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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Well, it happens from time to time. Some scientist pokes his head above the parapet and characterises some traditional knowledge as credulous, bogus beliefs, witchcraft or some such. This time it’s dowsing, although it might be homeopathy, astrology, poltergeists, the paranormal, near death experiences, telepathy, precognition, knowledge of a previous life, etc etc.

The pattern is always the same. The scientific materialistic paradigm of scientism lives by the dogma that everything is material and everything will ultimately be explained in objective terms by science. Of course, this is just as much a bogus belief as any of these other systems. Sadly it seems to be espoused by much of the UK’s mainstream media.

If the guy really wants to know about dowsing he should research it, get some rods or a pendulum and try it out, give it a chance. He might get a big surprise. Water companies are commercial organisations and are likely to be seeking the most cost effective way of finding water, leaks etc. If this is dowsing, so be it.

I’m not trying to denigrate science itself, which is a wonderful way of understanding aspects of the world and developing technologies which enhance our lives. It is the closed mind of materialism, and the denial of possible alternative explanations and approaches to the world, that actually contradict the very spirit of science.

Dismissing things because of your own credulous beliefs is not science.

See also earlier posts Materialism, The Master and His Emissary, Battle of Ideas.


Battle of ideas

There is a battle of ideas in understanding the human situation and its history.

On the one side, we find the ardent materialists, who profess to be scientists but in reality follow the pseudoscience of scientism. They present a history of the ‘big bang’ and the gradual coalescing of matter into galaxies, stars and planets. Then, on planet earth, came land and sea and a favourable atmosphere, whence emerged plants and the panoply of animals, fish, birds and so on. And eventually random mutation led relatively recently to the human being, who at some point mysteriously became self conscious and completely different from the other animals. And the inexorable march of science is slowly explaining all these things, and will eventually be able to explain the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness.

In this sort of world view there is little room for astrology, which is hence denigrated by its popularisers, such as Richard Dawkins and the ex-rockstar Professor Brian Cox. Indeed, there is little room for the ‘interiors’ of things, as opposed to their exterior manifestation.

In the other side, we find a view from inside out, taking consciousness as the primary feature of existence, and showing how consciousness itself has evolved since its dawning. In the beginning is a seamless unity with the world; then the emergence of self consciousness, magical and mythical stages moving into rationality, a super rationality of the divorced ego and ultimately a purported more integrated participatory consciousness.

secret_history_of_conscIn this sort of world view astrology, and particularly astrological psychology, finds a natural place in meaningful relationship of the individual and the whole. And it is
this sort of viewpoint that is explored by another ex-rockstar Gary Lachmann in A Secret History of Consciousness.

This is really an exploration into ideas rather than the telling of a particular story. Lachmann looks at the work of many thinkers who have spent their lives investigating aspects of such stories. A partial list of these explorers will give some idea of the vastness of his scope: William Bucke, William James, Henri Bergson, A.R.Orage, P.D.Ouspensky, Helena Blavatsky, Rudolph Steiner, Goethe, Erich Neumann, Stan Gooch, Julian Jaynes, Colin Wilson, Owen Barfield, Jean Gebser, and so on.

This is a very readable, but also quite demanding book to read, covering such a wide range of extraordinary human beings and their major contributions to understanding consciousness. A veritable tour de force!

Do read it if this is an area that is of interest to you. You might also be interested in my earlier post on materialism.

Based on an article that first appeared in Conjunction, magazine of astrological psychology, in 2012

Featured image of ‘big bang’ by cédric sorel, via Wikimedia Commons

Levels of Being

E.F.SchumacherIn the 1970s E.F.Schumacher was one of the voices crying in the wilderness for humanity to change direction. He diagnosed the basic philosophical problem underlying the ‘Western’ world view, suggesting that the mind/body split attributed to Descartes represented a break with the traditional wisdom of earlier societies, and its essential truth that there are different Levels of Being. These Levels are represented in the physical world by the essentially different natures of mineral, vegetable, animal and human – and by the corresponding mysteries of matter, life, consciousness and self awareness. And the wisdom tradition indicates that there are also higher levels of soul and spirit that we humans can aspire to.

This seems fundamental. If we do not recognise the possibility of higher Levels of Being then we voluntarily impoverish ourselves. Schumacher makes it clear: “The level of significance to which an observer or investigator tries to attune himself is chosen, not by his intelligence, but by his faith… his fundamental presuppositions and basic assumptions.” It seems clear that the materialists had thrown out the baby of human potential with the bath water of the religious faiths whose dominance they were trying to break away from.

Since lower Levels of Being are not aware of higher Levels, or of their significance, this has encouraged the majority of people to stumble along in a materialistic trance, lemmings approaching the cliff edge of the end of the world. And all in accord with a simplistic and restricted materialistic faith, known as scientism, that does not recognise our true potential.

