The Myths We Live By

Patti Whaley reviews 'The Myths We Live By', by Mary Midgley. Routledge. 2003. 192 pages. £10.99. ISBN 0415340772

The easy way to read Midgley is to enjoy how well she dissects what she is against. In The Myths We Live By, she applies her philosophical scalpel to three prevailing myths which, in her view, are dangerously overgrown: the social-contract myth, the progress myth, and the myth of omnicompetent science. In 27 short chapters, originally published as lectures or articles and addressing anything from the mind-body problem to the re-introduction of wolves in upper New York State, she takes us to task for applying myths in contexts where they don’t belong. Myths, in Midgley’s use of the term, are not cosmological stories but underlying constructs by which we organise our perception of the world; they are the assumptions and symbols that shape our thought, without necessarily being visible to those doing the thinking.

Midgley is at her best when arguing against the kind of science that asserts that thinking is reducible to particle physics, that culture is reducible to memes, and that the mind-body problem can be solved by dismissing the mind as an illusion. Such approaches ignore what is empirically obvious: the fact that phenomena can be reduced to a lowest level doesn’t mean that other levels are invalidated or illusory. The Brahms fourth symphony, chocolate cake, and the sentence ‘George was allowed home from prison at last on Sunday’ are all underpinned by particle physics, but are not thereby explained. Her style is lucid, forthright, and punctuated by satisfying one-liners. Comparing current attempts to apply particle physics to culture with Aristotle’s attempt to extend human purposes to inanimate objects, she dismisses both: ‘stones do not have purposes, but neither do cultures have particles.’

It is not only science that comes in for Midgley’s critique; big moral ideas also have their limits. Humanists are taken to task for believing that ‘once Christian structures are cleared away, life in general will be quite all right.’ Rights advocates are warned that the use of rights-language in inappropriate contexts simply discredits the rights project as too unrealistic to be taken seriously. Psychologists who have become so secularized that they refuse to enquire seriously into the nature of religious experience cannot hope to have a coherent, comprehensive theory of psychology.

One has to dig a little bit deeper in order to figure out what Midgley is for – a characteristic that should make her quite at home with the Sea of Faith! Occasionally she comes out explicitly in favour of something: for example, she is a supporter of the Gaia theory, the idea of the earth as an inclusive, self-maintaining system with moral and religious, as well as physical, qualities. More often the reader has to deduce what she holds dear from her critique. She is in favour of a world-view that is joined-up, not by reducing everything to one ‘big idea’ but by paying due respect to different points of view: humans and animals, individuals and society, science and poetry. She believes that we must pay attention to the human condition as we feel it and experience it; subjective data must be given their due alongside scientific data. She believes in both underlying physical reality and the pervasiveness of social construction: ‘It is quite true that, when we look at the Himalayas, every one of us sees them differently. But none of us can think them away, nor put them there in the first place.’ She believes in our ability to examine our myths critically and pragmatically, decide when they have overreached themselves, and create new ones.

Where Midgley is frustrating is that she is continually pointing us away from simplistic, partial, one-size-fits-all analyses towards a more holistic, balanced, pluralistic view – but she rarely spells out what that view would be. I felt the same frustration when reading her earlier book Wickedness; she is lucid and convincing in her arguments about why wickedness cannot be explained away as just a God-problem, or just aggression, or just determinism, or just a death-wish; but she never gets around to explaining what it is. If you want answers, she doesn’t deliver.

But surely this is the point: all answers are partial, and they serve us well only as long as we are able to keep them in their place. We (even in the Sea of Faith!) continually forget that we created the myths we live by – the fact that we live by them is just exactly what makes it so hard to look at them critically. Read in this way, Midgley is as important for how she reminds us to think as for the actual content of her thought.