Intellectual Affairs

McGinn, Again

November 6, 2013

In some fields, the ground tone of reviews is normally subtle and soothing: the sound of logs being gently rolled. Poets are especially prone to giving one another gold stars for effort. Journals devoted to contemporary art have cultivated a dialect in which even the syntax is oblique. The reviewers’ judgments (if that is what they are) resist paraphrase.

Philosophy is another matter. Extremely critical and even brutal book reviews, while hardly the norm, are at least an occupational hazard. The drubbing may be delivered in measured terms and an even tone. But the really memorable assessments nip near the jugular vein, when not ripping it wide open. Consider, for instance, this classic, from a notice appearing in the venerable British journal Mind, in 1921: “[The author’s] method of exegesis consists, in fact, of a combination of the suppressio veri with the suggestio falsi, both, of course, practised in the absolute good faith which comes from propagandist enthusiasm unchecked by any infusion of historical sense.... It is because Mr. Urwick's book is one long dogmatising without knowledge that I feel bound to put it on record that of all bad books on Plato his is the very worst.”

In a subsequent issue, Mr. Urwick called it “a delightfully abusive review,” which in the science of fistics is called “taking it on the chin.”

An enterprising publisher could put together an anthology of the such colorful passages of philosophers shellacking one another’s work. The anthologist would need to limit the scope to reviews from professional journals; invective from blogs or general-interest publications render the volume unwieldy. Another challenge would be limiting how much space it devotes to reviews by Colin McGinn are included.

As aggressive in the stately pages of The Philosophical Review as when writing for The New York Review of Books, McGinn set a new benchmark for philosophical savaging in 2007 with his comments on Ted Honderich's On Consciousness. But his published opinion of the book (“the full gamut from the mediocre to the ludicrous to the merely bad.... painful to read, poorly thought out, and uninformed”) is by no means as rough as it could have been.  “The review that appears here is not as I originally wrote it,” reads McGinn’s note accompanying the piece in The Philosophical Review. “The editors asked me to 'soften the tone' of the original; I have done so, though against my better judgment.”

The men were once colleagues at University College London, as it is somehow proves unsurprising to learn, and they have a long history of personal and intellectual hostilities, during which Honderich gave as good as he got. (Honderich is now professor emeritus of philosophy of mind and logic. McGinn was professor of philosophy at the University of Miami until his recent resignation.)

The review, and its prehistory and aftermath, inspired an interesting and unusual paper in the Journal of Consciousness Studies. It elucidates the technical questions at issue involved while also bringing the distance between gossip and intellectual history to an all-time low. McGinn is prolific, and I have not kept up with work in the two years since writing about The Meaning of Disgust in this column. But in the meantime, certain of his writings have generated even more attention and commentary than his phillipic against Honderich did.

The prose in question took the form of email and text messages to a research assistant in which he allegedly told her he “had a hand job imagining you giving me a hand job.” (Here is one account of the matter, behind a paywall, though you can also find a PDF of the article for free at this site; and here is another.) I attach the word “allegedly” per protocol, but McGinn has defended his use of the expression “hand job” as part of the philosophical banter around his work on a theory “that ostension and prehension are connected and that the mind is a ‘grasping organ,’ ” as the abstract for a lecture he gave last year puts it. Hence, most forms of human activity are -- ultimately, in a certain sense – “hand jobs.” He has issued a manifesto.

The new issue of Harper’s magazine reprints, under the title “Out on a Limb,” a blog post by McGinn from June 2013 in which he explains: “I have in fact written a whole book about the hand, Prehension, in which its ubiquity is noted and celebrated… I have given a semester-long seminar discussing the hand and locutions related to it. I now tend to use ‘hand job’ in the capacious sense just outlined, sometimes with humorous intent…. Academics like riddles and word games.”

Some more than others, clearly. McGinn then considers the complexity of the speech-act of one professional glassblower asking another, “Will you do a blow job for me while I eat my sandwich?” The argument here is that nothing he did should be regarded as sexual harassment of a graduate student, and the real victim here is McGinn himself: “One has a duty to take all aspects of the speech situation into account and not indulge in rash paraphrases. And one should also not underestimate the sophistication of the speaker.”

Nor overestimate the usefulness of sophistication as a shovel, once one has dug oneself into a hole and needs to get back out. McGinn subsequently thought the better of this little essay and deleted it from his blog, but the Harper’s “Readings” section preserves it for posterity. Life would be much simpler if good judgment weren’t so tardy at times.

The whole matter might reveal its true philosophical depths once Prehension is available. But Amazon doesn’t list it as forthcoming, and lately McGinn’s name seems to come up most often in discussions of sexual harassment, or of the tendency of philosophy as a discipline to resemble the Little Rascals’ treehouse.

But a recent review in Mind ( the journal that gave Urwick such delight in 1921) might shift attention away from McGinn’s alleged peccadillos and the hazards of paraphrase. Arguably it raises the bar higher than even his critique of Honderich did. It starts out with relatively understated and rather donnish clucking over the author’s transgression of specialist boundaries. By the end the end, the gloves are off:  

“As was said of the Sokal hoax, there is simply no way to do justice to the cringe-inducing nature of this text without quoting it in its entirety. But, in a nutshell, Basic Structures of Reality is an impressively inept contribution to philosophy of physics, and one exemplifying everything that can possibly go wrong with metaphysics: it is mind-numbingly repetitive, toe-curlingly pretentious, and amateurish in the extreme regarding the incorporation of physical fact. With work this grim, the only interesting questions one can raise concern not the content directly but the conditions that made it possible; and in this connection, one might be tempted to present the book as further evidence of the lack of engagement of metaphysicians with real science — something that has lately been subject to lively discussion (and I myself have slung some of the mud). But I would insist that to use this work to make a general point about the discipline would in fact be entirely unfair...

“For all the epistemic faux-modesty that this book purports to defend, the image that persists while grinding through its pages is of an individual ludicrously fancying themselves as uniquely positioned to solve the big questions for us, from scratch and unassisted, as if none of the rest of us working in the field have had anything worth a damn to contribute. It will however be clear by now that I take the reality to be substantially different. For me, then, the one pertinent question this work raises is why all of this went unrecognized: this book, after all, issues not from one of the many spurious publishing houses currently trolling graduate students, but Oxford University Press — a press whose stated aim is to ‘publish works that further Oxford University’s objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education’. So why did they publish this?”

The reviewer ventures an explanation: The author of the offending volume “is a ‘big name’; and if that is sufficient for getting work this farcical in print with [Oxford University Press], then shame on our field as a whole.” The book could well provoke a worthwhile discussion, though sadly one focused on concerns rather different from those he himself had in mind.”

I came across this takedown within about an hour of reading the blog post reprinted by Harper’s. The author is Colin McGinn – the author of the book in question, that is, Basic Structures of Reality: Essays in Meta-Physics (Oxford, 2011). The reviewer is Kerry McKenzie, a postdoctoral fellow in philosophy at the University of Western Ontario. The piece in Mind is only her second review-essay, but I’d say it’s one for the anthology. (Note: This essay has been updated from an earlier version to correct Kerry McKenzie's current institution.)


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