Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Making of a Philosopher
By Colin McGinn
241 pp. HarperCollins $25.95

Philosophy is made for man, not man for philosophy. So wise and sane is this axiom that it suggests to us the most sensible method yet devised for assessing any philosophy: go ahead, give it a try, really live it. An idea needs legs, and no more humane way exists of evaluating an idea than seeing how it gets about. Does it make meaningful sense of human experience and need? Is it on fair and friendly terms with nonphilosophers? Does it give you a reason to get out of bed in the morning? Can you take it places?

It is philosophy’s status as a lived subject that makes analytical philosopher Colin McGinn’s intellectual autobiography, The Making of a Philosopher , such an interesting, perplexing, and, in the end, perhaps impossible work. On the face of it, perhaps few concepts are as curiously matched for one another as intellectual autobiography and analytical philosophy. Intellectual autobiography is best told as a story of small detonations going off in one’s head, shocks that send its author reeling for cover and learning to return fire. It is stubbornly premised on the belief that ideas matter, and because they can make us saints or psychopaths, because they are worth living and dying for, they matter more than anything else. Analytical philosophy, on the other hand, is best explained by its belief that because we are restricted to the field of language, ideas do not really matter because they do not really exist, at least as nine out of ten of us think they do. It is, then, a cynic might say, the sheer improbability of such an undertaking that makes McGinn’s work remarkable, as if only a form of intellectual alchemy could turn the stuff of logic and linguistics into an intellectual life well lived.

The notorious dryness of the analytical tradition led Elizabeth Anscombe to remark famously that there’s simply nothing more boring than hearing one Oxford philosopher talk about another. Her wisdom is not lost on McGinn, who knows his discipline is not likely to be confused with high drama. “[Mine] is not a tradition that aims primarily for inspiration or consolation or ideology. Nor is it particularly concerned with ‘philosophy of life.’ . . . This kind of philosophy is more like science than religion, more like mathematics than poetry—though it is neither science nor mathematics.” He therefore decides to cast his story as a tour d’horizon of modern analytical philosophy viewed not only as series of arguments, but also as a recipe for action and a way of life. He wants, he tells us, to give us a flavor of its “drama and realism,” to see it “not as the pursuit of dried-out bookworms with no life, but as a life of creativity, commitment, and independence of spirit.”

Much is read into a philosopher’s childhood, but the best we can say of McGinn’s singularly unpromising one is that it reads like an uncomfortably literal staging of Plato’s myth of the cave. Born to a poor mining family in a dreary town in northeast England, he decided at a young age not to stay “down the pit” and instead concerned himself principally with the great question of his formative years: whether he should be a gym teacher, drummer, or circus acrobat. John Stuart Mill, with Greek in his crib, he was not.

A student of conventional interests, McGinn ambled his way into Manchester University, where, like so many impressionable minds of his generation, he fell under the “Russell effect.” His first deep attraction to philosophy seems to owe as much to the allure of the icy figure cut by Bertrand Russell as to the promises of intellectual high adventure or to the nagging questions of a dark night of the soul. The ubiquitous Russell appeared as the epitome of the intellectual, a perfect blend of passion and precision—or, as McGinn less favorably puts it, of “madness and mathematics.” The austere elegance of Russell’s work, complemented by large helpings of Jean-Paul Sartre, revealed to young McGinn something radical about the nature of thought, something “potent and audacious” about philosophy that could demolish and refashion a world that often appeared to be held together by wishful thinking. The world, he discovered, is fragile to the incredulous and nosy.

Which is to say McGinn had a distinctively modern philosophical awakening, one stirred not so much by wonder or mystical bafflement, but by an unsettling awareness that almost nothing is rationally invulnerable to extreme doubt and that the brave mind must go it alone. He quickly found that on the ground of its own meticulous operations reason could repel itself and “establish the unobvious.” (“Can I prove I’m not a brain in a vat?” he asks himself. “Can I make the world disappear?”) His passage into philosophy was punctuated by a wry amusement at the mildly perverse tricks his mind could play on reality.

