Two by Scott

by Henry Farrell on November 7, 2013

Since CTer Scott McLemee is not exactly what you would describe as an incessant self-promotor, two recent pieces by him that deserve attention.

First, on Colin McGinn, the Mind “review”: that’s been doing the rounds, and the tradition of savage book reviews by philosophers:

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.

Second, from last week, on “Lou Reed and Delmore Schwartz”:

Fifty years ago, Lou Reed himself was a senior at Syracuse University, where he studied with the poet Delmore Schwartz. Reed was 21 – roughly the same age Schwartz had been when he wrote the short story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” In it, the narrator revisits the scene of his parents’ courtship in 1909 as if seeing it in a film of the era.

Simply told and strangely beautiful, it is both haunting and haunted. By its close, any hint of sentimentality dissolves in a moment of painful self-awareness. Its appearance in 1937 in the revived Partisan Review was the stuff of legends. The poetry and criticism Schwartz published after that were more than promising, and he won the Bollingen Prize in 1959 (five years after Auden had received it) for a volume of his selected poems.

Beginning in 1962, Schwartz held an appointment in the English department at Syracuse, despite having become, at some point over the previous decade or so, manifestly insane. The distinction between bohemianism and madness is sometimes a matter of context. With Schwartz the case for nuance was long since past. He had fallen into the habit of threatening friends and ex-wives with litigation for their parts in a conspiracy against him, led by the Rockefellers. While living in Greenwich Village he had smashed all the windows in his rented room and been taken to Bellevue in restraints. He died alone in New York City in 1966.

The following year, Reed dedicated a song on the first Velvet Underground album to Schwartz, and in another song from the early 1980s he imagined being able to communicate with the poet via Ouija board. Last year Reed published a tribute to him that has also appeared as the preface to In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, an edition of Schwartz’s selected short fiction.



js. 11.08.13 at 3:43 am

That Mind review was great, as was McLemee’s piece—thanks. I especially liked the dig at OUP coming in the pages of Mind.


ZM 11.08.13 at 6:42 am

These two pieces on people on people are kind of interesting in the light of Ingrid’s post and the blame utilitarianism post. Lou Reed on Delmore Schwarz seems much kinder and expansive and complicated and human than either of the philosophers are in their respective reviews.


Chris Bertram 11.08.13 at 7:50 am

Re the McGinn review. I was a bit surprised to see that it has been out for a couple of years, which, of course, means that it predates the latest controversies over the man’s reputation. We know the part of the answer to one of the questions raised in Kerry McKenzie’s review, which is that the book appears to have received a positive report from the publisher’s reader, Galen Strawson (this is mentioned on the acknowledgements pages as viewable on Amazon). This isn’t to disparage Strawson, but he isn’t a philosopher of physics so why did OUP give him the job? Was it at McGinn’s suggestion? The other thing to wonder is why it has taken two years for a reviewer to give the book this kind of treatment. OK, reviews often take a while, but the NDPR review (the other one I can find) is not so much hostile as extremely dull: maybe the specialist can read between the lines, but as a non-specialist I couldn’t really tell.


WEU 11.08.13 at 9:21 am

I wonder if McGinn has encountered Friedrich Engels’ piece on the role of the hand in human evolution. (McLemee, the old leftist trainspotter, probably has.)


prasad 11.08.13 at 9:33 am

Katie Roiphe had a very interesting story at Slate about the McGinn mess:

If we can read without reflexively dismissing the article for being Slate-pitch, the story was a lot richer than we were led to believe. And reading through, imo a decent description of what happened is that McGinn and the student were carrying on a sketchy flirtatious interaction. And the student’s boyfriend found out about it.


Chris Bertram 11.08.13 at 9:44 am

If we can read without reflexively dismissing the article for being Slate-pitch

I’m not sure that we can, particularly given the identity of the author. This was a piece based on a selection of documents provided by McGinn to a journalist to convey a certain impression of the facts (favourable to him). A proper hearing, with rules of evidence etc., (which McGinn resigned rather than submit himself to) would have been a different matter. I don’t think we should give credence (or publicity) to an operation aimed at undermining the young woman in this case, to do so amounts to aiding and abetting.


prasad 11.08.13 at 9:59 am

“This was a piece based on a selection of documents provided by McGinn to a journalist to convey a certain impression of the facts (favourable to him).”

