Mary Midgley

by Gina Schouten on October 29, 2018

I’ve been learning just a little bit about Mary Midgley, who wasn’t really on my radar before her death earlier this month. I enjoyed this in particular, from here:

““I started with Plato before I ever went to college… One day, I picked a little book off the bookshelf and said, ‘this might be quite fun.’ I decided it was quite fun.” There was a pause. “I could have picked up Spinoza.” She looked slightly alarmed at the possibility.”

I certainly didn’t pick up any philosophy from off the bookshelf before I went to college, but I’ve been trying to remember which philosopher I read first once I got there (and trying to imagine the consequences of lots of possibilities that I’m pretty sure are counter-factual). I think the first philosopher I read as a philosopher was King.




Murali 10.29.18 at 1:56 pm

The first bit of philosophy I ever picked up, even though I didn’t know that it was philosophy then was Mill’s On Liberty back when I was in JC. The road from there to me doing my PhD now has been a 15 year long winding one which took me through doing lifesciences first as an undergrad then doing an MA.


LFC 10.29.18 at 3:21 pm

Read some Plato in h.s., with a group of students but outside the high school curriculum. As a freshman in college (1975-76) took an intro to analytic philosophy course that I didn’t esp like (Russell and Carnap were among the authors assigned, and there were others); it was the first and last course I took in a philosophy dept. Was also introduced to Rawls and Nozick as a freshman, but that was not in a philosophy course. Never had to read M.L. King as part of my formal education.


kent 10.29.18 at 4:49 pm

I had not heard she died! Very sad.

Her book “Beast and Man” was deeply important to me in a number of ways. (I had never heard of her prior to picking it up … wow, has to be close to 25 years ago now.)

She wasn’t officially, as it were, “one of the great philosophers” … but somehow what she wrote often had a stronger impact on me than many of the official “greats.”


Matthew Blum 10.29.18 at 5:52 pm

Her book “Wickedness: A Philosophical Essay” was very thought-provoking.


Matt 10.29.18 at 9:08 pm

I don’t think we read him “as a philosopher” per se, but in a high school AP European History class I read Machiavelli’s _The Prince_ and _Discourses_. I suppose if King counts as a philosopher then Machiavelli does, too. It’s now hard for me to remember the order I took my undergrad courses in, but I think the first philosopher I read in a class there was Epictetus (the “handbook”) for an interdisciplinary humanities class, “Views on Human Nature”, team taught by a philosopher, and English professor, and a historian. It was a good and useful book for an undergrad to read, I thought.


Birdie 10.29.18 at 9:09 pm

Somehow came across Wilhelm Dilthey as a freshman. Can’t remember why, nobody I knew read such stuff, but it was formative.


J-D 10.29.18 at 10:19 pm

I find I can’t remember what I first read when, but reading that article about Mary Midgley I have to say that failure to recognise metaphorical language seems like a bit of a worry.


Josh 10.30.18 at 1:14 am

I picked Bertrand Russell off the bookshelf when I was a kid. Didn’t find him quite fun tho. I had more luck in college, reading Aristotle on my own time and Mill in a wonderful course in Victorian Nonfiction.


floopmeister 10.30.18 at 3:33 am

Marcus Aurelius – Meditations… and a smattering of Nietzsche.

Anything to counteract the mainline conservative Protestantism I was raised in.


bad Jim 10.30.18 at 7:06 am

One Christmas my sister gifted me with three books of philosophy. I don’t know why. I was maybe fifteen. One was Schopenhauer, another was perhaps Berkeley. I could make no sense of either. The third was Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil”, and that was kind of fun. By then I’d read a certain amount of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Freud, so the notion that philosophy was more provocative than dispositive seemed congenial.


Frederick 10.30.18 at 7:36 am

The first philosophy book that I read, and which changed my life was The Politics of Ecstasy by Timothy Leary. Seriously, especially with hindsight, because the entire thrust of Western philosophy, theology, religion & culture in which it is done, is quite literally the suppression of Ecstasy.
In one way or another he pointed me to Alan Watts, J Krishnamurti, and the very unique non-dual philosopher/realizer Franklin Merrell-Wolff.


novakant 10.30.18 at 10:05 am

Before university, I remember being impressed by the debates between Naphta and Settembrini in “The Magic Mountain”, and then I read up on Thomas Mann’s intellectual development and philosophical influences, especially in “Doctor Faustus” (Nietzsche).


