|Born||10 March 1950
West Hartlepool, County Durham, England
|Education||BA (Hons), psychology, University of Manchester (1971)
MA, psychology, University of Manchester (1972)
BPhil, philosophy, University of Oxford (1974)
|Known for||New mysterianism|
Colin McGinn (born 10 March 1950) is a British philosopher. He has held teaching posts and professorships at University College London, the University of Oxford, Rutgers University, and the University of Miami.
McGinn is best known for his work in the philosophy of mind, and in particular for what is known as new mysterianism, the idea that the human mind is not equipped to solve the problem of consciousness. He is the author of over 20 books on this and other areas of philosophy, including The Character of Mind (1982), The Problem of Consciousness (1991), Consciousness and Its Objects (2004), and The Meaning of Disgust (2011).
Early life and education
McGinn was born in West Hartlepool, a mining town in County Durham, England. Several of his relatives, including both grandfathers, were miners. His father, Joseph, also left school to become a miner, but put himself through night school and became a building manager instead. McGinn was the eldest of three children, all sons. When he was three, the family moved to Gillingham, Kent, and eight years later to Blackpool, Lancashire. Having failed his 11-plus, he attended a technical school in Kent, then a secondary modern in Blackpool, but did well enough in his O-levels to be transferred to the local grammar school for his A-levels.
In 1968 he began a degree in psychology at the University of Manchester, obtaining a first-class honours degree in 1971 and an MA in 1972, also in psychology. He was admitted in 1972 to Jesus College, Oxford, at first to study for a Bachelor of Letters postgraduate degree, but he switched to the Bachelor of Philosophy (BPhil) postgraduate programme on the recommendation of his advisor, Michael R. Ayers. In 1973 he was awarded the university's prestigious John Locke Prize in Mental Philosophy; one of the examiners was A.J. Ayer (1910–1989). He received his BPhil in 1974, writing a thesis under the supervision of Michael Ayers and P. F. Strawson (1919–2006) on the semantics of Donald Davidson (1917–2003).
McGinn taught at University College London for 11 years, first as a lecturer in philosophy (1974–1984), then as reader (1984–1985). He succeeded Gareth Evans (1946–1980) as Wilde Reader in Mental Philosophy at the University of Oxford in 1985, a position he held until 1990. He held visiting professorships at the University of California, Los Angeles (1979), University of Bielefeld (1982), University of Southern California (1983), Rutgers University (1984), University of Helsinki (1986), City University of New York (1988) and Princeton University (1992). In 1990 he joined the philosophy department at Rutgers as a full professor, working alongside Jerry Fodor.
He stayed at Rutgers until 2005, joining the University of Miami in 2006 as Professor of Philosophy and Cooper Fellow. In January 2013 he resigned his position at Miami, effective at the end of the calendar year, following allegations that he had sent inappropriate emails to a female graduate student. He denied any wrongdoing. The incident triggered a debate about the extent to which sexism remains prevalent in academia, particularly in academic philosophy.
Writing and broadcasting
Philosophy of mind
McGinn has written extensively about philosophical logic, metaphysics and the philosophy of language, but is best known for his work in the philosophy of mind. He is known in particular for the development of the idea that human minds are incapable of solving the problem of consciousness, a position known as new mysterianism. In addition to his academic publications on consciousness – including The Character of Mind (1982), The Problem of Consciousness (1991) and Consciousness and Its Objects (2004) – he has written a popular introduction, The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World (1999).
Owen Flanagan introduced the term "new mysterians" in 1991 (named after Question Mark & the Mysterians, a 1960s band) to describe McGinn's position and that of Thomas Nagel, first described in Nagel's "What is it like to be a bat?" (1974). McGinn introduced his position in "Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem?" (Mind, 1989), arguing that the problem of consciousness has arisen because the human mind is incapable of comprehending itself entirely. Mark Rowlands writes that the article was largely responsible for reviving the debate about phenomenal consciousness, or the nature of experience. McGinn argued in the paper for the idea of cognitive closure:
A type of mind M is cognitively closed with respect to a property P (or a theory T), if and only if the concept-forming procedures at M's disposal cannot extend to a grasp of P (or an understanding of T). Conceiving minds come in different kinds, equipped with varying powers and limitations, biases and blindspots, so that properties (or theories) may be accessible to some minds but not to others."
