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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Middle Path Philosophy

Isn't it fun when we find a kindred spirit? Someone who speaks our thoughts with more clarity or eloquence than we can ourselves? Sometimes I feel quite alone walking what feels like the middle path in life, peeking into the more polarized landscapes on either side with curiosity as well as puzzlement, and often more than a little frustration. I felt less isolated this week while reading The Owl of Minerva, the memoir (though really more of a delightful, albeit brief autobiography) by philosopher Mary Midgley.

I've never read much philosophy, often finding it to be over my head and difficult to comprehend, but from the little I've seen so far, Midgley's books are purposely written for non-academics and I might just be able to glean some wisdom from them. This will be helped along by having read her memoir, I think, which provides a marvelous scaffold from which to view her work.

Midgley was born in 1919, with her first book published in 1978, and her latest book published in 2014. Her memoir came out in 2005 and gives a savvy, often witty, account of her life and how she wandered naturally into philosophy, what she points out is defined via its Greek origin as "love of wisdom." Where she differs from other philosophers is her aversion to reductionism or the abstract, instead she prefers a far more practical Big Picture approach -- and one imbued with embodied compassion.

In her memoir, Midgley comments on some of her favorite teachers. One of those was a history teacher and Midgley said about her that:

"She also reached back often into the past to show how the strange things that seemed to be happening now could have become possible -- what people had meant by acting in this way, what states of mind had shaped our world. This way of getting at the meaning of the present by looking at the past has remained central to me. It is just as useful for understanding thought as it is for understanding action."

How many of us have had such marvelous mind-broadening teachers?

I found myself regularly smiling, delighting in Midgley's British sense of humor as she interwove her personal experiences -- a father who was a vicar, going to a girls' boarding school, attending Oxford from 1938-42 -- with philosophical views, and the history of education before, during, and after World War II. From the distance of half a century, Midgley reviewed her past and kept me captivated all the way through the book. She stands firmly in the camp of context, that all of us present our own unique views and "individual value systems" in all that we do -- we can't help it ... and we shouldn't try to:

"Personality is not an irrelevance to thought, an obstacle to philosophical enquiry. It is an essential element in the solutions offered. All thinking is a human activity, radically linked to feeling and action. ... The impartiality that we have to aim at is not impersonality but simply the avoidance of irrelevant bias."

"In philosophy, rationalists are the people who keep trying to refine and complete that half-framed order, hoping to build it into a clear, universal system. Empiricists are the ones who keep saying, 'No, that won't do. Things are a bit more complicated than that.' This dialectic is unending. Both things are needed; both can be done together."

As to her subtle humor, for example (I wish I had marked more of her humorous anecdotes and comments, but I didn't), during the war she says of a friend that:

"She also took me to visit the home of her mother and aunts, a classic clamjamfrey of elderly ladies and cats with the cats mainly in charge ...."

Midgley addresses often her frustrations with the way that philosophy is addressed in university:

"Showing-off is indeed a feature of many kinds of life and of course it is often a harmless one. But that is no reason why it should be allowed to take them over. Any situation where a lot of young men are competing to form a dominance hierarchy, will produce cock-fights. But -- as Plato pointed out already -- these fights are not part of its essence; they are distractions from it. They interfere with philosophical work. 'Tough-minded' is much too polite a word to use for people who go to a meeting, not in order to understand what someone is saying but in order to catch him or her out by picking holes in it. ... In any case, the practice of bullying one's students ... is not a sport at all; it's a vice."

Mary Midgley was and is a remarkable woman. She raised three sons before writing her first book in her fifties, and points out that not only did she choose to put her children and home life first, but that she thinks it turned out far better that way because then she had lots of personal experience to apply to her philosophy. Not that she didn't keep her toes in the waters; her husband was a teacher/philosopher as well, and as Midgley's sons got older, she slowly began writing more, teaching, lecturing, and doing broadcasts. The latest interview I found was one from March 2015 HERE, where it said:

"She is, she says, still writing: currently working on an afterword for a book about her philosophy and also on a talk she will give next month at the Edinburgh International Science Festival, when she is awarded The Edinburgh Medal for her contributions to the 'wellbeing of humanity'."

I'm reading her books in order -- other than having enjoyed her memoir first -- and will no doubt write more blog posts as I follow her through those thirty years.

1978 Beast and Man
1981 Heart and Mind
1983 Animals and Why They Matter
1984 Wickedness
1985 Evolution as a religion
1989 Wisdom Information and Wonder
1992 Science as Salvation
1994 The Ethical Primate
1996 Utopias Dolphins and Computers
2000 Science and Poetry
2003 The Myths we Live by
2005 The Owl of Minerva 
2007 Earthy Realism
2010 The Solitary Self: Darwin

2014 Are you an illusion?

1 comment:

  1. She sounds quite interesting! And I love that word CLAMJAMFREY --stealing it . . .


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