The Myths We Live By
, by moral philosopher Mary Midgley, is a collection of articles dealing with the importance of symbolism in all our thought and the subsequent need to take our imaginative life seriously. Myths are not lies, she claims, they are not diverting stories, nor do they contrast with something apparently more solid such as "objective scientific truth". Myths and symbols are more like the things we think with. They suggest particular ways of interpreting the world.
Those familiar with Midgely's excellent Science and Poetry will recognise a continuing interest in how some of our most powerful myths (the myth of the social contract, of social atomism, of progress) are understood via the metaphorical light of recent technologies-the telescope, the microscope, the computer-in ways that are no longer useful to our present needs. The familiar contrastive ways of thinking (hard/soft, higher/lower, mind/body, inside/outside, heaven/earth, appearance/reality, objective/subjective, science/poetry) useful as they have been, can also be the prison-houses of thought, keeping us bound to one of the most powerful and misleading myths of all--the myth of science as omnicompetent method.
When thinking about Mary Midgley it pays to compare her with Richard Dawkins. Dawkins approaches his subject with something like cosmic awe. He is the poet-priest of science who writes with an irresistibly powerful appreciation of the wonder and poetic beauty of nature. But Midgeley takes issue with just the sort of scientist-as-priest he might be: the sort of person who thinks that "science is the only way to know the real world", that evidence-based beliefs are the only ones worth having, that religious beliefs are cowardly and irrational and that science is the "hard" king of the disciplines.
Midgley, by contrast, maps culture in an entirely different way. She shows us that there are different ways of looking at the world, different sources of knowledge that all have their place depending on what it is we want to know. Midgley shows us a way to end the contest of the faculties without giving the victory to one discipline or another and this makes her one of the most important thinker-about-thinking philosophers in the country. In Midgley's map of the intellectual landscape there are no priests and the world looks a more interesting place because of it. Try comparing Dawkins' discussion of science and romantic poetry (Unweaving the Rainbow) with any of Midgley's recent offerings. --Larry Brown
'For those who haven't yet read Midgley, these essays are an excellent place to start.' - Jon Turney, The Guardian
'An elegant and sane little book. Unusually for a philosopher, Midgley has a superb ear for the use and misuse of language.' - Edward Skidelsky, New Statesman
'She has, perhaps, the sharpest perception of any living thinker of the dangerous extremism that lurks behind so much contemporary scientistic discourse ... Merely as anthologies of contemporary folly, Midgley's books are essential reading ... we have Mary Midgley among us. We should pay attention and be grateful.' - Brian Appleyard, The Sunday Times
'[Mary Midgley's] latest book is full of good sense and illumination on many topics ... Midgley's pathbreaking efforts should be warmly welcomed.' - The Philosopher's Magazine
'Mary's voice, sane, clear and brooking no nonsense, speaks crisply from every page, debunking scientific and non-scientific pretensions alike. A chapter each evening will help me keep sane.' - The Sunday Times
'Christian readers will be sympathetic abd find much material for helpful reflection on the topics chosen.' - The Gospel and Our Culture Network