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M Midgley. Routledge, 2001, £19.99 (hc), £8.99 (pb), 230 pp. 0415237327
This is a book about personal identity, about who and what we are. It is about the unity of our lives.
In other words, the book is about a project many of us have entertained, in academic philosophy and elsewhere. We know, however, that there are serious obstacles to the successful realisation of the project. Far too often we raise dust by the methods of our thinking, and then complain that we cannot see. Then we are guided by visions that are inappropriate to the study we are engaged in.
One important vision or imaginative habit is atomism. It works well in natural sciences—for example, in physics and molecular genetics. Physical atomism is not a theory of physics; it is more like a presupposition concerning the ways in which theories of physics should be formed in order to make sense.
When atomism is transferred to the social sciences, individualism results. In cultural studies atomism appears as the presupposition of “memes”—that is, a cultural object or belief that can be replicated, passed on, and evolve, and which seems to have a life of its own. Transfers of this kind are often thought of as attempts to prove that the studies concerned are genuinely scientific—that is, of the same stock as the natural sciences. So if social sciences are to be scientific, social atomism has to be presupposed; cultural studies deserve the name of science only if cultural atomism is presupposed; and so on.
Dualism, materialism, and reductionism are other visions or ways of imagining the world. Many more can be found in our thoughts and actions, and, of course, not only in academic life. They are unavoidable. There is no science without presuppositions of various kinds—for example, ontological, categorical, and methodological. Every scientific inquiry is relative to the point of view of one of its presuppositions and, when successful, it gives a true picture of a reality only in some aspect or other. The claim that one has covered it in all of its true aspects is rash, and so is the claim that all relations between the aspects have been mapped.
This aspect directed character of thought and action is therefore connected with a problem of fragmentation. In this I also include the question of how the whole(s), of which the aspects are parts, should be determined. To acquire understanding of a complex reality the problem of fragmentation must be solved or overcome. Failure to do so quickly hinders or blocks the way; it becomes an encumbrance, like heavy baggage. This seems to have happened in the social sciences with regard to individualism.
The challenge Mary Midgley has accepted for her book is to find a whole within which our ideas of science and poetry can be brought together.
How, in particular, should we talk about the relation between ourselves as subjects and as objects—between the first—and third person aspects of ourselves? What sort of beings do we—as a whole—now turn out to be?
According to Midgley, the key to understanding the unity of our lives is to understand ourselves as whole persons. Mind and body are two aspects of that whole, the former the aspect of the whole as a subject, the latter the aspect of it as an object. The whole person belongs within a wider context of interlocking larger wholes, and ultimately of that living system we call the earth, with Gaia the earth goddess as its most expressive symbol.
Many consequences follow from this radical holism. The weaknesses of individualism in social science are exposed effectively; new light is thrown on responsibilities, rights, and duties; freedom and determinism are re-articulated; the bridge between thought and feeling becomes visible; and the similarities and differences between science and poetry emerge—the similarities turn on the presence in both of visions or ways of imagining the world, the differences on a distinction between the manners of expressing those visions. The richness of the consequences lends strong support to the form of holism that generates them.
I conclude by observing that who, and what, somebody is or was may be considered to be different questions. The former, it is sometimes said—for example, by Arendt,1 pertains to narrative identity, and we know the answer to it when we know the story of which the individual person concerned is the hero. Thus “emplotment”—that is, the property of being located in a narrative, is the key to individuality.
The question of what somebody is or was is answered in terms of attributes which the person concerned may share with other individuals. Midgley does not discuss narrative identity, but as far as I can see the notion is consistent with her treatment of personal identity.
Mary Midgley has written a thought provoking book. Her polemics and engagement in current debates, and her lucid and beautiful prose, make the book a source of absorbing intellectual interest and enjoyment.
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