Colin McGinn

Colin McGinn a reader in philosophy at University College London, is soon to take up the position of Wilde Reader in Mental Philosophy at Oxford. He is the author of Wittgenstein on Meaning.

Good Things

Colin McGinn, 5 September 1996

Suppose I perform an action certified by morality as good – say, giving money to charity. I then do something good because it is good. We might say that this action had the moral property goodness and that in acknowledging this to be so I had a reason to perform it. Anyone else has an equal reason to perform the same action, which is good no matter who performs it. Thus, generalising: morality is aptly seen as a set of principles that ascribe values to states of affairs and thereby provide reasons for bringing those states of affairs about. Morality says what we ought to do and in so far as we grasp its dictates we have the reasons it specifies: we know what we ought to do, and that we ought to do it is a reason for doing it.


Colin McGinn, 21 March 1996

Wittgenstein to John Maynard Keynes:

In and out of the mind

Colin McGinn, 2 December 1993

In a neglected passage in The Problems of Philosophy Bertrand Russell unapologetically writes:

Cooling it

Colin McGinn, 19 August 1993

Donald Davidson is perhaps the most distinguished philosopher in history never to have written a book. Indeed, he did not get round to writing articles until he was into his forties (he is now 76). Yet those articles – short, intense, allusive, hard – have changed the shape of contemporary analytical philosophy. They were in mid spate when I was a graduate student at Oxford in the early Seventies, and they acted as a kind of philosophical IQ test for the young philosophers of my generation. I well remember poring with tormented excitement over ‘Truth and Meaning’ and ‘Mental Events’, two of the most influential (and contested) articles of recent times. These cryptic texts gave the impression of well-honed conjuring tricks, in which the deepest of problems were given tantalisingly rigorous and ingenious solutions. In those days you were either a ‘Davidsonian’ or you weren’t; you certainly had to find out where you stood. But it wasn’t easy, because each Davidson article presupposed the others, and they assumed you were good at logic. It became clear that Davidson had a system, but it needed to be pieced together by the reader, as best he or she could. Puzzlement about a particular Davidson piece would be met with a knowing look from the initiated and the query ‘But have you read “In Defence of Convention T”?’ The very plainness of his name (often transmuted to David Donaldson) lent an aura of mystique to the plosive economy of the Davidson corpus. And the man himself, with his startling blue eyes and precisely articulated mode of speech, his unhurried confidence, his immersion in his own vision, his neatness, certainly encouraged the feeling that he had it all figured out, and all you had to do was figure him out. It did no harm, too, to discover that Davidson had been an enemy aircraft spotter in the US Navy in the Second World War, that he was a trained pilot, that he went gliding for a hobby, that he has climbed mountains, that there are very few places in the world he hasn’t visited. Davidson wasn’t just profound: he was cool (and there aren’t many philosophers you can say that about). Davidson had nerve.’

You would not want to be him

Colin McGinn, 19 November 1992

Bertrand Russell’s first and formative love affair was with symbolic logic. But the relationship, though fertile, was troubled. Beginning in rapture, as he moulded and extended the new concepts and techniques, sweeping away the barren detritus of two millennia, the affair eventually foundered on a stinging paradox, unexpected and intractable, which abruptly took the shine off the whole thing. His devotion crumbled, and he was driven to seek comfort elsewhere, never quite regaining his former idealism. It must have been very disillusioning, and no doubt tainted his other romantic involvements, which also began in ecstasy and then became mired in refractoriness of one kind or another. For the antinomial is not adorable. And if logic can’t be trusted, what can?

