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Durham University

Special Collections

Philosophical Themes in Mary Midgley's work

It is hard to classify Mary Midgley’s work into distinct themes, because her views in different areas are intimately connected. The following areas provide more of a guide than a taxonomy.

The images on this page are derived from a font created by Deborah Bower for the Philosophy by Postcard project, celebrating the centenary of Mary MIdgley's fellow philosopher and life-long friend Iris Murdoch.

Human Nature

Midgley was interested in what makes us the types of creatures that we are, and how this can inform our views on what it is to live well and thrive. She opposed views that hold that there is no such thing as human nature, while also rejecting the notion that human nature can be boiled down to one or two simple features.

Animals

Midgley advocated for animal welfare and a greater awareness that we live in a mixed community including humans and nonhumans. She was also interested in the kinds of myths and metaphors that employ animals, and what this says about us as human beings, and our fear of acknowledging our embodied animal nature.

Gaia

In the 1990s, Midgley became interested in Gaia theory, the view that the earth and its ecosystems should be regarded as a single self-sustaining organism. She held that Gaia theory was an important remedy to reductionist and atomistic views of the natural environment.

Thinking, Feeling and Imagination

Midgley rejected the idea that reason and feeling were radically distinct aspects of human life, together with the view that the sort of work involved in science was entirely distinct from the kind of imaginative vision required by artists and poets. A proper understanding of the world, she believed, required thinking as a whole person, employing all of these approaches.

Philosophical Plumbing

Midgley argued that philosophy is like plumbing: we have a network of ideas that are largely unseen, just like our plumbing systems, and in both cases we only become aware of them when something goes wrong. This metaphor is important in understanding Midgley’s approach: she took a practical view of the importance of philosophy, and believed that it had a role to play for everyone, in reaching a better understanding of our common life.

Science and Scientism

While she was a great admirer of science, and made use of it in much of her work, Midgley warned against ‘scientism’, the idea that science is the ultimate recourse in all situations, and that science alone can give us a full picture of the world that we inhabit.