As it so often does, Chance led me by the hand a couple of weeks ago, this time to the philosophy section of a local bookstore. Specifically, I found myself in front of the shelf of authors whose names begin with "M". Some years back while browsing in that very spot for John Stuart Mill I happened to discover Mary Midgley. This time I picked up a book by Colin McGinn: The Making of a Philosopher: My Journey through Twentieth-Century Philosophy.
McGinn's name was already in the back of my mind from a review that I saw in the New York Times Sunday book review in 1999. It either critiqued one of McGinn's tomes or was written by him; I have entirely forgotten which. I do remember that what I saw irritated me enough that I scribbled out a ^zhurnal note of reaction and counter-comment (TheMysterians, 2 Aug 1999). And I'm still skeptical of McGinn's thesis that the human mind is fundamentally incomprehensible to the human intellect. But my disagreement is less violent today than it was four years ago. (Am I maturing, or just getting fuzzier?!)
An indication of an exceptionally poor book is that one's mind wanders while reading it. But an indication of an exceptionally good book is likewise that one's mind wanders while reading it. Every few pages in Making I found my thoughts drifting, as I debated with McGinn, groped for counter-examples, or discovered happy confirmation in my own experience of one of his propositions.
A worthwhile argument isn't one that can be refuted in a few paragraphs, or even explained compactly. I think that McGinn is wrong much of the time, but he's also transcendentally right at crucial moments. And he's always entertaining. Making is a fine intellectual memoir --- fast, fun, and delightful in its juxtaposition of anecdote and idea. (At times it reminds me of John Stuart Mill's Autobiography.)
For example, from Chapter Four, "Mind and Reality":
The general point here is that it is wrong to confuse reality itself with our ways of knowing about it. Reality is one thing; our knowledge of it is another. The past is not the same as our memories of it; physical objects are not the same as the sensory states we have when we perceive them; other people's minds are not the same as the behavior we use to infer things about them; the future is not the same as the current indications of how it will turn out; elementary particles are not the same as the meter readings that signal their presence; and so on. To be sure, there are exceptions to this general rule; as already mentioned, fictional entities have no reality beyond the intentions of authors --- they are invented, not discovered. That is why we call them fictions, and distinguish fiction from nonfiction in bookshops and libraries. Real detectives are not the same as fictional detectives --- of course they're not.
and a few pages later later:
I wrote a book all about this subject while teaching in London, entitled The Subjective View (published in 1982). What fascinated me about the subject was that the world as it is, in itself, independently of human minds, is not a world that the human mind could ever apprehend other than theoretically. We do really see physical objects and their properties, but we cannot expect to see them purely objectively, just as they are represented in physics; we are necessarily locked inside our subjective perceptual perspective. Nevertheless, human reason does enable us to get outside of our necessary perceptual subjectivity in order to form a representation of the world that is purely objective. We have concepts that contain no subjective taint, even though perception is irremediably subjective. This is a remarkable feature of human reason --- its ability to transcend our subjective perceptual viewpoint and describe the world as it is, independent of that viewpoint. The human intellect works as a device of distancing from our subjective makeup. It is almost as though we have a subjective self and an objective self ... . I don't think other animals are capable of this kind of cognitive transcendence to absolute objectivity, being far more confined to their given perceptual point of view; we alone know how the world is constituted independent of our natural perspective on it. That is what science fundamentally is: a way of describing the world that abstracts away from human particularity and bias. The most obvious example of this "de-centering" is astronomy: We now see ourselves as occupying one small planet in a vast universe, no longer at the center of things, and subject to universal laws of nature --- though this is certainly not the way things naturally appear to us.
When I think of these topics I recall my old friend Ian McFetridge, a very local presence on the London philosophical scene. He came to London, to teach at Birkbeck College at the same time as I, but came from Cambridge. He was a short, springy man with a small moustache, fiery brown eyes, and an ebullient manner. I started talking philosophy with him soon after we arrived, as we shared an interest in philosophy of language and logic. I appreciated his quick, darting intellect and his fine philosophical judgment. He was the kind of philosopher who saw one's point immediately and always had something to add to it, either critically or creatively. He could sometimes be a bit too animated, as if small explosions were being detonated in his head, but I liked his seriousness and sound philosophical sense. I also liked him as a person. He was humorous, generous, lively, compassionate, human. At the end of my teaching day I would often stroll over to Birkbeck to meet Ian, who taught mainly in the evening. If he wasn't in his office he was already in the pub. I would order my usual half pint of lager while Ian went through the pints of beer at an impressive pace. We would gossip and talk philosophy, sometimes with others in attendance. I would try out my latest idea on him, or he on me, and we always had an illuminating discussion. I valued his opinion of my work immensely. Then, after about five quick pints, he would hurriedly announce that he had to go and give a lecture. This never ceased to amaze me: I would start to lose my philosophical head somewhere through the third half of lager, while Ian would be perfectly coherent after his fifth pint, no doubt proceeding to give a scintillating lecture.
In Chapter Five, "Belief, Desire, and Wittgenstein", McGinn describes some time he spent in southern California, where a friend introduced him to video arcade gaming. He started with Ms. Pacman:
... Often it would be painful to drive home afterward because my right arm was so strained from slamming the lever around. Then I started going solitary, feeding my addiction. My obsession with Ms. Pacman eventually shifted to Galaga, a game of shooting not gulping. Even now, nearly twenty years later, I can still see and hear the icons as they dove from the top of the screen, and I can feel my shooting fingers start to twitch, the adrenaline rushing. I would park my battered Chevy near Wilshire Boulevard and take the ten-minute walk to the UCLA library through Westwood Village, but invariably I would be drawn to the amusement arcade for a "quick game." Two hours later I would blink into the L.A. sunlight, bleary, frazzled, twenty bucks poorer --- but onto stage thirteen at last! Much later I moved on to Defender, a game so demanding, so all-consuming, that I began to understand all those stories about teenagers hopelessly lost to video games. I became an arcade addict, a machine machine. But I will fight the temptation to dilate further upon this ludic phase of my life, lest the reader suspect I am still not over it. (I haven't played a game in years, honestly.)
The obsession with video games went along with another nerve-fraying obsession at this time: Wittgenstein. Both took abnormal amounts of concentration, enormous persistence, and a slightly masochistic taste for frustration. ...
That's typical McGinn prose. He's a living, breathing human being who grew up in a poor family in a British mining town, was lucky enough to meet some good teachers at critical moments, worked hard for many years, and eventually "made it" as a professional philosopher. His youthful career goals included being a circus acrobat, or maybe a drummer in a band. Now, to take a break from his work, he goes out onto the ocean surf in a kayak. Quite a guy.
McGinn concludes his autobiography with:
There are many excellent books that try to make science intelligible to the layperson, many of which I have read with great interest; yet very few books try to do the same for philosophy. That is what I have attempted here, by describing what it is like to be a philosopher from the inside. I hope you have gained an impression of what a philosophical life is like, at least the life of one philosopher, and I hope even more that philosophy now strikes you as a fascinating and rewarding subject for study and thought.
(see also TheMysterians (2 Aug 1999), WonderWhy (10 May 2000), EducationCultureAndBlame (1 Jun 2000), IrreducibilityAndPseudoscience (6 Jul 2000), PartsAndWholes (3 Jul 2001), TheDefenders (27 May 2002), WonderLand (4 Jan 2003), ... )