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Midgley on Philosophy

Mary Midgley.2005 To bookend the Pentenary special, Enemy: A Morality Tale, the esteemed British moral philosopher Mary Midgley, whose books were a major inspiration for the serial, kindly agreed to an interview. I asked her about her work, her views on play and games, and the various controversies she has been embroiled with throughout her distinguished career.

Chris Bateman: In your first book, Beast & Man, you make a strong argument for the idea of human nature, and it seems that in many respects you were trying to balance the books in the nature vs. nurture debate. However, your publisher pushed you into responding to E.O. Wilson's Sociobiology, which you critique quite devastatingly.

Mary Midgley: When I wrote Beast & Man I was well aware that a major war was going on about nature/nurture questions. I understood that warriors were making powerful attempts to use the authority of science misleadingly by applying it to these general philosophic questions. So I did not expect the extreme, overly reductive accounts of it that were current to give way quickly to my objections – or to those of other better-known champions such as Gould and Lewontin. On the whole I thought the response that I did get to my book at the time was quite good seeing that I was an unknown author, and references to it since then have been reasonably fair.

Chris: Is it frustrating to see that this kind of overly reductive account still dominates discussion of behaviour in many scientific circles?

Mary: The tide of reduction has, I think, slackened slightly since then and some questions are certainly being much more realistically handled than they were. But God (if he is watching) knows we have still a long way to go.

Chris: You were one of the first people to contend (in Beast & Man) that "anthropomorphism" was being applied excessively as a criticism against interpreting the motives of animals, and that it was in fact perfectly possible to understand animal motives if one has the requisite experience. Have you been pleased that discussions of animal behaviour in books and nature documentaries have become more sophisticated in this regard?

Mary: I certainly have been pleased to see that discussions of animal behaviour have become more sophisticated – one might say, less totally barbarous – than they were when I was first involved in them. We owe this to a devoted army of observers and arguers – in the first place to Peter Singer and then perhaps most notably to the female primatologists – who have forced the facts on people's attention. But again, we still have a terribly long way to go.

Chris: Can't We Make Moral Judgements? can be seen as an impassioned defence of the value of moral philosophy. You suggest at one point that the development and prominence of moral thinking in human culture is related to the sense of continuity through time. This sounds very close to what Heidegger calls Dasein, being in time. Had you read any Heidegger before writing this book, and what do you make of his contribution to philosophy?

Mary: No, I'm afraid I have never read him. I was always put off by that special language – it runs counter to my deep identification with everyday speech. But of course I know something of what he said, and I have the impression that, if one seriously studies him, he can do the same sort of liberating sort of job for one's thinking that Wittgenstein does – again, provided that one works to understand him properly. But, as I've got Wittgenstein, I'm leaving Heidegger on one side for my next reincarnation.

Chris: I enjoyed your paper "The Game Game", which may have been the first attempt at bringing Johan Huizinga's ideas into a philosophical context. In this paper, you have a dig at Wittgenstein's concept of 'family resemblance', following a line of argument inspired by Julius Kovesi. When you suggest that games can be understood as ritualised conflicts, doesn't this overlook other things we also call 'games', like children's games of make-believe or singing games like 'Ring a Ring a Roses', which are not conflicts?

Mary: Yes, non-competitive games are an interesting issue. 'Ring o'Roses' certainly is one, and it's possible to play games like Boggle and Scrabble co-operatively. Small children can sometimes be led to do this. But of course many children's games do centre on conflict – look at 'Cowboys and Indians', or 'French and English'. And 'Oranges and Lemons' ends by cutting people's heads off. The co-operative element is certainly usually present; it has to be, to make people keep to the rules. But a trifle of competition very readily comes in to make things more exciting, and when the word is used emphatically to make an important point they tend to be central.

Chris: If the notion of a 'game' contains multiple, distinct aspects (as for instance Roger Caillois suggested, following Huizinga), isn't Wittgenstein's idea of 'family resemblance' an appropriate metaphor for how we recognise a game?

Mary: In "The Game Game" I said that games are, 'among other things, ritualized conflict' (p.141). This was as an example of my general point that such words have neither a single, fixed meaning (which was what Wittgenstein pointed out) nor merely a vague string of resembling meanings (as his idea of family resemblance suggested) but a definite shape, an underlying organic unity which is often mysterious but must be present in the background to account for e.g. their being usable as metaphors. Thus, as I remarked (p.134), he puts great reliance on the term 'language game' which calls for the word 'game' to be understood in quite a subtle way that would only be possible if we have a general grasp of the concept.

Chris: So you point relates to the way we communicate with concepts; how he can build upon general ideas in novel new ways?

Mary: Yes, extensions through metaphor like this are often a crucial part of new thinking. They work through exploring further the paradox at the heart of the meaning – e.g. games are cut off from the rest of life yet are also deeply continuous with it. Non-competitive games have, of course, their own connection with the rest of life in the general context of 'play', which Huizinga deploys so well.

Chris: My copy of Evolution as a Religion is covered in angrily scribbled pencil notations by someone who seems absolutely determined to reject your core argument. Weirdly, he seems to erroneously assume you are Roman Catholic and also believes that this conclusion permits him to simply dismiss your analysis of how wild metaphysical ideas have crept through the back door of science. Has this kind of hostile and dismissive reaction been typical of how this (and your later book, Science as Salvation) has been received by the scientific community?

Mary: The former owner of your copy of Evolution as a Religion seems to have been one of those unlucky people who go through life looking for something to hate, and read books hoping that they will provide them with some such topic. I am happy to say that he (it is surely probably a he?) doesn't seem to be typical of readers of these two books. I suppose that scientists who would really hate them perhaps don't often read them? But anyway, I have had good and appreciative responses to them from many scientifically educated people, and certainly no organised hostile response. I don't of course, get as widely read as I should like – but the books are still in print and seem still to be selling.

Chris: You have suggested that there is currently a major cultural disaster concerning the distortion of the topic of motives (for instance, by mistakenly believing genes have ultimate power over behaviour). Do you have any sense that this situation might be improving? Are you hopeful that a more balanced perspective on motivation might be regained?

Mary: I am temperamentally a hopeful person, so I have to believe that the changes I try to bring about are indeed possible, and this is one of them. If you think about the problems of past people – e.g. J.S. Mill and others, campaigning for the Factory Acts in the 1840s – you can see that they might very well have been advised that what they were trying to do was simply impossible. Theoretical economists as well as industrial muscle were against them; shouldn't they just give up? I think the general confusion today about motivation, free-will etc. is equally bad. One can't tell what will improve this situation, but I still intend to go on trying!

With grateful thanks to Mary for her time.


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This interview appeared as part of the Philospher's Carnival #117.

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