What struck me at age eighteen about these [skeptical] arguments was the power of reason to overturn assumptions I had taken for granted. It is not that I would now subscribe to these arguments in their entirety, but they are certainly logical enough-and they shatter a central part of our commonsense view of our place in the world. Our commonsense beliefs are not as rationally impregnable as we fondly supposed before we inquired into their foundations. The argument from illusion is like a tidal wave of reasoning that washes you up on a strange, alien beach.

Although McGinn would later temper his youthful enthusiasm for both Russell and Sartre, an odd synthesis of their insights lingers. Throughout his professional life he has combined a relish for the exacting rigor of logical and linguistic analysis with an awareness of the bottomless mystery that is man’s inner life.

McGinn’s studies take us to an Oxford two generations past as if to remind us, if only momentarily, that there was once a time when philosophers seemed to really matter. On his inspired retelling, it seems like any young man who failed to keep pace with the “Davidsonic Boom,” survive a rapid-fire exchange with A. J. Ayer, or stay abreast of Peter Strawson’s and W. V. O. Quine’s latest work simply failed to be fashionable. His portrait of Oxford during his graduate studies—a philosophical hothouse, he wistfully recalls, characterized by respectful rudeness and the cut and thrust of gentlemanly challenge; a place where fools are skewered gladly and the cognitively hip gather at “Logic Lane”; a land of sherry and tweed—is so delightfully quaint that one cannot help but suspect it has been served up, chatty teas and all, for Americans’ irrepressible Anglophilia.

Most of McGinn’s early philosophical energy was directed at the standard and demanding questions of analytical philosophy. McGinn, who moonlights from his current post at Rutgers University as a writer for various middlebrow publications, writes as clearly and as entertainingly about abstruse philosophical ideas as anybody. He wears his learning lightly and steers us through the defining questions of modern Anglo-American philosophy with enviable ease. How do you know you have a body or that other minds exist? What is the relationship between the meaning and reference of a sentence? Is there a way we can step out of our subjective world to check that any correspondence holds between physical objects and their reflection in our mental mirror? What are the differences between the correspondence, coherence, and redundancy theories of truth? How do words refer or attach to objects? How can we be certain that a translation is correct?

The first and most important thing to understand about the Anglo-American philosophical scene at that time, however, is that it had already hidden away traditional metaphysical questions as if they were embarrassing elderly in-laws. Guided by practical postwar concerns and tamed by constant chastisement at the hand of a scientific juggernaut, philosophy hoped to become a truly hardheaded discipline in which “real progress could be made, instead of being a swamp of obscurity and pointless wrangling.” Philosophy increasingly came to see itself as an immature or incipient science, a residue of pesky problems that would remain only until metaphysics became physics, philosophy of mind turned into neurology, and philosophy of language merged with linguistics. Metaphysics was dead; only the funeral arrangements remained.

Early in McGinn’s career various versions of empiricism and logical positivism had already begun to give way to the emergence of “ordinary language philosophy,” and to the extraordinary impact of Wittgenstein in particular. The philosophical transformation known as the “linguistic turn,” an event that came to define the analytical tradition and overtake nearly every English and American philosophy department, attempted to shut the door on any style of philosophizing that did not concern itself with the way language is “typically” used. It taught that instead of trying to “see into” phenomena, philosophy should rest content with the kind of statements we make about phenomena. As Wittgenstein wrote in Philosophical Investigations , “We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place . . . . What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.” We should not, for example, ask what it means to understand, but to inquire what it means to state that somebody has understood.

Questions such as “Is God a Trinity?” and “What is my final cause?” are imagined problems. They are not properly formed questions due to their departure from ordinary modes of speech, and are ipso facto under suspicion of meaninglessness. According to the analytical demand for clarity and precision in definition and usage of words, these questions are no more intelligible than “What color is my invisible dog?” or “How tall is no one?” Philosophical problems arise through misunderstanding our own language and then applying it in ways that it cannot sustain. The result, McGinn sympathetically explains, is the cooling of an overheated imagination.

