Monday, January 09, 2006

Mary Midgley's View of Philosophy as a Kind of Plumbing.

" ... philosophers, then, need a combination of gifts that is rare. They must be lawyers as well as poets." -- Mary Midgley. (The Photo of Ms. Midgley may be blocked by N.J. hackers.)

Mary Midgley, "Philosophical Plumbing," in Utopias, Dolphins and Computers: Problems of Philosophical Plumbing (London & New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 1.

I remember a Somerset Maugham story of an English traveller who comes upon a tiny village in the mountains of Asia, only to find a nice English spinster living in the rough equivalent of a cottage in Sussex. Maugham was struck by the frequent presence of eccentric English women in the most bizarre places, lending a sense of normality (and a nice cup of tea) to the most outlandish settings. The portrait of Mary Midgley may be blocked by Cuban-Americans convinced that the aged British philosopher is sympathetic to Communism.

In a similar Truman Capote story, told in the first person, a traveller finds a "light in a window," a bit of Christmas warmth with a fellow Jane Austen enthusiast, after being stranded in the midst of a snow storm.

If Maugham and Capote were to combine their talents and invent a character living in our time in an unexpected setting, who teaches philosophy and writes books, she would be Mary Midgley. Professor Midgley is far too improbable a character to exist in the real world, and yet (somehow) she does. This should be comforting to religious believers.

Along with Philipa Foot, Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe and very few others, Ms. Midgley was among the Oxbridge women who happened to be philosophers coming of age before the Second World War. These women were outstanding thinkers shaped by the horrors and losses of that military struggle. Without exception they rejected the scientism that came to dominate British philosophy during the post-war period.

I became aware of Midgley's work after reading her debates with Richard Dawkins. She won all of those exchanges, easily, challenging Professor Dawkins on his misuse of metaphor and spotting his rampant scientism. I enjoy her plain, direct, witty and accessible literary style. Also without exception, these women described themselves as "not clever" and/or "unimportant," including Iris Murdoch, who was both clever and important well beyond Britain's boundaries as were all of these ladies.

I wish to make a few comments about Midgley's classic essay "Philosophical Plumbing," which landed her in some trouble. Some of her British colleagues were outraged that she compared philosophy to plumbing. I have made a similar comparison, suggesting that philosophers are "intellectual sanitation workers" and that philosophy is like "housework." Professor Midgley explains:

I have made this comparison a number of times, wanting to stress that philosophizing is not just grand and elegant and difficult, it is also needed. It isn't optional. ...

Plumbing and philosophy are both activities that arise because elaborate cultures like ours have, beneath their surface, a fairly complex system which is usually unnoticed, but which sometimes goes wrong. In both cases, this can have serious consequences. Each is hard to repair when it goes wrong, because neither of them was ever consciously planned as a whole.

This sounds like an excellent description of the common law tradition. Underlying almost all of our thinking, even our social reality, is a network of concepts and relations that we take for granted, until we begin to experience some difficulties in the use of these concepts. We then find it necessary to engage in conceptual analysis and repair. The only persons who can do this sort of conceptual analysis and repair are philosophers -- especially, these days, when our conceptual structures have become so intricate and technical.

Philosophers are like "child-care specialists" caring for concepts that behave like unruly children. It is difficult to make our concepts play nicely together. The scientific concepts are always taking the humanistic concepts' toys and placing them in bizarre places. Is that nice? I don't think so.

What is a "person"? Or "memory"? What are responsibility, freedom, society, law, thinking, good, truth, knowledge, and so on?

Try reasoning about any political or social issue without making use of these concepts and others like them, which are inextricably related. All of these are philosophical concepts, incidentally, and hotly contested ones, too.

Our ideas are under critique and analysis in a way that they have not been for several centuries. This is because the conceptual structure put in place at the end of the eighteenth century ("Modernity" or the "Enlightenment," and I am aware of the controversy concerning the use of these terms) is running into some trouble with age. Perhaps it is time for a new filter or even an extra-large pump to get the waste out. It is not so easy for philosophy to keep up with all those concepts running around in the yard.

Learning is not a private playground for the learned. It is something that belongs to and affects all of us. Because we are a culture that values knowledge and understanding so highly, the part of every study that can be widely understood -- the general, interpretative part, the ideology -- always does seep out in the end and concern us all. The conceptual schemes used in every study are not private ponds, they are streams that are fed from our everyday thinking, are altered by the learned, and eventually flow back into it, influencing our lives.

Professor Midgley uses the example of social contract theory. Social contract theory was invented by the philosophers of the early modern period to solve the problem of an assumed divine right of kings that fit into a pre-modern understanding of government and politics. This pre-modern understanding made use of a view of nature and human relations as teleological, involving a great and ascending "chain of being," leading ultimately to God. To question kings and monarchy was to bring down the entire medieval intellectual edifice -- which the philosophers did, eventually, only to replace the system with one that was more congenial to the interests of a rising commercial class.

