Philosophy Mary Midgley
Liz McKinnell
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0418


Mary Beatrice Midgley (née Scrutton; b. 13 September 1919–d. 10 October 2018) wrote twenty philosophical books that use an engaging style and surprisingly domestic metaphors to convey profound thought about a diverse range of topics, including human nature, animals, environmentalism, ethics, science, gender, and the practice of philosophy itself. Her first book was the influential Beast and Man, published in 1978, and her last was What Is Philosophy For?, a defense of the need for philosophical thinking, published just before her death at the age of ninety-nine. Midgley has recently garnered more philosophical attention and is now widely recognized as an original and incisive voice in philosophy. The daughter of a pacifist curate, Midgley was born in Dulwich, London, before moving to Cambridge, Greenford, and Kingston. A nature-loving child, with passions for drama and poetry, she was educated at Downe House School near Newbury, before reading Classics and Greats at Somerville College, Oxford, between 1938 and 1942. Here she met her fellow members of the wartime Quartet of women philosophers (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Philosophy articles on “G. E. M. Anscombe,” “Philippa Foot,” and “Iris Murdoch”). The four became great friends and influenced each other throughout their working lives. Their connections include a frustration with the narrowness of the systematic philosophy that was in vogue during their formative years, and the revival of virtue in moral philosophy. Unlike her contemporaries, Midgley published little work until her fifties, after she had raised children and left academic philosophy. As Midgley said, “I wrote no books until I was a good 50, and I’m jolly glad because I didn’t know what I thought before then.” For this reason, Midgley’s writing is striking in its consistency. Articles of this kind often chart changes of mind and theoretical revisions. While Midgley’s thought undoubtedly developed and expanded, there are no early or late periods, marked by stark differences of view. One of Midgley’s criticisms of her predecessors concerned their neglect of the history of ideas. Midgley holds that to understand a philosophical system, we must understand the context in which it arose. Philosophy and culture are interconnected: the great thinkers of any era are influenced by their historical circumstances, and the patterns of thought within a culture are, whether we realize it or not, profoundly philosophical. Philosophy, she argues, is indispensable, because it allows us to make sense of our current predicaments and—where necessary—make changes to our patterns of thought.

General Overviews

There is only one comprehensive introduction to Midgley’s philosophy. McElwain 2020 gives a good overview, and casts light on frequently overlooked aspects of her thought. Kidd and McKinnell 2016 is an edited collection of essays exploring Midgley’s work, arranged thematically, and also provides an overview of her life and thought. Few writers in philosophy are as clear and readable as Midgley herself, so the best way to understand Midgley is probably to read Midgley. Midgley 2005 is an excellent collection of her writing, which, combined with thematic introductory sections, is a good way into Midgley’s philosophy. McGrath 2020 provides an overview of some of Midgley’s central themes and relates them to theology. Robson 2020 gives an exceptionally clear introduction to Midgley’s thought, and O’Hear 2020 discusses Midgley in the context of her Oxford colleagues Anscombe, Foot, and Murdoch.

  • Kidd, Ian James, and Liz McKinnell, eds. Science and the Self: Animals, Evolution, and Ethics; Essays in Honour of Mary Midgley. New York and Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2016.

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    An edited collection of essays celebrating different aspects of Midgley’s philosophy. Contributors come from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds, showing the practical import of Midgley’s thought beyond philosophy as well as within it. The introduction gives a useful overview of Midgley’s life and ideas. Contains an afterword written by Midgley herself. Selected essays from this book are also cited under Themes.

  • McElwain, Gregory S. Mary Midgley: An Introduction. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020.

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    The first full-length introduction to Midgley’s philosophy. McElwain takes a thematic approach to Midgley’s work, outlining and elucidating the central concepts and problems that characterize her career. The volume is supplemented by previously unpublished interviews with Midgley herself, and is a very useful resource for anyone getting started with Midgley.

  • McGrath, Alister E. “The Owl of Minerva: Reflections on the Theological Significance of Mary Midgley.” The Heythrop Journal 61.5 (2020): 852–864.

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    An article surveying the themes of Midgley’s work and assessing their connections to theology.

  • Midgley, Mary. The Essential Mary Midgley. Edited by David Midgley. London: Routledge, 2005.

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    An excellent collection of Mary’s work, edited by her son David Midgley. His introduction and section introductions provide helpful thematic summaries of Midgley’s work.

  • O’Hear, Anthony, ed. A Centenary Celebration: Anscombe, Foot, Midgley, Murdoch. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 87. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2020.

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    A volume celebrating the centenary of the births of Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch. Based on the Royal Institute of Philosophy’s lecture series on the same topic in 2018–2019 (see section on Online and Multimedia Resources).

  • Robson, Ellie. “Mary Midgley.” In The Philosopher Queens: The Lives and Legacies of Philosophy’s Unsung Women. Edited by Rebecca Buxton and Lisa Whiting. London: Unbound, 2020.

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    Robson’s essay introduces the key ideas from Midgley’s philosophy as part of this beautiful collection celebrating women in philosophy. The essay is especially illuminating on Midgley’s concept of philosophical plumbing, and the role that myths and metaphors play in her thought.

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