written by Hazel Tucker

Written in the 1950’s, Mary Midgley had intended for Rings & Books to be read for a BBC radio broadcast. The main thrust of the piece was to suggest that the way in which philosophers have lived their lives may account for the subjects ‘over-abstractness’ and a ‘remoteness from life.’ However, it was rejected by the editor, Aniouta Kallin, who read the script as presenting a “trivial, irrelevant intrusion of domestic matters into intellectual life.” (Midgley 2007) As a result, Midgley dropped the script and so we might ask whether we should bother reading it. We should, however, read Rings & Books as it presents us with a clear, unpretentious, and approachable style of writing and philosophising which characterises all of Midgley’s work. What’s more is that Kallin, unfortunately, missed the point Midgley was making. This being that how we live and the experiences we have impact upon our philosophising Our experiences often drive us to find particular objects worthwhile at the expense of others and shapes our philosophical methodologies and conclusions. As we’ll see below, the way she argues this is brilliantly straightforward.

Customarily, philosophy in the west has been practiced by bachelors in solitude. By having space to think, men like Hobbes, Plato and Descartes have cultivated a bountiful crop of intellectual fruit. However, in Rings & Books, Mary Midgley argued that it is this isolation which has also been an obstacle to further intellectual progress, leading to the aforementioned remoteness from life. To demonstrate this, she points to the difficulties philosophers have had in creating a theory of knowledge whereby the resulting systems end in parochial and incomplete frameworks. Frameworks which are often easily dismantled- and whose points of interests are deflated- by the experiences of women.

Case in point, because of Descartes’ efforts to construct an absolute foundation to knowledge he problematises the relationship our minds have to the world. For Descartes, our minds, as souls, exist as entirely immaterial and internal things which are only directly accessible to ourselves. Being immaterial yet located within our physical bodies it is a mystery for many philosophers how these two things interact and how we could know other people have minds. Midgley points out, however, that men with familial responsibilities or suckling and pregnant women would likely baulk at these problems. In cohabiting with family members, we are often compelled by our lived experience to take their mindedness as certain. For mothers, during pregnancy and childrearing, the experience of connectedness forces home the idea that nobody is a ‘closed system,’ whose status of mindedness is indeterminable. It simply couldn’t occur to people in domestic settings to doubt the connection between our own minds and another’s. Only once philosophical endeavours are so abstracted from life itself do such issues occur. It is this undermining of haughty philosophical puzzling by everyday life which should be cause of concern, according to Midgley.

To have a philosophical enquiry so shot full of holes by human experience suggests that it is likely misguided, incomplete, and far too narrow to be worthwhile. Thinkers could be quick to suggest, however, that this is an unphilosophical objection – that Midgley is applying anecdotal evidence to a serious discussion and is therefore committing to a fallacious argument. They would be agreeing with Kallin. Yet, again, this would miss the point. In bachelors carrying on their intellectual work, beyond the considerations of anybody else, it is unlikely that they would be able to adopt and consider the perspectives of others, particularly women. It is more likely that they would see themselves as detached observes seeing things how they ‘really are’ and any opinion different to theirs is simply opinion. But of course, a good marriage and family life are about being able to live with and accept and internalise a multitude of differences. Such a way of living would better lend itself to the development of a fuller picture of how the world is and or should be seen.

Simply put, Midgley does a brilliant job in this piece demonstrating that the ways we think are impacted by the ways we live and that we should pay attention to this fact. Rings & Books, as a piece of philosophy, is offering an approachable, unpretentious discussion on this topic citing simple examples which should be familiar to us all in some regard.

Bibliography and further reading

Descartes, R. (1641/1991). Meditations on First Philosophy: With selections From The Objections And Replies. J. Cottingham (ed.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lipscomb, B. (2021). The Women Are Up to Something: How Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch Revolutionized Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mac Cumhaill, C and R. Wiseman (2022). Metaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life. London: Chatto & Windus.

McElwain, Gregory S. (2020). Mary Midgley: An Introduction. London: Bloomsbury.

Midgley, Mary (2007). The Owl of Minerva: A Memoir. Oxfordshire: Routledge.

Rings & Books

By Mary Midgley

Practically all the great European philosophers have been bachelors. In case you doubt that, here are some figures.

