Consciousness: The Grudge Match
The Guardian, December 21, 2007
Edited by Andy Ross
It is probably the most negative book review ever written. "This book runs
the full gamut from the mediocre to the ludicrous to the merely bad," begins
Colin McGinn's review of On Consciousness by Ted Honderich. "It is painful
to read, poorly thought out, and uninformed. It is also radically
What does the man on the receiving end think of this
review? "It is a cold, calculated attempt to murder a philosopher's
reputation," says Honderich.
McGinn is unrepentant. When I ring him
in Miami, he tells me: "It's not like you're hitting someone over the head
with a hammer. Ted is not very good at philosophy. That's the problem."
The feud is escalating into a grudge match between two former
colleagues. In one corner is McGinn, 57, West Hartlepool-born professor of
philosophy at the University of Miami, and the self-styled hard man of
philosophy book reviewing. In the other corner is Honderich, 74,
Ontario-born Grote Professor Emeritus of the philosophy of mind and logic at
University College London, and a man once described by fellow philosopher
Roger Scruton as the "thinking man's unthinking man".
appears in volume 116 of the Philosophical Review. On why he wrote the
review that way, he says: "I know Ted and know I don't think much of him as
a philosopher. But if you ask did that affect the way I wrote the review,
absolutely not. ... Ted deserved it. It had to be done."
replies: "For McGinn to say that is for him to be a philosopher on the moon.
Nobody on Earth believes that his review is not motivated by animus. To
suggest the tone wasn't dictated by any history of hostility between us is
Intellectually, they hold very different views on
consciousness. Honderich calls himself a radical externalist on
consciousness, meaning that "my perceptual consciousness now consists in the
existence of a world".
McGinn thinks Honderich's brand of radical
externalism is bogus. "Ted's saying that one's perceptual content just is
that thing, a table for example. But if you close your eyes, does the table
stop existing? On Ted's account it seems to, which is just wild."
McGinn, by contrast, is the world's leading proponent of the "mysterian"
position whereby some philosophical problems, consciousness among them, are
Honderich heaps derision on this mysterian position,
describing it as a "form of intellectual wimpishness". "And in any case, how
dare McGinn rubbish my position."
Honderich believes there is more
than intellectual difference behind his and McGinn's row. "At UCL we had a
jokey locker-room relationship," recalls Honderich. "But then I made a
misstep. I suggested to him that his new girlfriend was not as plain as the
old one, and I could see the blood drain out of his face. That was possibly
the start of our frostiness." Forget abstruse philosophical disputes,
cherchez la femme.
The relationship has not since thawed. In his 2001
autobiography, Honderich writes: "The envy of my small colleague, Colin
McGinn, also vegetarian, extended to even wanting to be Martin Amis." What
was that about? Well, McGinn is not just a philosopher but a rather
unsuccessful novelist, and Honderich is tall. Honderich thinks this explains
McGinn's hostile review.
"That just isn't right," counters McGinn.
"I'd written hostile reviews about Ted before that autobiography. It wasn't
animus at all." He once wrote a review of a collection of posthumous papers
by A.J. Ayer, Honderich's predecessor as Grote professor at UCL. In it,
McGinn called Honderich's funeral eulogy for Ayer "ill-written, plodding and
faintly nauseating in places". Says Honderich: "It is as though it was a
piece of shit by some adolescent muckraker. But anyway, with that he was the
first to insult me in print."
Both McGinn and Honderich like a ruck.
"People have complained about my tone in reviews for the past 30 years,"
says McGinn proudly. "I've made definite enemies in the past 30 years in
important departments. People are too cautious. Hard things need to be
As for Honderich, jousting with McGinn probably isn't the
worst conflict he been embroiled in. He managed to earn the simultaneous
hostility of Palestinians and Jews over his book After the Terror, in which
he asserted the moral right of Palestinians to resist ethnic cleansing by
the Israelis with terrorism.
"To call me an antisemite was just a
lie," said Honderich. "My first wife was Jewish, I have Jewish children and
grandchildren, and I have always gone on record as a supporter of the right
of the state of Israel to exist. That's why the Palestinians are opposed to
me. What I don't support is Israel's expansionism after the 1967 war."
McGinn is unrepentant about his review, but Honderich is demanding
compensation from the Philosophical Review. "They should not have published
it," he says. "It makes them look ridiculous." And then he says: "In a way,
I'm glad it's been published. My book is now getting the attention it
deserves. The mighty little McGinn has done me a service."
Two Philosophers Feud Over a Book Review
New York Times, January 12, 2008
Edited by Andy Ross
A feud between the prominent philosophers Colin McGinn and Ted Honderich
started in the summer, when McGinn wrote a scathing review of Honderich's
book On Consciousness in the July 2007 issue of The
Philosophical Review, a quarterly journal edited by the faculty of the Sage
School of Philosophy at Cornell University.
McGinn: "This book runs
the full gamut from the mediocre to the ludicrous to the merely bad. It is
painful to read, poorly thought out and uninformed." He called Honderich's
efforts "shoddy, inept and disastrous".
In an e-mail message,
Honderich said he had petitioned the review to provide "some fair redress",
like a discussion on the subject, but was told by the editor in chief,
Nicholas L. Sturgeon, that the policy is "not to publish replies to book
reviews". Honderich: "They have brought their own journal into disrepute and
should do something about that."
Honderich, a professor emeritus at
University College London and the editor of The Oxford Companion to
Philosophy, accused McGinn of being motivated by personal animus. The two
professors were colleagues at London College 25 years ago, and Honderich
maintains that McGinn has never forgiven him for calling an ex-girlfriend of
Reached in Miami, McGinn described the notion that he
was motivated by a decades-old grudge as absurd: "We didn't get on
philosophically, but from a personal point of view, we got on perfectly
Honderich, he said, "maintains the review was so negative
because there's a feud instead of because his book is so bad." He said that
he remembered the comment about his ex-girlfriend, but that he considered it
no more than a "bit vulgar and crass" and "certainly didn't nurse it for 25
"There was no feud before. It was just a negative review,"
McGinn said, acknowledging that "it was the most negative review I've ever
written." He said that though some might call him aggressive, "rightly or
wrongly it was my intellectual judgment."
The view from Cornell, The
Philosophical Review's home, is that the fuss is overblown. "I can
understand Honderich's being aggrieved" by the review, Sturgeon said, "but
it is not outside the accepted standards of the discipline."
question of publishing a further exchange was raised at a departmental
meeting last month attended by nearly all the members of the editorial
board, Sturgeon said, and everyone agreed there was no compelling reason to
make an exception.
Honderich said McGinn's animus was also rooted in
Britain's class structure and that McGinn had a "chip on his shoulder".
Speculating on why The Philosophical Review published the critique,
Honderich said it might have to do with "my moral defense of Palestinian
terrorism against neo-Zionism" or "my Zionism."
such speculation, saying he and others at The Review had no idea Honderich
had written anything political.
Honderich: "the tubful of personal
insults by McGinn has had a good effect on me. It has made me see that
objections already familiar to me, mainly by contributors to a book about my
theory, have to be given more attention."
AR See my
JCS article on all this (PDF, 20 pages, 125 KB).