Getting the wiggle into the act

Colin McGinn, 10 September 1992

Consciousness is not sempiternal, it has a history, a natural genesis. Once upon a time the universe contained no consciousness; then it sprang up here and there; and now the planet is flooded with the stuff. This is not to make the trivial observation that what people think and feel changes over time and generations, sometimes quite radically; it is a point about the deep biological roots of consciousness. Just as animal bodies are products of a long evolutionary process, in which chance variation is rigorously winnowed by natural selection, so animal minds must have a remote genesis in the mechanisms of differential survival as they worked on the available materials. Eyes gradually emerged as engines for exploiting the information contained in light, relying on the given chemical and optical properties of matter; and consciousness likewise must have emerged for some good biological reason, building on the prior properties of organisms. The question is how and why this happened: how did mentality arise from cell tissue? Answering this question would tell us not merely about the aetiology of consciousness: it would also help us to understand the nature of consciousness – particularly its relation to its physical substrate. If we knew the history of mind, then we would have effectively solved the mind-body problem, since we would understand how consciousness arises from matter.

Imagining an orgasm

Colin McGinn, 9 May 1991

The more philosophically interesting a science, the less secure or transparent are apt to be its theoretical foundations, given that philosophy thrives on perplexity. It is some time since chemistry produced much of a reaction in philosophers, but biology can still get their juices flowing, though not so freely as in the days of the Bergsonian élan vital. Quantum physics is a contemporary focus of philosophical attention – despite the suspicion of some that it is only a dispensable anti-realism that generates the putative puzzles. Mathematics induces periodic bouts of fascination, even of deep distrust – as with Brouwer and Wittgenstein – but its rigour and finality tend to keep the perplexities at bay. In the case of psychology, however, philosophical interest reaches its highest pitch, and never more so than at present: perhaps to the chagrin of practising psychologists, philosophers are now very interested in what they are doing – or at any rate in what they ought to be doing.

Eating animals is wrong

Colin McGinn, 24 January 1991

I have been persuaded of the rightness of the moral position advocated in Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation for the past twenty years. There is, in my view, no moral justification whatever for the human exploitation of animals. I was convinced of this principally by reading the path-breaking book, Animals Men and Morals (1971), edited by Stanley and Roslind Godlovitch and John Harris. Singer acknowledges his debt to this pivotal work as well as to personal contact with some of the contributors, and his own 1975 book, of which there is now a welcome second edition, is largely a sustained working-out of the moral perspective developed by these earlier thinkers. I have to declare that, in my opinion, the arguments Singer mounts, and the facts he marshals, constitute a definitive and unanswerable case for the thesis 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. What is needed is a complete revolution in the way we deal with other species. Do not expect, then, to find me in any way ‘balanced’ on the question: this is not really an issue on which there are two sides. It’s a won argument, as far as I’m concerned – in principle if not in practice.’

My Wicked Heart

Colin McGinn, 22 November 1990

Was Wittgenstein a spiritual as well as a philosophical genius? Ray Monk’s exceptionally fine and fat biography puts us in a better position to answer this question than we have been hitherto.

Old Scores

Colin McGinn, 30 August 1990

When I was a quivering graduate student at Oxford in 1973, fresh from the Northern provinces, I sat for the John Locke Prize, a voluntary two-day examination for Oxford postgraduates in philosophy. As I had hitherto been a psychology student at Manchester, I thought this would be good practice for my upcoming B.Phil. philosophy exams. It was quite an ordeal (I nearly gave up at one point), and afterwards I felt I had a long way to go philosophically. A few days later Professor Ayer, who was one of the examiners, informed me that he had been obliged to require that my papers be typed, on account of their extreme illegibility: I would have to dictate them to a typist in the presence of an invigilator, both of whom I would have to pay. I apologised to him for my calligraphic delinquency and expressed some mumbled misgivings about going to all that trouble and expense, in view of my poor performance. To my surprise, he said he thought I was ‘worth it’, on what basis I am not sure. I therefore did as I was told, spending a couple of wincing days reading out my script to be converted into cold type. I really must improve my handwriting, I thought.

