When Philosophers Attack

by Brian on January 21, 2004

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.

But why?

“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.

{ 30 comments }

1

Terry 01.21.04 at 5:25 pm

I have this same problem, oddly enough. I know how to dance better than anyone else in the world, but I don’t like to do it in public because people just don’t get how advanced it is. It’s also like this new outfit that the emperor got the other day that’s so nice, but, if you’re stupid, you can’t see…

2

jdsm 01.21.04 at 5:34 pm

Is it possible McGinn is just playing a little game here. Surely the other members of his department are going to get wind of these comments and treat him with the appropriate amount of disdain. Mightn’t he just be trying to sound controversial?

3

Matthew 01.21.04 at 5:41 pm

Rock’n’roll!

4

digamma 01.21.04 at 8:26 pm

Articles like these shouldn’t make me miss Rutgers. And yet they do.

5

marky 01.21.04 at 8:29 pm

Well, the intellectual level of philosophers is so far beneath that of physicists and mathematicians that it’s really a moot point if McGinn is the smartest.

6

Doug 01.21.04 at 9:06 pm

And the proof that God loves physicists and mathematicians is that He gave them the easy problems.

7

Keith M Ellis 01.21.04 at 9:48 pm

It seems to me that there’s at least two different ways in which to be conventionally intelligent. Across the divide that seperates the the two associated groups, they appear to each other to be, at best, clever talking parrots and no more.

At least that’s how I feel about anyone who takes Anselm’s ontological proof of God seriously. But more to the point, some of the cleverest people exhibit thinking riddled with category errors; and many apparently unanswerable questions are such because the questions themselves are entirely without meaning. One finds this in philosophy more often than in the sciences because seeming to answer unanswerable questions is a lot like a magic act…and everyone loves magicians because they’re entertaining yet ineffectual.

8

Shai 01.21.04 at 10:30 pm

mcginn apparently isn’t as bad as commenters on crooked timber (but it is hilarious that someone imagines anselm’s ontological argument is a serious topic in the philosophy literature)

9

Keith M Ellis 01.21.04 at 10:52 pm

Shai: it’s mentioned in the article on Mcginn as something that fascinated him as a teenager. Unfair of me, perhaps, to judge him on that basis.

Anselm’s proof is mostly a historical curiosity, although I assure you that there’s still some people that take it seriously. But allow me, then, to use a more recent example: Searle’s Chinese Room. Anyone who takes that argument seriously is across the divide from me.

I was trying to make a serious point behind the too-clever rhetoric: McGinn’s sort of intellectual disdain is not uncommon, though rarely expressed. And whatever it is that makes it possible for some people to take Anselm’s or Searle’s arguments seriously where, for example, I cannot, is the sort of difference that inspires (in each direction) such disdain.

I of course don’t think that I am the talking parrot—but I recognize this is a possibility. I and the person on the other side of that gap seem simultaneously both very similar and very alien. I think that’s fascinating.

10

Robert Gressis 01.21.04 at 11:24 pm

Maybe when McGinn said he was a vegetarian who eats meat he just meant that he was convinced by the theoretical arguments for vegetarianism, but habitually akratic around meat?

11

Tom Runnacles 01.21.04 at 11:56 pm

Oh dear. I’m a bit disappointed by our Col’s comments in that interview.

McGinn had done, or was about to do, his ‘attempting to bolt conditionally to the US and making himself immensely unpopular in Oxford as a side-effect’ thing by the time I arrived there, so I’ve had no personal contact with the guy.

Nonetheless, I do remember getting terribly frustrated by the scientistic tone of most of the stuff written in the phil of mind when I was a graduate student until I clocked ‘Can we solve the mind-body problem?’. It really did look to me like the most sensible recent thing in the literature that hadn’t been written by Thomas Nagel or (cough) John Searle.

I should say also that I enjoyed McGinn’s memoir in a slightly ashamed kind of way.

The guy may nonetheless be an asshole in the light of that interview. Colin McGinn is no Bernard Williams, I suspect. But he has written some very good stuff, nonetheless. (Way outside my area of expertise, and doubtless much closer to Brian’s, but I found CM’s Wittgenstein book very useful.)

12

Tom Runnacles 01.22.04 at 12:17 am

It should also be said that my experience of Bernard Williams as a tutor at the graduate level indicates that though he (naturally) ripped your stuff to pieces when you read it out, he was never an arsehole about the whole business.

Williams may have been, as McGinn indicates and for all I know, ‘horrible’ to colleagues whom he thought to be less bright than he, but that really wasn’t his approach as a teacher.

Which, I suggest, is the more important thing.