Plato, Plotinus, Bacon, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant

Socrates, Aristotle, Hegel

I do not cram the groaning scale with monks and friars; because there is always the chance that they had some other reason, besides philosophy, for joining their orders. Nor have I taken in the Sophists and the pre-Socratics, because we know too little about them to infer celibacy e silentio. I have left out Rousseau because he won’t go in either column and stopped short of the present day to keep down litigation. Besides, there are indications that things are changing.

I may be wrong in these and fifty other details, but whatever you do to them the figures will probably remain significant. The only question is, what of?

One answer seems obvious. Philosophers need above all to concentrate. They are not like poets (nearly all good poets marry, however madly). What they most need is space for thought. This of course is true. But it proves too much. Aristotle, Hegel and Socrates seem to have managed to concentrate though married. This makes a serious snag in the argument, very much like the one which might irritate a devout Catholic if, at the close of a panegyric on celibate sainthood, he were to let his eye drop upon the phrase, “Peter’s wife’s mother lay sick of a fever.” St. Peter, that central saint, it seems, was married. But if those words were not there, how strongly we should have been assured that it was quite impossible. As for Aristotle, not only was he married, but it seems quite likely that he loved his wife. She was the daughter of a friend of his, a philosophic despot, and Aristotle when he died, many years after her, asked in his will that they should be buried in the same grave. And his opinions, if one may mention such a point, are often married opinions. Man, he says, differs from other animals in being syndyasticon zoon, an animal that goes in pairs, not only for procreation, but for all the business of life.

There is profound division of labour between men and women. They supplement each other, and as their functions are different, so is their goodness. Certainly Aristotle, on the whole thinks men’s functions much more important, men’s virtue greater. But he has grasped the point that natures can differ, that the pursuit of virtue is not a scurry up a single narrow ladder with the devil taking the hindmost. He is not logically compelled to think women inferior, as Plato is, and Spinoza, and every other moralist who grounds virtue on the power of abstract thought. Aristotle’s ideas here have by contrast all the free movement of maturity. He always did and so still more the further he grew away from Plato, that there were other lives and other virtues besides those of the scholar; that perhaps it did really take all sorts to make a world. Plato on the other hand, right up to his death, always kept the irritable sensibility of the adolescent in resisting the claims of temperaments alien to his own.

It will be clear that I have not, just now, taken up a topic of philosophic celibacy to point out its glories. Justice, I think, has been done to them. It is well known that the great philosophers on the whole were moral men, just in their actions, continent and scrupulous, beloved by pupils, fair and honest to their patrons when they had any, liberal and disinterested in politics, seldom in debt, sober, industrious and kind to their cats. And all this is really of the highest importance, as we see when one has to deal for a change with a thinker of the opposite colour. The objection to such a way of life lies in certain obstacle which it puts in the way of intellectual development. Because independent thought is so difficult, the philosophic adolescent (even more than other adolescents) withdraws himself from the influences around him to develop ideas in harmony with his own personality. This is necessary if the personality is to be formed at all. But once it is formed, most people recoil towards experience, and attempt to bring their strengthened self to terms with the rich confusion from which it fled. Marriage, which is a willing acceptance of the genuinely and lastingly strange, is typical of this revulsion. The great philosophers did not return. Their thoughts, unlike yours and mine, had powers enough to keep them gazing into the pool of solitude.

I shall mention only one point where those thoughts were weakened by isolation. It concerns the Theory of Knowledge.

