Proto-nerd meets pinball and Placido in popularisation bid

The Making of a Philosopher
April 11, 2003

I wonder if Colin McGinn really wanted to write this book. He says in the acknowledgements that his agent encouraged him in this project, and it certainly bears the hallmarks of an agent's idea, an attempt to popularise a subject that can never be popular.

The notes on the flyleaf speak breathlessly about the fact that McGinn, from a mining family in County Durham, who grew up in Kent and Blackpool, has made it big time in philosophy, and is now Professor of That Subject at Rutgers University. But is there anything unusual in this any more? Where I work in Cambridge, the accents are as broad and as flat as the fens: Birmingham, Bradford, the Bronx, Bombay. Nobody cares. Many of these individuals were born poor and, as academics, will most likely remain poor.

In any case, McGinn does not really let us into his personal life. I am not arguing that he should: merely quibbling that the book promises this and does not deliver. Yes, we get a few details about the pinball machines in Blackpool, but this part of the book never really takes off. After a few failures, at the 11-plus and similar anachronisms, our boy starts to shine.

But we are never told how he did it - whether he was a terrible swot, a proto-nerd of his day, a philosophical anorak - and neither is there a real epiphany. My suspicion is that the professor's agent wanted more personal details than McGinn was prepared to reveal. Good for him, but it makes bland reading.

The philosophy is much better - superb vignettes of Noam Chomsky, Saul Kripke, Hilary Putnam, David Marr and a bunch of others: no more than a few paragraphs on each but always clear, concise and captivating. Indeed, it leaves you hungry for more. In trying to make the case for philosophy as an important and interesting activity, the personal/professional format to McGinn's book gives you the impression, rather as Richard Rorty says, that philosophy is the activity that is left over when the really important stuff (science and law, mainly) is finished. In other words, as it stands, the book makes philosophy out to be a rag-bag of loose ends. I do not think this is McGinn's view of the subject, but it its forced on him by the shape of the book.

The last chapters concern his well-known view that human kind is not equipped to understand consciousness, which has earned him the (not entirely flattering) description of "mysterian". This is by far the most interesting part, but again it throws the format into doubt. Bertrand Russell once said that there would come a time when philosophers would no longer be able to explain their theories by way of metaphor or analogy and, in my view at least, that point was reached some time ago.

There are some issues that simply cannot be popularised, or simplified, and modern philosophy is one of them. The Making of a Philosopher does not help non-philosophers understand how McGinn became who he is today; and there is nothing here to teach professional philosophers anything new. And, while we're at it, what purpose does it serve to tell us that McGinn has had (extremely brief) encounters with Placido Domingo, Jennifer Anniston and Anthony Hopkins? Did this help in the making of a philosopher? No: I suspect it is just another crummy idea from McGinn's agent, who thought it would help him sell a few extra books. Embarrassing.

Peter Watson is working on a history of ideas.

The Making of a Philosopher: My Journey through Twentieth-Century Philosophy

Author - Colin McGinn
ISBN - 0 7432 3179 1
Publisher - Scribner
Price - £10.00
Pages - 241

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