Although we might grasp the concept of consciousness, McGinn argues that we cannot understand its causal basis: neither direct examination of consciousness nor of the brain can identify the properties that cause or provide the mechanism for consciousness, or how "technicolour phenomenology [can] arise from soggy grey matter." Thus, his answer to the hard problem of consciousness is that the answer is inaccessible to us.
New, or epistemological, mysterianism is contrasted with old, or ontological, mysterianism, the idea that consciousness is inherently mysterious or supernatural. The new mysterians are not Cartesian dualists. McGinn argues only that human minds cannot understand consciousness, not that there is anything supernatural about it. He describes his position as existential naturalism: "the thesis, metaphysical in character, that nothing that happens in nature is inherently anomalous, God-driven, an abrogation of basic laws – whether or not we can come to comprehend the processes at work."
Novels and articles
Outside his work in philosophy, McGinn is known for his sharp book reviews. He has regularly contributed reviews and short stories to the London Review of Books and The New York Review of Books, and has written occasionally for Nature, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The Times and The Times Literary Supplement. He has also written two novels, The Space Trap (1992) and Bad Patches (2012).
Radio and television
McGinn has taken part in numerous radio and television interviews. He discussed John Searle's Reith lectures on BBC Radio Three with Searle, Richard Gregory and Colin Blakemore in 1984. In 1985 he debated animal rights with Sir Andrew Huxley, with Bernard Williams as the moderator. McGinn is a supporter of animal rights, writing in a review of the 1990 edition of Peter Singer's Animal Liberation that "our treatment of animals, in every department, is deeply and systematically immoral. Becoming a vegetarian is only the most minimal ethical response to the magnitude of the evil." He has also discussed his position as an antitheist in several broadcasts, and was interviewed at length for Jonathan Miller's documentary mini-series, Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief (2004). In the interview he explains: "I am an antitheist, because I believe that religion is harmful in human lives." He has also appeared in eleven episodes of Closer to Truth hosted by Robert Lawrence Kuhn, usually discussing consciousness, identity, and the mind–body problem, but also touching on subjects such as free will and materialism.
- (2012). Bad Patches (novel). CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
- (2011). Truth by Analysis: Games, Names, and Philosophy. Oxford University Press.
- (2011). Basic Structures of Reality: Essays in Meta-Physics. Oxford University Press.
- (2011). The Meaning of Disgust. Oxford University Press.
- (2008). Sport: A Philosopher's Manual. Acumen.
- (2008). Mindfucking: A Critique of Mental Manipulation. Acumen.
- (2006). Shakespeare's Philosophy: Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays. HarperCollins.
- (2005). The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact. Pantheon.
- (2004). Mindsight: Image, Dream, Meaning. Harvard University Press.
- (2004). Consciousness and Its Objects. Oxford University Press.
- (2002). The Making of a Philosopher: My Journey Through Twentieth-Century Philosophy. HarperCollins.
- (2001). Logical Properties: Identity, Existence, Predication, Necessity, Truth. Oxford University Press.
- (1999). The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World. Basic Books.
- (1999). Knowledge and Reality: Selected Papers. Oxford University Press.
- (1997). Ethics, Evil and Fiction. Oxford University Press.
- (1997). Minds and Bodies: Philosophers and Their Ideas. Oxford University Press.
- (1993). Problems in Philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry. Blackwell.
- (1992). The Space Trap (novel). Duckworth.
- (1992). Moral Literacy: Or How To Do The Right Thing. Hackett.
