What is philosophy for?

At the age of 99 and in the year of her death (2018), Mary Midgley published this ‘little’ book (her description), full of big ideas (my description) laying out her belief in the importance of philosophy in our daily lives. She points out that many university departments of philosophy have been shut down over recent years, for economic and other reasons, and many students who do study philosophy are no longer required to read the works of historical figures such as Aristotle, Kant and Descartes. But, she says, the past does not die. ‘…we need to check the details of past philosophies to protect ourselves against distorted versions of these people’s messages that are still working in our tradition’ (p.79).

Mary Midgley.
Source of image: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/mary-midgley-obituary-kgd79xrvx

Why should we study philosophy? As Midgley reminds us, Socrates warned us against living an unexamined life. She writes that the prime business of traditional philosophy is ‘surely the effort to examine our life as a whole, to make sense of it, to locate its big confusions and resolves its big conflicts…’ (p.11).

What Midgley makes abundantly clear is that our world and lives are far too complex and unpredictable for there to be one answer, and that we cannot find answers by progressing in straight lines. Everything is always changing and so we need to adopt many ways of thinking. This of course needs cross and interdisciplinary approaches to study, so that we can see things through new lenses. Philosophers light up life from unexpected angles.

Midgley bemoans the emphasis on specialization in our current education systems saying that we need different perspectives to give us space to think differently. She recognises the difficulty of bringing together different ways of thinking, and stresses the need for new inventive thinking to address complex questions such as those related to free will, the relation between mind and body, consciousness, health and quantum mechanics. Some things are beyond our understanding. We need new methods to find ways of asking the right questions. Measurement isn’t the answer. Not everything can be measured. Original thinkers stand back from their local context and look at problems in a wider context to see how they connect with wider questions. They use both telescopes and microscopes for philosophising. Philosophy tries to find suitably wide contexts to make sense of the whole. It looks at the positions of our various ways of thinking and tries to map their relation.

Midgley insists that philosophy is of value for its own sake. It is loose and mobile with more questions than answers; with conceptual difficulties rather than factual ones. Philosophy is about how to think, imagine, visualise, conceive and describe this confusing world. ‘If truth of some kind is our aim, it must surely be this larger, more distant truth, not a simple convergence on a nearer one’ (p.53).  Truth is too complex to be expressed in a single formula.

In the second half her book, Midgley focusses on the influence that science has had on philosophy, but says that philosophy has different aims to science. Science spirals in and down towards truth, but philosophy looks at the sum of all truths and the relation between them; it looks outwards for patterns and connections, although philosophy sometimes needs to deal with detailed technical questions. Philosophy is something we are doing all the time, a background to our lives. Its effect is primarily on our imagination; it profoundly shapes our inner life. Good philosophy does not easily get out of date.

Midgley writes of scientism as the new sedative which has overtaken religion as an authority in our culture. Today, physical knowledge and reliance on the future of machinery is valued above all else. The dominant symbol of machinery is very powerful for human imagination, but, Midgley warns, machines can only be produced by living minds. Machine imagery has become habitual and is no longer questioned. The new divinity is not God, but machines, but human nature is not a machine. Midgley believes it is a myth that machines can take control. She writes that machines cannot move from the role of servants to employers because they cannot draw on a lifetime’s experience of detailed human interactions. A machine cannot be programmed for this. Machines cannot choose their direction to raise their own questions; they cannot work in the general bewilderment that man lives and works in. There is no certainty.

In the final chapters of her book, Midgley discusses singularities (the idea that non-human intelligence will combine with human intelligence to provide answers to our unanswered questions), technological singularity (the point at which machines become more intelligent than humans) and whether intelligence can be measured, writing that the idea of singularity will die as memes have (memes have been found not to work like genes). Intelligence, she says, cannot be measured. It is not quantifiable stuff. There are many different sorts of intelligence. Understanding something depends on context; a single scale of cleverness is a myth.

In these final chapters Midgley also discusses what she calls ‘soul phobia’. Whilst according to Midgley the modernist creed is reductive and seeks to exorcise souls, there is, she says, a world beyond the abstract. She points out that claiming that nothing exists apart from matter, excludes God, our minds and subjectivity, but that nevertheless we each think separately and subjectively, and we have to work hard to achieve intersubjectivity and become objective.

To the end of the book, Midgley continues to point out the problems (as she sees them) with scientism, machines, materialism, artificial intelligence, and how scientists expect to be revered as the metaphysical source of all our knowledge, questioning on page 175 why anyone should ‘expect these extra calculative powers to make the difference that is needed’. ‘The confusions that now afflict human life are not due primarily to lack of cleverness, but to ordinary human causes such as greed, bias, folly, meanness, ignorance, ill-temper lack of common-sense, lack of interest, lack of public feeling, lack of teamwork, lack of experience, lack of conscience [and] perhaps most of all … mere general lack of thought. (p.186).

At the end of the book Midgley tells us that she writes books out of exasperation – general exasperation with our ‘modern’ outlook, which she sees as reductive, scientistic, mechanistic and fantasy-ridden, which distorts the world-view of our age.

