The Making of a Philosopher

By Katie Roiphe
Slate, October 2013

Edited by Andy Ross

Colin McGinn, 63, has lost his job, his reputation, his income, and his ordered life. He had worked his way to Oxford, won prestigious awards, written acclaimed books, inspired a group of philosophers called the new mysterians, and taken plum academic appointments. His last was at the University of Miami, where he lost everything over a woman aged 26.

Colin, who was 61 and married, sent emails to a graduate student, Nicole (sic). In one he wrote that he "had a hand job imagining you giving me a hand job" and in another he floated a proposal to have sex three times. A few months later, the New York Times reported that "after allegations of sexual harassment" Colin had resigned. An avalanche of articles followed on the problem of sexual harassment in philosophy.

Nicole was a first-year graduate student who took a fall 2011 seminar with Colin on philosophical explorations of the hand. In early 2012, they ate together and talked about philosophy. They played tennis and water sports. Over the summer he hired her as a researcher and she went home. In September she reported him at the university for sexual harassment. The university formally charged him in a letter. In January 2013, he resigned from his tenured position.

Ben was Nicole's boyfriend. He is a philosophy graduate student, and he tells a story of sexual harassment. In his account, Nicole began working with a famous philosopher in the fall. After some time, she was made increasingly uncomfortable by his sexual innuendoes and flirtations. She tried to ignore them but then she rejected them and told him she wanted a professional relationship. The professor wrote her suggestive emails.

The emails and texts between Colin and Nicole do not support Ben's account. A picture emerges of a strange but avid and affectionate rapport between them. Until June, there appeared to be a reciprocal warmth. The two developed a playful private language based on their work about the hand. Her tone in the emails and texts over the winter and spring was often enthusiastic and effusive. She reassured him when he pulled back or expressed pessimism.

Sexual harassment is about words. As someone who teaches at New York University, I wholly sympathize with the general impulse to protect a student's privacy, but the only way to understand Colin's communications is to read them in context, and imagine what they would have meant at the time to the people involved.

The university chose not to pursue charges of sexual harassment. From their letter: "The university believes that Professor McGinn's conduct is unprofessional due to the amorous relationship that developed between a senior faculty member and his student." Colin had violated a policy from the University of Miami faculty handbook governing "consensual amorous, romantic or sexual relationships" between professors and students.

As a professor myself, I am hugely critical of romantic relationships with students. When I hear of male professors having affairs with students, I always feel a powerful instinctive disapproval. Looking back, Colin says he should have seen the danger in their relationship and told Nicole he could not work with her.

The relationship was not sexual. According to Colin, they discussed and dismissed the possibility of having a sexual affair. The two were deep in a private world, working together on arcane philosophical research on the hand, and they developed an affectionate private patois which included private hand jokes and a pet name for one of Nicole's feet.

During their meetings they would hold and caress hands and feet. As Colin describes it, the physical side of things emerged from a thwarted energy between them, as a way of expressing intimacy without sex. Colin: "We were creating a relationship through the hands. In a way, sex is clichéd. This seemed more original, free of all the problems." Nicole later said the touching of hands and feet made her uncomfortable.

Colin called Nicole "original, quirky, highly intelligent, strong willed" and said: "It was impossible she was manipulated by me." At times in her mails, she seems exuberant, clever, playful, eager, warm. At other times, she seems to be pulling back, apologizing, making excuses. Ambivalence is clear in moments of stiffness, a return to formality, a psychic retreat.

Nicole was afraid of mediocrity, of her own limitations as a thinker and scholar. In the spring, Colin concocted what he called "the genius project" to turn her into a tenured philosophy professor. Nicole seemed hungry to hear more. Graduate students simmer with a sense of powerlessness. The system breeds insecurity in them. A gifted or charismatic professor who recognizes a "spark" has power.

People said Colin was not sensitive enough to his own power. He responds: "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 surprising that Colin did not wake up in a cold sweat every day. Most professors these days engaged in any sort of romance would be terrified. From the tenor of the emails it seems he was smitten with Nicole. He said he was sure she did not have a boyfriend when he got to know her. He asked her once if Ben was her boyfriend and she denied it. When I told him Ben had been her boyfriend all along, he paled.

Something happened over the summer that turned Nicole against Colin. In June she was sending him affectionate texts, and in September she was reporting a case of sexual harassment. It seems there was tension over work, and Colin had suggested they have sex three times. She may have felt that things had run out of control.

Colin seems very tired. At 63, he takes pride in his tennis and swimming, but now he looks devastated. He didn't fight back because he felt sure he wouldn't win and he was worried about his wife. From his 2002 autobiography, The Making of a Philosopher: "I began to realize that even the most familiar belief might be mistaken, a mere prejudice — that everything had to be open to rational scrutiny."

Colin McGinn assails former colleague Ted Honderich in axe murder review

My account of the axe murder for the Journal of Consciousness Studies

My review of autobiographies by Ted Honderich and Colin McGinn

My 2009 book containing the above account and review

My own 2012 autobiography Philosopher

AR At last my Oxford contemporary Colin may know how it feels to be a true philosopher.