Matt 10.30.18 at 11:25 am

Novakant – apparently the character of Naphta in “The Magic Mountain” was explicitly based on George Lukacs (who Mann knew well), so you were getting even more philosophy than expected.


MisterMr 10.30.18 at 11:35 am

I did read Plato’s dialogues when I was in late middle school or in early high school.
Then I tried to read another book, that was Kant’s critique of pure reason, but it was really too much for me at the time!
Plato on the other hand is written in such a way that can be read without previous knowledge, so it was fun.

However from the 3rd to the 5th year of high school I had a “philosophy” class (acrually more like history of philosophy).
This doesn’t happen in all italian high schools but it is standard in the “liceo scientifico” and “liceo classico” kind of high school, so it’s not rare. (in those schools we also had to learn some latin, and in the liceo classico they also have to study greek, so these are quite literary oriented kind of schools).

In this class I had to read various excerpts from philosophers (though the only one philosophy book I had to read in full was Feuerbach “Essence of Christianity” in the 5th year, I had a rather marxist philosophy theacher).

Do high school students in other countries have philosophy or history of philosophy classes?
I’m a bit curious because nobody in the comments said anything about it.


harry b 10.30.18 at 1:06 pm

My first philosophy book was the Tractatus. My A-Level economics teacher, Mr. Ross-Smith, gave it to me, and read it with my during lunchtimes. It was riveting but I didn’t understand it at all. Then he gave me Quine’s On What There Is, which I found thrilling. I decided that the only way I’d ever learn how to do Philosophy would be if I studied it at university and was taught it. But for him, I would certainly have studied History. In the light of all that I can identify with Mary Midgeley’s sense of existential horror at the thought of being presented with Spinoza. (Or, maybe it would have made me me even more resolved!).

When I think about that, it seems to me my teacher was very discerning. It was exactly what I needed, and not at all what anyone else thought I needed (they all thought I needed more of what I wanted: politics).


Cian 10.30.18 at 2:15 pm

Do high school students in other countries have philosophy or history of philosophy classes?

They do in France. In the US/UK it would be very unusual.


Gina 10.30.18 at 2:24 pm

MisterMr (14),
“Do high school students in other countries have philosophy or history of philosophy classes?”
I’d be interested to learn more about this too. I think that in the US, it varies a lot by school. I think probably most public high schools don’t even *offer* any philosophy, and I’ve never heard of one that *requires* any. But lots of private schools have it and I think some snazzier public schools probably do too.
I know only a little bit about the role philosophy plays in primary and secondary school curricula in countries outside the US. (I briefly looked into this once because I was thinking that the discipline would be more diverse along lines of race and gender if it were introduced earlier. The argument for thinking that is, roughly, that an earlier introduction would encourage people to think of it not as a thing that one is either innately good or innately bad at, but rather as a thing that one learns to do; and that an earlier introduction would lessen the opportunity costs of giving it a try.) My sense at the time was that it’s becoming more common for high school students to be introduced to philosophy.


bob mcmanus 10.30.18 at 3:20 pm

Mom bought both the Britannicas and Great Books before we entered school ~ 1955. Cost a small fortune on installments, mostly a scam and a waste, but they suited me just great. Felt classy and adult to a ten yr old, woah, even scholarly. Ignoring them when Mom spent so much money made me feel guilty, so just developed the habit of keeping a volume a bedside. Dante Shakespeare Montaigne.

Aristotle was there right next to Aristophanes, and I can’t say The Birds is so much more difficult or alien than Nichomachean Ethics. Sure I skipped the analytics and Galen, and the First Critique, but Hume and Berkeley ain’t so bad. I gained an attitude of being scared of nuthin, including reading for hours with little comprehension.

I make no claims as to finishing or understanding much of them at all.

(I also had a pb copy of Kaufmann’s portable Nietzsche in HS.)


