Mary Midgley and Philosophy as Plumbing

By Jack Walker - Philosophy Student @ Churchill College, Cambridge

I suspect that, like me, many students in the humanities often feel the need to justify the importance of their subject, especially when comparing ourselves to friends in STEM fields. When reading philosophy, I often find myself wondering, ‘Does any of this stuff actually matter?’ In my lowest moods, studying philosophy can even feel like I am doing something morally wrong – when there is so much bad in the world, isn’t it self-indulgent to spend so much time navel gazing? This article details my favourite response to these kinds of pessimistic questions, focusing on an analogy from the wonderful philosopher Mary Midgley.


Rather than something ‘splendid but gratuitous’, Midgley presents a vision of philosophy as a vital requirement that harms the whole of society if done poorly. This is because, whether or not we recognise it, all cultures make use of deep underlying assumptions and conceptual schemes. Indeed, these assumptions are often so deep that we rarely ever realise that we have made them until they begin to go wrong. In this sense, Midgley argues that philosophy is like plumbing. Both are vital and complex systems that lie beneath the surface. Each was shaped over time by groups of people, rather than being consciously planned and are constantly altered in order to suit our particular needs. Finally, both philosophy and plumbing are often ignored until something starts to smell funny.


Consider the case of anthropocentrism as a concrete example. Anthropocentrism means seeing humans as the absolute centre of value, as an objective fact about the universe. Midgley argues that this assumption is still deeply ingrained into our culture due to the influence of the Christian idea of humans being privileged creatures made in the image of God. This was then furthered by the Enlightenment idea that human rationality gives us the right to dominate the natural world. Kant wrote that ‘As the single being upon earth that possesses understanding, he [Man] is certainly titular lord of nature.’ Even with advances in science that seem to show the lack of a privileged position for humanity, it has been impossible to shift this deep cultural assumption. Only with the grim realities of climate change (the bad smell in the plumbing), have people begun to diagnose anthropocentrism as a core problem and attempt to different worldviews. The main takeaway then is that any given conceptual scheme is ‘a tool to be used, not a final decree of fate or an idol to be worshipped’.


I will finish by noting a wider lesson that Midgley’s picture of philosophy can teach us. Once we see that philosophical issues arise in response to concrete problems, rather than floating around free from worldly circumstances, the case for diversity in philosophy becomes all the more pressing. Philosophy is unfortunately still a discipline that is incredibly dominated by men and white people. Midgley herself studied philosophy in Oxford during WW2, where she notes that the absence of men (due to conscription) ‘made it a good deal easier for a woman to be heard.’ Liz McKinnell shows the importance of diversity strongly when she writes, ‘if philosophy is dominated by particular types of people, it will address the problems that affect those people, and deal with them in ways that are liable to suit those groups.’ We should however leave the last word on this point to Midgley herself. She writes, ‘Learning is not a private playground of the learned. It is something that belongs to and affects all of us.’


Further reading:

  1. Anscombe, Foot, Midgley and Murdoch: A female philosophical school? – Rachael Wiseman (post on womeninparenthesis.co.uk)

  2. Philosophical Plumbing in the 21st Century – Liz McKinnell

  3. Philosophical Plumbing and Utopias, Dolphins and Computers: Problems of Philosophical Plumbing - Mary Midgley