- (1991). The Problem of Consciousness. Basil Blackwell.
- (1989). Mental Content. Basil Blackwell.
- (1984). Wittgenstein on Meaning. Basil Blackwell.
- (1983). The Subjective View: Secondary Qualities and Indexical Thoughts. Oxford University Press.
- (1982). The Character of Mind. Oxford University Press (second edition, 1997).
- Selected articles
- (2013). "Homunculism", The New York Review of Books, 21 March (review of How to Create a Mind by Ray Kurzweil).
- (2012). "All machine and no ghost?", New Statesman, 20 February.
- (2004). Principia Metaphysica.
- (2004). "Inverted First-Person Authority". The Monist.
- (2003). "The bookworm turned", The Guardian, 29 November.
- (2001). "How Not To Solve the Mind-Body Problem". In Carl Gillett and Barry Loewer (eds.). Physicalism and Its Discontents. Cambridge University Press.
- (2001). "What is it Not Like to be a Brain?" In Philip Van Loocke (ed.). The Physical Nature of Consciousness. John Benjamins Pub Co.
- (1999). "Our Duties to Animals and the Poor". In Dale Jamieson (ed.). Singer and His Critics. Basil Blackwell.
- (1996). "Another Look at Colour". Journal of Philosophy.
- (1995). "Consciousness and Space". Journal of Consciousness Studies.
- (1994). "The Problem of Philosophy". Philosophical Studies.
- (1992). "Must I Be Morally Perfect?". Analysis.
- (1991). "Conceptual Causation: Some Elementary Reflections". Mind.
- (1989) ."Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem?" Mind.
- (1984). "What is the Problem of Other Minds?". Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society.
- (1983). "Two Notions of Realism?". Philosophical Topics.
- (1982). "Realist Semantics and Content Ascription". Synthese.
- (1982). "Rigid Designation and Semantic Value". Philosophical Quarterly.
- (1980). "Philosophical Materialism". Synthese
- (1979). "An A Priori Argument for Realism". The Journal of Philosophy.
- (1979). "Single-case Probability and Logical Form". Mind.
- (1977). "Charity, Interpretation and Belief". The Journal of Philosophy.
- (1977). "Semantics for Nonindicative Sentences". Philosophical Studies.
- (1976). "A Priori and A Posteriori Knowledge". Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society.
- (1976). "A Note on the Frege Argument". Mind.
- (1976). "On the Necessity of Origin". The Journal of Philosophy.
- (1975). "A Note on the Essence of Natural Kinds". Analysis.
- (1972). "Mach and Husserl". Journal for the British Society of Phenomenology.
- "Curriculum vitae" (archived) and "Faculty", Department of Philosophy, University of Miami, accessed 3 November 2012.
- Colin McGinn, The Making of a Philosopher, Harper Perennial, 2003, pp. 1–4.
- McGinn 2003, pp. 64, 85.
- For Ayer, see Colin McGinn, Minds and Bodies : Philosophers and Their Ideas, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 54.
- For information about the prize, see "John Locke Prize in Mental Philosophy", Oxford University Gazette, and for a list of winners, see "Winners of the John Locke Prize in Mental Philosophy", Oxford University Gazette.
- McGinn 2003, pp. 76–77.
- Seth Zweifler, "Prominent Philosopher to Leave U. of Miami in Wake of Misconduct Allegations", Chronicle of Higher Education, 4 June 2013 (full text).
- Seth Zweifler, "Philosopher’s Downfall, From Star to ‘Ruin,’ Divides a Discipline ", Chronicle of Higher Education, 5 July 2013.
- Kathie Roiphe, "The Philosopher and the Student", Slate, 8 October 2013.
- Luke Brunning, "Unfortunately, academic sexism is alive and well", The Independent, 25 June 2013.
- Jennifer Schuessler, "A Star Philosopher Falls, and a Debate Over Sexism Is Set Off", The New York Times, 2 August 2013.