Z 10.30.18 at 6:23 pm

Ah, picking up philosophy books from the bookshelf…

I picked up Plato’s Dialogue at my school library when I was 12 or 13, I think, I can’t recall why exactly, though plausible explanations are 1) I had to translate an excerpt from them in my Classical Greek course (a mildly popular elective in France) and wanted to know what happened afterwards or 2) my parents were reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and praising it and at the time I could not read English so I tried to go to the source material or 3) I was curious, meaning I was eager to climb up the ladder of intellectual respectability. In the following three years or so, I was quite into it so I read about 5 or 6 dialogues and was keen to discuss them to whomever. My friends and would-be girlfriend at the time were surprisingly OK to discuss Plato’s arguments at length for a bunch of teenagers. Or they were just nice to me. I also read Unended quest (Popper’s autobiography) when I was about 15 but I have no idea why (most likely explanation: the book was lying around in my house) and remember enjoying it a lot (but contrary to the Socratic dialogues, I don’t remember anything about it except that Popper pitied a blind boy when he was a kid). The idea of falsifiability certainly made an impression on me because I remember trying to explain the concept to a (female) friend of mine in the first year of high-school and that somehow turned into an unpleasant experience for the aforementioned would-be girlfriend* (don’t ask!). Like MisterMr, I tried Kant in I think my last year of high-school, but to no avail. On the other hand, I remember absolutely loving Diderot’s Letter on the Blind for the Use of those who can see, (a short essay that my teenage self recommends very warmly, I haven’t re-read it since). That’s it before higher education, I think. Like all French high-school student, I had a mandatory Philosophy class in high-school, but we weren’t assigned any full-length book to read (also my teacher was an alcoholic, and that happened to be its least character flaw, as teacher). Oh no, wait, I spent a summer trimester in an American high-school when I was 16 and there, they made me read Thoreau’s Walden and Emerson’s Self-reliance, and I read Poe’s Eureka, but I don’t know if that counts as philosophy.

A strange consequence of my early binge reading of Plato and the fact my teenage peers were quite open to it was that for a long, long time afterwards I could not quite believe that some people would mean it literally when they said they did not know the first thing about Plato. I mean, surely they had read a couple of dialogues in junior high-school, or at least discuss them with a friend?

*So falsifiability doomed my adolescent romantic hopes. On the other hand, positivism played a key role in my first date with my wife so, everything considered, I’d say philosophy was worth it.


Z 10.30.18 at 7:15 pm

“Do high school students in other countries have philosophy or history of philosophy classes?” I’d be interested to learn more about this too.

In France, 4 out of 5 students go either to a so-called general or technologic high-schools (by contrast with vocational high-schools). They all have one year of mandatory Philosophy course. In addition, the French literature courses in the two previous years and the Latin or Classical Greek electives (for the students who choose them) will usually contain a dose of philosophy. The program is structured in terms of themes (truth, the self and others, justice, love, liberty, beauty, reality, perception…) and the way most teacher teach it is to discuss these themes with the students and while doing so, introducing and quoting from philosophers from the Western canon with a heavy touch of French parochialism of course*. At the end of the year, there is a national exam in which students have four hours either to write a commentary of aout a paragraph of a philosophical text or to write a dissertation on a given topic (this is up to the student).

This year, the of texts were an extract of Mill’s System of Logic, an extract of Schopenhauer The world as will…, an extract of Durkheim’s Elementary forms… and an extract of Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws while examples of dissertation topic were Does culture make us more human? Is desire a mark of our imperfection? Can experience be deceptive? or Are all truths definitive? That was half a lifetime ago now for me, but Internet tells me I once wrote a dissertation on Is the value of a scientific theory measured by its practical efficiency?

All that might seem ambitious but the reality is that there is a rather wide gap between what is formally asked (some mastery of the thinking of philosophers in the Western canon on the topic of the dissertation) and the standards required to get a passing grade (writing a semi-coherent text with not too many grammatically incorrect sentences).

*What’s that you ask? Well, I discovered that the French centralized state has a list enshrined in an official judicial text: teacher must study in details at least one or two works from the authors below (authors out of this list may be studied provided that requirement has been satisfied). A great object study for cultural sociology.

