Consciousness: The Grudge Match

By Stuart Jeffries
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 inconsistent."

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".

McGinn's review 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."

Honderich 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 crazy."

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 insoluble.

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 said."

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

By Patricia Cohen
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 his "plain".

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 fine."

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 years."

"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."

The 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."

Sturgeon dismissed 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).