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.

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