Platon ; Aristote ; Épicure ; Lucrèce ; Sénèque ; Cicéron ; Épictète ; Marc Aurèle ; Sextus Empiricus ; Plotin ; Augustin ; Averroès ; Anselme ; Thomas d’Aquin ; Guillaume d’Ockham.
Machiavel ; Montaigne ; Bacon ; Hobbes ; Descartes ; Pascal ; Spinoza ; Locke ; Malebranche ; Leibniz ; Vico ; Berkeley ; Condillac ; Montesquieu ; Hume ; Rousseau ; Diderot ; Kant.
Hegel ; Schopenhauer ; Tocqueville ; Comte ; Cournot ; Mill ; Kierkegaard ; Marx ; Nietzsche ; Freud ; Durkheim ; Husserl ; Bergson ; Alain ; Russell ; Bachelard ; Heidegger ; Wittgenstein ; Popper ; Sartre ; Arendt ; Merleau-Ponty ; Levinas ; Foucault.


engels 10.30.18 at 8:19 pm


Do high school students in other countries have philosophy or history of philosophy classes?

In my school nobody seemed to know what it was (which may have been why I wanted to study it).


floopmeister 10.31.18 at 12:06 am

but Internet tells me I once wrote a dissertation on Is the value of a scientific theory measured by its practical efficiency?


Perhaps you could send a copy to Australia’s Minister for Education?

I keep thinking that minister’s name is Phyllis Stein, but I could be mistaken…


Matt 10.31.18 at 12:25 am

I’m a bit surprised at all the hating on Spinoza here. I’d had several philosophy classes before I read him, but I _loved_ the Ethics and even more the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. I certainly have always enjoyed him more than the endless shaggy dog stories and question-begging in Plato! This is one place where I’ve long agreed with Wittgenstein: ““Reading the Socratic dialogues one has the feeling: what a frightful waste of time! What’s the point of these arguments that prove nothing and clarify nothing?” Spinoza is much more fun than that.


LFC 10.31.18 at 12:54 pm

Z @20

Thanks for the informative comment on the French system. The list is interesting, and the inclusion of, say, Alain (whose real name I’d have to look up) does suggest an (unsurprising) touch of French parochialism, to use your word. The names that are not there (e.g., Raymond Aron, Camus, S. de Beauvoir, S. Weil, Levi-Strauss, Mounier, etc.) might also be worth noting.


steven t johnson 10.31.18 at 3:39 pm

Re Spinoza-hating: The left wing of the Enlightenment is far too left for today’s acceptable politics. Determinism abstracted from the new image of the world provided by science offends the self-image of the thinker changing the world by thinking, rather than the world changing thinking. Religion shorn of superstition and bigotry leaves out all the fun bits. A politics that smells of majority rule doesn’t seem to fit a model of the world taken from the lecture hall. And, the notion of knowledge contradicts epistemic skepticism, the last but greatest defense of reaction devised by philosophers.


TheSophist 10.31.18 at 8:28 pm

Do high school students in other countries have philosophy or history of philosophy classes?

I teach a course entitled Theories of Justice in which we read Plato (Euthyphro), Rawls, (Justice as Freedom), and Kant (Groundwork) among others, along with Sandel’s Justice and Singer’s …Most Good.. . Unfortunately my high school (a 25k/yr prep school in AZ) is far, far from typical.


engels 10.31.18 at 10:17 pm

one has the feeling: what a frightful waste of time! What’s the point of these arguments that prove nothing and clarify nothing?

To quote Estragon: ‘let’s go!’


Z 11.01.18 at 10:13 am

@LFC The names that are not there

Yeah, I find that interesting. One single women, no one who wasn’t born in Europe or in a place that was a some point a province of the Roman Empire. And Cournot (!) and Condillac (!!), but no Adam Smith? The 20th century is also pretty weird. I admit that I have had the feeling that the CT community sometimes overplays the importance of the English-speaking world in philosophy, but that list is 10 times worse in the reverse direction. Also, it seems to me, way too much Late Antiquity and European Medieval philosophy for a list which does not spare a word for (for instance) Confucius, Ibn Sina or Al-Hazen.

But for sure, that list reflects quite a number of decades of academic wrestling for influence in the tiny microcosm of French academic philosophy (and academia in general, I’m pretty sure for instance that the exclusion of Voltaire from the list reflects the monopoly that French literature has on him) and I would just love to be a fly on the wall the day the responsible committee convenes to see if it should be updated, and if so how.


ardj 11.01.18 at 5:49 pm

As my younger daughter has this year taken the Bac, I am a little better informed about it than my English education left me. Yes, there is a gap between what is formally asked and the practice: but that is inevitable, and partly built into the requirements. One is not in fact asked to come to grips with the whole of the – or a – Western canon: that is the point of the thematic approach. A good prof will avoid any “encyclopaedist” tendency, rather asking their students to think for themselves, using the tools which have been offered them – and drawing in examples from authors outside the canon: besides the predictable Mme Bovary, my daughter, either of her own accord or prompted, drew on instances from Molière, Jane Austen, Baudelaire, Malraux … as well as looking at how historians practise thinking about history.

