Lesley Brown, Emeritus Fellow, writes about Mary Midgley (1938, Lit. Hum.), Honorary Fellow, who has died aged 99.
Mary Midgley was the author of more than a dozen books of philosophy, from her first, Beast and Man (1978) to What is Philosophy For, published shortly before her death at the age of 99. She became well known for her scientifically informed and wide-ranging theorising about ethics, which eschewed what she saw as the narrow concerns of mainstream moral philosophy in favour of a approach which integrated the implications of scientific advances and of evolutionary theory for understanding human behaviour. Among her best known books are Animals and Why They Matter (1983), The Ethical Primate (1994) and Wickedness (1984). In her autobiography, The Owl of Minerva (2005), she recorded how —thanks in particular to her book Wickedness —she was often called on to take part in broadcast discussions of an interdisciplinary nature. In these she deployed her wide knowledge of evolutionary theory and animal behaviour and their application to philosophy.
Mary Midgley taught philosophy at the University of Newcastle from 1965 to 1980, when she took early retirement to focus on her writing. Prior to that she had taught briefly at the University of Reading, and at Somerville while a graduate student (1947-9). In 1950 she married Geoffrey Midgley; they had three sons.
Mary Scrutton, as she was then, won a scholarship to Somerville and came up to read Classics Mods and Greats in 1938, finding herself in the same cohort as Iris Murdoch, who became a lifelong friend. Both of them gained firsts in 1942, before taking up the civil service war work they were assigned on graduation.
As an undergraduate and later when she returned as a philosophy graduate student to Oxford in the forties, she was close to Elizabeth Anscombe and to Philippa Foot. Her autobiography recalls the fruitful discussions held between herself, Foot, Anscombe and Jean Coutts, later the philosopher Jean Austin.
All these women, together with the slightly younger Mary Warnock, came to make names for themselves in philosophy, and Midgley credited this in part to the fact that in wartime Oxford there were fewer pushy male students around, so that it was a great deal easier for a woman to be heard than it is in normal times. In recent years these women philosophers have been the subject of considerable interest, and Mary Midgley was a key figure for an ongoing research project at the University of Durham into the work and experiences of these philosophers who were fellow students, all of them associated with Somerville: Anscombe, Foot, Midgley and Murdoch.