James Garvey in Prospect:
Just a few weeks before her death in October, Mary Midgley agreed to meet and discuss her new book, What Is Philosophy For? It seemed astonishing that someone about to celebrate her 99th birthday had a new book out, but I was less in awe of that than the reputation of one of the most important British philosophers of the 20th century and beyond.
People who have encountered Midgley often use the word “formidable” to describe her. Journalist Andrew Brown called her “the most frightening philosopher in the country: the one before whom it is least pleasant to appear a fool.” During my email correspondence with her to set up a date to talk about those philosophical problems “which are exercising both me and the public,” she worried that publications like the ones I write for “occasionally give rather half-witted answers to large questions of this kind.”
A lot of people were on the receiving end of her sharp intellect. She made puncturing scientific pretension into an art form—going after DNA discoverer Francis Crick for saying that human behavior can be explained simply by the interactions of brain cells, the physicist Lawrence Krauss for claiming that only science can solve philosophical problems, those theorists who insist we must look to machines for our salvation, and, most famously, Richard Dawkins for the idea that a gene could be selfish.
In person, though, Midgley was kind, generous with her time and as engaged as ever with philosophical ideas—even if her voice was soft and she had a little trouble hearing me. She sat in an armchair, sipping tea, surrounded by books. Having just celebrated her approaching birthday with friends and family, she had a kitchen full of cakes.