The Meaning of Disgust
by Colin McGinn
Oxford, 264 pages, $35
The eminent philosopher Colin McGinn has written twenty-five or so sharp, illuminating pages on the topic of disgust. Unfortunately, he has scattered those twenty-five pages among two hundred other pages of bizarre, tossed-off piffle, and published the whole mélange as a book titled The Meaning of Disgust.
It is a wild ride. In one of the book’s oddest chapters, he breezily speculates that disgust arose after our early ancestors had developed a penchant for copulating with corpses and eating feces. Disgust, he surmises, developed as a restraint on such unseemly behaviors, because they tended to leave their doers “conflicted, confused, disturbed, unhinged—yet still driven.”
McGinn made his name as an analytic philosopher of mind, teaching at University College London, Oxford, Rutgers, and now the University of Miami. The Meaning of Disgust is an attempt to reach a broader audience, but McGinn seems to think that good nonacademic philosophy can be impressionistic, scattershot, and unconcerned with argumentative rigor. He repeatedly acknowledges that this section or that is “sketchy,” “jejune,” “unoriginal,” and “speculative.” Quite so, and that’s a shame, because what there is of a sober argument here is worthy of attention.
If McGinn is correct, disgust “reflects something about how we understand the world, and our place in it, and what kind of being we are. It is, in a sense, a philosophical emotion.” Plato and others have argued that our experience of beauty is composed of both visceral pleasure and the implicit inference of eternity, wholeness, happiness, and so on. McGinn suggests that disgust has a similar structure.
“Disgust occurs,” he argues, “in that ambiguous territory between life and death, when both conditions are present in some form: It is not life per se or death per se that disgusts, but their uneasy juxtaposition.” This is why we find neither Olympic athletes (paragons of vitality) nor rusty cars (lifeless heaps) disgusting; the disgusting object must contain both signs of life and death.
McGinn names the three cardinal objects of disgust: feces, putrefied flesh, and wounds. Feces represent death in the past (our waste products are the remains of living things), rotting corpses represent the passage from life to death in the present, and wounds represent the movement of life toward death sometime in the future.
The disgusting object is so repulsive precisely because in it I see my own mortality. The disgusting realization that I am alive but dying “comes as an existential shock—a trauma from which no recovery is possible.” It is a shock because we are both mind and body, but our experience of the former grants us no indication of our mortality.
A true-blue philosopher of mind, McGinn is at his most powerful and passionate when discussing this disjunction. Our immediate, naive sense of self is a mental one, he argues, and from this angle “the self seems not at all vulnerable to extinction: Nothing about it, considered in itself, suggests the possibility of death.”
We experience our mental life as free and infinite, and in a way it is. Philosophers have long pointed out that there is no reason intrinsic to the mind that the mind should ever cease to exist. The blame, then, lies elsewhere: “The death of the self is inevitable, not because of what the self is in its inner being, but because of its de facto reliance on the body.”
This ascription of blame lies very near to the heart of McGinn’s project in The Meaning of Disgust. He seems to find our inability to live solely in our minds, and to do so forever, intolerable. “We rebel,” he says, “at the sheer perversity of it all.”
In the preface, he suggests that the book could be construed as “a sort of lamentation.” But it is also the angry polemic of a brilliant philosopher of mind, directed against our foul, finite bodies. “The simple point is that we are disgusted by our bodily nature.” It’s a point that he hammers on over and over, sometimes betraying real anguish: “Every day we are confronted by species self-disgust, directed toward ourselves or other people, and every day it jabs and twists in our sensitive consciousness.”
Sex, often considered the pinnacle of bodily experience, comes in for repeated—often well-nigh laughable—censure. “Sex, for us, is a kind of tortured maneuvering to get what we desire while avoiding the reefs of potential disgust that lie in our path.... There is always an undertow of disgust in any kind of sexual practice.” Another prominent analytic philosopher, Thomas Nagel, reviewing The Meaning of Disgust in the New York Review of Books, quietly remarks that “this doesn’t resonate with me.” Neither does it with this reviewer. Why is McGinn so confident?
McGinn is, we might say, a hyper-Platonist. Plato himself, despite his famous commendation of ascent beyond the bodily plane, never cast the sorts of aspersions on sexual union that he does. His quarrel with sex includes some truly bizarre, uncomfortably revealing moments, as when he asserts that in sexual dreams “the disgustingness of the body is a common theme, with the sexual organs sometimes assuming strange shapes and exuding odd substances.”
He seems to have inadvertently turned this work of popular philosophy into an all-too-public flop on the analyst’s couch. This is not the only mortifying dream confession the reader is treated to. “Who,” McGinn asks, “has not dreamt of bizarre bouts of public defecation?”
It turns out that the realm of human reproduction is not only disgusting, it can also be downright inconvenient. McGinn muses that “procreative sex has the prima facie undesirable result that babies are born that must be taken care of—and all for that fleeting pleasure.” No, in fact, the emergence of offspring from the act of love is not, prima facie, undesirable—neither to regular people nor even to philosophers, who have typically spoken of it as a straining toward immortality, one of the greatest pleasures and consolations available on this earth.
The fatal weakness of The Meaning of Disgust as a work of philosophy flows from this blind rage at the horror of embodiment. McGinn is himself so seized with disgust at the material world that he gets his first-person pronouns all mixed up. If he had written “I” rather than “we,” his book would be merely an odd and somewhat embarrassing tell-all. As it is, he is simply, repeatedly wrong. He cannot see that his putatively general phenomenology is warped by his own particular resentments and fears.
McGinn is animated by a full-blown, unabashed contemptus mundi. He muses that a “body of pure light would have been so much nicer” than the one we have. In fact, he considers our fleshly bodies a species of the problem of evil: “Why would an intelligent designer create a species so at odds with itself? He must have known how we would regard our bodies, yet he went ahead anyway.” McGinn is, let it be said, an outspoken atheist, but who knows which came first: his disgusted experience of mortal flesh or his dogmatic disavowal of immortality?
Either way, McGinn unwittingly highlights an interesting irony. Modern atheists often indict those with metaphysical or theological orientations of a hatred of the world. They charge that belief in an immortal soul, for instance, manifests a discontentment (or disgust!) with actual, embodied human beings. The charge is not always wrong, alas, but it very often is.
In his great Symposium, Plato, arch-villain to those who criticize the idea of ascent, demonstrates that the turn to metaphysics can actually be motivated by a desire to protect and preserve the good and beautiful things around us via philosophical parsing—that is, by positing that the goodness and beauty themselves outlast physical decay. Plato’s ascent is initially motivated by love of embodied reality.
Western Christianity attempts to rescue Platonism from Plato’s more contemptuous moments. Emphases on sacrament and incarnation mean that Christian ascent is, as T. S. Eliot writes in “Burnt Norton,” “Erhebung [uprising] without motion, concentration without elimination.” Sacramental Christianity asks its adherents to call this reality good while still anticipating a better one. It’s a tricky balance, as history and daily observation attest. It is, nevertheless, the Christian ideal.
If materialist atheism continues to make strides toward becoming the default worldview of Western philosophers and artists, it will be interesting to see if and how the more exalted longings of humanity—for eternity and perfection, for example—can be reconciled with a love for the here and now. The Meaning of Disgust offers one very stark answer. Let’s hope it is not an adumbration of things to come.
Ian Marcus Corbin is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Boston College.