Myths we Live By – Mary Midgley

I remember reading Mary Midgley‘s first book, Beast and Man not long after it came out in 1978. She’s still with us, happily, and has produced many more since then, including this feisty book of essays from ten years ago. I’m sympathetic to the credo I ascribe to her at the start here, though I also have a weakness for some big ideas…  especially Darwin’s one.

Beware big ideas. They may beguile by seeming to explain a whole bunch of stuff from a single, simple standpoint. But they will mislead you in the end, and make it harder, not easier to understand what is really important.

If Mary Midgley has a credo, it runs something like this. She has been publishing philosophy for the general reader for a quarter of a century, and her many books add up to an extended caution against simplicity. Although she often writes about knowledge, and about scientific ideas, her fundamental concerns are moral. And as a moral philosopher, she is in the business of exposing conflicts between principles, often equally admirable ones. There are plenty of simple ideas about, yet life, and the moral life, are always complex and full of unresolved contradictions.

Her latest little book is a collection of essays which display the range of her concerns over the last ten years or so. She is on characteristically good form, whether tracing the problems with the Enlightenment’s idea of progress, diagnosing the source of the “yuk factor” in responses to biotechnology, or taking proposals to reintroduce wolves into the wild as a chance to reflect on why only some beasts are beastly.

In trying to knit together essays which discuss reason and emotion, science and values, ecology and conservation, animal rights and human purposes, the biosphere, nature and consciousness, she adopts myth as her main unifying device. The subjects are so disparate, it can be hard to keep a fix on what she means by this. Loosely, she takes a myth to be an idea, a habit of mind, or just a collection of symbols, an imaginative pattern, which shapes our thoughts without necessarily being visible to those doing the thinking. It is a loaded word, of course. Nowadays we assume that myths need debunking. Yet she seems ambivalent about this, perhaps because she largely avoids the epistemological issues raised by her suggestion that myths are both an indispensable aid to organising our perceptions but also do harm by “distorting our selection and slanting our thinking”. Maybe, but it is not clear in Midgley’s world where one can establish the undistorted or unslanted view to compare with the mythically framed picture. All one can do, perhaps, is try and substitute a preferred myth for the objectionable one.

A different way to put it, which also features prominently in the book, is that we should guard against extending ideas beyond the explanatory territory where they first took root. Midgley’s strongest commitment, in short, is anti-monist. Some of her myths she sees as just wrong. Her favourite target may be dualism, the Cartesian separation of body and mind, but she is even more aghast at thinkers who ignore one or the other. Most often though, she responds to over-stretched ideas, often the product of intellectual exuberance as much as anything else. She has plenty to choose from – atomism, reductionism, individualism, rationalism. These are all the basis of towering systems of thought which cast long shadows but as she says, “all ideas lose their proper power when they are used outside their appropriate context”.

A number of the essays, then, are antidotes to the kind of popular science which offers one idea, or even sometimes two, as explaining pretty much everything. This takes in both what she calls “reductive megalomania” and what she sees as the associated visions of writers from J.D.Bernal to Freeman Dyson, who foresee the human future as spawning a disembodied intelligence which will roam the galaxy thinking cosmic thoughts. Here, the objection is that, as well as offering a radically inhuman vision of evolutionary possibilities, these cosmic fantasies divert us from the need to find ways of maintaining a humane existence here on Earth.

These pieces tend to latch on to a particular passage in one of the writers she focuses on, sometimes in work she admires, which bothers her. She tries to work out what is the matter – where the philosophical smell on the landing is coming from. This method serves her well because her critiques are so often convincing. One reason to read Midgley is her knack of delivering her core objections in a one-liner. Thus, as a moral philosopher concerned with the natural world, she rather likes E.O.Wilson’s notion of biophilia, that humans need to engage with a variety of other organisms for their mental, even spiritual, health. But his vision of unifying all the disciplines in Consilience gets short shrift: “stones do not have purposes, but neither do cultures have particles”. As that suggests, she has no time for Richard Dawkins’ memes either.

She is a critic to be reckoned with, then, but how clear is her own position?  As these essays stack up, it appears there is a Midgley doctrine, a kind of pragmatic pluralism, and it has a number of appealing elements. Look for complementarity between apparently sharply differing viewpoints, she suggests. Her version of the tale of the blind men and the elephant, here as in her other recent books, is an aquarium with rather murky windows. There is some kind of reality in there, but it sure is hard to make out clearly, and changing vantage points brings different denizens of the tank into view. But that need not worry us. The search for firm foundations for knowledge is misguided, especially if it leads to attempts to resolve conflicts between different realms by pretending that one of them – mind or body, nature or culture, subjectivity or objectivity – is irrelevant. As she sums it up rather nicely when pointing out Descartes’ mistake in looking for a philosophical grounding as secure as Newton’s gravity, the Newtonian force is not linear, but convergent. “What we need is not an ultimate floor at the bottom of the universe but simply a planet with a good strong pull that will keep us together and stop us falling off”.

She is also against fatalism, and opposed to granting agency to abstractions. In the end, people, not ideas, change things, for better or worse. Such people need philosophers who write books which can actually be read. For those who haven’t yet read Midgley, these essays are an excellent place to start. (2003)

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