Tag Archives: Mary Midgley

A view from the middle

Red tulips in a window boxI was schooled to compete in the classroom, in examinations and on the sports field in preparation for life in, what Mary Midgley described as, the ‘intense competitiveness of the Western world’.  Many of us are obsessed with winning, believing that life is not worth living unless we are at the top of the hierarchy.  As result, we strive for the top where there are only a limited number of places so most people remain in the middle or bottom no matter how hard they strive.  If they are led to believe that they are despised for their position in the hierarchy then they will be miserable and make those around them, both above and below, miserable too.  It took me some time to realise that happiness was not the exclusive property of those at the top of the hierarchy but can be found anywhere through supporting and valuing others.  As a young naval officer, I was trained to look after those under my command and to gain their respect.  I hope that as a leader in academia I have learned to blend the competitive and compassionate elements of the training I received as a young man to create happy and successful communities in which individuals can thrive.  It is ongoing challenge that requires constant vigilance [see ‘Leadership is like shepherding‘ on May 10th, 2017].


Mary Midgley, Beast and Man – the roots of human nature. Abingdon, Oxon. Routledge Classics, 2002.

Mind-wandering guided by three good books

We took a long weekend break last week. We did some walking, read some books and not much else.  I read ‘A line in the world: a year on the North Sea Coast‘ by the Danish writer Dorthe Nors (translated by Caroline Waight).  The author, Jessica J. Lee, described this book as ‘starkly, achingly beautiful’ which aptly describes an exploration of history and memories associated with the wild and desolate west coast of Denmark. Then, I read ‘The Easy Life‘ by Marguerite Duras (translated by Olivia Baes and Emma Ramadan), written in 1943 when the author’s husband was a prisoner at Buchenwald for having been part of the French Resistance, as she was, and a year after the death of her younger brother which occurred just months after her child was stillborn.  The novel is about a murder, one of three deaths, which lead the narrator, 25-year-old Francine Veyrenattes, to flee the family farm for the seaside to contemplate her borderless grief and the endless sea.  The third book I read during our weekend break was ‘German Fantasia‘ by Philippe Claudel (translated by Julian Evans), which Le Monde described as ‘Dark, sober and strong’.  It is a series of interconnected short stories in which the characters’ reflections play as large a part in the story as the action as they navigate a post-war landscape.  These three books probably suited my mood on a cold, dark February weekend; however, they are beautifully written and in relatively few words create the mental constructs that allow you to live the experiences of the protagonists in the latter two books and the author in the first book.  They are exemplars of the kind of writing Mary Midgley exhorts us to produce – just enough words to bring to mind the appropriate constructs [see ‘When less is more from describing digital twins to protoplasm‘ on February 22nd, 2023].  They took my mind to new places away from everyday concerns which was the purpose of the long weekend break.

When less is more from describing digital twins to protoplasm

Word cluster diagramI spent several days last week reading drafts of PhD theses from two of my students.  I have three PhD students who are scheduled to finish their studies before Easter when they plan to start jobs that they have already been offered.  So, there is some urgency to their writing besides the usual desire to finish after three years or more of work on the same topic and the end of their funding.  Their relatively undiluted study of their topic can make it difficult for PhD students to see the big picture and write accessible descriptions of their research.  I have also encountered this challenge in describing our recent work on integrating digital twins to form an engineering metaverse.  There are dozens of published definitions of digital twins whereas the reverse holds for metaverses – no one really knows what they are.  Mary Midgley wrote, in her book ‘Beast and Man’, that descriptions should not be an account of everything about an entity or event but just enough to bring to our minds the appropriate conceptual scheme or construct that will tell us everything we need to know.  Our challenge as communicators is identifying the conceptual scheme that is needed, in other words selecting what matters and nothing else.  I like her example of an inappropriate description: “a section of protoplasm, measuring 1.76 meters vertically, emerged at 2:06 P.M. from hole in building at point x on plan and moved northward, its extremities landing alternately on concrete substratum, finally entering hole in further building, at point y on plan, at 2:09 P.M.”  If you need a conceptual scheme to understand this sentence, then try ‘a person walked across the road’.

Source: Mary Midgley, Beast and Man – the roots of human nature. Abingdon, Oxon. Routledge Classics, 2002.

Image: Cluster #1: simulation along product life cycle from Semeraro C, Lezoche M, Panetto H & Dassisti M, Digital twin paradigm: a systematic literature review, Computers in Industry, 130: 103469, 2021 who found thirty definitions of digital twins and created five such clusters of definitions.

Rotten eggs in the store

Photograph of boiled egg for decorative purposesDo you feel like a battery hen? I ask the question because I know many of the readers of this blog are academics and in her 1995 introduction to the revised edition of her book ‘Beast and Man‘, the philosopher Mary Midgley describes the current approach to the writing and publication of academic papers as a battery-egg system in which the number of publications produced by an academic are simply counted when assessing promotion cases and grant proposals. She suggests that ‘this arrangement encourages industrious mediocrity’ such that even gifted and original researchers are forced to choose small topics for research in order to maintain their publication rate [see ‘Reasons for publishing scientific papers‘ on April 21st, 2021]. Reputable journals are supposed to be the guardians of quality through their peer-review systems; however, it matters little because the volume of papers published is so huge (more than 2 million per year) that most will never be read – no one has the time [see ‘We are drowning information while starving for wisdom‘ on January 20th, 2021]. So, Midgley predicts that journals will become ‘merely reputable cold-stores for eggs that everybody knows will never be eaten’. Unfortunately, many of the eggs are rotten because peer review systems are being undermined by disreputable authors, reviewers and editors operating ‘peer-review rings’ which have led to the retraction of hundreds of paper by publishers, including 511 papers by Hindawi & Wiley in August 2022 and 463 papers by IOP publishing in September 2022. So, if you do find time to read some journal papers, be careful what you believe because the work might be fraudulent.

Mary Midgley, Beast and Man – the roots of human nature. Abingdon, Oxon. Routledge Classics, 2002.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Soft-boiled-egg.jpg