What is Philosophy for?

Mary Midgley was 99 when this book was published. This was also the year she died. What was so important as to keep this English philosopher active to such a great age? She had seen generations of academics come and go, and observed the follies of many thinkers in varying disciplines, who even denigrated the purpose of philosophy itself. She’d probably fought many battles. And now she had the clarity to write in a small volume what was the essence of the need for philosophy, in the process pointing out its wide range of applicability and the limitations of its critics. This is a wonderful, clear and refreshing book, remarkable for one of such advanced years.

So what is philosophy for? Midgley has a simple answer, in the spirit of a whole line of philosophers since the time of Socrates: “it is surely the effort to examine our life as a whole, to make sense of it, to locate its big confusions and resolve its big conflicts.” She goes on to ask why people need to study philosophy at all: “because it explains the relations between different ways of thinking”, suggesting that new developments in thought largely come from seeing across the disciplines, rather than from following tracks within them.

Midgley lived through the times when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister and academia in the UK was required to become more ‘relevant’. Many traditional philosophy departments were forced to close and what were left focused on the business of ‘research’. Her attitude to such research is well expressed: “…I don’t do any, because I’m certainly not organizing any static mining operation of this kind. I suppose that instead I try to follow the argument (as Plato said) wherever it runs, and I may finally catch it in a territory quite far from the one where it started.”

Why did she write the book?

What makes me write books is usually exasperation, and this time it was a rather general exasperation against the whole reductive, scientistic, mechanistic, fantasy-ridden creed which still constantly distorts the world-view of our age.

This gives a good clue as to the content. I will pick out a few areas where Midgley’s views are far from the mainstream, but largely accord with the ideas you have read in this blog and elsewhere on the needs for a New Renaissance.

Left brain dominance

Midgley is scathing on the academic fashions of the present age, which “recommend specialization and require that all insights – however obvious – should be documented.” This, she argues, increasingly gives the left side of the brain an undeserved and unhealthy primacy in our official reasoning. The problem is that “the left brain is systematically blind to its own inadequacies, while the right is quite capable of perceiving its own faults.” Academia has become unhealthily ‘left-brain’.

Mind, matter, spirit

Another preoccupation is with the evolution of concepts of mind and matter, from a Cartesian dualism that accepted both as real through to a materialism that came to represent the mainstream ‘scientific’ viewpoint and denigrated the inner world by concepts such as ‘machinery’ and the ‘ghost in the machine’. It seems obvious to Midgley that consciousness is a ‘basic condition of all animate life’ and not a ‘hard problem’ to be solved in material terms.

Similarly, the people who have decided to remove God from their world-map are simply “shifting their perspective. They have decided to move inwards and to cut out the wider spiritual context which had, till then, been thought relevant. They have decided to study a smaller world.”

Mary summarises:

There aren’t two separate kinds of stuff at all. ‘Mind’ is what we see if we look at the world from one point of view – through one kind of lens, asking one kind of question – and ‘matter’ is what we see if we look at it through a quite different lens, asking different questions. The gap between these two is more like a change of lighting than a shift of substance… these are not actually two separate worlds. They are aspects of the same one

Science and scientism

Midgley considers that “the idea of physical science has itself a strong and effective symbolism. Many years ago now, this idea of science succeeded to the position of authority in our culture which used to be held by religious creeds.” She explains how this came about, from the 16th century conflict between the emerging physics and theology.

She suggests that in the early twentieth century scientism was successful because many people no longer found it possible to rely on Christianity to give their lives meaning. Basically, scientists were mistaking the mathematics they use to describe reality for reality itself. In Midgley’s view, the main point of the materialistic creed has always been its destructive side – the determination not to think in terms of minds or souls.

Her perspective, in a single quote:

I cannot conceive myself as nothing but a bit of the world, a mere object of biological, psychological or sociological investigation. I cannot shut myself up within the realm of science. All my knowledge of the world, even my scientific knowledge, is gained from my own particular point of view, or from some experience of the world without which the symbols of science would be meaningless. The whole universe of science is built upon the world as directly experienced, and if we want to subject science itself to rigorous scrutiny and arrive at a precise assessment of its meaning and scope, we must begin by reawakening the basic experience of the world, of which science is the second-order expression.

Nature

Not unrelated to these issues is our separation from nature. “There is still a general impression that our species is something so special – so thoroughly cut off from the rest of nature, from what may be called ‘the environment’– that, apart from the pleasures of the imagination, we need not really bother about all these other organisms.”

She sees signs of hope: “Only very lately – perhaps only during the past few years? – do people with power to change the world, people with some money and influence, seem to be starting to notice that this attitude is not just unrealistic but, in the long run, certainly suicidal.”

Conclusion

There’s much more in this very readable book, which gives an insight into the philosophical hole we fallen into and are desperately trying to climb out of.

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