For a subject that is supposed to grapple with timeless questions, philosophy is chronically vulnerable to changing fashions. Trends come and go, one philosopher is all the rage, then the moment passes, the once radical insights begin to look dated and the intellectual caravan moves on to some new, often more arcane, territory of thought.
The moral philosopher Mary Midgley has never enjoyed the popular renown of, say, an AJ Ayer or the professional respect of a Richard Rorty, let alone the cult status of the continental critical theorists. But it's fair to say that at 94, she is finally beginning to draw attention from further afield than the narrow confines of her discipline. She's noticed this herself, as she's suddenly fielding emails from people from many different backgrounds from all over the world.
Her latest book is provocatively titled Are You an Illusion? Like much of her previous work, it's an attack on what she views as the shibboleths of materialism – the notion that everything in the universe, including us, can ultimately be understood through its physical properties. But it focuses in particular on the thorny issue of the self or consciousness or even, as Midgley sometimes puts it, the soul.
And currently there is what might be called a battle for the human soul being fought between the humanities and the sciences over who is best placed to examine the nature of consciousness and what it means to be human. One recent typical skirmish was an ill-tempered exchange of essays between the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker and the literary critic Leon Wieseltier in the pages of the New Republic.
There's nothing like a heated debate to whip up interest and Midgley, as spry as she is dry, is glad of the background buzz. "I don't know why the news of this current book has travelled quite widely," she says. "It hasn't happened in the past. I think this topic of the self is rising in fashion. Well aren't I lucky. My books haven't been totally neglected. They've been quite treated quite respectfully, but I remember once going into Blackwell's in Oxford and seeing an enormous sort of board there covered with [Richard] Dawkins's books."
She allows herself a knowing look. White-haired, with an expression of almost pained contemplation etched into her face, Midgley can be a forbidding presence not given to cheap laughter. But a mischievous sense of humour underlies many of her observations.
We are sitting in her kitchen in her comfortable cottagey house in a quiet terrace in Jesmond, Newcastle. I have arrived just in time for lunch – soup and cheese on toast – which she serves, explaining that she needs to get it out of the way before we talk, otherwise, once she starts discussing ideas, she's "inclined to forget to feed people". She also tells me that her movement, which is slow but not particularly frail, has been improved by the acquisition of a treadmill. "Not the fierce kind. Not the ones that run away from you, but the kind that make it very easy to practise walking."
Still it's striking that, for all her satisfaction with the upturn in interest in her, almost within the first minute of our conversation she brings up her bete noir Richard Dawkins, the public figure she most firmly associates with what she derides as "scientism", and the author she savaged, against the background of almost universal praise for him, following the publication of The Selfish Gene.
"I don't quite understand how Dawkins has become such a sage and so prominent," she continues, suggesting that it was the celebrated evolutionary biologist's misfortune to encounter exceptional success as "a young man of 27" – although he was actually 35 when The Selfish Gene was published. The same thing happened to AJ Ayer, she says, but he spent the rest of his career taking back what he'd written in Language, Truth and Logic. "This hasn't occurred to Dawkins," she says. "He goes on saying the same thing."
She goes into a long explanation of how Dawkins misunderstood her original criticisms, wrongly believing that she hadn't read his book, and how her initial response to his arguments was intemperate. "I was horrified, so I wrote a very cross article, which one shouldn't. He was cross understandably. Everybody was telling him he was the cat's whiskers, you see, and I wasn't."
I ask her if she has ever met the man she's spent a good chunk of her public pronouncements chastising. "Only in passing on the stairs once," she says, leaving a dramatic pause. "Nothing dreadful happened."
She says she doesn't want to "keep on attacking" Dawkins, but he appears once again in Are You an Illusion? as a leading representative of what Midgley sees as a kind of self-deceiving fatalism, namely the conviction that the universe has no purpose, that it contains at bottom, as Dawkins has written, "nothing but blind, pitiless indifference".
Midgley insists that no one can know this, and that there is in fact much evidence to suggest there is purpose. Our own planet, she argues, is "riddled with purpose… full of organisms, beings that all steadily pursue their own characteristic ways of life, beings that can be understood only by grasping the distinctive thing that each of them is trying to be and do".
It's language like this that has had led some readers to see Midgley, the daughter of "a highly intelligent parson", as a quasi-religious thinker, ever alive to the unknown and unknowable. Although she is not a believer in God, she speaks about a "life force", some mysterious tendency towards life "and the gradual complexifying of life" that forces its way into existence and survives extinctions. She's not talking about DNA or genes, but something that gives rise to them. She quotes her philosophical soulmate, the American Thomas Nagel. "He says the possibility of the development of conscious organisms must have been built into the world from the beginning. It cannot be an accident."
Such an outlook comes perilously close to the perspective of "intelligent design" but she has spoken of ID as "rubbish". Yet rather than see it as a deliberate attempt by the religious to disguise faith in the clothes of pseudo-science, she argues that ID was a sort of desperate, if ill-conceived, response to a misreading of Darwinism disseminated by people like Dawkins.