13

Shai 01.22.04 at 3:54 am

keith:

right, I didn’t say there isn’t lot of bad philosophy being done; there is, but that’s beside the point.

about the chinese room:

Jack Copeland presents the standard arguments against the chinese room in his Artificial Intelligence: A Philosophical Introduction (also see this). Unless they independently formulated their arguments, Searle lifted part of his argument from Ned Block published in his “Troubles with Functionalism” (summary here). Block’s 1978 argument is a lot less problematic than Searle’s, but the Chinese Room gets all the attention because as one page says “To call the Chinese room controversial would be an understatement”.

I don’t believe many people think Searle’s thought experiment is a good argument (like the Mary thought experiment it will only convince if you have similar intuitions), but along with Block’s paper it’s a useful pivot to introduce the “explanatory gap” (and symbol grounding problem) in philosophical discussions of materialism and “phenomenal consciousness” (see this for starters; — the chart also shows that mcginn’s “mysterianism” isn’t as extreme as some people seem to believe — or “How are qualia coupled to functions?” in the may 2003 “Trends in Cognitive Sciences”, to get an idea why the intuition behind the Chinese Room isn’t so easily refuted)

I think Brian’s mention of Chalmers is apt because he convincingly shows that Searle’s “blackboard running wordstar” thought experiment is silly in this paper: “Does a Rock Implement Every Finite-State Automaton?. Even if a McGinn like “philosophers are stupid” comment is true in general, the same can’t be said of someone like Chalmers (although, I do find his and Dretske’s proto-phenomenal qualia extremely strange — but anyone who hasn’t taken a course in intro. phil of mind will find this all seems like gibberish)

14

ha 01.22.04 at 8:03 am

well, prof. mcginn did assign chalmers along with himself for the philosophy of mind class is teaching this semester, so he might think of chalmers as someone worthy.

15

ha 01.22.04 at 8:04 am

well, prof. mcginn did assign chalmers along with himself for the philosophy of mind class that he is teaching this semester, so he might think of chalmers as someone worthy.

16

AG 01.22.04 at 10:16 am

Reading through the above about CM, and then seeing the comments about Searle’s Chinese Room argument triggered something in my memory about Searle being particularly, erm, forceful in print. So I dug out the passages – both of these are from his “Can Computers Think?”, and made me laugh when I first stumbled across them.

On objections to the Chinese Room argument:

“Various replies have been suggested to this argument… They all have something in common: they are all inadequate.”

On claims that the mind is a computer program:

“As a philosopher, I like all these claims for a simple reason. Unlike most philosophical theses, they are reasonably clear, and they admit of a simple and decisive refutation”

The comments may be tongue-in-cheek, but they did make me smile. How JS would have come across had he been interviewed for the Times, I do not know.

17

dsquared 01.22.04 at 1:26 pm

And whatever it is that makes it possible for some people to take Anselm’s or Searle’s arguments seriously where, for example, I cannot, is the sort of difference that inspires (in each direction) such disdain.

Note for sociologists of the philosophy profession; “Disdain” is what philosophers have for unpalatable conclusions when they can’t think of an argument against them.

18

Michael Drake 01.22.04 at 3:58 pm

he claims to be a vegetarian who happens to eat meat.

Hey, McGinn never said he was a strict vegetarian.

19

Keith M Ellis 01.22.04 at 4:52 pm

Note for sociologists of the philosophy profession; “Disdain” is what philosophers have for unpalatable conclusions when they can’t think of an argument against them.“—

True. It’s also what they have when they can.

20

Jimmy Doyle 01.22.04 at 7:47 pm

shai:

“but it is hilarious that someone imagines anselm’s ontological argument is a serious topic in the philosophy literature”

I hate to sound like a broken record, but all the hilarity here is down to the spectacle of pig-ignorant commentators gauging the philosophical significance of an argument by its degree of fit with their utterly predictable prejudices. Anselm’s ontological argument *is* a serious topic in the philosophy literature, whether shai, or anyone else, knows it, or likes it, or not. David Lewis found it ‘significant’ enough to write about, and philosophers don’t come much more secular, or knowledgable about science, than him. Alvin Plantinga has forgotten more about modal logic than most philosophers will ever know, and he not only finds it significant — he thinks it’s sound.

21

mike 01.22.04 at 7:55 pm

Interesting that Anselm’s ontological argument is so bad-mouthed. David Lewis took the argument seriously enough to offer a version in ‘Anselm and Actuality’ (and postscripts thereto). He found the argument unsound, sure, but not silly. More importantly, Kurt Gödel took the argument seriously enough to offer his own ontological argument. Circulated in the 70′s and published in the 80′s. It’s his Collected Works Volume III. OUP (1995). What could these small minds have been thinking?

