As The Philosophers’ Magazine goes to press, we’re sad to learn of the death of Mary Midgley. She celebrated her 99th birthday in September and seemed to be on something of a roll. The Midgley Archive will be opened this year. She was part of a remarkable generation of women who were friends at Oxford during the Second World War — along with Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, and Iris Murdoch — and there’s a new group called In Parenthesis devoted to their work. A year-long series of lectures at The Royal Institute of Philosophy in London is also talking up the philosophy of what’s now being called “The Wartime Quartet”. On top of all that, I’ll say it again, at 99 years of age, she had a new book out, called What is Philosophy For?
In that book, Midgley argues that truth is distributed in lots of different places — different disciplines, points of view, ideas, and theories. What is philosophy for? It’s our way of making sense of all the ragged edges, the many attempts to get at the truth in this puzzling world. When our competing perspectives don’t quite cohere, we need philosophy. By her lights, we ought to get on with the job not as most philosophers today do, by teasing ideas apart, making distinctions, and reducing complex wholes to component parts. Instead, we ought to examine the histories of the ideas that cause us trouble and find ways to bring them together. Philosophy, she famously wrote, “is best understood as a form of plumbing.” Our thinking depends on hidden assumptions, and “we don’t notice this background till things start to go wrong — until, so to speak, the smell coming up from below is so bad that we are forced to take up the floorboards and do something about it.”
Those writing the obituaries of philosophers almost never have cause to look forward. But Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman, collaborators on the In Parenthesis project, had this to say about Midgely’s life and work, “An obituary gives notice of an ending. It does so by isolating an individual, treating her as a single organism whose complete life can now be told. But Mary’s story and the story of her contribution to philosophy is, for us, only just beginning. That story places Mary back in her context, among friends, one dazzling half of a hundred conversations still unfinished — she was writing to collaborators on the morning of her death. Those conversations must now go on with new interlocutors and under these sadder conditions. It is up to us to weave Mary’s work into our intellectual lives and in doing so make it part of a continuous shared effort to, in her words, ‘make sense of this deeply puzzling world’”.