Homage to Education

Colin McGinn, 16 August 1990

Robin Collingwood (1889-1943) was born 17 years after Bertrand Russell and died 27 years before him. Given the style and content of Collingwood’s philosophical work, this fact ought to seem surprising. For there is no apparent mark of Russell’s influence, nor of those who influenced him, upon Collingwood’s own philosophical corpus. For better or worse, he stands apart – even aloof – from the British analytical tradition exemplified by Russell. Or perhaps for better and worse: better, because he thereby created a distinctive style of philosophy, in which history, not science (or formal logic), was the model and focus of interest; worse, because his own thought lacks some of the clarity and rigour and analytical depth of the ‘school’ he opposed, or ignored. Not for him the dry deductions of Russell’s Principia Mathematica: consciousness in history was what excited his interest.’


Colin McGinn, 23 November 1989

Philosophical reputations come and go – they surge and gutter – according largely to the prevailing intellectual climate, and are only tenuously tied to the actual merits of the views put forward by the reputand in question. To have a reputation is to have something perishable and fleeting, an imposition from without, no sooner bestowed than withdrawn.

Diary: A Philosopher in LA

Colin McGinn, 4 September 1986

I have recently been to two valedictory parties for Oxford philosophers on the brink of emigrating to America. I spoke to another philosopher who is actively considering a munificent offer from a Californian university. Reliable rumour has it that a number of other leading British philosophers are contemplating taking their talents to the Land of the Free. And they have been preceded there by several others in the past few years. British philosophy appears to be packing up and moving across the Atlantic. Neither is this minor exodus being compensated for by American philosophers taking up posts in Britain. There are too few such posts, and those there are are not attractive to American philosophers. The consensus seems to be that it is better to be a philosopher in America than Britain right now and for the foreseeable future.


Colin McGinn, 23 January 1986

It could be said that Oliver Sacks put neuropathology on the literary map. His first book Awakenings, about the stunning effects of the drug L-Dopa on patients afflicted with a form of Parkinsonism, attracted considerable critical acclaim from the literary world, and ‘inspired’ Harold Pinter’s rather ponderous play A Kind of Alaska. Sack’s second book A Leg to Stand On was similarly well-received. He has published a number of short pieces in this journal, as well as in its elder American sibling, several of which are reprinted in the present collection, along with 12 previously unpublished pieces. (His book Migraine seems to have excited rather less popular interest, no doubt because it is a less popular kind of book.) Yet the scientists of the nervous system do not seem to have been similarly impressed. When I asked a colleague in neuro-anatomy what he thought of Sack’s work he said he had never heard of him, and the neuroscientists I consulted who had heard of him were not inclined to attach any scientific importance to his writings. Unanimity between the two cultures is not perhaps to be expected, but in the present case the reason for this asymmetry of esteem lies deeper than mere difference of interest. The problem is that it is quite unclear what Sacks is doing. For whom is he writing? What kind of writing is it? Is it intended as sober science or fanciful fiction? What is its relation to an orthodox text of neuropathology? Can it really be taken seriously? Literary people seem tolerant of such uncertainties, but those concerned to discover the literal truth will want them clarified.

Weak Wills

Colin McGinn, 5 September 1985

Donald Davidson has this year been George Eastman Visiting Professor at Oxford: only the second philosopher to hold the august position (the first being W.V. Quine, a teacher of Davidson’s at Harvard and his greatest philosophical influence). This honour reflects his present stature in the academic world. Last year he was the subject of a massive conference held in New Jersey, organised by the indefatigable Ernie Lepore. It was probably the largest philosophical conference ever held, and it attracted nearly all of the world’s leading philosophers. Most of the papers delivered were addressed (often critically) to some aspect of Davidson’s work. For a philosophical event, it was undoubtedly a great occasion, if a somewhat overwhelming one (especially for Davidson, who attended as many of the papers as was humanly possible). Probably no other philosopher now working has been discussed as much during the last decade.

Story: ‘The Bed Reptile’

Colin McGinn, 18 April 1985

He had been asleep for seven and a half hours. He had lain in a dark room, wedged into a cotton envelope, breathing and twitching, his eyes periodically making saccadic movements under their lids. The time had passed slowly. He had done very little during those quiet hours. Once or twice the monotony had been broken by the languid swelling of his male part. Yet, despite this inactivity, there was no sign of boredom or discontent: to lie prone was living enough. Soon, however, it would be time to ascend into consciousness and light. Now he was in the transitional stage, the time of vividly remembered dreams and dimly glimpsed reality. His mouth opened and his shut eyes blinked. The skin on his forehead bunched into a frown of concentration. He had an intent look.


