Mary Midgley is one of my favorite philosophers. Her The Myths We Live By plays a significant role in a forthcoming book of mine and her essay “On Trying Out One’s New Sword” eviscerates cultural relativism, or what she calls “moral isolationism,” more briefly and elegantly than one would have thought possible.
Midgley studied philosophy at Oxford during World War II, along with several other women who would become major philosophers: Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Warnock, Iris Murdoch. People have often wondered how this happened — how, in a field so traditionally inhospitable to women, a number of brilliant ones happened to emerge at the same time and in the same place. Three years ago, in a letter to the Guardian, Midgley offered a fascinating sociological explanation:
As a survivor from the wartime group, I can only say: sorry, but the reason was indeed that there were fewer men about then. The trouble is not, of course, men as such – men have done good enough philosophy in the past. What is wrong is a particular style of philosophising that results from encouraging a lot of clever young men to compete in winning arguments. These people then quickly build up a set of games out of simple oppositions and elaborate them until, in the end, nobody else can see what they are talking about. All this can go on until somebody from outside the circle finally explodes it by moving the conversation on to a quite different topic, after which the games are forgotten. Hobbes did this in the 1640s. Moore and Russell did it in the 1890s. And actually I think the time is about ripe for somebody to do it today. By contrast, in those wartime classes – which were small – men (conscientious objectors etc) were present as well as women, but they weren’t keen on arguing.
It was clear that we were all more interested in understanding this deeply puzzling world than in putting each other down. That was how Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Iris Murdoch, Mary Warnock and I, in our various ways, all came to think out alternatives to the brash, unreal style of philosophising – based essentially on logical positivism – that was current at the time. And these were the ideas that we later expressed in our own writings.
Given that so many people think of philosophy simply as arguing, and therefore as an intrinsically competitive activity, it might be rather surprising to hear Midgley claim that interesting and innovative philosophical thought emerged from her environment at Oxford because of the presence of a critical mass of people who “weren’t keen on arguing” but were “more interested in understanding this deeply puzzling world” (emphasis mine).
In a recent follow-up to and expansion of that letter, Midgley quotes Colin McGinn describing his own philosophical education at Oxford, thirty years later, especially in classes with Gareth Evans: “Evans was a fierce debater, impatient and uncompromising; as I remarked, he skewered fools gladly (perhaps too gladly). The atmosphere in his class was intimidating and thrilling at the same time. As I was to learn later, this is fairly characteristic of philosophical debate. Philosophy and ego are never very far apart. Philosophical discussion can be … a clashing of analytically honed intellects, with pulsing egos attached to them … a kind of intellectual blood-sport, in which egos get bruised and buckled, even impaled.” To which Midgley replies, with her characteristic deceptively mild ironic tone:
Well, yes, so it can, but does it always have to? We can see that at wartime Oxford things turned out rather differently, because even bloodier tournaments and competitions elsewhere had made the normal attention to these games impossible. So, by some kind of chance, life had made a temporary break in the constant obsession with picking small faults in other people’s arguments – the continuing neglect of what were meant to be central issues – that had become habitual with the local philosophers. It had interrupted those distracting feuds which were then reigning, as in any competitive atmosphere feuds always do reign, preventing serious attempts at discussion, unless somebody deliberately controls them.
And Midgley doesn’t shy away from stating bluntly what the thinks about the intellectual habits that Gareth Evans was teaching young Colin McGinn and others: “Such habits, while they prevail, simply stop people doing any real philosophy.”
So Midgley suggests that other habits be taught: “Co-operative rather than competitive thinking always needs to be widely taught. Feuds need to be put in the background, because all students equally have to learn a way of working that will be helpful to everybody rather than just promoting their own glory.” Of course, promoting your own glory is the usual path to academic success, and if that’s what you want, then your way is clear. But Midgley wants people who choose that path to know that if they don’t learn co-operative thinking, “they can’t really do effective philosophy at all.” They won’t make progress “in understanding this deeply puzzling world.”
I can’t imagine any academic endeavor that wouldn’t be improved, intellectually and morally, if its participants heeded Midgley’s counsel.