It is commonplace today this this branch of philosophy got into confusion by first artificially separating the Knower from the Known, and then sitting down to puzzle out how to connect them. Not-being-sure-whether-the-table-is-really-there is one of the best-known weaknesses of philosophers. Nor is there much doubt who started the trouble. It was Descartes- Descartes who, as he sat in front of his stove, solitary in the Dutch winter, or looked down from his window on those hats and cloaks which seemed to move past on springs, doubted whether anything were certain and answered Cogito ergo Sum- Here am I, said Descartes, a soul, an isolated thinker. But this stove and this sealing-wax, and the hats and coats which you say conceal my friends – these things may all be an illusion. So, he set the problem, and it has taken the best part of 300 years to show it as largely an artificial one. We do not see experience these days as a narrow shaky gangway between the two towers of the Knower and the Known, but as a rich countryside, containing and building both of them. Such a view is both more fruitful closer to the facts. The puzzle is, what gave Descartes’ vision its extraordinary force? Why do we still find his experiment so moving? The reason, I think, is that it appeals to the adolescent philosopher in all of us. Descartes tells us how he deliberately sought for perfect certainty; how he withdrew his belief systematically from everything he had taken on trust and concentrated his thought on the search for a safe starting-point; a basis on which, like Archimedes, he could rest the Universe. Nobody is satisfied with this construction. Yet when he finds his starting-point, we are all profoundly moved. SUM he says. And with astonishing confidence we accept the statement. We ought to see at once that is as full of holes as a sponge. Criticism, panting after Descartes, points out that he can be sure of nothing but his monetary experience; that without memory and expectation his thoughts have no structure and no sequence; that if he is really in the moment, he is for practical purposes NOTHING. But, against the natural solipsism of adolescence, criticism cuts no ice. At that time of life, one’s own ordered being is axiomatic. Everything else is in the melting-pot, and for sanity’s sake that must be exempted. The self is sacred. Only its external relations are doubtful. Lonely among shifting and inferior shadows, it struggles continually to find within its own nature the assurance of reality, to be free of the world around and at the same time to rule it.

In this frame of mind, philosophers since Descartes have spent their profoundest thoughts on the Problem of Knowledge in the strict sense – not just problems connected with knowledge but the problem of how it is possible for us to know what we undoubtedly do know. Now nobody wants to deny that this enquiry has born magnificent fruit. All I am saying is, that the results have been delayed, and much of the lesser work entirely vitiated, by want of good faith in approaching the question. Philosophers did not want the human soul to be mixed up in the world of objects, as it must be to make knowledge possible. They were too sensitive about its dignity. This bias seems to me perfectly certain. And after stating it, I would like to make several scandalous suggestions about how it might have been corrected. People leading a normal domestic life would have taken alarm at the attitude to other people which follows from Descartes’ position. For Descartes, other people’s existence has to be inferred, and the inference is a most insecure one. We assume human souls, something like our own, behind the coloured shadows around us. But as we can never meet them directly we don’t know what we are assuming, and as we don’t understand the connection between our own soul and body we don’t know what they are doing there. Now I rather think that nobody who was playing a normal active part among other human beings could regard them like this. But what I am quite sure of is that for anybody living intimately with them as a genuine member of a family, Cogito would be Cogitamus; their consciousness would be every bit as certain as his own. And if this is not so for men, it certainly is for women. And women are not a separate species. And an account of human knowledge which women’s whole experience falsifies is inadequate, partial and capricious. Philosophers have generally talked as though it were obvious that one consciousness went to one body, as though each person were a closed system which could only signal to another by external behaviour, and that behaviour had to be interpreted from previous experience. I wonder whether they would have said the same if they had been frequently pregnant and suckling, if they had been constantly faced with questions like, “what have you been eating to make him ill?”, constantly experiencing that strange sympathy between child and parent, between husband and wife, which reveal the presence of an ailment and often its nature when experience is silent; constant lending eyes and hands to the child that requires them, if in a word they had got used to the idea that their bodies were by no means exclusively their own? That, I suggest, is typical human experience. But you don’t get it in examples in the textbooks. It is supposed to be an irrational topic. Philosophers when they do want to edge close to such questions as the interplay of personalities take their examples from psychical research, which is now certified as entirely antiseptic. Great men, simply by their ignorance of a topic, can lay a remarkably strong taboo on the mention of it even where it happens to be entirely relevant. I saw a singular instance of this lately in a correspondence about the law of abortion. A writer pointed out that many women who had wished to be rid of their child two months after conception were eager to bear it three months later, and finished apologetically, “Expect no logic from a pregnant woman.” But of course, there was nothing wrong with the logic. The premises were changed. A child at two months feels like an ailment; at five months it feels like a child. The woman had passed from the belief, “I am not well” to the belief, “I am now two people. “ And the only thing with that belief is that it is one which is unfamiliar to logicians. That, I suspect, is always an unphilosophic objection.

– Mary Scrutton

Published in the Raven: A Magazine of Philosophy in July 2022