The apparently deep philosophical problem of truth vanishes once we notice the actual function of the word in our language: ‘true’ is a word we use to talk indirectly about the world, when we find it inconvenient or infelicitous to speak directly about it. It is not some mysterious, inscrutable relation that beliefs bear to facts, whatever they might be. For a statement to be true is just for the world to be as it is stated to be—period, argument over . . . . Truth has been tamed, deflated, demystified.

Some thinkers—Richard Rorty comes immediately to mind—have suggested that the linguistic turn in effect ends philosophy in the “Grand Style.” Any philosophy that obstinately maintains an interest in, say, the nature and destiny of man is often written off as an exercise in pointless heavy breathing. In curing speech of specters and ghosts, analytical philosophy claims to cleanse the mind of a dreamy fondness for every sort of idealism, vitalism, Platonism, and transcendentalism. Philosophy pre-1900, it can often imply, was guided mostly by the questions of proto-hippies, madmen, and superstitious Catholic mothers.

Philosophy, in sum, should not burden itself with discovering ethereal ideas floating around in a Platonic heaven, but with tending the warp and woof of human speech. When we speak of “the mind” or “the self” we are not talking about a set of numinous inner entities, which are not open to inspection, but about observable actions and language. The emphasis is thus on the therapeutic function of analysis—correcting abnormal behavior in speech and in removing illusions, unsolvable riddles, and deceptions from thought. There are no mysteries, only confusions.

Throughout his ably guided tour, McGinn strikes one as basically English: undogmatic, likable, and mostly untroubled at the winnowing of his discipline, by his own admission, into “obscure, narrow, empty disquisitions” on the nature of language. Having written a number of successful books and essays, he rose through the ranks of English philosophy and landed himself the plum position of Wilde Reader in Mental Philosophy at Oxford. Sadly, his brilliant ascent overlapped with his diminishing faith in the promises of the analytical tradition. He laments that “the issues became 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 a science—misguided, perhaps, but undeniably appealing (sexy, as some philosophers like to say).”

McGinn’s seems to be a textbook case of looking at the steam whistle and not the engine, as William James memorably put it. Despite the admittedly “insular” and “scholastic” nature of the worst aspects of his trade, he has never really wandered off the reservation. If his thought world has ever been thoroughly challenged, let alone upended, by a thinker with more classical or medieval leanings, he does not say. Iris Murdoch once faulted ur-analytical philosopher Gilbert Ryle for describing a world in which nobody fell in love or joined the Communist party. McGinn mentions love and conversion, but only with respect to his fondness for video games and his embrace of vegetarianism.

Evaluations of the analytical tradition by Christian thinkers have been, as they should be, mixed. Prominent Christian philosophers Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne, for example, along with those aligned with the Society for Christian Philosophers, operate within the tradition loosely construed—which is to say, a very general tendency to break down arguments into stages and not sound like Heidegger—and their work has won them praise in many quarters for defending the basic reasonableness of holding Christian beliefs as true in a secular context. More appealing and promising, I think, have been theological interests in the uses of narrative, most commonly associated with the “Yale School” of theology and postliberal theologians Hans Frei and George Lindbeck. To the degree that Christianity’s approach to philosophy must always remain deliberately eclectic, charitably affirming the best of every school, discarding only that which discounts the possibility of naming God as Trinity, much of this work is highly commendable.

That being said, those more comfortable in a Patristic and catholic worldview find many analytical problems to be hampered from the start. The basic modern and analytical question—whether intelligibility is grounded in the very structure of the real or is imposed by man—simply could not have occurred to earlier Christian thinkers. They would have seen McGinn and his tradition as having nihilistically separated mental life from its integral role in the cosmos and given man the impossible task of being a meaning-bestowing entity. This creates a thoroughly naturalized, indeed atheist, self, worlds away from the supernatural self of Augustine, the Cappadocians, and Maximus Confessor, who understood man, as a sanctuary of divine presence, to be a recapitulation of the entire creation. Human nature, according to Gregory Nazianzus, “enfolds all intellectual and sensible nature within itself.” Man is essentially representational and plays a role that consists in bringing the entire cosmos to its divine destiny.

