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Wonder - and nature

So I put you through the wringer with those big posts on egalitarianism, and now for more... not of the same, but kind of similar... DON"T STOP READING! This is a little more appealing... maybe.

I have just finished Mary Midgley's Beast and Man. Midgley was at Oxford with Iris Murdoch and Philippa Foot during the Second World War when many of the men were absent and female philosophers were able to pursue their own interests. They moved away from the abstract and analytical obsessions of the current philosophical fashion and focused instead on issues of more relevance to life as it's lived. Murdoch's philosophical writing is rather more difficult for me to comprehend - though her novels offer insights into her philosophy. That was how she got her thoughts out there. Foot, I don't really know much about. Midgley, though, is incredibly readable - and really keen on animal rights, so I like her a lot. She died only a few years ago in her late nineties, I think, and was still debating until shortly before her death. This is the second of her books that I've read.

Much of it is concerned with arguing that there is such a thing as human nature, resulting from our evolution as animals. We share many of our primary reactions, interests and needs with other animals and can therefore ascertain certain basic values on which to found a system of ethics.

Due to the scientific and philosophical consensus at the time of writing, she had to fight hard to make this case. Now, it seems a common sense view, perhaps, but her lines of argument remain compelling.

The part I'd like to address, though, is the very end of the book, which seems to me to move beyond that framework and into a vision of 'what matters' beyond survival and basic contentment.

Midgley criticises Spinoza who sets non-human animals outside his moral compass. They, he says, do not have the intellect, though they may have emotions, albeit different ones. She counters this by categorising it as Egoism - the inclination to seek merely what is 'like' oneself. But, she says, the 'otherness of others' should not put them outside our consideration. What, she asks, would the world be like if we only cared for others in proportion to how much they are like ourselves? Where we were never delighted by difference? Actually, I think there is a great tendency for us to think and act in that way - to be suspicious of and judgmental of difference - Midgley's point is that it cannot be normative in a good society.

Kant, according to Midgley, responded brilliantly to what she sees as Spinoza's focus on the intellect as the morally defining quality by asserting that we must treat all others not as means to our own ends, but as ends in themselves. Consequently, one should not be kind because then God or society will smile on one (that's treating the other as a means) but purely because the other has intrinsic dignity and it is right to act in that way. Others have value in and for themselves, and can thus thwart or oppose us without being of lesser value as individuals.

In Midgley's view, the lines of life lead not inward (in terms of what one can gain from a situation or person), but outward - in curiosity about others and in social affection for them. The world is not there for us to internalise and thus gratify ourselves, but as something objective, wonderful, fascinating and other in and of itself. Midgley insists that we are beings in a society and a world and cannot extricate ourselves from it to consider ourselves as separate pure intellects. Our animal nature makes us finite and dependent and bound in with others.

That the world is strange and different from us. The fact that other creatures (and humans) can be seen as in many ways alien and other, can draw us out of our self-indulgent intellectual egoism into a wonder and awe that has value - not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. And by appreciating that - the wheeling kite above us, the intricacy of the bird's nest in our hedgerow or the glitteringly distant constellations above, for example - we are engaged in a release from the bounds of the ego and from our wrongful sense that we are somehow not a part of the whole of existence. Such experiences can remind us, in an experiential rather than reasoned way, of our embeddedness in nature and otherness.

Humanity, she says, is not adapted to live in a mirror-lined box of our own thoughts and reflections, but within a wide world that does not need us, constantly capable of surprising us, that we did not program and that can always arouse wonder.

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Apr 06, 2020

Beautifully argued. Inspiring. And you end with "wonder". Thanks. xx

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