Hence her decision to write The Solitary Self: Darwin and the Selfish Gene, which was published in 2010. Before she wrote that book, she had told herself that she wasn't going to write any more because it was so tiring – "It's like being an ant crossing the road". What drove her on was exasperation with Dawkins.
Exasperation once again brought her back to the study to write Are You an Illusion?, but this time around the catalyst was Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA. She quotes his book The Astonishing Hypothesis in Are You an Illusion?: "You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact [her italics] no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their attendant molecules."
She seems outraged by Crick's presumption, as though it means that our sense of self is an illusion, an elaborate trick played by our nerve cells. But, while it seems reasonable to argue that neuroscience has overstated its case in the search for consciousness, I can't see what the problem is with Crick's statement. For a start, the "behaviour" he refers to can and does entail a limitless range of possibilities, so it's hardly a reductive summary. And second it doesn't appear to be an illusion that we cease to exist as conscious beings the moment those nerve cells stop functioning. Thus I ask her what she takes consciousness to mean.
"Well," she says, with a professorial air of correction, "one's got to know in what terms one's talking. I don't think that it's a thing on its own, a spirit that comes and is put into people. I think it's a faculty that animals including us have. And it's developed gradually out of other faculties."
She continues, citing examples of plants that respond dramatically to their environment, before cautioning that it's not possible to say at what stage in evolution consciousness kicks in. "The trouble is we're getting at the problem of consciousness from the wrong end because this dogmatic materialism which I was attacking in the book is so much part of our culture that consciousness comes in as something unaccountable."
She stops, and before going almost immediately into a much longer and deeper historical analysis of the question, she says: "I think I must finish my toast and my soup."Midgley's bete noir Richard Dawkins: 'He goes on saying the same thing.'
It's a testament to the abiding acuity of Midgley's mind that one tends to make few concessions to the fact that she's in the middle of her 10th decade. She was born 10 months after the end of the first world war but she didn't publish her first book, Beast and Man, a defence of human nature against what she saw as the false assumptions of behaviourism and sociobiology, until 1978, when she was 59. "On one side there were the people who said there was no such thing as human nature, that was the social scientists and also the existentialists, and on the other, people like Desmond Morris, who said there is such a thing as human nature and it's brutal and nasty. And I thought we do have a nature and it's much more in the middle. And the other animals are not as beastly as was suggested nor are we so unlike them."
She was one of an extraordinary group of female philosophers at Oxford during the war that comprised Philippa Foot, Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe and Mary Warnock, all of whom went on to work in moral philosophy or ethics. Was that a coincidence, I ask, or was it a female response to the male world of logical positivism that dominated British philosophy at that time?
"Well some chaps did as well," she replies. "The fact that we were all women, as I keep saying, [is because] in the war there were so few men around, and the men who were around tended to be conscientious objectors or disabled, so there simply wasn't the sort of fighting and squabbling that there was later."
In a recent letter to the Guardian, explaining why she thought there was a shortfall in women philosophers, she wrote: "The trouble is not, of course, men as such – men have done good enough philosophy in the past. What is wrong is a particular style of philosophising that results from encouraging a lot of clever young men to compete in winning arguments. These people then quickly build up a set of games out of simple oppositions and elaborate them until, in the end, nobody else can see what they are talking about."
It has remained one of Midgley's principles to write in such a way that the maximum number of people can see what she's talking about. The philosopher and historian Jonathan Rée says: "She has always written in a language that's not aimed at the cleverest graduate student. She's never been interested in the glamour and greasy pole" associated with Oxbridge and London.
At Oxford and for long afterwards, she was very close to Iris Murdoch who, when they first met, was a member of the Communist party. Midgley was "passionately interested in politics" but says she was put off communism by the show trials of the 1930s. "Iris always said, 'Oh, it's not like that now'." The Labour club at Oxford split among communist and non-communist, with Midgley joining the latter group, along with future Labour cabinet ministers Anthony Crosland and Roy Jenkins. But Midgley was deterred by the clubbiness of it all, which she thought was exemplified by Jenkins and others singing Frankie and Johnny at meetings. "It turned out to be a tribe whose customs I could never really get around."
She has continued to take an interest in politics and "shout from time to time and vote, largely for Labour but not always". What she finds difficult to understand is the apathy of the young and the general indifference to "this massive inequality problem". "It's not as if people sit down on the right. They just sit down in the middle."
Yet she acknowledges that inequality was much more obvious when she first moved to Newcastle in 1950, when her husband, Geoffrey Midgley, got a job at the university. "One would sit next to miners on the bus and you couldn't understand what they were saying."
She gave up teaching for a while to have children – she had three boys who are now in their 60s. One is a physicist, as are two of her grandchildren. I raise an eyebrow. "I haven't got anything against physics you understand," she says. I ask her if she ever identified herself as a feminist.
"Well I always knew about the suffragettes and so on and I always identified in general as a feminist in thinking that women ought to have a better deal, ought to be paid better. I don't think I ever got interested in the sort of mystiques that have grown up about it and I'm not terribly keen on them."
