At the Midgley Archive Launch we heard a series of wonderful talks from distinguished guests. Here, Dr Ian Ground reflects on the many dimensions in which the style and substance of Mary’s work interacts, and on her relation to Wittgenstein.



Moral as the superlative of serious

…[T]he central job the word does, the one for which it is worth preserving, is to mark, as Philippa Foot suggested, a certain sort of seriousness and importance…and…its other implications, whether of form or content, flow from this.…

…Now what happens if we ask; is it not only a serious but a moral matter? My short and wild answer is that moral is simply the superlative of serious.



Denial of the idea that morality is the name of an autonomous realm

Dominant in various forms of formalism

Prescriptivist account rooted in Kant.

Existentialism. (thought apparently very different)

In different ways both rooted in the so-called naturalistic fallacy, the claim that the facts of the matter can never determine moral matters.



Curiously often traced back to Hume. Curious because Hume puts a certain class of facts at the centre namely those do do with human sentiment and natural sympathy and that these rather than rational inference from empirical facts were morally determinative.


Hume misread?

But he was read as asserting an absolute distinction between facts and values which seem to imply that moral judgement takes place in a realm of its own. That therefore the job of philosophy was to articulate the logical form of moral judgements and to stay away from substantial questions of content

True that in the 80s applied philosophy but this required a special licence and was considered safe so long as quarantined in a journal with the helpfully warning called applied philosophy. The implication was that was a rather specialised use to which philosophy might, under licence, to be put nit mot part of its raison d’etre.

Left the originated sense of moral as that discussed b6 bishops on Sundays or the more salacious topics of the tabloid press.

By saying moral is the superlative of serious Mary is denying that but to see what we have the. To think of serious

…What is serious affects something central among [someone’s] system of purposes and it is that system we need to know about

But that means that we need to know the nature of the thing we are talking about so we know what kind of thing could count as a central interest or purpose for it. So some account is now needed of human nature and the kind of life that is appropriate to us. Mary is in effect making am Aristotelian move and doing this long before talk of the virtues became fashionable again in philosophy



The problem for Mary was that all sorts of other cultural pressures and stories we tell ourselves made us think that we had escaped our nature. And so talk about human nature had to be put in the context of thought about animal nature and this is where the ethology of Beast and Man comes into the picture. Mary in effect enlisted Darwin and his inheritance in the animal sciences to rehabilitate idea of species nature and with the thought that we are not just arts her like but are animals, human nature.


Myths and Pictures

Exposing and breaking down. The tropes and trope that stood in the way of our recognition of our own species nature lead to rows with those who she regarded as misunderstanding the spirit of Darwin’s reflections but also to a more general worry. Rather than, as Wittgenstein had done and just call out these false pictures, she came to see that pictures of one kind of another were themselves part of the character of human life and nature. It was impossible to throw them out altogether in live in a metaphor free state. So the task was to make those stories explicit, point how partial they were and seek to newly curate them, trace their provenance and so they could be seen as one picture amongst others in the gallery of species self-portraits we paint of ourselves.

Striking phrases a way of breaking the hold of pictures and making new ones possible.



It was also necessary to offer new metaphors and pictures Gaia and to offer an meta account of what all these pictures were doing and how to manage them. The need to break down traditional oppositions.

  • the ethical and the empirical
  • mind and matter,
  • nature and nature,
  • reason and feeling,
  • the human and the animal



She also I think came to see that the process of seeking integration of these partial pictures was not just an intellectual task for our culture but mirrored our own personal struggles to live an integrated life out of the mess of talents, traits, vices and virtues with which we are contingently gifted. Ana, I think, will talk more about this positive aspect of integration.

So the philosophical task of integration, never completed but to which we aspire, was a mirror of the personal task of leading, and not just living a life. For this reason philosophy itself was an ethical task.

So here is one picture of Mary’s philosophy, perspectival and partial like any other, if we take as our model her remark that we should think of the term moral as the superlative of serious.



Concrete titles

Not just a matter of style; nor just a device to reach a wider audience than Mind articles.