The view that political legitimacy emerges not from above ("God wills it"), but from below ("we agree to it"), in turn led to an atomistic conception of persons as "individuals" or "free agents," choosing to come together socially for strictly selfish reasons of efficiency, and then returning to the personal "private" realm of aesthetic and other satisfactions. It follows that social reality may be divided neatly into the "public" and "private" realms.

This "Modern" system of ideas certainly fulfilled the purposes for which it was created. We got rid of kings and this allowed for Capitalism and the industrial revolution to succeed -- even for them to "marry" in the modern mega-State -- but the fictions used for these purposes of liberation have since become a new prison. Hence, recent attempts by philosophers to theorize a solution to our intellectual predicament by moving beyond modernity and achieving a post-modern politics for our post-modernist "condition." ("Roberto Unger's Revolutionary Social Theory.")

If it is true that we are "individuals," then it is also and no less true that we are inherently social creatures, who can only become individuals in communities. You may wish to refer to Hegel or Marx at this point, but American thinkers from Thomas Jefferson to Royce, Peirce ("Evolutionary Love") or Dewey may also be quoted in support of this proposition. We are not pieces of Lego, attachable or detachable at will. We are not like billiard balls colliding, haphazardly or randomly into societies. We are shaped and united by more primal bonds.

Friends share their lives; they are no longer totally separate entities. They are not pieces of Lego that have just been fitted together for convenience.

... If you have been my friend [or someone I love] for years, that friendship has changed both of us. We now rely deeply on each other; we have exchanged some functions, we contain elements of each other's lives. We are quite properly mutually dependent, not because of some shameful weakness, but just in proportion to what we have put into this friendship and what we have made of it. Of course any friendship can end if it has to, but that ending will be a misfortune. It will wound us. An organic model, which says that we are members of one another, describes this situation far better than a Lego model.

Recent understandings of ourselves as social creatures, linked to a natural ecology and to the universe of energy and matter, may be associated with a renewed appreciation of the insights in British idealism and other organic theories of community. From a different direction, Marxism is also illuminating on these issues: "... we are not self-contained and self-sufficient," Professor Midgley writes, " but live naturally in deep mutual dependence." ("Drawing Room Comedy: A Philosophical Essay in the Form of a Film Script.")

The worst psychological injury that can be done to a person is to destroy the network of relationships in which he or she is located, so as to be understood, shattering his or her sense of living within a meaning-conferring community. A woman I love can reduce me to Jello or devastate me with a single smile. Action at a distance.

All of these British women -- who contributed greatly to philosophy in the twentieth century -- were influenced by idealism and phenomenology to a greater extent than their male counterparts. All of these talented philosophers were as horrified (as I am) by censorship, plagiarism, totalitarianism and efforts to suppress dissent. Everyone of these women received far less than her due in terms of professional recognition or distinction. ("Master and Commander.")

Philosophy and science rely on symbols and conceptual structures that must be examined, periodically, to determine when and where repairs need to be made. Modernity, as a conceptual system, is in need of such examination (and of many drastic repairs) right now.

Myth and symbol are inextricable from all human thinking, including scientific thinking, as Professor Dawkins learned from his exchanges with Mary Midgley. They cannot be removed from our thoughts as relics of a simpler era. Most importantly -- I wish that all lawyers could be taught this! -- Professor Midgley makes it clear that:

WE THINK AS WHOLE PEOPLE, NOT AS DISEMBODIED MINDS, NOT AS COMPUTERS. All ideas that are of the slightest interest to anybody can have unintended emotional and practical consequences -- consequences which cannot possibly be spelt out in advance. And, without this constant flow of ideas, life would grind to a halt. ...

It follows that ...

... philosophy, like food and water, is something that we must have because we are in real trouble without it.

Not surprisingly, we are in real trouble today. ("Stuart Hampshire and Iris Murdoch On Freedom of Mind and Imagination.")

Philosophy is much less widely available to students and professionals than it should be. This is unfortunate. Appalling philosophical ignorance is something which can be remedied with individual effort. Read and study philosophy, most of which is much more accessible than law books or business texts. Any law school graduate can be a philosopher of the subject. Regardless of what kind of thinking you do in your professional life, philosophy will make you better at it. You will be a better lawyer, psychologist, teacher with some understanding of the tradition of thought from which these disciplines or professions emerge, and by which they have been shaped.

A good place to start studying philosophy is with Mary Midgley's books. I am saddened to learn of the death of Ms. Foot. I have read and admired her writings for many years. I will write a brief comment on one of her essays as a small gesture of gratitude for her important work.

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