Colin McGinn's review of Ted Honderich's book On Consciousness was perhaps unprecedented in living memory. A discussion of it on Brian Leiter's philosophy website included suggestions that it was the result of emotions persisting out of a past  -- partly emotions having to do with Honderich's previously published comments on McGinn. The two were colleagues together in the Philosophy Department at University College London. What follows here are excerpts on McGinn from (1) Honderich's autobiography, (2) from the book On Consciousness
itself (an item McGinn omitted to mention in his review), (3) from a piece in the Literary Review of Canada, and (4) from Radical Externalism: Honderich's Theory of Consciousness Discussed. The excerpts include those referred to in Honderich's reply to McGinn's review as well as McGinn's rejoinder. You can also contemplate reviews of the autobiography, maybe relevant to this encounter between autobiographers.
      But you would be a lot better spending your time not on this stuff, but on the philosophy in question, in its finished form, in the 2014 book Actual Consciousness.


Routledge & Kegan Paul, 2001

    Do you remark, cruel reader, that in the book in your hand there is some potted philosophy? Very true, Your Honour, very true.
    Still, my potting of philosophy preserves some logic and argument, which is not entirely common, and anyway my potting is not offered as a substutte for the real thing. It has those higher or lower aims itemized -- to open up a kind of life, the academic or university philosopher's, by way of a good example or instance, and to see about explaining it. Do you now seize the opportunity to grump or complain, in connection with the first aim, looking into a kind of life, that while there can be different good examples of a kind of life, the one you are getting is not humdrum and respectable enough? ...
    But then you weren't promised a standard example. Would you really prefer one? In fact, could you really be supplied with one, something that would deserve the name. If you lift the covers of academic philosophers, you find many lives that are not humdrum, but crowded and colourful. Perhaps less uniformity is required of academic philosophers than of any other personnel in colleges and universities. As indeed I know, much lies behind the membership cards of we in the philosophical section of the Association of University Teachers.
    To confine myself to standard eccentrics, there is my friend Timothy, who does good work on behalf of the rights of animals, and is also both a panpsychist and a vegetarian, presumably hardened to the little expiring sighs of the meatless steaks and the lettuce leafs. My colleague Arnold Zuboff has proved that we are all one person, and defied many Korean fortune tellers to win through to his happy marriage to himself and others in Belsize Park Gardens. The envy of my small colleague Colin McGinn, also vegetarian, extended even to wanting to be Martin Amis. Several of my colleagues have private pasts much more vivid than their grey presents. To return to myself, isn't there a chance of finding out more from an extreme case? Do we not look for over-developed cases of things in order really to see the properties of the things? Is this not so with infections, abnormalities and other human conditions of interest? (pp. 221-2)

    On a Saturday night in November 1981, 1 was having my supper on my knee in the sewing room on the attic floor at 2 Glebe Street. My dissatisfaction with the Oxford life of Blossom and Bruin came into sharp focus. Our differences in the matter of domestic organization and other things had not been reduced by each of us having a primary space, but increased. Also, if my affection for Janet was great, life was quite a dark burden for her, and her burden was mine. After I took myself back to Keats Grove, we had melancholy telephone conversations, of which the result was her proposal of a trial separation, for a month.
    My sadness, resignation and relief persisted until the day of the Christmas party, when I rang up Oxford, weeping, to beg her to come to Bty and to give us another chance. This she did. The party went well, 41 merry-makers being present. Ronnie Dworkin, he of the jurisprudence, was august in the American way, being outranked only by Pery Worsthorne being yet more august in the English way. Colin McGinn essayed a vegetarian alliance with [my daughter] Kiarney, who had got the news that she would be let back into Oxford. It was all very sustaining. After the party, when all had gone except Janet, I was not at all in the way weeping and begging.  (p. 255)

    In 19 Gordon Square, more hurts had been felt, seemingly by all colleagues. One of mine, not lasting, was that it had proved impossible for Johnny as Head of Department to secure for me as professor what could be secured for Jerry as post-graduate advisor, an unshared telephone line. There was something like affront to colleagues generally in his thinking better about our agreed decision at a departmental meeting to advertise in order to find a temporary lecturer to replace Jerry. There had seemed to our Head good reason just to go ahead and appoint one of our own good postgraduates instead, which he had efficiently done. To hurts were added an apprehension. Was our department on good terms with the college, and in particular the Provost? In these straitened days many posts were frozen, which is to say left unfilled. Would the college find its way to replacing Jerry Cohen and our other departing colleague Colin McGinn? What of the Grote Chair, now in its third year of being unoccupied? Philosophy departments could dwindle. Several in the provinces had actually been closed. Ours surely could not, but would it prosper? (p. 282)