  • Is “Moral”A Dirty Word? (1972)
  • On Trying Out One’s New Sword on a Chance Wayfarer (1977)
  • Beast And Man: The Roots of Human Nature. Routledge, 1978
  • Embarrassing Relatives: Changing Perceptions of Animals (1987)


Even her abstract titles have a punch to them.

  • Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears. Routledge, 1985;
  • Heart and Mind: The Varieties of Moral Experience. Routledge, 1981.



  1. Accessible without being simplistic, forceful without being edgy.
    • We could argue that the thesis of the non-autonomous character of morality Instead she says: “Moral is simply the superlative of serious”
    • We could argue for the thesis that it is a mistake to introduce teleology into biology or we could say Social Darwinists took “one end of the Great Chain of Being and flung it into the future”
  2. Economy and directness e.gHistory of Ideas is essential but always in the service of making philosophical progress.
  3. “Language is public. If you talk, you cannot possibly be the first of your kind. I makes sense only by contrast with you, he, she, it and they. A solipsist could not say I. If Descartes had thought about this, he would not have assumed that he must start his enquiry, like a doomed escapologist, from the awkward position of being locked up inside in his own consciousness, with no accomplice to release him If we did start there, escape really would be impossible. But we don’t.”
  4. Striking new images, both negative and positive: Plumbing, Escalators, Aquariums, kaleidoscopes, gene-juggling, the inside and outside of teapots.
  5. How philosophy is done – and in particularly how we write – is absolutely central to the philosophical mission.



  1. Perspectival Pluralism
    • Philosophy and moral thinking are ways of negotiating the plurality of perspectives.
    • The moral is not one point of view amongst others.
    • Anti-binaryism
  2. Critique of scientism and what lies behind it. Scientism as a symptom: reductionism, atomism, materialism. These have their place but fall into the wrong company.
  3. Anti-Naturalistic ‘Fallacy’ and the drawing out of the implications of the facts about our nature for how we should live (Aristotle)
  4. The importance of imagination as a synthesising power (Kant)


Pictures and Metaphors

  1. Because the disputes she gets into are in the contact zone between science and ordinary life, she asks us to be sensitive to metaphors and pictures. What she calls “myths”
  2. Though hardly a Wittgensteinian, she thinks that “pictures hold us captive” and underlie the formal arguments we use to support our theories. These pictures are much more important than the arguments. Philosophical distortions have deep roots. Wittgenstein tends to be just negative about these false pictures. We are to be permanently on guard against them. But Midgley’s tactics is dealing with these pictures is more sophisticated
  3. To uproot them you have to:
    • We can’t do without pictures at all. So we have to offer new pictures which will make the accepted ones less captivating.
    • Not paint over the pictures – they had something to show us in their time – but newly curate them, and if necessary, move them to a more obscure collection.
  4. Her style reframes the pictures so that we see them afresh and produces the right kind of reorientation



Public Engagement

  1. Philosophy engaged certainly, but not applied; at least not in the sense that the philosopher is a consultant who can be brought into debates as an neutral expert (the philosopher on the ethics committee).
  2. It is matter of where she locates the philosophical debate. Does it belong in the post-grad seminar or in ordinary, if well-informed, conversations?
  3. Fighting the corruption of the ordinary mind. She keeps picking fights with those who corrupt the innocent.
  4. Rescuing us (our intellects, our imaginations, our language, our myths and metaphors) from the fanatics.



Relation to Wittgenstein


  1. Suspicion of System and Reduction in favour of the ordinary
    • “…common thought and language have to be primary, because they flow from and express the way in which people actually live, while intellectual systems, however important and however influential, grow like branches out of this living thought. The systems therefore cannot simply displace or ignore it..”
  2. Reminding us of what we already know or what is already before us only we can’t or refuse to see it.
  3. Style rather than formal argument as a mean of effecting change.
  4. The conceptual and the anthropological.
  5. The human as animal
  6. Philosophy as an ongoing task and responsibility.


  1. The centrality of ethics in philosophical thought (shared with the others WWII women)
  2. The cultural and political context of philosophical ideas
  3. Engagement with what others think. Empirical science and the arts esp. literature.
  4. Brush rather than tweezers.
  5. Wit rather than irony/tone of voice.
  6. Curation rather iconoclasm in regard to pictures.