Women and Philosophy

23 08 2012

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Next time there is a lull in the conversation, why not liven things up by asking people to name a woman philosopher? I wonder whose name would emerge?  I’m guessing that Iris Murdoch or Mary Warnock or both might appear on the list. While I have great respect for the ideas of these fine thinkers, the philosopher I wish to champion today is Mary Midgley.

I first encountered Mary Midgley while I was studying at Middlesex University. She came down from Newcastle University, where she taught for half a decade, and gave a talk on meaning, beauty and the nature of reality. She was in her eighties: a precise, snow-haired woman in a plain blue suit. She wore rings and gripped the lectern as she spoke in a clear tone in a wide-ranging talk that was not only cogent and powerful but vivid, illustrating her ideas in delightful associations that included roses, elephants, chimpanzees and dolphins.

Afterwards during questions, the philosopher laughed and parried with her interrogators. She did not seek to score points, but was thrilled that the audience were engaged and brave enough to try thinking hard for themselves. There was no trace of arrogance, almost a child-like sense of wonder. I’ve told you what I think, it’s your turn now, her beaming manner suggested as she listened patiently to comments from student philosophers, gently encouraging when someone came unstuck over a particularly tight knot of theory.  She is the kind of philosopher you want at your elbow (or on your desk) when you are trying to make sense of your own ethics or stance on genetics or science or psychology.

Mary Midgley has devoted her life to trying to put complicated ideas into some sort of sensible order. She has said that all her work is about ‘human nature’ and one of the pleasures of reading her is to follow her line of enquiry that asks: what is a human being and how do human beings look at themselves?

She believes that we are social beings and that our evolutionary success is because we have learned how to get along with each other and form civilisations. According to Midgley, we are first and foremost living beings with needs and desires and beliefs and attitudes. Her position on a purely genetic understanding of human natures is clear: ‘Genes are immortal only in the boring sense in which amoebae are: they reproduce by dividing, so they do not actually die. But then neither do they live, not in the full sense in which more complex organisms do. One crowded hour of glorious life as an individual is worth an age as a gene.’

One crowded hour. I love that image.

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