– Well, not quite, it also gets the views of of this boyfriend, who the student seems to have authorized to speak for her to Roiphe. And I don’t see the new info as undermining the woman, but rather the boyfriend in question.
– Anyway I’d have thought getting a richer picture is worthwhile even if it makes a story murkier than necessary for social justice warrioring. Might even go with that empathy and epistemic humility stuff.
– Anyway, if you think comments at Crooked Timber shouldn’t give “publicity” to articles at Slate, both my comments can be deleted no doubt.


GiT 11.08.13 at 11:03 am

The only thing I get out of that Slate article is a visceral sensation of just how creepy and inappropriate both McGinn’s behavior and Roiphe’s glamorization of it are.


Chris Bertram 11.08.13 at 11:09 am

[I’ve moved all comments about the Roiphe article into moderation for now (including mine) until the post author (Henry) gets out of bed. ]


Matt McG 11.08.13 at 12:20 pm

What is the usual process for assigning publisher’s readers? Oxford has a ton of philosophers of physics who could have done the job; several of whom are OUP authors.


Chris Bertram 11.08.13 at 12:55 pm

Well there’s some reason to think that the editor asks the author for a list of suitable people, and that the editor then chooses from that list. It isn’t like the refereeing process for journals, anyway.


Phil 11.08.13 at 2:32 pm

I’m trying to remember where the reviewers of my book proposal came from & if I had anything to do with nominating them. I don’t think I would have done – they were both people I wouldn’t have thought of approaching, one because he was one of my supervisors (his review mentioned having read my thesis) and the other because of his eminence in the field (he signed his review – I’ve never known if this was a deliberate breach of anonymity or just a slip).


Phil 11.08.13 at 2:40 pm

In the case of McGinn, it would take a particularly switched-on editor to ask, not “who’s competent to judge whether Colin McGinn’s making sense?”, but “who’s competent to judge whether McGinn’s making sense in this field which he’s entering for the first time?”. And, who knows, maybe viewed as “McGinn extends his field of inquiry into metaphysics” it’s a worthwhile and interesting book – or if that’s too much of a stretch, maybe the proposal made it look like it had a reasonable chance of being worthwhile and interesting, for people who find McGinn’s work in general to be such.

Comment on the Roiphe piece withheld until the modgates are loosed.


Henry 11.08.13 at 4:32 pm

I’ve liberated the comments, but am profoundly unconvinced by the Roiphe piece. McGinn seems to have deleted his posts, but his defense of the so-called Genius Project, in which he was going to act as some kind of combo Pygmalion-Svengali to transform this young woman into a genius philosopher was both repulsive and self-revealing. Graduate school is a weird place, and the mentor-mentee relationship can be manipulated in some quite unpleasant ways. Even Roiphe’s story, despite itself, makes it quite clear that there was a lot of manipulation going on. (if I were McGinn, I’d make some arch little bullshit joke about the origins of the word manipulation, but happily I’m not).


Phil 11.08.13 at 5:03 pm

A proper hearing, with rules of evidence etc., (which McGinn resigned rather than submit himself to)

The parenthesis here is a really important point. If I’m honest, that detail actually gained McGinn a bit of sympathy from me when I first read about it – who the hell would want to have their behaviour subjected to an official inquiry? But sympathy evaporated when I started reading comments from McGinn (and Ed Emory) to the effect of “sexual harassment? what sexual harassment? there were no allegations of sexual harassment” and so on and on. Evasive on more than one level – far more so than a self-respecting philosopher should permit himself, surely.

Also, what GiT said. I started looking a bit sidelong at Roiphe’s article when she mentioned that “I myself like a powerful, arrogant man”, emph added. Who likes arrogant anybodies? But this was the argument that really lost me:

People have quite sensibly pointed out that Colin was not sensitive enough to his own power, or at the very least not alert enough to dangerous subterranean power inequities, that he didn’t notice the building of hidden resentments and resistances, which seems fair. Though he says something that also seems fair: “Real power didn’t reside with me at all. With the mere fact that a female student goes to the authorities at all, it becomes sexual harassment.” It is true that a female student has the unspoken power to whisper two words and ruin an entire career.

