Sixty years ago, two young women who were to go on to be two of the best-known philosophers of their generation, first crossed paths in Oxford. Last year, one of them, Dame Iris Murdoch, died after living with Alzheimer’s disease for several years. This year, the other, Mary Midgley, is back in Oxford and remembering her dear departed friend.
‘We both went up to Summerville in 1938,’ recalls Midgley. ‘We were the only two people taking our subject [Greats] in our year, so we were working together all through and we became very close. We remained close, she was a bridesmaid at my wedding. She’s one of my closest friends.’
The philosophies of Murdoch and Midgley parallel each other in many ways. Most obviously, both reacted strongly against the dominant ‘Oxford’ tradition, with its emphasis on dry linguistic analysis and its deliberate removal from everyday life. Neither Midgley nor Murdoch would likely have continued with philosophy, however, but for the intervention of the Second World War.
‘We started to do philosophy in the war, at which time all the people you think of as the Oxford philosophers, like Ryle and Ayer and so forth, were doing code and cipher at Bletchley or being dropped into European countries. There had already been [A.J. Ayer’s] Language, Truth and Logic so logical positivism was on the table. My tutor was Donald McKinnon, who was a big-time metaphysician. He was as much a theologian as a philosopher. Kant was the central theme with him. He was an old-fashioned philosopher. Both Iris and I took to that like ducks to water. Had we been presented only with the diet of narrow linguistic philosophy, I think both of us would have dropped out of it. It wasn’t our kind of thing at all.’
The war not only temporarily suspended the dominance of ‘Oxford’ philosophy, it also opened up the door to women. ‘Very few people were taking Greats at all, particularly very few men – there were as many women taking it as men, so the possibility of getting one’s mouth open and speaking about what interested one was much higher than usual and I think that the fact that not only Iris and I but Elizabeth Anscombe and Phillipa Foot came out of that generation is no accident. All of us then proceeded to do what we could about stopping the narrow kind of moral philosophy that went on.’
For anyone who suspects that gender is a key influence on how philosophy is done, this is grist to their mill. The men go off to war and while they’re away a different style of philosophy flourishes. Many women of this generation went on to specialise in what is now called ‘applied philosophy’, in other words, relating philosophical concerns, particularly in ethics, to real life. Does Midgley think that the fact these philosophers were women was an important factor here?
‘I do think that women are less likely to be prepared to spend their time playing games in philosophy and that’s what I think a great deal of philosophy is doing. Some of it, obviously, is simply complicated but it’s pretty far from life. I don’t think that it’s that women can’t perform these formal operations, but they wish for some reason to be shown why they should. That’s certainly my situation – I can’t speak for women in general. If you’re doing philosophy at all, if you’re engaged in the way that ideas work, then it’s a male peculiarity to wish to go right up in the air and go round in circles without relating them to anything else.’
A key characteristic of both Midgley and Murdoch’s reactions against the dominant Anglo-Saxon tradition has been their stress on holistic rather than reductive explanations. Midgley believes that philosophy has generally worked by breaking down and dividing up the phenomena it attempts to explain. Indeed, this is what is often understood by the notion of ‘analysis’ in analytic philosophy. The cost of this, thinks Midgley, has been a failure to attend to the ways in which parts form wholes and an unrealistic world-view which sees everything as mere composites of simpler, discrete units.
‘I think that [Iris and I] share the thought that it’s terribly important to see the whole and that one is usually deceiving oneself if one says X is only Y. Sometimes there’s good reason to attend only to Y. The illusion that particular scholars tend to have is that their subject has explained everything completely.’
One example of this reaction against reduction regards the traditional divide between feeling and reason. Midgley argues that one cannot divide up the mind so neatly.
This is a complaint about something that goes much further back than Oxford analytic philosophy. From Descartes, the enlightenment philosophising tradition has divided feeling from reason, and has, on the whole, been shouting on the side of reason. The image, for instance, of the rider [reason] taming the horse [emotion], or the colonial governor managing the natives has been so prominent. What one wants to say is that when somebody is puzzled or distressed by something, for example, they are doing one large thing of which feeling and reason are two aspects.’
Again, it is curious that the loudest voices calling for such holistic approaches have been those of women, but Midgley does not believe this opens the door to a view of philosophy as essentially gendered, because, as she says, ‘I want to say that we are all both. I do think very profoundly that we are all male and all female, that these are elements in all of us, that there should not be and isn’t warfare. You can find holistic male philosophers – Aristotle certainly was, and Butler, and I think on their good days people like Plato are both. The trouble is with their disciples and the formation of schools, these things always get more extreme.’
