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Colin McGinn


My Journey Through Twentieth-Century Philosophy

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
Colin McGinn is probably best know to the non-specialist reading audience with an interest in philosophy as a leading "mysterian". That is, he thinks that the philosophical difficulty of explaining consciousness is due to inherent limitations in the human mind, which means that it can never be accomplished (see The Mysterious Flame)). But that is not his main topic here.

McGinn tells us that his purpose in writing this book was to explain philosophy in a personal, engaging way. He found that the autobiographical format was the best way of doing this. He thinks that this brings out the drama and excitement of the subject but he has not sought to write a full autobiography and personal topics are included only in so far as they affected his intellectual development. But the tone is quite light generally and McGinn is an engaging writer so the book is very readable.

McGinn's background was not what might be expected for a professional philosopher. He comes from a mining family in county Durham, in northeast England. He was the first member of the McGinn family to apply to university, and he wasn't intending to study philosophy but rather psychology. At school he wasn't a brilliant scholar, obtaining an A and two Bs in the A-level examination, but that was enough to get him into Manchester University in 1968.

He graduated with a first-class degree in psychology in 1971, by which time he had realised that he wanted to become a philosopher. He applied to do the B.Phil postgraduate course at Oxford. He was accepted by Balliol College but the central university committee turned him down. (Years later he was to become an examiner for that degree.) So he stayed on at Manchester to take an MA in psychology, with a thesis that had a philosophical flavour.

He then reapplied to Oxford for the B.Phil but this time was rejected by Balliol, which had previously accepted him. After some negotiating, and with support from his Manchester teachers, he obtained a place to study for the B.Litt postgraduate degree, which was regarded as very much second-best. But he secured a helpful tutor, Michael Ayers, who recommended him for the B.Phil so he got on to the course he had originally wanted after all. He found it hard going.

Before completing the course he entered for a voluntary examination for the John Locke Prize. He didn't expect to win but thought the experience of taking an examination in philosophy would be useful. But his handwriting was so bad that he was told by Professor Alfred Ayer he would have to have his papers typed before he could be considered. He demurred, on grounds of cost, and because he had no expectation of winning anyway. But Ayer said it was "worth it" so he obeyed. And win it he did, by a wide margin.

This prestigious award got him a job as lecturer at University College London. This involved him in teaching a lot of tutorials, which he didn't enjoy. He stayed in London for ten years and did a lot of writing on philosophy, but he had his eye on America, where he believed that most of the important philosophy was being done. He visited the USA several times and wasn't disappointed. And then, unexpectedly,the Wilde Readership at Oxford became vacant owing to the premature death of the incumbent, and McGinn was offered the post. After some hesitation he took it in 1985.

After three years in Oxford he took a sabbatical term in New York at CUNY. He was sorry to leave and found Oxford confining by comparison when he returned. Soon afterwards he had an offer of a job at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He took the job; his departure from Oxford was accompanied with a good deal of ill-feeling on both sides. "Emotionally, it is over between Oxford and me, despite our occasional good times together and my youthful infatuation with the place." But the move to Rutgers was a success.

In telling his story McGinn wants to make clear that philosophy is a human activity that engages the passions of those who take part in it. In this he has succeeded. But the book is not confined to autobiographical events; throughout, McGinn explains and discusses the questions that have interested him, and in so doing he provides an overview of Western philosophy in the second half of the twentieth century.

21 October 2014

%T The Making of a Philosopher
%S My Journey Through Twentieth-Century Philosophy
%A McGinn, Colin
%I Scribner
%C London
%D 2002, 2003
%G ISBN 0543231791
%P xii+241pp
%K autobiography, philosophy

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