Mary Midgley always emphasised the necessity of philosophy. Much of her career was spent challenging misconceptions about and prejudices against philosophy – that it’s disconnected from everyday concerns, for instance, or some bolt-on extra to the real business of getting on in the world. Mary also fought tenaciously against various distortions of philosophy, especially the distortions of scientism.

These intellectual defences of philosophy obviously mattered to Mary – the title of her last book was, after all, What Is Philosophy For? Some of Mary’s battles on behalf of philosophy, though, were had a more practical, even political, character. A case in point are her efforts in the 1980s on behalf of the many UK philosophy departments threatened with closure. I want to briefly sketch that battle and, in doing so, to encourage interest in the Mary Midgley archive where we find records of her efforts.

Fighting for philosophy

The 1980s were bad times for British philosophy. Departments in England, Scotland, and Wales were threatened and then closed: Aberystwyth, Bangor, Exeter, Leicester, Strathclyde, Surrey … and others, too. Mary’s own department, Newcastle, was closed only a few years after her retirement – a sad story she tells in the last chapter of her autobiography, The Owl of Minerva. Some were later reconstituted, and some are today flourishing, but that wasn’t guaranteed at the time. 

True to form, Mary resisted simple explanations of this pattern of closures, like pinning all the blame on Margaret Thatcher’s attacks on the universities. The Iron Lady played a key role, but there were several other factors at work, many of which had been taking form for years:

  1. a new zeal for ‘centres of excellence’, which created a monoinstitutional landscape
  2. a derogation of teaching as a fundamental task of universities
  3. a culture of institutional competitiveness, with colleagues in other departments and universities now seen as rivals competing for money and prestige
  4. a double-whammy strategy of deliberately underfunding the smaller departments, then compelling them to devote their diminishing resources to justifying their own existence (which Mary experienced at Newcastle).

Fighting these battles meant Mary’s final years at Newcastle were, sadly, spent under a dark cloud—hardly the way one would like to end one’s professional life, especially since it ended in the dissolution of the department in which she was so happy. The Midgley Archive contains a folder called “Defending Philosophy 1986”, describing the efforts by the Newcastle staff to try and save their department. The defeat was painful—when Mary delivered her papers to the archive, she highlighted the Defending Philosophy folder, remarking “this was one project that failed.”

After the closure of the Newcastle department, a breakaway group was called which named itself APIS – the Applied Philosophy Ideas Section, which ran until Mary’s death. Moreover, a tradition of philosophy at Newcastle did continue and, nowadays, there is a department again with almost a dozen staff members.

Beyond the battle for Newcastle, though, Mary also got involved in larger battles on behalf of other British departments. 

Calling the dons to the defence

In June 1986, doubtless depressed by the departmental closures, Mary wrote to ‘a number of leading British philosophers’, urging them to come to the public defence of their discipline:

“here are the clear public statements by leading philosophers about why philosophy matters? Where have they told us why it is not a trivial subject, not an outdated ritual, not a pedantic, incomprehensible waste of time, not, when things become hard, the obvious and proper first candidate for the chop?”

Mary had been writing letters of protest to local and national newspapers, like the Guardian and Times Higher Education, for some years. She realised, though, that she needed to roll out the big guns—or, to persuade them to enter the fray.

We don’t know exactly who or how many folks Mary wrote to, except in a few cases. A.J. Ayer, then a doyenof analytical philosophy, answered the call with a letter to the Times, and Mary’s letter was published by Renford Bambrough in Philosophy, the journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy of which he was then President.

Other replies were more disappointing. Peter Strawson misunderstood the letter, replying to Mary that philosophy should be done for its own sake, not because of its instrumental value. That was obviously Mary’s point – a main reason for saving the threatened departments was to ensure that more people got to participate in this intrinsically valuable activity, even if they lived out in the provinces. More disappointing was the reply from Michael Dummett. He flatly rejected the appeal. Philosophy, he said, was a very difficult, technical activity that should be done only by those with the proper competence to do it—something he clearly felt impossible outside of the elite institutions.

Mary was clearly appalled by these responses, not least because of their flimsiness. Dummett, for instance, totally ignored the fact that teaching is a key part of philosophising. But of course cleverness isn’t like a light that shines equally in all directions. Our cleverness is usually aimed in certain directions that reflect our interests and concerns, while our prejudices mean it does not shine in some other directions. A myopic fixation on research coupled to an elitist conceit means that one’s thinking becomes very dim, indeed, when it turns in the direction of what one sees as ‘lesser’ departments.

Battles, past and present

I think Mary played an underappreciated role in the 1980s battles for British philosophy. For one thing, those battles aren’t well-known to more junior members of the profession, not to mention those who weren’t born during that decade. Memories dim, too, and there aren’t many written records of those battles, other than those letters in newspapers and journals. I first heard about the battles in an autobiographical essay by a recently-retired member of my department. Some googling and emailing filled in some of the details, but our best source will be archives. After all, a lot of the work that goes into running academic philosophy takes place behind the scenes – in referee reports, letters of reference, and correspondence that by their nature don’t make their way into the public record. Such records only survive now in archives.

The Midgley Archive, happily, contains unexplored resources for understanding those battles and for understanding this very painful period in the history of British philosophy. Aside from the “Defending Philosophy 1986” folder, it contains are other fascinating resources. It has the 1986 report Philosophy Graduates and Jobs, prepared for the Royal Institute of Philosophy by the University of Warwick—a fascinating account of the demographics of the discipline at the time. The archive also contains information on the formation of The National Committee for Philosophy, founded in 1985 to coordinate the defence of the discipline; interestingly, it later developed into the British Philosophical Association, our professional subject association. We can learn a lot about our discipline and its history by exploring archives, like Mary’s.

As a last note, we are still, alas, fighting battles to save our departments and affirm the value and integrity of our subject. The Daily Nous website constantly reports on departments being axed or subjected to “review”, the standard bureaucratic warning that a closure is afoot. We can learn a lot from the earlier battles, of course, but there are other reasons to learn about them. I think we owe to it those philosophers who fought the closures and those who suffered because of them – those whose careers were prematurely terminated or who were forced to become academic refugees in search of new homes. We also gain new appreciation of those, like Mary, who worked hard in defence of their colleagues—at that point in her career, it was quite open to her to devote herself to writing and research, although that was never going to be a moral option for her. If philosophy is a necessity, then one has to fight to protect it.


Ian James Kidd
University of Nottingham

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.