The implications of this supernatural cosmology for a philosophy of language are a source of endless fascination—and derision too, especially by the likes of Jacques Derrida. The modern “crisis of the word,” as George Steiner has named it, stems precisely from language ceasing to perform the supernatural task of giving expression to the immanent Logos. Rather than seeing language as intrinsically christic (or “Logocentric,” as its critics moan), it has become unnaturally restricted to referring to objects in only indirect and extrinsic ways. Louis Dupré speaks of the Christological conditions for meaningful language:

Only when spoken words partake in that divine Word through which the Creator secures the essential intelligibility of his creation can we safely presume that they intrinsically correspond to the very nature of the real . . . . If we can no longer take for granted that God’s decrees follow an intelligible pattern, then we also cease to trust that the eternal Logos secures the basic veracity of human speech. [Lacking this, words are] to be used at man’s risk and discretion without carrying the traditional guarantee that, if properly used, they touch the real as it is in itself.

For Christians, language participates in the aboriginal Word, the archetype of created being. “Ordinary language philosophy” therefore has it exactly backwards: language is ultimately meaningful only to the extent that it is liturgical and doxological in character, an appreciation never lost in the Eastern tradition. (It is, incidentally, usually foolish to discount the Let’s-Not-Be-Crazy objection in philosophy. Iris Murdoch said perhaps all that needed to be said on the subject. “Language just does refer to the world, we just do possess the essential talent of knowing that something is the same again. Without this human nature would perish and go to ruin . . . . It just has to be so for us to be as we are.”)

Herbert Marcuse, of all people, gave us the most entertaining drubbing of the more debilitating and irrational aspects of analytical philosophy. In One-Dimensional Man he wrote that in protecting us from supposedly useless mental adventures, it “exhibits academic sadomasochism, self-humiliation, and self-denunciation,” creating a “mutilated, false consciousness.” Try to expunge mysterious words and categories from life, Marcuse says, and we will soon find that life is not worth living. What is more, analytical arguments can make no convincing case as to what qualifies as our common stock of words and definitions. If philosophy only states what everyone admits or what qualifies as prevailing behavior, who is to decide what passes? Unsurprisingly, analytical philosophy displays prejudices all its own.

In barring access to [a wide realm of experiences and assumptions], linguistic philosophy sets up a self-sufficient world of its own, closed and well protected against the ingression of disturbing external factors. In this respect, it makes little difference whether the validating context is that of mathematics, of logical propositions, or of custom and usage. In one way or another, all possibly meaningful predicates are prejudged. The prejudging judgment might be as broad as the spoken English language, or the dictionary, or some other code or convention. Once accepted, it constitutes an empirical a priori which cannot be transcended. But this radical acceptance of the empirical violates the empirical, for in it speaks the mutilated, “abstract” individual who experiences.

Marcuse levies essentially the same charge that T. S. Eliot did against heresy: it seizes upon a small truth and pushes it to the point at which it becomes a disfiguring falsehood.

McGinn is disarmingly honest about these limitations, and his mature interests, perhaps in need of stimulation, gravitate towards the very hot topic of human consciousness. How is the physical brain related to the conscious mind? How could the mind just be physical events in the brain, as materialists assert? We can of course know about the workings of the brain, but we cannot know about the nature of mental experience. Consciousness, McGinn is forced to conclude, is such a fundamentally different phenomenon from the neural processes which accompany it that we are led into a baffling cul-de-sac: we need to know more, but the most highly advanced way of studying the human mind is . . . the human mind. He thus rejects any reductionism that reduces the conscious mind to the physical brain, arguing that it is not possible to give a complete account of consciousness in purely physical terms. The unfathomable mystery of man’s inner life leads McGinn to a moving confession of pious unknowingness:

