by Ellie Robson

Mary Midgley’s concept of Philosophical Plumbing suggests a distinct approach to the study and subject-matter of moral philosophy. I will endorse this method of practise and its recollection of an aspect of philosophy that has been largely missing from modern discourse. Midgely stresses the vitality of the creative, collaborative and visionary elements of philosophy, which she accords with the poet. I will draw together Midgley’s analogies of the poets and plumbers, suggesting that this ‘gap’ may be filled through an understanding of what is distinctive about the human condition and our thought in philosophy.

Midgley suggests the practises of philosophy and plumbing are analogous in their vital and yet unnoticed existence in a complex culture. Both practises lie beneath the surface, supplying their members with necessary structures for everyday life. Notably, both hold high consequences in the event of their failure, for no singular designer exists, to consult for advice. If failure occurs, we must readjust our concepts and make reactive changes to our assumptions, to fix the problem (1). It is important that we remember how vast and powerful these hidden systems are, and we must be ready to ‘spot any particular elements of it that do make trouble’ (10).


There exists, a widening gap in modern philosophical debate. Midgley typifies this in her dichotomy between two aspects of thought; she claims that that ‘great philosophers need a combination of gifts that are rare. They must be lawyers as well as poets’ (3, my emphasis). Recent approaches to philosophy have tempted thinkers towards academic specialization; towards ‘private ponds’ of thought that create a practise that shaves away ideas not abstractly critical or technical. The lawyer narrows down their subject matter to a thin notion whereby only philosophers can truly understand philosophy. We must be cautious in this lawyer-like thinking, that we do not forget the deep powerful structures and patterns underlying our thought. In moral philosophy, there is a worry that such a narrow interest, in a small corner of the debate, leaves us without an ‘obvious and vital’ understanding of the ‘main map’ (28).

It is important to note that in both philosophy and plumbing, specialization is needed to apply the creative vision of the poet to everyday life. Midgely’s plumbing device illuminates this through its suggestion that without the lawyer-like specialization ‘the living water flows in, but it is not channelled to where it is needed’ (4). As I see it, Midgley is warning us of the dangers of disbalance here. Thus, she asks: ‘Can anyone speak both as a fully instructed professional and as a whole human being?’ (28). In putting over-emphasis on the formal work of the lawyers, modern moral debate risks neglecting the visionary poets, those thinkers that create the powerful concepts through an understanding of the human condition. The lawyers are at risk of denying philosophy altogether; of denying the very existence of the drains and the water supply (10). Furthermore, although analytic and formal philosophy is needed, it must not dominate the scene. Philosophy by poets is needed for knowledge, as it seems overspecialization poses dangers to our human culture of learning, creating a ‘private playground of the learned’ (5) while isolating the vast majority to which this knowledge belongs. Furthermore, our conceptual schemes need a cooperative and collaborative aspect, flowing from the streams of everyday thinking about our human condition.


Philosophy in this sense is not important but vital. It is needed for our very survival, much like food and shelter. As such, philosophy and life are not alien to one another, but closely connected meaning philosophy is rooted in the life of a species, rather than removed from it. Philosophy is not for the privileged few; its deep concepts surround us all. Midgley points out that in fact, we all live in a world of conceptual mess, constantly confused by the ‘continual conflict’ of our natural impulses. To find a route out of this confusion we must consult the problems arising in real life, instead of investing in highly ‘abstract philosophical reasoning’ (13-14). In this sense, we need a special way of thinking about those questions that appear manifestly too big for us to handle (15). Midgley prescribes the use of ‘practical utopias’ which aid us in mapping out the ‘crucial features of the landscape’ and act as rough guides towards ‘imaginative pictures of possible houses to be built’ (24) that is, they indicate to us, the long-term goals that allow us to envisage ‘a drastic general change’. Thus, Midgley recommends a ‘more distant and simplified vision’ (25) to deal with complex needs of society and culture. And so, it seems the subject-matter of moral philosophy ought to be in the ‘maps and structures by which thought works’ (27). Notably, we should ward against the temptation of one singular pattern. Humans are too complicated in their diverse desires and motives to produce a ‘theory of everything’ (160). We must develop distant utopian visions that we can direct our goals towards, rather than attempting to explain the world in a lawyerly fashion, through one simple formula. Again, Midgley stresses the importance of respecting the complicated patterns that lie beneath us.


This domination by the lawyers is a result of Enlightenment Philosophy, rejecting the use of myth, and instead pressing specialised academics to express everything literally, in the manner of scientific fact (12). This has resulted in individualism, and with it a call for us to reject our human bonds, and deep mutual dependences on one another. The ‘moralistic propaganda’ of individualism encourages us to live an undisturbed life, according to our privately selected principles (9). But again, we notice Midgley’s gap. This narrow view drops out myth and tradition from philosophical discourse, along with the practises and relationships that make us first and foremost animals, as well as human.

At universities, students are placed in a ‘social vacuum’ whereby they are isolated from other learners, encouraged to become ‘abstract intellectual being[s]’ (42). Enlightenment philosophy encourages individuals to develop simple universal principles, providing unitary answers to all our dense moral problems. This individualism is not only distorting of the educational learning, but obscures our wider moral purposes (42). Our world and our human nature, are too complicated for individuals to act according to a ‘theory of everything’ (163). Midgley suggest we develop distant utopian visions that we can direct our goals towards, rather than attempting to explain the world through one simple formula.


If our world really is too complicated to be explained by one single formula, it seems ‘we have to make choices’ and discuss which truths are more applicable to forming this whole (25). But in this sense, we are not detached spectators to our moral philosophy. If we are to take Midgely’s poet seriously, we should look to develop a philosophy centred on humans as animals that are collectively creative; as a species and a culture that think collaboratively. Thus, Midgely’s claim that ‘we think as a whole people, not as disembodied minds, not as computers’ (13) is apt in suggesting that we are not self-contained or self-sufficient as a species or as individuals. Moral philosophy should be reactive to human life, taken holistically.

It seems that with an overemphasis on individualism has brought with it, a certain detachment and impartiality, which is detrimental to moral philosophy. If, as Midgley has suggested, our moral concepts are only discussed in these private ponds of the learned, this ‘strange division of labour’ leaves those suffering from these moral dilemmas, without a philosophy to consult (49). Even worse, our detached and isolated philosophers are encouraged to work with indifference, to ‘best guarantee their detachment’ (50). The work of moral philosophy is confined when we do not collaborate on problems as and where they arise, ‘in the jungle of human living’ (49).


It seems that imagination and art are a serious element of this moral enquiry into our complex natures. Thus, Midgley stresses the importance of creativity and myth over intelligence and cleverness (153). Intelligence gives us the ability to ask an array of questions, but what Midgley suggests is that we need the ability to pick out the right questions, that is, the right sort of problems to solve. When we praise something as ‘creative’ we praise their vision. The storyteller has told us something new about human desire and life. True imagination and creativity changes the way in which we look at life, and is thus wholly embedded in human life (172). Moreover, moral philosophy needs plumbers, but these plumbers need vision. Our visions must map our moral philosophy as guiding principles to that need philosophy, that is, all human life.

Source: Midgley, Mary (1996). ‘Utopias, Dolphins and Computers: Problem of Philosophical Plumbing’. Routledge. London and New York.