top of page

"Mary Midgley on Water and Thought: Is Public Philosophy Like Plumbing?": An Essay by Ellie Robson (Keywords: Public Philosophy; Metaphilosophy; A.J. Ayer; Descartes; Philosophical Lives; Solitude)

White house on hill

From The Philosopher, vol. 111, no. 2 ("Where is Public Philosophy Going?").

If you enjoy reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.

A solitary figure sits upon a comfy armchair, pondering abstract ideas and examining formal arguments. There’s no denying this mythic man, the solitary scholar, remains the pervasive and popular image of the philosopher today. He is (perhaps) at fault for a certain disregard for philosophy that is not technical, published in learned journals, or directed at other philosophers. This type of philosophy is one that is often done with or for the public.


With this in mind, I plan to spell out a particular view of the nature and future of public philosophy. To defend it, I am going to draw on a figure from philosophy’s (recent) past. Mary Midgley (1919-2018) offers us an alternative image to the solitary scholar. In her book What Is Philosophy For? (2018), she argues that ‘philosophy is best understood as a form of plumbing.’


Like the pipes below our houses, our concepts lie in networks beneath the surface, largely unnoticed. Unnoticed, that is, until something goes wrong. As Midgley tells us in Utopias, Dolphins and Computers: Problems of Philosophical Plumbing (1996), when concepts are not regularly examined, they risk becoming stagnant or unfit for purpose. They may not immediately ‘drip audibly through the ceiling or swamp the kitchen floor,’ but we will start to notice problems over time. 


Our concept of the social contract is a good example of this. At its origin, the social contract was a conceptual tool designed to protect citizens from the power of the king. A legitimate government, it was argued, is not a dictatorship but one based on the autonomous, tacit agreement of individual citizens. Over time, this concept has formed blockages. Its simplicity has encouraged us to overlook those, in principle, unable to agree to such a contract (such as children, the very elderly or people with certain disabilities). And until recently, it carried with it a view of the legitimate citizen (or voter) as a man.


Because both systems (of water and thought) are fairly complex, each is also hard to repair. When distortions and muddles emerge in our thinking, philosophy is needed to pull up the floorboards, identify the problem, and get the water flowing again. Philosophy, argues Midgley, is uniquely placed to provide this service. This is because philosophy is concerned with our conceptual schemes – it is the very activity of finding gaps in our thinking, solving conceptual conflicts and (re)connecting ideas. According to Midgley, philosophy is the ‘way in which we service the deep infrastructure of our lives – the patterns that are taken for granted because they have not really been questioned’. According to this analogy, philosophy is both practical and diagnostic – a task of finding and repairing problems in our concepts.

In our personal and public lives, conceptual conflicts and muddles occur, and in both cases, philosophy plays a distinct role in allowing us to resolve these conflicts.

Midgley’s persistent use of the plumbing analogy has, she notes, ‘been thought rather undignified’. It certainly does not bring to mind a solitary scholar, or a particularly ‘skilled plumber, doing fine plumbing’. But for Midgley, the grand images associated with philosophy overlook its purpose. Humans need philosophy when conceptual conflict arises – be that ethically, psychologically, or politically. In our personal and public lives, conceptual conflicts and muddles occur, and in both cases, philosophy plays a distinct role in allowing us to resolve these conflicts. It does this, argues Midgley, by searching for shared and sometimes hidden connections between the various spheres of our lives, and in the end, allows us to prioritise. For this reason, thinks Midgley, philosophy is something that we must all do if we want to get along in the world. ‘Philosophy is not a luxury’ entered into only by those with special qualifications, nor is it something we can practise alone. Midgley’s radical proposal pictures philosophy as ‘a necessity’ – an aspect of our human nature.


If philosophy is something we all do, one might wonder what Midgley’s proposal means for academic philosophy. Are we all philosophical plumbers? And if so, is Midgley suggesting a radical overhaul of all expertise? 




Midgley’s Life and Meta-Philosophy

Midgley first became convinced of philosophy’s intrinsic value during her undergraduate degree at Oxford University (1938-1942). However, the narrow style of philosophising at Oxford left her feeling that something had gone awry – that philosophy had become disconnected from what she took to be its main subject matter, ‘a whole life’. Midgley would later credit the development of her distinct philosophical approach to the shortage of men, due to conscription, in Wartime Oxford. Reflecting on this time in a piece for The Guardian (‘The Golden Age of Female Philosophy’), Midgley later wrote that:


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 was clear that we [the women students] were all more interested in understanding this deeply puzzling world than in putting each other down.


Midgley went on to publish over four decades (from the age of 59 to 99). She was a successful popular intellectual, taking issues of public concern as her philosophical cue. In the 1980s, Midgley delved into debates about animal ethics, critiquing Peter Singer and examining the ways we talk and think about nonhuman animals. In the 2000s Midgley took issue with cloning, artificial intelligence, and our relationship with the environment – coining a phrase now associated with Greta Thunberg, ‘The bad news is our house is on fire’ (see Midgley’s The Myths We Live By).