22

Jimmy Doyle 01.22.04 at 9:03 pm

Right, I’d forgotten about Gödel. But then, when all’s said and done, what did he know about logic?

23

Luke Weiger 01.22.04 at 11:09 pm

Robert: that was my interpretation.

24

Shai 01.23.04 at 12:56 am

well first, I didn’t say anselm’s argument wasn’t worthy of discussion, like I didn’t say Searle’s chinese room wasn’t worthy (even if neither are especially convincing unless you want to believe the conclusion)

but you’re right, I had forgotten about platinga (and unfairly tarred religious philosophy; i’ll re-read this as punishment); keep in mind, I was responding to mr. ellis who was suggesting that philosophy was little more than stupid human tricks with logic.

25

dsquared 01.23.04 at 12:26 pm

Go on then Keith, indulge us. What’s your knockdown argument against Searle?

26

luke weiger 01.23.04 at 6:16 pm

Shouldn’t asserting that an argument’s real dumb be enough to knock it down? I love that method myself…

27

Keith M Ellis 01.23.04 at 9:57 pm

Ah. Hadn’t checked this thread in a while, figured it had petered out.

Searle constructs an argument around “knowing” without rigorously defining it, allowing him to equivocate and seem to prove something that he hasn’t. Alternatively, he does define “knowing” adequately, but does so in a way that allows him to constuct a tautology.

As to Anselm’s argument: yes, many people do take it seriously—as they take Searle’s argument seriously—and many of those people are, by many indications, very, very, smart. That was my point.

I was not saying, chai, that philosophy was little more than stupid tricks with logic. My point was that philosophy is more prone to asking and attempting to answer badly formed questions than is science. I was saying that this is the case because, firstly, philosophers can more easily get away with doing this; secondly, there is an attraction to both the performer and the audience in doing so; and, thirdly, it’s tolerated even when recognized for what it is because philosophy is socially irrelevant in a way that science is not.

My main point was that I was empathizing with McGinn’s disdain even if, in fact, he and I are on opposite sides of that divide. Among very smart people, a lot of them seem pretty dumb to the others, in a sense. It’s very, very difficult for me to see why anyone with any sense would take either of the two arguments discussed above seriously. And yet, I recognize that a great many very (otherwise?) intelligent people do. It could be that they’re merely clever “talking parrots”, as I said. It could be something else—that I’m the talking parrot. Or there could be something relativistic going on. I don’t know. But I think it’s interesting because, for me anyway, this experience is an intense and puzzling component of my intellectual life.

From my intellectual perspective, there’s a big chunk of things people continually and fruitlessly puzzle over that they should not because, loosely speaking, there’s a category error implicit in the question. These category errors are obvious to me. This is the case with both the examples already mentioned; it’s the case with, as another example, Newcomb’s Paradox; and it’s the case with the “problem” of “free will”. I accept the possibility that I’m the fool in these cases, and it is I that believes I am comprehending something I am not. But the subjective experience is like being that little boy seeing the emperor with no clothes while everyone else is oohing and aahing.

28

Keith M Ellis 01.23.04 at 10:43 pm

but all the hilarity here is down to the spectacle of pig-ignorant commentators gauging the philosophical significance of an argument by its degree of fit with their utterly predictable prejudices.“—Jimmy Doyle

You’re making an assumption you ought not make. My disdain for Anslem’s argument is entirely on what I think are its own merits and not at all whether I agree with his conclusion about theism.

Unlike (probably) a lot of the other people here who’ve read a great deal of philosophy, I happen to have read a great deal of theology, particularly the scholastics. In contrast to Anslem’s Ontological argument, I have much respect for many other arguments and for the thinkers that elucidate them. In fact, I rather liked Anselm otherwise.

29

seth edenbaum 01.24.04 at 12:42 am

Thank you all for reminding my why I take John Searle seriously, compared to what I read here.
I still like to come by, though.

30

Jimmy Doyle 01.25.04 at 11:56 pm

Mr Ellis,

You are the one “making an assumption you ought not make.” I don’t see how I could have been more explicit in directing my comments against those who, like shai, claim that “it is hilarious that someone imagines anselm’s ontological argument is a serious topic in the philosophy literature,” which I take to be an obviously false claim about what questions top philosophers take to be important. (Shai later claimed “I didn’t say anselm’s argument wasn’t worthy of discussion,” but it’s not clear to me how thinking it hilarious that something is a serious topic is compatible with thinking it *is* worthy of discussion.) I have no idea what the basis is for your “disdain” for Anselm’s argument. Unless it’s the mistaken belief that no top philosophers take the argument seriously, my comment had nothing to say about it.

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