Book Review: The Myths We Live By

The Myths We Live By by Mary Midgley is based on the view that our imaginative visions are central to our understanding of the world. They are necessary parts of our thinking.1 The challenge is that our imaginative visions may mislead us if they are fired up by a particular set of ideals.2

Myths are are imaginative patterns, networks of powerful symbols, that suggest particular ways of interpreting the world.3 In political thought they are at the heart of theories of human nature and the social contract; in economics in the pursuit of self interest; and in science the idea of human beings as machines. The machine imagery began to pervade our thought in the 17th century. We still often tend to see ourselves, and the the living world around us, mechanistically.4

The way we imagine the world determines what we think important in it, what we select for our attention. That is why we need to become aware of these symbols.5 Mary Midgley starts by concentrating on myths which have come down to us from the Enlightenment.6 The machine imagery became entrenched because the 17th century scientists were fascinated by clockwork automata. They hoped to extend this clockwork model to cover the whole of knowledge.7 The great thinkers of the 17th century were obsessed by the ambition to drill all thought into a single formal system. Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz, tried to mend the mind/body gap by building abstract systems powered by their models of thought, logic, and mathematics.8

The trouble lies in the conviction that only one very simple way of thought is rational.9 Mary Midgley points out that rationality doesn’t require us to have all our knowledge tightly organized on the model of mathematics.10 We welcome oversimple intellectual systems because they contrast with the practical complexity around us, and we do not criticize them when the particular short-cut that they offer suggest a world view that we like. They express visions that attracts us, and they obscure alternative possibilities.11

Mary Midgley emphasizes that conceptual mono-culture cannot work because, in almost all our thought, we are dealing with subject-matters that we need to consider from more than one aspect.12 She reminds us that we always have a choice about the perspective from which we look, whether it is from the inside, as participants, or from some more distant perspective. And if so, which of many distant perspectives we will choose. We need to combine several perspectives, since they are not really alternatives, but complementary parts of a wider inquiry.13 The trouble comes when we dogmatically universalize our own generalizations and promote them as laws of nature.14

All perception takes in only a fraction of what is given to it, and all thought narrows that fraction still further in trying to make sense of it.15 The concepts that we need to use for everyday life are often in some ways blurred or ambivalent, because life itself is too complex for simple descriptions. The standards of clarity that we manage to impose in our well-lit scientific workplaces are designed to suit the preselected problems that we take in there with us, not the larger tangles from which those problems were abstracted.16

People habitually think that mechanistic explanations are more scientific than ones that use concepts more appropriate to living contexts.17 Those who use the analogy with machines seem to be claiming that we have a similar understanding of plants and animals. Mary Midgley points out that it’s perhaps a rather important difference that we didn’t design those plants and animals.18 She reminds us that obsession with a particular model drives out other necessary ways of thinking.19 Changing the myth is a way to bring about serious change.20 It’s an elegant and thoughtful little book!

1 Mary Midgley, The Myths We Live By (Routledge, 2011, first published 2004), p.xii.
2 Ibid., p.xiii.
3 Ibid., p.1.
4 Ibid..
5 Ibid., p.3.
6 Ibid., p.7.
7 Ibid., p.27.
8 Ibid., p.88.
9 Ibid., p.31.
10 Ibid., p.33.
11 Ibid., p.44.
12 Ibid., p.68.
13 Ibid., p.107.
14 Ibid., p.124.
15 Ibid., p.40.
16 Ibid., p.194.
17 Ibid., p.196.
18 Ibid., p.163.
19 Ibid., p.171.
20 Ibid., p.251.


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