The dissemination of Midgley’s work was democratic. Though she published in philosophy journals, she often spoke on platforms that were (in principle) accessible to anyone. In the 1940s and 50s, for example, Midgley spoke on the BBC Third Programme and was a regular in newspapers and magazines such as The New Statesman. Midgley’s style of writing was jargon-free, rarely technical, engaging and peppered with dry-wit. She set no requirement for expert knowledge and, as a result, engaged communities well beyond the reach of academia.


A disillusionment with Oxford Philosophy left Midgley wondering what the purpose of philosophy was. The question What is Philosophy For? stuck with her to the age of 99 and was the title of her final book. As a result, Midgley developed a rich meta-philosophy. On the surface, Midgley’s view of philosophy’s purpose doesn’t sound that dissimilar to what she encountered at Oxford; the linguistic philosophy brought over by philosophers who had attended the Vienna Circle, from the 1940s onwards. The young and fervent A. J Ayer had spread Logical Positivism amongst the Oxford undergraduate body through the publication of his book Language, Truth and Logic (1937).


In Ayer’s view, the aim of philosophy was primarily to clear confusion in our ordinary language. Vague, opaque, and misleading language was to be formalised, systematised, and ultimately idealised by philosophers (in analytic philosophy, ‘ideal language’ is language based on symbolic logic, constructed precisely to clear any ambiguities found in our ordinary language). Through this idealised language, Ayer thought, everyone would be able to understand one another again.


Perhaps Ayer and Midgley had something in common – a desire to clear up misunderstanding (as Midgley put it, to clarify our ‘muddled and inarticulate thinking’). But for Midgley, this misunderstanding does not emerge at the point of speaking. Conflict and confusion happen much further upstream, in her view, hidden in the concepts and ideas upon which our everyday language is constructed. As such, philosophical problems cannot be solved, and do not originate in our language. They arise because of the ‘huge difficulties which we experience in trying to theorise about the world’. 




Public Philosophy and Philosophical Plumbing

Public philosophy is commonly conceived as the explanation of philosophy to the public or doing philosophy about public issues. The former usually consists of translating academic research and philosophical concepts into a form the public can enjoy. In this sense, public philosophy is characterised by its methodology. It has the same subject matter as academic philosophy but involves different forms of language and modes of dissemination. In contrast, the latter – doing philosophy about public issues – involves applying philosophical techniques, such as conceptual analysis, or rational reconstruction, to real world issues. In this second sense, public philosophy is distinguished from academic philosophy not by methodology but by subject matter. Public philosophers take issues that concern the public as their subject matter, applying philosophical techniques (honed in an academic context) to develop solutions. 


Intuitively, Midgley’s plumbing methodology appears closer to the latter proposal – a kind of philosophical approach applied to public issues (something like ‘field philosophy’). Importantly, the direction of travel, for Midgley, should always come from public issues into academic philosophy (not the other way around). There will always be such issues, and it is the job of the philosopher to stay connected to the real world in order to identify them. But by Midgley’s lights, either of the two accounts outlined above would miss something by assuming that public and academic philosophy ought to be separated by subject matter or methodology. On Midgley’s plumbing model, both are (or ought to be) engaged in the same kind of activity – differing only (if at all) in range of scope and detail.

What makes someone especially good at philosophy, argues Midgley, is a kind of perceptiveness, a ‘power to distinguish what really matters’.


As I indicated above, for Midgley, philosophy is something we are all engaged in. As she puts it in her 1978 book Beast and Man: The Roots of Human: ‘Philosophy, like speaking in prose, is something we have to do all our lives, well or badly, whether we notice it or not’. We are all applying philosophical techniques to the conflicts that arise in our own lives (‘however well or badly’).  This is because the conceptual problems that emerge on a societal level are intimately connected with those we deal with on an individual or personal level. To return to my earlier example, we might think that the deeply ingrained idea of a social contract still has a beneficial, real-world impact on the way we now view the validity of certain relationships – such as civil partnerships. But the social contract of a civil partnership may, in turn, conflict with those we find in a religious context, which values certain partnerships as ‘sacred’ and others not. For this reason, a desire to readjust our concepts is felt by everyone – whether they think they are engaged in philosophy, or not. In this sense, philosophy can be a form of therapy, helping us to clear conflict, prioritise, and see things clearly. What makes someone especially good at philosophy, argues Midgley, is a kind of perceptiveness, a ‘power to distinguish what really matters’.


What does this account of public philosophy mean for academic philosophy? Midgley argues that specially trained academic philosophers still have an important role to play. Specialists trained to think deeply and broadly, to search for connections and identify where issues are coming from, are needed to carry out the kinds of difficult conceptual problems faced by society. But this cannot be a wholly academic pursuit reserved for the isolated few. Philosophers ought to be qualified to consider a broad range of topics and disciplines, and as such – for Midgley – the future of academic philosophy must be public. This does not do away with the need for fine-grained conceptual thought and argumentation. Instead, it recommends that the philosopher starts with the issues present in everyday human life. As Midgley puts it, ‘the conceptual schemes used in [academic] study are not stagnant ponds; they are streams that are fed from our everyday thinking, are altered by the learned, and eventually flow back into it and influence our lives’.