- Tony Allen-Mills, "I think, therefore I spark a sex row", The Sunday Times, 4 August 2013.
- Amanda Hess, "At the NYT, All the News That's Fit to Print Does Not Include Sexually Harassing Emails", Slate, 5 August 2013.
- Galen Strawson, "Little Gray Cells", The New York Times, 11 July 1999.
- Owen Flanagan, The Science of the Mind, MIT Press, 1991, p. 313.
- Colin McGinn, "Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem?", Mind, New Series, 98(391), July 1989 (pp. 349–366), p. 350.
- The 1989 paper is reprinted in Timothy O'Connor and David and Robb (eds.), "Colin McGinn, 'Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem?'", Philosophy of Mind: Contemporary Readings, Routledge, 2003, pp. 438–457.
- Mark Rowlands, "Mysterianism," in Max Velmans and Susan Schneider (eds.), The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness, Wiley-Blackwell, 2007 (pp. 335–345), p. 337.
- McGinn 1989, p. 349 (also available here).
- Rowlands 2007, p. 335.
- Colin McGinn, The Problem of Consciousness, Basil Blackwell, 1991, p. 87.
- Stuart Jeffries, "Enemies of thought", The Guardian, 31 December 2007.
- Patricia Cohen, "The Nature of Reasons: Two Philosophers Feud Over a Book Review", The New York Times, 12 January 2008.
- See Colin McGinn, London Review of Books, and Colin McGinn, The New York Review of Books.
- Colin McGinn, "Eating animals is wrong", London Review of Books, 24 January 1991.
- "Atheism Tapes: Colin McGinn", The Richard Dawkins Foundation, 12 May 2006 (also available here).
- Search Results for "Colin McGinn", ClosertoTruth.com
- External links, interviews
- Official Website
- Colin McGinn, London Review of Books.
- Colin McGinn, The New York Review of Books.
- Colin McGinn, The New York Times.
- "Portraits: Colin McGinn" (interview), Bill Moyers on Faith & Reason, PBS, 30 June 2006.
- "To Be Or Not To Be: Colin McGinn Dissects The Philosophy of Shakespeare's Plays" (interview), simplycharly.com, undated.
- Levine, David. "Colin McGinn" (sketch), The New York Review of Books, 7 April 2005.
- Books and articles
- Blakeslee, Sandra. "The Conscious Mind Is Still Baffling to Experts of All Stripes", The New York Times, 16 April 1996.
- Croke, Vicki; McGinn, Colin, et al. "A Consideration of Policy Implications: A Panel Discussion", Social Research, 62(3), "In the Company of Animals" conference, Fall 1995, pp. 801–838.
- Everitt, Nicholas. "Moral Literacy: or How To Do The Right Thing by Colin McGinn", Philosophy Now, Sep/Oct 2012.
- Fearn, Nicholas. "Proudly Ignorant", New Statesman, 9 June 2003 (review of McGinn's The Making of a Philosopher).
- Flanagan, Owen J. Consciousness Reconsidered, The MIT Press, 1992.
- Horgan, John. The Undiscovered Mind: How the Human Brain Defies Replication, Medication, and Explanation, Free Press, 1999.
- For a discussion of the above, see Nature. "Mysterianism lite" (editorial), 3(199), 2000.
- Kriegel, Uriah. "Philosophical Theories of Consciousness: Contemporary Western Perspectives. Mysterianism," in Philip David Zelazo, Morris Moscovitch, and Evan Thompson (eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness, Cambridge University Press, 2007, pp. 36–41.
- Kriegel, Uriah. "Mysterianism," in Tim Bayne, Axel Cleeremans and Patrick Wilken (eds.), The Oxford Companion to Consciousness, Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 461–462.
- Mason, Wyatt. "Alone in the Dark", The New York Times, 22 January 2006 (review of McGinn's The Power of Movies).
- Rowlands, Mark. The Nature of Consciousness, Cambridge University Press, 2001.