So though men and women in philosophy tend to pull in different directions, it’s not a matter of a fundamental divide, but rather one of a shift of emphasis. But philosophy needs both typically male and female influences in order for it to be done best. Midgley believes this is as true for the systems and cultures of universities as is it for arguments and theories.
‘The thing I complain of in universities is that you get great numbers of young men who have to make their way. Inevitably things are competitive. The business of winning arguments becomes very important, the lawyerly side of philosophising is bound to come out. I think it is true that if you have some more women around, less of this happens. If you had it the other way on planet X and mostly the women were doing it, it is quite likely that they wouldn’t be coming off the fence enough.’
Another division both Murdoch and Midgley are keen to dispute is the long-cherished distinction between facts and values. It has become something of a truism in philosophy that one cannot derive truths about values, particularly moral values, from value-free facts about the world. Murdoch tried to undermine this idea through her notion of attending. I asked Midgley how she understood this.
We are always treating people in ways which we think are appropriate to them as we see them – we think we’ve got the facts about these people. If we attend more closely we may often realise that these were not the relevant facts, the facts are more complicated. This is all a way of getting away from the simple fact/value dichotomy which was what we were all fighting in the early days, and it’s still there. One’s business is not only to respond to the situation in which one finds oneself, but also to make sure that is the situation by attending.
‘Iris is attacking the view that what we have to do is primarily to be free, our duty is to act and that there isn’t really any value or importance on our states of mind and the inner life doesn’t matter. This is, as she says, really an existentialist position. She says your inner life is actually really important, because you have an attitude, a way of thinking about, and a way of seeing the things and people that you’re involved with and it is your business to see whether that way of seeing is realistic. If you simply put your moral effort into making up your own mind and acting freely but don’t attend to what’s happening you’re very obviously missing out on a lot of what really matters.’
‘So on Murdoch’s view of ethics, we learn what is the right thing to do, the good, by attending to what is the case and increasing our understanding of reality. That’s why she thinks art is important, because art increases our sense of reality. The fact/value distinction is dissolved because if you have a full appreciation of reality you come to know what is the right thing.
Another striking similarity between the philosophies of Murdoch and Midgley is that they both stress how important it is to think of the myths and metaphors we use, most particularly when we fail to realise that we are speaking metaphorically.
What people take to be proper, official thinking is often a paired-down version of a myth and metaphor that they’ve been using – such as the selfish gene and viewing people as machines,’ says Midgley. ‘It is extraordinary, I think, how many theorists seem not to know when they are using a metaphor. “The human mind just is a computer made of meat,” for example, and when Dawkins quotes Nick Humphries saying about memes, “when you give me your idea you literally parasitise my mind.” It’s not just that people are using metaphors of which they are not totally aware but they use these metaphors explicitly as facts.’
Analytic philosophers won’t warm to this theme, because metaphors represent ambiguity and ambivalence, whereas analytic philosophers see themselves as giving clear, unambiguous explanations. Metaphor is therefore a threat to objective truth. Midgley would have it the other way around. By accepting and by being fully aware of the element of metaphor in what you’re saying, you see the broader picture and the truth of what you’re saying more clearly.
‘If they delude themselves that they’re doing without metaphors they’ve got to watch carefully,’ she warns ‘because we’re always using them and I think that a lot of apparently reductive and rigorous thought is distorted because it’s still containing metaphors, it just hasn’t noticed.’
Iris Murdoch herself was modest about her achievements in philosophy. ‘She wouldn’t consider herself as contributing at all, which is a great pity,’ claims Midgley. Her reputation as a novelist is far greater than her reputation as a philosopher. Nevertheless, Midgley does believe Murdoch has made a vital contribution to the subject.
‘I think that putting the inner life back is a frightfully important thing. The behaviouristic element in the kind of Hare and Hampshire line was terrible and they were quite unaware that it was so. They felt, with a certain sense of righteousness, that they were only going to be concerned with actions. “We wouldn’t indulge in attending to states of minds, this would be Epicurean, too self-occupied or something.” Well, I think the inner life is absolutely essential, we couldn’t possibly do without it and that the unhappiness and distress that a lot of people are in is to do with this.’