    As the new year started in October 1986, all of my manuscript on determinism was being subjected to a final inspection for philosophical virtue, and doing well. Some time was being given to further clarification and fortification of the third hypothesis of the theory, about our actions. Yes, I was right in my conception of an action or doing, say tossing wine or making an apology or sending a bouquet. Actions in general were of course not merely bodily movements. If it should happen that exactly the movements that went into a wine-tossing occurred again, but in an unusual way, without any intention on the part of the person, this would not be an action by the person. The movements would not be my action if they were entirely the result of someone else's grip on my elbow. Nor would they be anyone's action if they came about as a result of some commotion in my motor cortex unconnected with anyone's mental life.
    But nor were actions to be taken as compounds or mixtures made up of movements and of  mental facts before them, perhaps intentions or volitions, as Colin McGinn and predecessors had supposed. Maybe he'd got the idea in an afternoon of practising his rock-band drums next door to my eyrie, but he should have had second thoughts afterwards. On this view, no one could ever see all of an action, which was odd. Still worse, a throwing could begin before an arm moved, a nod begin before a head moved. Surely no conception of an action could be satisfactory if it mislocated it in time? The right idea was that actions were movements, or stillnesses, and no more than that, but only the movements and stillnesses somehow owed to an active intention or intending on the part of the agent. An active intention could be explained too, too, rescued from mystery. (p. 293)

    The Grote Chair was now in its fifth year without an occupant. ... Might it happen, as external candidates rose and fell, that a candidate from within the department would emerge? With an internal candidate, at least you knew what you were getting. ... The chair committee, by college tradition, had seven members. Five were the Provost and professors of allied subjects. Two were representatives of the department, these being Malcolm Budd our Acting Head, and Bill Hart. ... It was at this stage that an excellent idea was had by somebody disinclined to my further progress. It ws an admirable stratagem. ... [Malcolm] was now proposed by Bill as a candidate for the Grote Chair, albeit a self-deprecating and officially unwilling one. (p. 296)

    In 19 Gorden Square we philosophers began to have less confidence about the Grote Chair, now in its sixth year without anyone in it. Might it conceivably be consigned to the attic of University College London? ... In the first term of this year, while replacing Malcolm Budd as Acting Head during his time off, I continued his supplication to the college and particularly the Provost to fill the chair. I also did a bit of supplicating on behalf of myself? Was the present college committee for the filling of the chair ideally fair? ... The second philosopher on the committee, being human, must be influenced by having been made into a candidate himself. He would have got over his diffidence, wouldn't he? How could he judge the matter impartially? (p. 304)

    My personal struggle with consciousness, renewed and different, carried on in Gordon Square and Keats Grove. What was it to be conscious in these rooms, looking out these windows at those trees? It could be got hold of, couldn't it, if I kept at it? It wasn't as if you had to give up and say the problem of consciousness was insoluble. My old colleague McGinn had announced this in an article, but for such philosophical reasons as to put me in mind of someone's earlier observation that he distinguished himself not only as the Wilde Reader in Oxford but also the Wilde Writer. Conceivably out of justified spite about a line of mine, he had earlier said in a review of Freddie's posthumous collection of essays that my memorial-meeting speech for him, reprinted as the introduction, was ill-written, plodding and faintly nauseating in places. Was it for this reason that I was disinclined to his stuff about giving up in the philosophy of mind? Not only, cynic, not only. (p.365)

    To hear a second voice, my life has been one of satisfactory onward marching, in my own directions. Much of the marching has consisted in thinking about determinism, subjectivity and how life ought to be, much of it in feelings for women, bits of it in going to court and editing the books of others. Despite rising and falling moods, there has been much happy hopefulness and no giving up. I have been a difficult character to a few more people than those who gave me good reason to be. Too severe in judgement, and not more than a tolerably good father.
    Or, it can be said, an effective if not overpowering intelligence and a resolute personality has in my case often been impeded by other things. Those supplied by myself have been self-doubt, apprehension, and occasionally fear. The degree of reasonableness or groundedness of the self-doubt and apprehension has been uncertain. They have certainly contributed to struggle, assertiveness, grimness, relieving comedy, and a persistent arrogrance. An awful lot of philosophy still seems to me not good. That is not to say, I hope, that I have in feeling joined the hanging judges. As executor with Dee of the literary estate of Freddie Ayer, it is good that the biography of him by Ben Rogers is so fine. Still, the mighty little McGinn in reviewing it could write that Freddie not only never had an original idea in his life, but also never had a good idea, his own or anyone else's. I thought he had one or two. (pp. 386-7)

