REVIEW: Notes from a Biscuit Tin – Philosophy and Poetry for Confusing Times

Posted by

17th October 2020

Review by Julia Coyle

Philosophers, poets and plumbers. Three occupations which, besides the coincidental alliteration, are often seen as possessing little in the way of similarities, yet, according to philosopher Mary Midgley, the trades could not be more alike.

‘Plumbing and philosophy,’ she writes ‘are both activities that arise because elaborate cultures like ours have, beneath their surface, a fairly complex system which is usually unnoticed, but which sometimes goes wrong. In both cases this can have serious consequences.’

In an age where the human need for creation and inquisition has been somewhat trivialised, Midgley’s theories are perhaps more crucial than ever before. Her argument for the idea of ‘philosophical plumbing’ suggests that while the plumber finds resolutions for blockages in pipes, the philosopher mimics this approach in their response to problem solving for society at large. Much like we depend on the plumber to reconstruct underlying complications within a household’s drainage system, we rely on philosophy to aid our understanding of the world as whole. These professions are as much as a necessity to modern living as the other.

On the centenary celebration of Midgley, who published her sixteenth and final book in 2019, a biscuit tin belonging to the philosopher was sent on a worldwide venture, incorporating cities such as Tokyo, Paris and New York. While most of us would expect to find a selection of Hobnobs or Digestives in such an item, the tin will instead be used to collect envelopes containing discussions between a philosopher and a poet from each country visited during its voyage – providing recognition to Midgley’s fundamental belief that to be a competent philosopher one must converse with and utilise the skills of a poet. Finding solutions to failing societal constructs often involves imagination and vision, something which the art of poetry has in abundance.

Philosophy professors Rachael Wiseman and Clare Mac Cumhaill were joined by poet Gillian Allnutt alongside fellow philosophers Jenny Judge and István Zárdai to discuss the recent travels of the biscuit tin while it isolates in Tokyo due to Covid-19 regulations. Judge suggested that philosophy and poetry often exist in ‘mutual isolation’ yet in times like these when a population is forced to live in containment, it is increasingly crucial that we recognise ‘philosophy is made to be shared. Philosophy is an activity. It’s not something that lives in books. It’s something one does.’

This idea brings a sense of animation to a study which is often considered wrongfully elitist in its aims, previously viewed as akin to a ‘sophisticated parlour game’. The injection of spirit into philosophy is also evident in its combination with poetry which ought not to be seen as an entity separate to society but rather something we require, as Allnutt rightfully interprets. Zárdai elaborates on this point via the recurring theme of the discussion in that the key difference between poetry and philosophy is that poets consider the individual philosophical theories as increasingly community based. Zárdai hence questions whether ‘theories that are incapable of [identifying the individual]’ are doing a good enough service to us. A question which should be kept at the forefront of our society in times of crisis such as now. A crisis which calls for philosophical, political, economic and poetic cooperation.

Watch the event until November 1st.

This work was produced by participants on our Durham Book Festival Reviewers in Residence programme, a cultural journalism programme run by New Writing North Young Writers. Reviewers in Residence gives aspiring journalists aged 15-23 the chance to review books, attend events and interview authors at the Durham Book Festival. For more information about New Writing North Young Writers visit the New Writing North website.