Thursday, January 03, 2008


Every year John Brockman asks some of the world's leading thinkers a question and publishes the answers. This year's question: "When thinking changes your mind, that's philosophy. When God changes your mind, that's faith. When facts change your mind, that's science. What have you changed your mind about? Why?" - The Edge 01/01/08

What qualifies one for admission into the listing of “world’s leading thinkers”? Papers published, research with results, or simply academic tenure? Below is an article regarding two eminent contemporary philosophers.

It is probably the most negative book review ever written. Or if there is a worse one, do let me know. "This book runs the full gamut from the mediocre to the ludicrous to the merely bad," begins Colin McGinn's review of On Consciousness by Ted Honderich. "It is painful to read, poorly thought out, and uninformed. It is also radically inconsistent."

The ending isn't much better: "Is there anything of merit in On Consciousness? Honderich does occasionally show glimmers of understanding that the problem of consciousness is difficult and that most of our ideas about it fall short of the mark. His instincts, at least, are not always wrong. It is a pity that his own efforts here are so shoddy, inept, and disastrous (to use a term he is fond of applying to the views of others)."

And in the middle, there is nothing to cheer the book's author. Honderich's book is, according to McGinn, sly, woefully uninformed, preposterous, easily refuted, unsophisticated, uncomprehending, banal, pointless, excruciating.

What does the man on the receiving end think of this review? "It is a cold, calculated attempt to murder a philosopher's reputation," says Honderich. The review has reignited a feud between the two philosophers that shows how bitter, unforgiving and (to outsiders) unwittingly hilarious academic disputes can be. It certainly makes the bear pit that is journalism seem like sunshine and lollipops by comparison." - The Guardian (UK) 12/21/07

The above “dispute” has nothing to do with high-minded academic disagreements based upon the merits of philosophical discourse. Instead it seems that one philosopher (and considered academic standard for philosophical book reviews) was insulted a quarter century ago when the aforementioned colleague (who’s book he was reviewing) mentioned that the reviewer’s girlfriend wasn’t “nearly as plain as the previous one”. As recourse, the wounded philosopher trashed the book in his recent review in the esteemed Philosophical Review.

One of the funniest books I’ve read in the past couple years was Alexander McCall Smith’s “Portuguese Irregular Verbs”. The novella follows a pompous published-but-unread professor as he places university politics at the center of his existence and trips through the rest of society, rarely aware of his surroundings.

Now despite my tone, the last thing I'm interested in is knocking philosophers, professors or the thinking person, in general. However, I believe society at large is remiss if we fail to regularly question the intellectual authority of the commonly acknowledged intellectual authority. - DN

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