COLIN MCGINN is a clever man--the very clever product of that very clever school of British academic thought known as analytic philosophy. His initial impetus for studying philosophy came, he says, from reading Bertrand Russell, and he studied with the formidable A.J. Ayer, the famed practitioner of the analytic style in its most pristine and most ambitious form, whose goal was to turn philosophy itself into science. McGinn is also the author of several influential books of philosophy, and he has taught at Oxford, UCLA, and, now, at Rutgers.
Add it all up, and Colin McGinn is peculiarly situated to provide a picture of the intellectual life of an Anglo-American philosopher in the twentieth century. Which is exactly what he's done in his most recent book, a memoir called "The Making of a Philosopher: My Journey Through Twentieth-Century Philosophy." His goal, he says, is to present "philosophy in an accessible, engaging way," as a "lived subject, . . . part of a flesh and blood human life."
Judged by this goal, "The Making of a Philosopher" is a failure, largely because the abstruse topics characteristic of his brand of mainstream analytic philosophy are not at all conducive to reflections on life--his, or anyone else's. Indeed, the book depicts not so much the integration of thought and life as their unbridgeable separateness.
But there is another sense in which "The Making of a Philosopher" is a resounding success. As McGinn alternates descriptions of his philosophical thought with descriptions of his personal experiences, something profound about analytic philosophy comes into view. The emptiness of the philosophy proves to be a mirror--but which is the original and which the reflection?--of the emptiness of the life.
It must be admitted that McGinn has a powerful and energetic intellect, neatly divided between arid philosophical analysis and the quest for vibrant experience. Living on America's west coast, he plays video games and cruises L.A. listening to the Cars sing "My Best Friend's Girl." On the east coast, Manhattan provides "an escape from the obsession, a rude jolt of teeming life."
Meanwhile, he thinks about philosophy. The presentation of that philosophy is clear enough, although the attention lavished on technical debates over meaning, truth, and reference is odd in a purportedly popular book. The real problem is that McGinn is never able to adopt the standpoint of the non-analytic philosopher and ask why these topics are worth pursuing in the first place.
Indeed, McGinn's own philosophical journey ends with a whimper, in the conclusion that the human intellect is ill-suited to the task of philosophy--which may well be true: The arid inhumanity of analytic philosophy requires for its fulfillment a league of gods, or angels, or stones--anything but human beings.
Only at one point in "The Making of a Philosopher" does McGinn describe a way of doing philosophy at "the level of ordinary experience" on the "neglected topic of life." It's when he talks of the time he began to use great novels as the basis for an investigation of the nature of evil. What insight did this study yield? McGinn's mildly interesting--although rather pedestrian--conclusion is that truly evil people "revel in the suffering of others" and are motivated by a sort of "existential envy of virtue and innocence." In his work on fiction, McGinn also develops what he insists is an "aesthetic theory of virtue," which he identifies as Platonic and "not much in favor with today's analytical moral philosophers." McGinn notes that analytic philosophers have had little to say about these sorts of topics; "perhaps the lack of rigorous methodology deters them."
NOW, the work of Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Martha Nussbaum in moral philosophy seems to disprove McGinn's comment about the incapacity of analytically trained philosophers to turn to genuine issues of moral philosophy. But, in fact, these exceptions suggest that he's right: Each of them has gained a wide audience and had something to say about philosophy and life by deploying resources--from literature, classical philosophy, even Continental philosophy--outside analytic philosophy. And premier analytic philosophers are deeply suspicious of the likes of Taylor, MacIntyre, and Nussbaum, questioning whether they deserve to be called philosophers.
The problem lies in the analytic conception of philosophy as, in McGinn's words, "more like science than religion, more like mathematics than poetry." Indeed, if there is any philosophical eros motivating McGinn and his fellow practitioners, it has to do with the longing to make issues "purely technical, a mere matter of writing your axioms the right way to get out the theorems you were looking for. It was the ever tempting hope of turning philosophy into science; misguided perhaps, but undeniably appealing ('sexy,' as some philosophers like to say)."
McGinn's memoir illustrates the failure of that sexy project. The specific problem that engenders in McGinn a sense of the limitations of philosophy is consciousness. Having spent a good deal of time scrutinizing various philosophical accounts of consciousness, McGinn is impressed with Thomas Nagel's famous argument, in his book "The View from Nowhere," against the reduction of consciousness to brain states. Nagel probes the question "what is it like to be a bat?" and argues that, although we can analyze the nature and functioning of the bat brain, we cannot know what it is like to have the conscious experience that bats have.
