I was thinking of leaving my little rant about Colin McGinn somewhere where other Timberites might not get any blame for it, but since Chris mentioned it, I figure it’s worth reposting here. McGinn is a relatively famous British philosopher, now at Rutgers, who in the 1980s produced some influential material on the mind-body problem, although his more recent work has not attracted as much attention. For various reasons (including his meteoric rise through the profession, the accessibility of his theories, his wide ranging interests, and his willingness to produce harsh verdicts on other philosophers) he became fairly well-known in broader intellectual circles. And now he’s written an autobiography. This led to an interview in the Times of London. (Note this is now subscriber-only, but I’ve put most of the text on my site.) The most notable passage is:
“I won’t talk to my colleagues about philosophy. It is too boring to me,” he says.
“They are too stupid.”
He can’t say that!
“No, they don’t get it. And I don’t want to have an hour’s conversation about it.”
But they have read the same texts?
“Oh, yes. This is where I get much more intolerant. I know exactly what they are going to say. They ought to know what I am going to say, but apparently they don’t.
“It is a fault. But I am not as bad as Bernard Williams. He apparently was horrible to people. He could not tolerate people being less clever than him. He was quicker than anybody else, and if they were not as quick as him, he would show his disdain for them.”
It’s worth noting that in most people’s view Rutgers has some of the smartest philosophers currently active, and in McGinn’s area of work (philosophy of mind) it is probably the leading department in the world. It is also worth noting that the memorial service for Bernard Williams at Oxford was a few days after this piece was published in the Times, although possibly McGinn would not have known that when he gave the interview.
Elsewhere he claims to be a vegetarian who happens to eat meat, which opens up whole new ethical possibilities. Could one be a charitable man who just happens to have not made any donations for a decade or so?
One reason for highlighting all this of course is that it’s very amusing, and blogs are built for this kind of light comedy. Another is that I feel like sticking up for my “stupid” friends. But the other thing that quite annoys me is the worry that people will read this and have McGinn as their model of a modern analytic philosopher. There are any number of people who could be worth interviewing in a major newspaper who would generate a more positive, and more accurate, impression of the state of the profession. (Dave Chalmers, call your agent!)
It’s worth mentioning again that CT has no communal policy, so everything I post is the responsibility of me and me alone.