Friday, 9 October 2009

Taking time to think - Mary Midgley

I first came across philosopher Mary Midgley in a book of interview transcriptions from the UK Woman's hour and warmed to her immediately. That interview took place in 2003 when she was in her mid-eighties. Here was someone who was interested in thinking properly, as I am, and I liked her style.

She described her continuing motivation in tackling big issues this way:
"I see people believing things that I’m sure aren’t right and having a bad effect by so doing, and I think that I could help here by explaining it a bit differently. I have compared philosophy here to plumbing and I think it’s a good comparison. There is s system of ideas running under the world that we live in, and we don’t notice it a great deal of the time, any more than we notice the water. Then sometimes awful smells start coming up from below or the taps don’t run. You’ve got to take up the floorboards and see what’s wrong. This is what I see myself as trying to do and I haven’t stopped feeling like that about it."
This prompted me to read her memoir "The Owl of Minerva" which I thoroughly enjoyed. She studied at Oxford during World War Two, and went on to teach. She started writing books when she was in her fifties, and when she was asked why she had held off from doing so for so long she replied that she had needed time to think.

I identified with this response completely. When I was in my early forties I experienced a grand crisis in which everything, especially my belief systems, came up for review. It was a harrowing experience, and I came to realise that what I had regarded as my own ideas was actually a pastiche of other peoples. This was a shock as I had always taken a certain pride in what I thought was independent thinking. I don't know that we are ever fully independent, to be honest, but there are degrees of it, and after spending further years weighing up my world view I came to a much broader and sounder base for how I see and work things out. It's been a hard-won achievement but a good one.

Like Professor Midgley I hope that sharing some of this may benefit others, not in pushing my own ideas but in prompting others to work out their own. In the words of Gotthold Lessing, a German dramatist-critic of the 1700s, "Think wrongly if you please, but in all cases, think for yourself" - a provoking statement whichever way you look at it! Good!

The interview transcript appears in a book called "Woman's hour: from Joyce Grenfell to Sharon Osbourne; celebrating sixty years of women's lives"

Book shop links for interested NZ readers
"Owl of Minerva" by Mary Midgley
Owl of Minerva: A Memoir

"Woman's hour: from Joyce Grenfell to Sharon Osbourne"

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