|McGINN'S REJOINDER TO
HONDERICH'S REPLY TO HIS REVIEW
The following rejoinder by Colin McGinn to Ted Honderich's reply to his review of On Consciousness appeared on the website Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog. It led Brian Leiter to reaffirm his sympathy with McGinn's review of On Consciousness. Ted Honderich's sentence in response is below at the end.
I have written more than eighty reviews over a thirty year period, in the most respectable of places. Some have been favorable, some unfavorable, and some in between. Among those I have been critical of, sometimes severely, are the following: H. Putnam, T. Scanlon, O. Sacks, P. Unger, R. Nozick, P. Churchland, U. Eco, A.J. Ayer, D. Dennett, R. Penrose. My criticisms have not always been well taken by their targets; it would be odd if it were otherwise. (My own books have, of course, also been roundly criticized by some reviewers-- sometimes sensibly, sometimes not.) Criticism is what book reviewing is all about. And scathing criticism is sometimes called for.
When I was asked to review On Consciousness I thought: “I wonder what old Ted has to say about consciousness,” and recalled that I hadn’t written a review for a professional journal in a while; so I agreed to take it on. It sat unread on my shelves for many months, the casualty of too many other commitments (and a move from New York to Miami). I eventually got round to reading it in (I think) March 2006. With mounting dismay, it struck me as the worst philosophy book I’d ever read—by far. I wondered whether to abandon the project, but I had made a commitment to the Philosophical Review and it was now rather late in the game to tell them I didn’t want to do it. My problem wasn’t so much that I’d have to write a scathing review—I’ve done that kind of thing many times before—but that it would be immensely tedious and unrewarding to do so. Anyway, I ground out the review, basically hating every minute of it (though there is always pleasure in finding exactly the right critical language). The editors, upon receipt, asked me to tone it down, specifically to remove the parody of Honderich’s prose style I had incorporated. Although I didn’t think their request justified, I acceded to it (parody was exactly what was needed, in my judgment, to convey the distinctive cadence of the Honderich style, if I may so describe it). I was well aware that the final product would, however, rank as among the most scathing reviews of a philosophy book ever written; reasonably so, in my opinion.
Honderich’s reply to my review speculates about the source of my harsh judgment. He suggests that it comes from my annoyance at his remarks about me in his autobiography. I had skimmed that work, and did indeed find his comments about me (and others) myopic, tendentious and foolish. I put it down to the usual Ted rubbish, petulant and self-serving. I can’t say, though, that I found it all that offensive, but in any case I had very little recollection of its content when I was writing my review; maybe I should have found it more offensive (it did seem designed to offend). But my review was dictated by my actual critical response to the text of On Consciousness and not by any supposed past slights. For those not inclined to take my word for this (and to examine the content of my criticisms), supposing that really my negativity arose from personal considerations of the kind Honderich alleges, let me make an observation about Ted’s own account of our relations. He notes, correctly, that I had much earlier (1990) in the London Review of Books described his preface to a collection of A.J. Ayer’s writings as “ill-written, plodding, and faintly nauseating in places”. My question is: how could this piece of condemnation on my part have issued from my displeasure at his autobiography, which was years from being published and the future content of which I could know nothing about? It couldn’t. The constant factor here is obviously Honderich’s writing itself, not any supposed resentment on my part to his unflattering comments about me in his memoir. I just think he writes bad philosophy badly, that’s all. Indeed, the wild speculation suggests itself that, just conceivably, Ted’s remarks about me in that book may have been influenced by my earlier nasty comment about his Ayer preface—which he admits himself made him not like me (just a thought—though I generally eschew such psychological speculations in intellectual matters). In any case, here we have a simple empirical refutation of his causal conjecture. And is it to be supposed that all the other authors I have criticized, sometimes severely, have also written unpleasant things about me in their autobiographies or have otherwise incurred my personal enmity? Of course not: it’s just that I’m a tough-minded and outspoken book reviewer. To repeat, I found Honderich’s book to be quite the worse thing I’ve ever read—an insult to the reader, no less—so I was duty-bound to pan it. And I did give my reasons.
I may get round to responding to Honderich’s substantive comments, when time permits—a task I don’t relish. But questions of integrity can’t wait.
There will be no response by Ted Honderich to these thoughts and feelings, or to Brian Leiter's, other than one sentence -- the following one here. Your own reading of the relevant few paragraphs at the end of my reply, to which you can turn now, will establish that McGinn's 'simple empirical refutation' of my causal conjecture is simple and presumably hasty nonsense, since there was no such causal conjecture on my part whatever, nothing whatever about something later causing something earlier, nothing entailing it -- this blunder too is suggestive of McGinn's excess motivation.
Colin McGinn According to Ted Honderich
Reviews of Honderich's autobiography
Andrew Ross, First-Person Consciousness: Honderich & McGinn Reviewed
Andrew Ross, Hitting on Consciousness: Honderich Versus McGinn
Four Newspaper Stories and a Letter to an Editor
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