This is in fact much as you note in your explanation of the Bac, rather than a : and that is surely the purpose of studying the subject at school. Would that I had had such an introduction – to ideas and to thinking.

Regrettably the current French government, and particularly the blinkered and, I would say, morally corrupt conservative in charge of education, are set to change this approach, both to reduce the hours given to philosophy (and indeed to deprofessionalize education, to suppress teaching posts and also the already too few assistants of various kinds, to be replaced by policemen, perhaps) and to move away from themes to a review of authors and their major (dare I say, “great”) ideas.(cf.

For my own part, and coming back to Mister M @ 14, I cannot speak for the UK, but the official national curriculum at does not mention it – though it does have religious education, and maybe some teachers smuggle in something of philosophy. I went to an Anglican public school (it was a wholly charitable school, my parents had no money), and one year managed to come bottom of the hundred or so boys in my year in Divinity: this surprised me, as I took a keen interest in “knowing the enemy”. Philosophy there was none, but I found a copy of Russell’s History of Western Philosophy in the (rather good) Library, which kept me amused for days. Later, while reading literature, I did do a paper in moral philosophy in my last year, so had at least some professional introduction to the subject.

However the UK government has neglected to give a curriculum for 16-18 year olds (“key stage 5″), so perhaps they don’t expect them to learn anything at all. Harry B, @15, was, I would guess, very lucky – cf. Cian @16.


Fergus 11.01.18 at 6:25 pm


Jim Harrison 11.01.18 at 8:28 pm

I have to speak up for Spinoza. It’s a matter of filial piety. The year before he died my then 92 year old father told me that he had read Spinoza at UCLA in 1930 or so and been convinced that he was basically right. He kept quiet about it for 70 years, presumably to keep from rising my mother who was a conventional Christian. Spinoza, like Marx and Nietzsche, remains virulent and frightening to many people. Jonathan Israel’s enormous books on his influence document how knowledge of his ideas was actually promulgated more by the umpteen attempts to refute him than by his actual writings, which were banned for a long time. If you’re going to dismiss somebody like that, you ought at least explain why somebody who is obviously wrong continues to attract so many readers.


steven t johnson 11.02.18 at 2:21 pm

Jim Harrison@31 mentions Israel. I would add that Israel gives Bayle equal honors for influence. Bayle’s negative critique was much less influential in the end, because progress is made by increasing knowledge of how things are. “We can’t know” is always a quietist program. Forgetting those who exploded old errors is like kicking away a ladder after you’ve gotten over the wall.


Harry B 11.02.18 at 11:17 pm

ardj — Oh, yes, lucky beyond belief…. He was our third economics teacher, the first having I think gone to prison, and the second (who was useless) having, I think, been fired. He was more interested in Philosophy than in Economics and somehow discerned that I would be more interested in it than in History. I think of the time he devoted to me when I spend time with my students.


J-D 11.03.18 at 8:58 am


My comment was based solely on reading the arricle originally linked to. I don’t want to get into a discussion here of the dispute between Mary Midgley and Richard Dawkins, because I don’t think it’s relevant, but but since commenting I’ve read just a little more about it, and already I think the one sentence quoted in that article gave a misleading impression and that it’s not fair to suggest that Mary Midgley couldn’t recognise metaphorical language.


Z 11.03.18 at 9:30 am

besides the predictable Mme Bovary, my daughter, either of her own accord or prompted, drew on instances from Molière, Jane Austen, Baudelaire, Malraux … as well as looking at how historians practise thinking about history.

This looks like a pretty outstanding Bac in Philosophie… Hope it went well for her.


harry b 11.03.18 at 6:52 pm

I really can’t stand Dawkins but this displays a sense of irony and self-awareness that I rather admire:

“Her concluding footnote would be hard to match, in reputable journals, for its patronising condescension toward a fellow academic (a fellow academic, moreover, who is a professional in the field under discussion, a field in which the critic herself is most charitably described as trying hard)”

That said, I don’t think Midgley had any trouble with metaphor or understanding Dawkins.

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