Don’t get any big ideas

The Guardian


Mary Midgley 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. Her latest little book is a collection of essays that display the range of her concerns over the last 10 years or so. She is on characteristically good form, whether tracing problems with the Enlightenment 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 that 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 unifying device. The subjects are so disparate that 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, which shapes our thoughts without necessarily being visible to those doing the thinking. It is a loaded word, of course.

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 those 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 of targets to choose from — atomism, reductionism, individualism, rationalism. A number of the essays are antidotes to the kind of popular science that offers one idea, or even 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 JD Bernal to Freeman Dyson, who foresee the human future as spawning a disembodied intelligence that roams the galaxy thinking cosmic thoughts. These pieces tend to latch on to a particular bothersome passage in the writer she is focusing on. She tries to work out what is the matter — where the philosophical smell 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 EO Wilson’s notion of biophilia, the idea 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.’’ She is a critic to be reckoned with, then, but how clear is her own position? 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.