When the late Anne Whiteman, history tutor at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, approved of a candidate for admission to the college, she would describe her as "a good vigorous girl". The philosopher Mary Midgley would have received this accolade in full measure. She is quite a girl, and her goodness and vigour shine out from the page. Her independence of mind is striking, and it is no surprise that she is a feared intellectual adversary.
Unfortunately, her life is rather less interesting than her controversial ideas - on animals, scientism, religion, morality. She does sometimes pause for reflection, but a more thoroughgoingly intellectual autobiography might have been a better vehicle for her personality. Even her recollections of childhood disappoint, for all that they bespeak a vanished social world and the unrepressed perceptiveness of immaturity.
There is just nothing intrinsically startling to report: Downe House School, classics and postgraduate philosophy at Oxford, dullish wartime jobs, philosophy teaching at Reading and Newcastle universities, marriage and three sons. Nor is Midgley a startling reporter of the ordinary, perhaps, because she is writing in her mid-eighties, when the best of us find it difficult to hold book-length structures in our minds and make them sing. The proportions are a bit odd and the texture lumpy.
Above all, she seems not to have asked herself what will interest the uncommitted reader. Some passages have the whiff of that terminally tedious genre, the circular Christmas letter: "Geoff began to take an interest in my Herwiga tenor recorder." The chapter about her not entirely fascinating ancestors does not really earn its keep. It was a relief to read that: "I can't go into a lot of detail here about our family life or I would never get this book finished."
But let us accentuate the positive. Scattered through the book are redemptive, often astringent, aperçus . On Wittgenstein's demeanour: "Tolerance was not in his own repertoire, and he liked to remove it from other people's." On the impossibility of neutrality: we "do not have any way to avoid judging, except through the grave". Bullying one's students "is not a sport at all; it's a vice".
Even when the language is less epigrammatic, she is full of common sense.
She deplores "the silly habit of insisting on the sharp opposition that wrecks so much broadcast discussion". She has rumbled the type of marriage exemplified by Gilbert Murray, professor of Greek at Oxford, and his overbearing wife: "A man who is almost too reasonable, too averse to friction, marries a woman who will do all his unreasonableness for him free and for nothing, a woman who isn't afraid of shouting and throwing things should that be necessary." She faults her grandparents for "the policy of not mentioning things, which caused so many kinds of misery in that generation".
She can overdo it, though. She once had to backtrack in print after mounting an intemperate attack on Richard Dawkins. And for the widow of a depressive, she is strangely judgmental about that affliction.
Her publisher, surely, has done her no favours with an offputting design (small type, hideous headings), a defective index and a drab jacket. Her editor might have intervened more, too. For instance, Midgley uses the web to look up the Stanley Steam Car and the Met Office records for the winter of 1947, but not to verify her (correct) speculation that one still cannot read philosophy on its own at Oxford, and she asks for help in finding the right biblical reference for a (misquoted) passage on which she wrote a "rhapsody" at school (Isaiah 1:8: "And the daughter of Zion is left... as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers").
The owl of Minerva takes wing only as dusk falls, wrote Hegel. He meant that wisdom comes too late in the lives of individuals and civilisations to influence the events it illuminates. Midgley takes the remark rather differently, meaning that philosophy comes into its own by clarifying thought "when things get difficult". To judge from this memoir, Midgley's life as a teacher and writer of philosophy shows that Hegel's epigram was not only too pessimistic in the sense in which he intended it, but also true in the more upbeat sense in which Midgley interprets it.
Henry Hardy is a fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford.
The Owl of Minerva: A Memoir
Author - Mary Midgley
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 220
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 415 36788 3