Edinburgh University Press, 2004, Pittsburgh University Press, 2005

The book reviewed by McGinn, in a chapter on John Searle on consciousness, contains a sentence referring to 'mysterianism', McGinn's view that the mind-body problem will be forever insoluble by humans. To the sentence is attached a footnote. Neither are mentioned in McGinn's review of the book.

He [John Searle, in his book The Rediscovery of the Mind] is yet more right to resist ...the once modish idea that the mind-body problem is insoluble, which of course he does not believe.

Footnote:  His objections (pp. 100-5) to arguments for the insolubility of the mind-body problem do not seem as efficient as they might be. One argument for insolubility, assigned to Thomas Nagel, is that if matter explains consciousness, there has to be a necessary connection between the two, but in fact there is no conceptual connection. The objection to that is simply that the explanation depends not on a conceptual but only a nomic connection. Causal connection isn't conceptual. A second argument for insolubility, derived from Nagel and assigned to Colin McGinn, is that consciousness is stuff of which we are aware through introspection, and the brain by contrast is something to whcih we are aware through perception; as for an explanatory link, we would have no way of being aware of it -- there is no third kind of awareness. The objection to that piece of enticing thinking, although evidently there are others, is that there is no need at all, if I am to explain C by B, for me to have the same kind of awareness of both C and B, and no need at all for me to have an explanation of the explanation. With respect to the second point, I don't fail to explain C by B (having shown that B is a causal circumstance or nomic correlated for C) because I have not filled out the story. All I need to do is establish the truth of a certain conditional statement about B and C. We would have no explanations, anywhere, if every explaination had to be explained in the given sense. See A Theory of Determinism or Mind and Brain, Ch. 1

to a review by Sholom Glouberman
Literary Review of Canada
, July/August 2002

Then, like a lot of other philosophers from Marcus Aurelius in Rome to Colin McGinn at Rutgers -- by God, there is a little proof that history goes downhill all the way -- I was moved to write a philosophical autobiography. All of my life. Baden, Ontario, as it was, with those 700 souls in it, once said by me to be a filthy peasant village, onward to that room in Bloomsbury of the Grote Professors of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic. (p. 7, p. 8)

There are two questions about consciousness. Whole conference halls of philosophers and scientists from Tucson to probably Baden are thinking about them. Professor McGinn had a little trouble telling them apart when he embraced his mysterianism about mind and brain, but the first question is what consciousness is and the second is how it is related to the brain. You can, of course, give an answer to the first that leaves the second question open. (p. 8)

(4) 'REPLY'
to Derek Matravers in
Radical Externalism: Honderich's Theory of Consciousness Discussed
Ed. Anthony Freeman, Imprint Academic, 2006.

    Derek Matravers begins his open-minded and contemplative inquiry by identifying options for the philosophy of mind now. The two general ones considered by the orthodox, as he says with reason, are ploughing on with materialism and trying to do some ploughing with spiritualism. He is another of us, as I cannot resist noting, who takes those two general characterizations of most thinking on the mind to be correct and useful.

    A third option is the idea that the problem of consciousness is necessarily unsolvable, as argued in some pages by Colin McGinn (1989). Well, it is hard for me to think of known pages weaker in the logic of philosophy. James Garvey, of whom you know, lays out McGinn's failure to make rudimentary distinctions necessary to his argument (Garvey, 1997). They are distinctions of a kind fundamental to good philosophy and too often lacking in the science and particularly the psychology of consciousness. Also, pages devoted to proving we can never solve the mind-body problem have the absurdity of having to be considered, anyway for a minute or two, as advice to the human race to give up one of its three or four most compelling intellectual problems.

Revised 13 January 2008

McGinn's Rejoinder to Honderich with a brief response
Reviews of Philosopher: A Kind of Life
Andrew Ross, First-Person Consciousness: Honderich & McGinn Reviewed
Andrew Ross, Hitting on Consciousness: Honderich Versus McGinn

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