The only book she has written that is out of print, she says, was one called Women's Choices (co-written with Judith Hughes), which asked what should be done about the position of women. "It's quite a good book actually. The trouble is that it had been commissioned by the SDP – remember the SDP? So because of that it didn't get a lot of attention. But in writing it we had to read, oh dear me, a lot of post-Derrida feminists, and I thought it was awful."
Did she never have much time for the continental critical theory movement? "No, I'm sorry, I never did," she says, not sounding in the least bit apologetic. "I found the language too off‑putting."
When she returned to teaching after motherhood she became, along with her husband, a much-loved figure in the philosophy department at Newcastle. Jonathan Rée ascribes her loyalty to the north-east to her "democratic spirit". He thinks Midgley is "rather splendid", not least for the resilience she had displayed in her stand against the physical sciences' colonisation of her subject. "I think there's a patronising attitude towards her in 'cutting-edge philosophy' that has caused her to be underestimated," says Rée.
The philosopher Roger Scruton, himself no slave to fashion, has praised Midgley for having "ploughed her own furrow". He wrote of her: "Believing that philosophy has been wrongly described as the handmaiden of the sciences, she seeks instead to approximate it to art, poetry and religion, as part of a systematic attempt to make sense of the human condition and to show the place in the natural world of beings like us."
Midgley herself has several metaphors to describe that process. In one she speaks of science being but one portal through which to observe an aquarium of life. In another she refers to science as "one of the enterprising plants" – along with history, poetry, music and mathematics – "that have taken root… and spread to transform great parts of the human landscape".
This is all very well, but the point about, say, gravity or electromagnetic forces is that they exist – unlike poetry or music – regardless of the human landscape. Which brings us back to the question of meaning. We can't help but place ourselves in the centre of the universe, to search for patterns and clues that are resonant with us. But isn't this our attempt to make sense of a universe that is indifferent to our struggle?
"You want some sort of proof that is you and isn't you," she admonishes me. "You're going on as if there was some kind of proof that wouldn't go through oneself. There can't be, can there?"
My favourite Midgley analogy is one in which she compares philosophy to plumbing, as something you don't notice until things go wrong. "I know when it begins to stink," she says, "you've got to do something."
Things begin to stink, she argues, when we neglect the ideas that inform our actions. On the coffee table in her living room is an atlas she was given for Christmas. It is open on a map of Crimea. She says she's worried about what Putin might do next, but she's also fascinated by maps and the role they play in conflict. She believes that we search out meaning because it's the way that we deal with conflicts, and conflict is a fundamental part of the human condition. "We try to find some sort of map on which [the two sides] can be drawn together. Because if we didn't our choices would be random and they're not."
In this light, she refers to the work of the controversial physicist Paul Davies, who views science's refusal to question the origin of physical laws as an article of faith much like religion.
"The kind of thing that Paul Davies has dwelt on, about the improbability of all this order, seems to me to be sensible. So that one has to say that from the big bang onwards there's some sort of tendency towards the formation of order and in certain stages of order towards proceeding to life and to produce more and more perceptive life as it were. Well this talk about a life force seems to me highly suitable and I don't see anything superstitious about it. It's still very vague but of course that's getting you quite near to 'well of course that means there's a God'. People talk about the origin of having gods was just that you wanted to explain things or have something to placate us, but it seems to me one important source of it is gratitude. You go out on a day like this and you're really grateful. I don't know who to."
Given her nebulous gratitude, I wonder why she rejected religion. "I didn't exactly reject it," she says. "I couldn't make it work. I would try to pray and it didn't seem to get me anywhere so I stopped after a while. But I think it's a perfectly sensible world view. It caused my parents and people like them often to make what I think were good choices. And I notice this particularly with Buddhists, the notion that there is some kind of force that makes for righteousness, as Matthew Arnold said, is on the whole a helpful one."
Our conversation, which has lasted more than two hours, is drawing to a close. The photographer has arrived and it's almost teatime. She devotes her mornings to writing and her afternoons to correspondence and reading. It's a punishing enough schedule without a lengthy interview-cum-philosophical discussion thrown in. But before I leave, I ask her if she thinks – having lived so much of it – there is a point to life.
"Well there are many points. People like living for its own sake. If one wants to know why, I suppose one might go to Aristotle and say that they've got capacities that they wish to use and they want a life in which they can use them. But in a general way, they might also want a better life going on around them, and I think that's a perfectly proper and useful thing to pursue. You see what everybody's saying about Tony Benn, it's perfectly true. He sometimes made mistakes but he was passionately keen to make life better for people. And if that wasn't going on a great deal of the time we would be in a far worse mess than we are. And that the point of life could be to make life better doesn't seem to me too mysterious."
With that I leave this remarkable woman to prepare for her close-up. Outside, it's a beautiful spring day. The sun is shining, Jesmond Dene is stirring from a long, wet winter and the mild air is full of promise of warmer days to come. The feeling I have as I head for the train station is unmistakably one of gratitude, and not just for the weather.