Jeffrey Wainwright's most recent book of poems is Out of the Air, and his next, Clarity or Death!, is in press at Carcanet. He is also author of Poetry: the Basics, and Acceptable Words: Essays on the Poetry of Geoffrey Hill. He teaches English at Manchester Metropolitan University. Here Jeffrey writes about Mary Midgley's The Owl of Minerva.
Jeffrey Wainwright on The Owl of Minerva: A Memoir by Mary Midgley
In the present context the philosopher Mary Midgley's memoir, published in 2005, falls into an odd category: a book which makes me wish I had known and kept Midgley's work by me for many years. This is because she does philosophy and writes about philosophy not just - thankfully - with exceptional clarity, but also heads straight for the most enduring questions. The first section of her first book, Beast and Man (1978), is headed 'Have We a Nature?' Not a tentative debut.
But Midgley is not a tentative writer. Whether she is dismissing the tyranny of that 'sinister fluid', ink, in her early education, the follies of some contemporary philosophy, or university policy, her manner is 'decided', even brisk. The adverb 'rather', as in 'I myself... rather like to make the best of things', is conspicuous. More than once I feel enjoined to sit up straight.
Now, we expect personality in a memoir, but there is a more important purpose here. The most salutary statement in The Owl of Minerva is entirely characteristic:
All thoughts are thoughts that somebody thinks.Midgley's love of philosophy makes her rebel against all pretensions to disembodied reason. Hence her effort to write a memoir which will foreground her intellectual education and development but do so in the context of her family background, her friendships, marriage, children, politics and teaching. In this work she synthesizes her thought with her life and its contingencies.
What contingency, for instance, contributed to the emergence of a quintet of female philosophers who were all contemporaries or near-contemporaries at Oxford in the early 1940s, and then lifelong friends or associates: Midgley, Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot, Elizabeth Anscombe and Mary Warnock? The brief section 'Gender Queries' is one point where Midgley is cautious, certainly because she is wary, as always, of simplified conclusions. The discourse of feminism is not her own, but she does associate these different philosophers in a shared critique of claims to separate facts from values, and is withering about the competitive power games of professional philosophy. Murdoch, she says, always asked what a particular philosopher is afraid of (surely a good question in other intellectual contexts), and for Midgley what many of her (male) analytical contemporaries feared was 'being thought weak - vague, credulous sentimental'.
The whole emphasis of The Owl of Minerva is upon context and inclusiveness. Reflection upon a whole life, with Midgley's comprehension, is deeply instructive about that most philosophical of topics, freedom. Resisting oppressive claims - of which she has evidently felt many and makes little - she nevertheless challenges the 'unconditional reverence' accorded the modern notion of 'freedom'.
Freedom from what? Freedom from scruple? Freedom from friendship and the bonds of affection? Freedom from principle? Freedom from all tradition? Freedom from feeling? These are the easy privileges of psychopaths, depressives and oafs.The central argument of Beast and Man, drawn in substantial part from associating human and non-human animals, is that we are communicative and thus culture-building creatures who cannot create our own existential separation. Our nature is cause neither for exaltation nor despair but for study, understanding and thought. In this account of her own life Mary Midgley generously shows us the value of such lived reflection.