About the project

Notes from a Biscuit Tin is a celebration of Mary Midgley’s philosophical vision. On what would have been Mary’s 100th birthday, her biscuit tin (gifted to Rachael Wiseman and Clare Mac Cumhaill by her family after her death) began a 12-stop round-the-world voyage. From this tin Mary dispensed wit, wisdom and ginger snaps to her visitors over many decades. At twelve locations a poet and a philosopher met to share a conversation on a theme from Midgley’s work. The conversation began with the poet reading a commissioned poem on the theme.

Mary Midgley's biscuit tin

Mary's biscuit tin began its journey at the Biscuit Factory in Newcastle Upon Tyne with a conversation between Mary’s close friends – the poet Gillian Allnutt and philosopher Mike Bavidge. From there it travelled to Oxford, London and Liverpool, before leaving the UK for Kingston (Canada), New York, Idaho, Tokyo (where it spent 9 months in lockdown), Wollongong, Paris, Munich and Dublin. It returned to Durham Book Festival and the Midgley Archive (University of Durham) in October 2021.

Conversations will took place in galleries, cafes, community centres, studies, lecture halls and online. Some featured live music. The poet and philosopher were joined by an audience – in some locations just a handful of people, in others a crowd. At the end of each conversation the poet and philosopher placed an envelope in the biscuit tin filled with notes, poetry and wisdom. The collected envelopes were opened and read when the tin arrived at its next destination.

By tracing the tin’s journey, we invite you to explore human stories and myths that transcend cultural and geographic barriers and which belong to us as a species.

About Mary Midgley

Mary Midgley was a British moral philosopher whose work helps us make sense of the human animal and its (our) place in the world. ‘We are not just rather like animals’, she wrote, ‘we are animals’. Midgley made major contributions to environmental philosophy, animal ethics and philosophy of science.

Midgley’s last book, What is Philosophy For? was published a week before her 99th birthday and a month before her death. In it she warns that we are drifting toward environmental and mental calamity. We have been lulled to sleep by myths and stories that comfort us with the lie that our future is out of our hands, that the inevitable march of technology, Artificial Intelligence and biotechnology has rendered us and our paltry natural intelligence and our limiting animal bodies and minds already obsolete.

Midgley thinks philosophy is needed to wake us up. But not the sort of dry, argumentative philosophy with which you might be familiar. Rather, says Midgley, philosophers need to work collectively to tell us new stories and set out new visions and myths. We need philosophical stories that will enliven us to the fact that, as she writes, ‘what happens next is up to us’. To create these stories, she says, philosophers will need the help of the poets.

Tom Wakeford talks with Mary Midgley at her house in the autumn of 2014


Project sponsors