For anyone who has read Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, the similarities between McGilchrist’s and Midgley’s thinking is marked, and indeed Mary Midgley wrote a very favourable review of The Master and His Emissary when it was first published, in 2009. McGilchrist writes that the ‘modern’ outlook described by Midgley is one dominated by the left hemisphere, and on page 15 of her book, Midgley writes about the divided brain, emphasising the need for more than one view of the world, and saying that science often needs to ask philosophical questions and to be connected to wider contexts. As she says, philosophy calls for a kind of controlled mental squint to reconcile a two-sided apprehension. We need to see from two sides, to be both actors and spectators. Philosophy can help us to do this. It answers large and unexpected questions and brings together aspects of life which have become separated, or disentangles them. There is only one world, but it is so complex that we need multiple thought patterns to answer it.  In accord with Hegel, we must find ways to combine the best part of a thesis with its antithesis, and examine what we are doing and how our thoughts determine how we act.

Finally, here’s a memorable quote from her book:

…philosophy is best understood as a form of plumbing. It’s the way in which we service the deep infrastructure of our lives – the patterns that are taken for granted because they have not really been questioned.’ (p.64)

Source of Image: Bryant Arnold. http://www.cartoonaday.com/meeting-doodle-of-plumbing-pipes/

6 thoughts on “What is philosophy for?

  1. roy October 5, 2020 / 4:12 pm

    In a conversation with one of the giants of IT innovation in the UK, I pointed out one of the fundamental limitations of AI and machines. Namely, that the computer is unable to use the first person pronoun – “I”. No matter what you ask an AI system, it can never answer “I think …” – there is no “I” in a machine.

    The problem is more than context – its the problem of personal commitment to the ‘position’ you take up in society – how you choose to be ‘sited’.

    See my comments on black lives matter, for more detail, here…


    specifically the posts of 01.07.20 and 26.06.20

  2. jennymackness October 6, 2020 / 9:36 am

    Hello Roy. I think Midgley would have agreed with you that the computer is unable to use the first person pronoun “I” and also that the problem is more (more complex?) than context. Perhaps it is even more complex than being a ‘problem of personal commitment to the ‘position’ you take up in society – how you choose to be ‘sited’.’

    It seems to me that choosing your personal commitment to society, or how you want to be ‘sited’ is not straightforward, i.e. making choices can be complex.

    On p.207 of her book (i.e. near the end) Midgley wrote “Yet what actually happens to us will surely be determined by human choices. Not even the most admirable machines can make better choices than the people who are supposed to be programming them. So we had surely better rely here on using our own Minds rather than wait for Matter to do the job.”

    On reading this I wondered how it related to machines winning chess matches. Isn’t this an example of machines making better choices, or are we saying that the person who programmed the machine was able to make better choices than the master chess player opponent? In which case, why play a machine?

    Thanks for the link to your “‘Resonances of Knowledge’ wiki page. Good to see this project continuing. I don’t think there are straightforward answers to any of the issues you raise and I’m not sure how easy it is to self-identify. Identity is another complex topic.

    Thanks for your comment Roy. It’s really good to hear from you.

  3. roy October 6, 2020 / 9:39 pm

    Thanks Jenny.

    I always wondered why people bothered to try to programme a machine to play chess (or “Go”, which looks much simpler, yet took many more years to programme well enough to beat the Masters – worth a look).

    Seems to me chess was all about how many thousand possibilities you could compute in the time available – so it was about ‘muscle’.

    But there must have been more strategy involved too. In the case of Go, the winning machine strategy ‘broke the rules’ and came up with a ‘new’, and unorthodox strategy. And the machine was not programmed to win, but to learn from its mistakes (it might be more complicated than that, but that’s the best I have). So … what does it mean to programme a machine to learn from its mistakes?

    However … I agree – the issue is about the interplay between context and position. Perhaps it’s about the type of ‘agency’ you are prepared to carry out/ the identity you are prepared to inhabit, etc.

    Which is, of course always a dilemma – see “If this is a man” by Primo Levi, on his Auschwitz survival dilemma. And guilt is (or should be) always knocking on the door too!

  4. jennymackness October 9, 2020 / 11:11 am

    Many thanks for the pointer to Primo Levi, Roy. I will have a look. I think Midgley would say that there are no straightforward answers to the issues you raise, and that the point of philosophy is to raise the issues and examine them from multiple perspectives. But ultimately, in relation to whether machines can replace humans, I would think we have to decide whether we want to play chess (or any other game) against a machine rather than a fellow human being, and it seems that many, many people choose the former. I wonder what Midgley’s thinking would have been had she lived another 50 years or more.

  5. betterwithdan November 26, 2020 / 12:06 pm

    Thanks. I look forward to checking it out. They are reasons why we need philosophy.

  6. jarwillis September 23, 2022 / 5:53 am

    It was Mary Midgely’s review of ‘The Master and His Emissary (Guardian?) that caused me to buy my copy – one of the most enthralling reads I have ever had.

    Coming to this post — via a link at the bottom of your latest — long after you wrote it, your description of Midgely’s mature reflection makes a huge amount of sense to me. It sounds as if this is another for the priority list.

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