Plumbing the Solitary Scholar

I want to close by considering how Midgley ‘plumbs’ the idea of the ‘solitary scholar’ that I discussed in the opening. Midgley gives us reason to think that this concept has itself become outdated and no longer fit for purpose. In highlighting this, I hope to motivate Midgley’s meta-philosophy and further recommend that we swap out traditional notions of the philosopher as a solitary scholar in favour of Midgley’s image of the philosopher as a plumber.


One of Midgley’s most interesting reflections on philosophy’s role in the public sphere can be found in a rejected radio transcript. She wrote this sometime in the 1950s for the BBC’s Third Programme (called ‘Rings and Books’ and republished in this issue). Midgley begins this transcript (produced, ironically, under Midgley’s maiden name ‘Scruton’) by noting that virtually all the famous philosophers in Western history were lifelong bachelors. Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz (to name just a few) were all likely free from personal and familial dependents, allowing for long stretches of uninterrupted time (perhaps in an armchair or by the proverbial fireplace: see, for example, Descartes’ Meditations).


Midgley notes that this kind of social detachment and solitude may have fostered a form of philosophical detachment:


None of these philosophers […] had any experience of living with women or children, which is, after all, quite an important aspect of human life […] I wrote [this] article drawing attention to this statistic and asking whether it might not account for a certain over-abstractness, a certain remoteness from life, in the European philosophical tradition.


Over time, Midgley argues, our concept of philosophy itself has been skewed to value the experiences of those most dominant – usually men, and usually bachelors.  By focusing on the philosophical perspectives of isolated bachelors we are in danger of overlooking an element of human life which we have now come to realise is highly important.  Midgley’s transcript brings us a new perspective of a person playing a normal, active role in a family – in particular, the experiences of women, many of whom at her time would have cared for young children – and considers what this might mean for philosophy.

What impact, wonders Midgley, did a lack of normal familial relationships have on Descartes’ conclusion? Would a married person or, perhaps more interestingly, a pregnant person, ever reach the conclusion cogito ergo sum?


Descartes is Midgley’s exemplar of the philosophical bachelor. He famously spent large expanses of time isolated and, doubting the certainty of knowledge about the external world.  ‘I am here quite alone,’ he wrote in the First Meditation, ‘and at last I will devote myself sincerely and without reservation to the general demolition of my opinions.’ Descartes does just this, demolishing the certainty of all knowledge, except (of course) the existence of his own thought.


What impact, wonders Midgley, did a lack of normal familial relationships have on Descartes’ conclusion? Would a married person or, perhaps more interestingly, a pregnant person, ever reach the conclusion cogito ergo sum? Midgley thinks not. To question our knowledge of another’s existence, a life beyond that of our own thought, would not occur to a person carrying a child inside them (thinks Midgley). A pregnant person is not one person but two and hence, as Midgley puts it, ‘Cogito would be Cogitamus’. Encouraging isolation, even of an intellectual sort, can eclipse an important part of our human condition.

Philosophy is not an activity that can be done in isolation, as the solitary scholar once did, but is instead a shared enquiry – an avenue for personal and communal flourishing. 


The solitary scholar’s view of philosophy is distorted: it rests on outdated concepts and principles and misleads what we should think of as the most important philosophical questions. Social factors reveal to us that all kinds of people are able to do philosophy (and always were able) – an idea baked into Midgley’s methodology. During Midgley’s time (and, of course, prior to it) however, the perspectives of women and carers were taboo, not seen as the proper ‘object’ of philosophical enquiry. In fact, ‘Rings and Books’ was the only manuscript of Midgley’s to be rejected from her otherwise plentiful record at the BBC. The editor of the BBC Third Programme at the time, Aniouta Kallin, stated that the transcript was a ‘trivial, irrelevant intrusion of domestic matters into intellectual life’.


Midgley’s plumbing metaphor is about the necessity of philosophy to all human life. Taking this approach seriously gives it an essentially public element. Philosophy is not an activity that can be done in isolation, as the solitary scholar once did, but is instead a shared enquiry – an avenue for personal and communal flourishing. As such, all philosophy, including that done under the heading of ‘Research’, must begin with those concepts that are often quietly at work, like the pipes in a house, under the surface of a normal human life.


Ellie Robson is a Teaching Associate in Philosophy at the University of Nottingham and Research Fellow at The Centre for Contemporary Aristotelian Studies in Ethics and Politics (CASEP). She recently completed her PhD at Birkbeck, University of London with a thesis focused on the philosopher Mary Midgley, and Midgley’s connection to the contemporary meta-ethical programme known as Neo-Aristotelian Naturalism. Ellie’s research is affiliated with the work of the (women) In Parenthesis Project, a project focused on a group 20th century women philosophers known as the ‘Wartime Quartet’ (Iris Murdoch, Elisabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot and Mary Midgley).


From The Philosopher, vol. 111, no. 2 ("Where is Public Philosophy Going?").

If you enjoyed reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.

1 Comment

Great article taking a wider view and tuning into the relevance of philosophy

bottom of page