Real power didn’t reside with me at all.??? I mean, good heavens. Firstly (in reply to Roiphe) there’s nothing very “subterranean” about the differential in power and status between any professor and any graduate student – and this particular pair’s relationship, on his account, seems to have been built on eroticising the power difference (or their denial of the power difference, which is the same thing at one remove). Secondly, the woman didn’t have and didn’t exert any power – she went to the authorities, who were empowered to act in certain ways to protect her and other students, precisely because her (their) own position was (and is) powerless and vulnerable relative to McGinn and others like him. And we can be sure that there are others like him. From August, Rebecca Kukla:

I have found it frustrating watching people gleefully vilify and demonize [McGinn]. Not because he wasn’t creepy and way out of bounds, but because the kind of remarkably inappropriate ‘banter’ he engaged in and his complete tone-deafness to the power dynamics that structure the performative force of that banter happen ALL THE TIME in philosophy, as far as I can tell. Through his pompous and narcissistic attempts at self-defense, McGinn made himself an easy target for ridicule. I worry that this has allowed us to write him off as a moral monster, rather than reflecting on just how pervasive this kind of behavior is. In fact, I think that McGinn’s clear belief that his inappropriate sexualized communication made him somehow a bold, hip, unconventional intellectual is implicitly shared by many men in the profession.

That this kind of ‘banter’ is common doesn’t make it harmless, by any means. It’s easy to be insouciant about boundary-busting when you do so from a position of power. But in fact, this idea that we philosophers are somehow above such trivialities as social boundaries comes at the cost of the discipline’s most vulnerable members (and potential members).


between4walls 11.08.13 at 7:49 pm

Has it been mentioned here yet that McLemee is doing the books section for Jacobin?

Always liked his posts, especially on cults. Was reminded of them by noticing a LaRouchite on the NJ governor’s ballott (running under “Glass-Steagal Now”).


Neville Morley 11.08.13 at 8:09 pm

Slightly off topic, but do people normally know who their publisher’s readers are? I’ve sometimes been able to guess, but I’ve never been told and have never considered asking. Phil’s comment suggests the same, but others seem to assume it’s normal.


js. 11.08.13 at 8:49 pm

Oh, man! I’d forgotten all about the Roiphe piece. Life was good! Now I feel dirty and horrible again.

But seriously, I don’t get how anyone can read that piece and think McGinn comes out looking the least bit better.


LFC 11.09.13 at 2:49 am

Slightly off topic, but do people normally know who their publisher’s readers are? I’ve sometimes been able to guess, but I’ve never been told and have never considered asking. Phil’s comment suggests the same, but others seem to assume it’s normal.

Occasionally one will find an author saying in acknowledgments that one or more of the publisher’s readers subsequently revealed their identity to the author, who proceeds to thank them by name. However, one does often find “I thank the anonymous readers for [etc]”.

Another thing, of course, is that sometimes the publisher’s readers are the same as the blurbers, since apparently they often give favorable soundbites as well as, presumably, constructive criticisms. So in the end it sometimes is not too hard for everyone to know who the publisher’s readers were.


LFC 11.09.13 at 2:53 am

p.s. I have no experience of my own w publisher’s readers, in case that wasn’t obvs.


Agog 11.09.13 at 10:45 am

‘. . . the ‘Lucky Charms’ theory of matter.’

Holy moley.


Phil 11.09.13 at 2:55 pm

As in, Would it matter if an electron had a star shape?

I thought that one was asking for the Babbage retort – “I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.”


Jason 11.09.13 at 8:12 pm

The Harper’s Article is behind a paywall, anyone have an accessible link?


Ed Herdman 11.09.13 at 10:06 pm

Just the opening of the McGinn review has me holding my head in my hands, and all I’ve done is undergraduate study and reading in the philosophy of science. Got a good chuckle from Phil’s comment above – Mr. Babbage’s quip is one for the ages.

In McGinn’s defense (only of his attempt to branch out into other areas), I’ve been quite excited and encouraged by philosophers who do try to expand their reach into other areas. I know of one philosopher who has been pursuing a similar project (superficially, in that he actually researches the literature carefully) of studying cosmology and theoretical physics.

What’s at the heart of this striving is not necessarily egoism, but a heartfelt wish to stop the divergence and fracture of fields of study, and instead promote the consilience of knowledge. Where McGinn has apparently gone wrong is in assuming that this knowledge will spring from his forehead like the adult Aphrodite (a rather unfortunate allusion after recounting the details of that story, and the context of the power politics mentioned – ew) and in not understanding that the philosopher who seeks to unify knowledge accepts a heavy burden for seeking out knowledge. It means little to attempt to unify knowledge if you think that means that the pieces are only in your mind.

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