among us. We were simply concerned to get the issues, on which we were all pretty well agreed, worked out more clearly – to get `no’ said plainly to the various creeds of the current orthodoxy. And of course we four people were not isolated; others were involved. Mary Warnock, slightly younger than us, was already participating because Elizabeth had insisted on teaching her about Wittgenstein’s later thinking. And the rest of us already knew something about this because Elizabeth had already given us the `Blue and Brown Books’, loose-leaf bundles which outlined what later became his Philosophical Investigations and On Certainty.

Wittgenstein is both so large and so confusing a figure that it is hard to say briefly how he influenced us. I would suggest simply, first, that he had an immense effect, and second that what he taught us was to be holistic – to fill in backgrounds. This means that we learnt from him not to let topics become isolated on their own, even when arguments about them had become caged, like parrots, within a particularly strong framework of current talk. I think a couple of quotations from On Certainty will make this point as well as anything –

I did not get my picture of the world by satisfying myself of its correctness, nor do I have it because I am satisfied of its correctness. No, it is the inherited background against which I distinguish between true and false. (94)

All testing, all confirmation and disconfirmation of a hypothesis, takes place already within a system. And the system is not a more or less arbitrary point of departure for all our arguments; no. It belongs to the essence of what we call an argument. The system is not so much the point of departure as the element in which our arguments have their life. (105)

Wittgenstein, then, although he had made one immense jump from his early dogmatism in the Tractatus to the later work which celebrated realistic flexibility, was always shouting throughout that later period for one thing – for the real complexity and mutability of the actual world. Though we seldom met him, he was constantly there in our thoughts, urging us not to lose sight of that complexity, not to type-cast our topics to suit passing controversies.

I have emphasized the ‘inherited background’ here to point out how well this idea suited my own evolutionary interests, and how closely the argumentative habits of our time resembled the earlier prejudices of superficial evolutionists like T.H. Huxley, who never really took in the thought that they themselves, being still primates, were still closely related to the apes around them.

Throughout our lives, argumentative conventions like these had bound the professoriate down to smaller and smaller artificial mental territories and to less and less useful ideas about the victories they hoped for. And that, I think, is probably why we four people, despite our different backgrounds, so readily agreed in opposing them. .


  1. Science, Nature and Life

This topic brings us to what has probably been the most important cultural change in the West between the 1930s and the present day, namely the gradual advance of Science from being seen as ‘almost a Religion’ to being treated as a Religion, directly and sans phrase.

This isn’t, of course, a question of what people say. It’s a matter of what they put their trust in. For a long time the British public officially claimed to place its reliance on God, and indeed people do still often call on His Name. But this reliance was steadily undermined during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment by the Wars of Religion, which revealed failures and scandals staining all the churches. Meanwhile, scientific research – which at first had seemed to be just an obscure part of religious activity – became increasingly successful and reached the affairs of everyday life, such as medicine. It also increasingly touched on questions that interest everybody, such as the shape of the world and the constitution of the human body.

The public therefore began to revere the physical sciences, especially Physics itself. Alexander Pope had already celebrated Physics, declaring that –

Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night,

God said `Let Newton be!’ and all was light.

But, by the twentieth century, many people no longer thought they needed to include God in this acknowledgment.. The glory and prestige surrounding Science no longer seemed to centre on God, nor indeed on Nature, but chiefly on current scientists and their technology. And the fact that most people actually still knew very little about Science itself scarcely disturbed this general reverence, any more than a similar ignorance about theology had disturbed their forefathers’ reverence for God,

It is interesting to see how this works. The sense of being part of a modern scientific age supports many people independently of actual scientific knowledge. They assume that they have escaped from the superstitions that misled their ancestors simply by being much cleverer than those ancestors. But is the confidence that they now feel in being protected by science any more rational – one might ask, any less superstitious? – than their forefathers’ confidence in divine Providence? No doubt time will tell.


  1. Freedom, Responsibility and Choice.

From the social point of view, the West’s most important change in the last fifty years has surely been the political shift in the accepted meaning of Freedom. The move of the Conservative political parties from a mild, background Liberalism to a drastic Neo-Liberalism or Monetarism has altered everything. That move aims to reverse most of the progress which many of us think has been achieved in the pattern of our lives during the last century.

This new ideology is set out in Frederick Hayek’s book The Constitution of Liberty – which was Margaret Thatcher’s bible – and it begins its message by defining liberty in the narrowest possible way as `the absence of coercion’. That is to say, the wider aspects of freedom – the unrestricted view, the feeling of unlimited choices, perhaps above all the sense of controlling one’s own destiny – are held not to matter. Provided that you are not actually in prison, you are now deemed to be `free’ enough to enjoy all the values which Human Nature demands. These values rule that the defining characteristic of human relations is Competition. It is doomed that `the fittest must – and will – always survive’. Democratic control of legislation is thus shown to be unnecessary. As George Monbiot explains, the Market on its own is deemed certain to discover –

a natural hierarchy of winners and losers, creating a more efficient system than could ever be devised through planning or by design. Anything that impedes this process, such as significant tax, regulation, trades-union activity or state provision, is therefore counter-productive. Unrestricted entrepreneurs will create the wealth that will trickle down to everyone.

This piece of bad economics, eagerly supported by bad history and still worse psychology, has not only been adopted by right-wing political parties. It has also, for some time, been expensively promoted by those who most obviously stand to gain by it – namely, by the Very Rich, both here and in the US – to such an extent that, as we have seen, many voters have been drawn into supporting it in recent elections and now accept it as a Faith. This story, which includes highbrow arguments from well-paid experts, is given force by a bogus general suggestion that all existing politicians are equally dishonest anyway, and by a still more general – and still more idiotic – proposal that, as all information is now equally unreliable, we live in a ‘post-truth age’ and may as well direct our lives by sheer chance.

All this, however, rests on a single profound lie about Human Nature, on the refusal to recognise that our species is, among all sociable species, not the most selfish and solitary but the most friendly, the most co-operative, the least naturally egoistic. The ways in which we naturally occupy ourselves have little to do with Markets. Though this utter confidence in competition and the Market might suit a society of intelligent crocodiles, it assumes a reliance on simple Selfishness which is quite irrational and out of place on the human scene. Thinly disguised as biology, this is the exciting myth which has made so many misleading books, from Hobbes’s Leviathan to The Selfish Gene and The End Of History influential. It has not, however, improved the course of human life so far and is not likely to do so now.