Born: September 3, 1919;

Died: October 10, 2018

MARY Midgley, who has died aged 99, was one of a quartet of formidable female philosophers associated with Oxford University in the 1950s, and one of the leading figures in the revival of moral philosophy which became known as “virtue ethics”.

Her subjects included wickedness, the role of literature in shaping ethics, evolution, the limitations of science and animal rights, and she was notable – especially for a 20th-century philosopher in the Anglo-American tradition – for engaging with “real-world” problems, often from a decidedly polemical standpoint.

She had enjoyed a glittering undergraduate career during the years of the Second World War, a period when the absence of young men led to the emergence of a set of remarkably able female philosophers (traditionally under-represented in the subject).

But unlike her contemporaries, Elizabeth Anscombe, Iris Murdoch and Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley did not begin to publish philosophy until comparatively late in life, having worked in literary journalism and book reviewing, and interesting herself in psychology, anthropology, biology and other related spheres.

But she enjoyed a considerable influence as a lecturer at Newcastle University, where both she and her husband Geoffrey (himself a distinguished philosopher) taught.

From the mid-1970s, her publications, starting with Beast and Man (1978) became increasingly influential in a field which gained more and more attention; not merely because of increased interest in the ethics of “animal rights”, but because of the wider questions, on biological determinism and the nature of human behaviour, which she addressed.

She branched out to write on other areas of philosophy in books which included Wickedness; Biological and Cultural Evolution (both 1984); Wisdom, Information and Wonder (1989); Utopias, Dolphins and Computers (1996); Science and Poetry (2001); Are You an Illusion? (2014) and What is Philosophy For?, published earlier this year. She also came to wider attention through her public dispute with Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist and author of The Selfish Gene (1976).

Her objections to what she saw as Dawkins’s excessive reductionism were also reflected in her other writing, in which she challenged the “atomising” tendency of science and many other subjects (including her own).

In 2010, she summed up her objections in The Solitary Self: Darwin and the Selfish Gene; while she rather regretted the attention that the dispute had generated, she remained unrepentant in her view that Dawkins, in popularising a misleading metaphor of how biology operates, had promoted and encouraged an overly simplified view.

Mary Beatrice Scrutton was born on September 13 1919 in south London, where her father was a curate. He later became chaplain at King’s College, Cambridge, and Mary went to school in the city, then in west London and at Downe House in Berkshire, where she became interested in Classics. She went up to Somerville College, Oxford, in 1938, to study Mods and Greats (Classics and Philosophy), and graduated with a First in 1942.

For the remainder of the war she worked in the civil service, and as a schoolmistress, and after VE Day took up a post as secretary to the eminent classical scholar Gilbert Murray. She wrote a thesis on Plotinus and took up a lectureship at Somerville and then, from 1948-50, at the University of Reading.

Her own academic career was interrupted by her marriage, in 1950, to Geoffrey Midgley, who taught at the University of Newcastle, where she settled and raised their three sons. In 1962 she joined her husband in the philosophy department there, eventually becoming senior lecturer, and retiring in 1980, shortly before the department closed.

The Midgleys were inspirational and welcoming to many students, frequently holding parties and dinners at their large house in the city. Geoffrey Midgley died in 1997, but Mary Midgley worked, if anything, rather more in retirement than she had in her teaching career. Her other publications included Heart and Mind (1981); Can’t We Make Moral Judgements (1989) and a memoir, The Owl of Minerva (2005).

Advanced old age did nothing to diminish her industry or capacity for engagement with intellectual debate: she became a frequent broadcaster and interviewee, and her status as a philosopher grew as she came to be seen as a prescient figure in having attempted to reconcile the subject with others, such as biology, psychology and environmental issues.

She was awarded honorary doctorates by the universities of Durham ((1995) and Newcastle (2008).

Mary Midgley had been due to take part in the Royal Institute of Philosophy’s lecture series, which begins this Friday, to mark her centenary, and that of her contemporaries. She died on October 10, at home in Newcastle.