It was one of those flashes of insight that I had read about in other people’s memoirs. Maybe the reason we are having so much trouble solving the mind-body problem is that reality contains an ingredient that we cannot know. We have only a very partial grip on both mind and brain, but if we could remedy this ignorance the solution to the problem would be immediate and uncontroversial. It’s like one of those detective stories in which the detective has only limited information and cannot for the life of him see how to solve the mystery—the crime looks quite impossible to explain in his current state of information—but then he lights upon the crucial missing clue and everything falls into place. But with the mind-body problem, I surmised, the clue is not going to come to light, which explains why we have been mystified by it for centuries. It might come to light, I thought, but it would have to be very different from anything considered so far; it would certainly not be some minor tinkering with one of the theories currently around. And in my bones I felt that there was some deep-seated obstacle in our intellectual makeup that prevents us from discovering the missing clue.

Consciousness presents us with something radically novel, “coming from nowhere, as if a new act of creation were necessary to bring it into being.” McGinn’s writings on the “preposterous overconfidence” of philosophy to unlock this secret earn for him the name “Mysterian.”

A lifetime of philosophy ends on the melancholic note that “we are suffering from cognitive closure.” There is little joy, McGinn admits, in admitting philosophy’s final condition to be one of “terminal puzzlement” and “permanent fretting ignorance.” Yet the problems of philosophy, now seemingly stumped by consciousness, currently appear to him to be of a kind that do not suit the way humans form knowledge of reality. It is rather like using a feather duster to crack nuts: “The task and the tool are not made for one another.” In the end McGinn has settled into an immobilizing niche; having used philosophy to magic itself away he is left without the means or passion for pushing on.

Whether McGinn has taken philosophy too seriously or not seriously enough, or if he has been too rational or not rational enough, I do not know. His most serious failures, like most, are those of proportion, charitableness, and gratitude. Where he should have appreciated he often interrogated, where he took out his scalpel his pipe would have done, and where he squinted he might have marveled. McGinn lives neither in the clouds nor on his knees, preferring instead the flattened and tedious world described by Nietzsche as the effects of sterile rationalism. He never encounters an Otherness that cuts across his awareness, he never turns an ear to a rumor of angels, and that’s that. But if it is unfair to fault a writer for not writing the book you want, it is grossly unfair to fault a man for not living the life you would have had him lead. McGinn has been candid and engaging, and we should be grateful.

With his typical knack for having things every which way, G. K. Chesterton understood the necessity of playful seriousness in truth-seeking. For him, the only sane philosophy somehow managed to wear the color of fairy tales, the aura of gallantry, and the smell of incense. The Great Tradition, he wrote in The Everlasting Man,

looks at the world through a hundred windows whereas the ancient stoic or the modern agnostic only looks through one. It sees life with thousands of eyes belonging to thousands of different sorts of people, where the other is only the individual standpoint of a stoic or agnostic. It has something for all moods of man, it finds work for all kinds of men . . . it is able to distinguish between real and unreal marvels and miraculous exceptions, it trains itself in tact about hard cases, all with a multiplicity and subtlety and imagination about the varieties of life which is beyond the bald or breezy platitudes of most ancient or modern moral philosophy. In a word, there is more in it; it finds more in existence to think about; it gets more out of life . . . . It gets every type of man to fight for it, it gets every kind of weapon to fight with, it widens its curiosity or sympathy; but it never forgets that it is fighting. It proclaims peace on earth and never forgets why there was war in heaven.

One does feel in McGinn’s story, nearly despite all, the tired modern soul kicking against the iron cage that it has made, which leads me to hope his voice is serving some royal purpose in that Great Debate. Though he has long since renounced any belief in the supernatural (God, he thinks, is not a coherent concept), there is a pleasantly odd moment near the end of his book where McGinn is inspired to confess that somehow his thoughts always lead him back to St. Anselm and the biggest game in town: the necessary properties of God. That is a lead to be followed.

Matthew F. Rose is a doctoral student in ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School.