Now--and this is a nicely observed philosophical point--if we can know (by careful medical and scientific investigation) how a bat's brain functions, and yet at the same time not know what that bat's conscious experience is like, then the brain and consciousness cannot be identical.
This creates an apparently irresolvable problem for someone devoted to the scientizing of philosophy. (For advocating such skepticism about the equation of consciousness with the material brain, McGinn has been called a "mysterian" by some of his fellow analytics.) But, rather than use this problem to question his philosophical foundations, McGinn turns instead to the question of why so many philosophical problems seem essentially insoluble.
IT IS EASY to see why a philosopher would prefer the clarity and rigor of analytic philosophy to, for instance, those strains of Continental philosophy that rush to transform philosophy into pure poetry (and often very bad poetry). But Continental philosophers have at least succeeded in keeping the questions of the link between thought and life at the forefront, often because they have been more attentive to the history of philosophy. As McGinn depicts analytic philosophy, it excludes nearly the entirety of previous philosophy. Wittgenstein, Russell, and a few other twentieth-century analysts constitute the remotest origins. "The Making of a Philosopher" does make an occasional reference to Plato, of whom it says that he equated philosophy with "The Profound," a description that barely achieves the penetration of an average freshman.
The book also shows some fascination with the ontological proof for the existence of God articulated by the eleventh-century theologian St. Anselm. Unfortunately, what attracts McGinn to Anselm's argument is not its subject matter but its structure; it is "just so damn clever." And cleverness is the key intellectual virtue of analytic philosophy. Competition in cleverness turns many a philosophical dispute into what McGinn calls "bloodsport."
McGinn only gives us occasional glimpses of philosophy as bloodsport. There's his fellow student and former friend at Oxford, Christopher Peacocke, whose philosophical work McGinn describes as "preposterously unclear" and from whom he parts after realizing that "professional rivalry was more important to him than friendship." In his dispassionate way, McGinn is careful to inform the reader that Peacocke ends up the clear loser in this rivalry. McGinn's reputation rises quickly after he wins the John Locke prize at Oxford, a prize Peacocke previously won. Years later, when the prestigious Wilde Reader in Mental Philosophy at Oxford becomes vacant, Peacocke is the best bet to fill it. But McGinn applies for the position anyway--despite the fact that he had fought several battles with Oxford. When asked to interview, he does so not because he has any interest in the position but only as a protest against "Oxford's notorious insularity," to show that "there are strong outside candidates." Of course, he gets the offer and takes it.
The self-purported purity of McGinn's motives adversely affects his narrative. He seems either not to share or to be incapable of expressing the emotions, motivations, and passions that would draw readers into his story. What we miss is the complex, and often conflicting, set of loves and aspirations that constitutes the best biographical writing about poets, artists, and even philosophers.
Lacking a vision of philosophy as a personal quest, McGinn has written merely a conventional, academic memoir. Even with the low expectations of this genre, we need detailed stories of some sort, departmental politics, even entertaining gossip. But McGinn's characters are either all thought or all surface (although there's a great description of Michael Dummett's "pasty" white face, which looks as if he'd been "dunked in a barrel of flour and then licked his lips").
THE ODD CONSEQUENCE of all this is that McGinn can communicate no deeper feeling about, say, the death of close friends than he manages to express about, for instance, his failed attempt to engage the actress Jennifer Aniston in philosophical conversation. I am not sure McGinn intended the story of his chat with Aniston at a movie premiere to be funny, but it struck me that way. When she asks, "Who's your favorite philosopher?" McGinn offers a series of names--Russell, Kant, Plato, and Descartes--of which only Plato is known to Aniston. Sensing that the conversation is not going well, McGinn blurts out, "Well, you are wonderful in 'Friends!'" McGinn observes ruefully that "the damage was done. . . . I just wish she had known who Descartes was, that's all. . . . It's not often that Hollywood meets analytical philosophy, and it would have been nice for it to have gone more swimmingly."
More swimmingly. Colin McGinn's "The Making of a Philosopher" has its merits. The assertions of the purity of his own motives, while attributing impure motives to others; the purported hesitancy about popularizing accompanied by references to appearances on CNN; the repeated swipes at Oxford--all of these are clever (there's that word again) mechanisms of academic one-upmanship. But what one misses is philosophy as a "lived subject," as a genuine "part of a flesh and blood human life."