Are You an Illusion?
The celebrated philosopher Mary Midgley was born a year after the guns fell silent in The Great War, so it is safe to say that she brings a lifetime of empirical nous – and common sense – to what it means to exist.
Are You an Illusion? is described as an impassioned defence of the singular importance of our own experience in life, that namely there is much more to our selves that a matrix of brain cells.
Her view is that modern cognitive scientists and psychologists – Richard Hawkins, for example, in all but name – in a bid to make their studies as forensic as possible, chose to deny the rich variety of the individual’s imaginative life.
Midgley, as clear a writer as she is a thinker, sets out to show that science’s denial of the self does not make sense and doesn’t look at the big picture, which is that the subjective sources of thought are every bit as necessary as the objectives ones.
Examining the beautiful feathers of the male Argus pheasant, Midgley asks whether there is not something condescending about scientists presuming to doubt whether these original designers (the birds) are capable of the ‘almost human degree of taste’ that is needed to appreciate their work.
Midgley takes the good fight against scientific arrogance: ‘Our own thoughts and feelings too, the constant flow of inner activity by which we respond to the life around us, also affect the world as well as our outward actions.’
Before teaching at Newscastle University, Midgley was part of a remarkable group of women philosophers at Oxford in the 1940s which included Mary Warnock, Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.
In her first book, Beast and Man, published in the late 1970s when she was 59, she postulated that people have more in common with animals than may be thought, which was viewed as anti-behaviourist.
In Are You an Illusion? Midgley argues cogently that we cannot afford to eliminate purpose from the natural world: the aim of scientific positivism was to produce a world of objects without subjects, which, she concludes, “is really not an intelligible idea at all.”