Obituary: Geoffrey Midgley

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The Independent Online
A good teacher is knowledgeable, lucid, and approachable, but a great teacher inspires. Geoffrey Midgley was a great as well as a good teacher, who had an enormous influence on the several generations of students who passed through the Philosophy Department at Newcastle University.

Midgley's engagement with philosophy was both immediate and intense. Most lecturers rehearse doctrines and arguments to their audience but Geoff Midgley engaged in philosophical thought in front of our eyes. Bounding into the lecture theatre with an air of boyish enthusiasm, longish white locks bobbing, no notes in sight, he would plunge into some philosophical problem without preliminaries. What made it so gripping for the audience was the freshness of the performance. There was no feeling of going over old ground, of retelling a tale often told before; each lecture was for Midgley a new experience, a fresh attempt to get to grips with something which puzzled him.

Midgley had won a classical scholarship to Oxford but the Second World War intervened, and, after a four-year spell as a radar boffin in the RAF, he completed the PPE course in two years at New College, under Isaiah Berlin, and then read for the new BPhil degree under its founder, Gilbert Ryle.

In 1949 he went to Newcastle, where he remained for the rest of his life, successively as Lecturer, Senior Lecturer and Head of Department. A year later he married a fellow philosopher, Mary Scrutton, and so began a long and happy professional and domestic partnership.

Midgley belonged to the generation of philosophers heavily influenced by the later Wittgenstein and John Austin, and published two long seminal papers (in 1955 and 1959) on the crucial concept of a linguistic rule. Although deeply interested in logic and philosophy of language he never accepted the then fashionable doctrine that the urge to philosophise was the product of linguistic confusion. On the contrary, he believed that the central questions of philosophy were both real and important; no one who had been taught by him would ever think that philosophy was just a game with words. For him philosophy and life were continuous: every issue had a philosophical angle, and philosophical thought was to be translated into action.

Midgley published nothing after those first two papers (although often urged to do so by his students). He devoted himself instead to making the department a model of what a philosophy department should be: a centre of uninhibited intellectual enquiry and ceaseless discussion.

Tutorials were conducted in his room, which was dominated by a large table, on which assorted items, reflecting his many interests, were piled to an alarming height: not only books, notes, and letters, but sheet music and sometimes bits of musical instruments (he was a fine oboe player). He sat in an enormous padded chair. From time to time he would leap up and plunge into the tottering edifice on his table, to pull out some plum: a quotation, a paragraph from a book, a letter from someone. He would then thrust the item back into the pile when he had finished with it.

He would adopt a similar approach to the contents of his own mind, searching for some gem which would illuminate the whole discussion and producing it triumphantly for our edification. Often one thought would lead to another; on one occasion he became completely engrossed in his train of thought which lasted for the whole tutorial. Glancing at his watch, Midgley exclaimed: "You always get more than you bargained for", and laughed with boyish glee, kicking his legs in the air and bouncing up and down alarmingly in his chair.

He retained a childlike wonder and a strong sense of the incongruous and of the absurd. He was intolerant only of pomposity and stuffiness, and he showed that one can be utterly serious while roaring with laughter at the same time.

Geoffrey Charles John Midgley, philosopher: born Ilford, Essex 14 June 1921; Lecturer and Senior Lecturer, Department of Philosophy, Newcastle University 1949-86, Head of Department 1982-86; married 1950 Mary Scrutton (three sons); died Newcastle 16 April 1997.