In the world of my upbringing the word ‘faith’ was always coupled with the word ‘irrational’, conveniently ignoring the faith that underlies the materialistic view itself. An optimistic faith based on the premise of the existence of higher Levels of Being, for which there is so much testimony from our forebears and contemporaries, seems the rational response to the situation we find ourselves in. Higher Levels of Being generally correspond with a more inclusive and less selfish approach to the world (for example in my earlier heroes, M.K.Gandhi and Martin Luther King).

If we do not choose to follow the quest for those higher Levels we will certainly never achieve them, instead continuing along our present destructive path.

Accepting the concept of Levels of Being, we can see religions as being potentially in the role of providing alternative paths towards those higher spiritual Levels (see eg The Marriage of Sense and Soul, Ken Wilber). There is a strong attraction to the idea that there is this common core at the heart of all the world’s religions, as confirmed, for example, by Huston Smith’s extensive research (Forgotten Truth, Huston Smith). Religions become different paths towards a common aim, which is to connect with that which is highest in humanity. Each religion provides its own approach for following the path to this common spirituality, like a crutch which can be discarded when we are able to stand on our own spiritual feet.

Schumacher’s thinking here comes from his posthumous philosophical work A Guide for the Perplexed.

This post is an extract from my article Science and Spirituality.


i_thinkThere are two major definitions of materialism, which we tend to conflate in casual consideration. [See Wikipedia entry.]

The doctrine of philosophical materialism states that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications – and consciousness and will are wholly due to material agency. This is closely related to physicalism, the view that all that exists is ultimately physical.

Then there is the related economic materialism, a tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values, such as compassion for others.

I believe that both of these belief systems are inherently misguided and self defeating. Let me explain.

Philosophical materialism

Many scientists believe in philosophical materialism, with a touching faith that consciousness will eventually be explained by science in material terms. This faith is closely linked to scientism, defined in Wikipedia as belief that empirical science and the scientific method provide the most “authoritative” worldview.

It seems to me that this is not really tenable, despite the undoubted cleverness of some of its adherents.

If we simply observe, we see our inner consciousness and an outer world – inner and outer. It is reasonable to accept that all beings of any scale experience that inner and outer – if not, where is the point of discontinuity?

As Descartes suggested, the outer is measurable, objective – and became the subject matter for the emerging science. Science became very good at creating mathematical models of the objective and establishing technologies to manipulate it, hence the technological wonders of the modern world. [Of course, any mathematician will tell you that Gödel’s theorem applies to such models, and it is impossible to construct a complete model that answers all questions. It cannot be done.]

The inner, subjective is the arena of qualities and values and cannot be objectively measured directly, so science cannot get a proper handle on it. It can try to generalise with statistics and probabilities, and it can establish material correlates [such a neurological] – all subject to the scientific method. But that’s about it.

Note that I do not mean to denigrate science itself, which is wonderful in its own domain. But it does have its limited field of application and should not imply that it can do more than it can.

Economic materialism

Economic materialism appears to be a dominant paradigm among that class of people who drive the economic development of our great corporations and economies. It is perhaps expressed most strongly in the extreme capitalist conception that the business enterprise must make money as its primary objective, and that all other considerations (which clearly include anything to do with values and the subjective) are secondary. Thus the leaders of a corporation are required to act in the ‘interest’ of shareholders to the detriment of all else, except where explicitly forbidden by laws, which are mostly arguable by that most inventive of professions – the legal. Civil society, what is right or the public interest are well down the list of priorities – hence the widespread tax avoidance common today.

The comforting theory is that the ‘invisible hand’ will make it all work out well in the end. It is even arguable that while economies are growing this attitude works well, there are always jobs, and inflation ensures that things do not get out of hand.

But here we are, and for many years the limits to growth have become increasingly apparent. Now our very planetary environment is at stake – with climate change related effects, inexorably increasing pollution, species loss, impoverished soils and seas, resource scarcity etc – and economic growth is stalled worldwide.

And the focus on ‘money at all costs’ by corporations and governments appears to stall any attempts to properly address the threats represented by climate change and pollution.

So, in the end, this would seem to be another self-defeating paradigm whose time has passed. The focus on outer has forgotten what really matters – the inner people, their values, their relationships, their compassion,… We need to go back to doing what is right, not what makes the most money.


Both these sorts of materialism have led us up a cul de sac, and it is difficult to see how we can get out. Their time has come and gone; we need to rediscover our place in the natural world. We need to understand and act on the inner, as well as the outer.

Martin Luther King said something similar, using completely different language, a year before he was assassinated:

“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin—we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

From Martin Luther King’s “Beyond Vietnam” address



I have tagged this blog item ‘conceptus’, in memory of a personal project I took on in the 1980s on an early computer. I aimed to set down in ‘The Conceptus’ key concepts that I thought it was important to understand, at a time of great change and personal development. I guess this idea is still within, so I will from time to time publish items with this tag when it seems appropriate.