Tuesday, June 12, 2007


Philosophers are always complaining that other people's remarks are not clear when what they mean is that they are unwelcome. So they often cultivate the art of not understanding things -- something which British analytic philosophers are particularly good at.

This is from Mary Midgley's The Owl of Minerva (p. 13), her philosophical autobiography. Richard Dawkins has a grudge against her because she has attacked his writings in a way he considers "intemperate and vicious". She was just being Mary Midgley -- "pathologically truthful" is the label she herself uses for it; except when she is angry, she tries to be fair, but she never pulls her punches. Her beef with Dawkins is that she thinks he too often tries to get by on rhetoric rather than substantial argument, and a muddled rhetoric at that. The Midgley style is not always the right way to go, and perhaps not usually, but there's a sort of charm to it when it's not directed at you, which makes her autobiography quite a delightful read, particularly as she shows restraint. One of the things I particularly liked about it was that she brings out very clearly just how much of a disruption the Second World War caused for the profession of philosophy. It changed academia completely, partly by forcing it to be much more diverse. I don't think we usually quite understand how much the tone and tenor of academic life depends wholly on external factors.

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