Good Things

5 September 1996

Philippa Foot (Letters, 3 October) says that I ‘was wrong to suggest that Gavin Lawrence’s work is derived from [Warren] Quinn’s’. But I suggested no such thing: I said it was odd that Lawrence didn’t mention Quinn’s work in view of the similarity between them and their professional proximity. I had no information on the question of influence. After all, people do...


2 December 1993

Hilary Putnam’s letter (Letters, 24 February) begins by stating that my review of his Renewing Philosophy ‘is in content not a book review, but a polemic, and as such requires a response’. I am unclear what distinction he intends here: surely my piece was simply a (highly) critical book review. The question is whether my description of his views was correct and whether my criticisms...
Howard Kahane (Letters, 7 October) has, I am afraid, wasted your column inches broadcasting his own confusions and misunderstandings. He announces that Davidson’s anomalous monism violates Leibniz’s law of the indiscernibility of identicals, so that the position is logically contradictory. Pause for a moment to reflect that if this were so the entire philosophical community would have failed...

My Guy

6 August 1992

The name of the ‘hero’ of my novel The Space Trap is Alan, not Colin as Frank Kermode has it (LRB, 6 August); Alan’s son’s name is Colin. And this is not a matter of mere names, since I used my own name for the abandoned son with a certain point in mind. Oddly enough, a review of the novel in Time Out called my guy Alan Smith, not Alan Swift: but, unlike Frank Kermode’s...


27 June 1991

The friendliness and fairness of Jerry Fodor’s thoughtful review of my book The Problem of Consciousness, despite its variance with some of his own doctrines, makes me dither at the doors of dissent, but there are one or two points it might be helpful for me to comment on, if only for the real enthusiasts out there.First let me correct a slight inaccuracy in his description of the book: it doesn’t...


10 January 1991

It is good at last to see the whole issue of the bass-player being addressed in your journal (LRB, 10 January), an issue you have scrupulously avoided in the past. However, I fear that Graham Coster merely perpetuates the common myth that exists about this grievously neglected element of the rock’n’roll band. He begins perceptively enough, observing that it is of course the drummer who...

Old Scores

30 August 1990

In my review of A.J. Ayer’s The Meaning of Life, I made the point that postulating the existence of an afterlife to confer meaning on our mortal life is viciously regressive, since the question must arise as to the meaning of this alleged afterlife; and similarly for postulating God. I have since stumbled upon a passage in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus which must be making essentially the same...

Keith’s Review

28 September 1989

Readers of Martin Amis’s London Fields may be interested in the following review, which recently came into my hands:Oi: top of his game innit. Touch of ‘genius’ as such. 180! 2000! Martin, words! Sincerity at the desk. Pen clinicism. Got me down to a tee like. That Nicky, phwhore!, I could murder that. Bull finish, no danger. Yeah cheers mate.I gather the review was rejected by the...

On the chin

4 May 1989

After reading Ian Hacking’s distressingly glancing, and airily dismissive, review of my book Mental Content (LRB, 4 May), I wondered whether I should write an indignant letter of reply to the LRB. But I decided not to bother – since it would be unnecessary for those within philosophy, and those outside it would only get the impression that the review contained points or arguments worth...


21 April 1988

Hilary Putnam (LRB, 21 April) quotes from a review I wrote of a book by Quine, originally published in the Journal of Philosophy. The first sentence of this quotation contains a printing error, perpetrated by Harvard University Press, and reproduced by Putnam (it isn’t his fault). The quotation, which appears on the back of Quine’s Quiddities, reads: ‘Quine pursues philosophical vision...

Avoiding Colin

Frank Kermode, 6 August 1992

Once there were popular books with titles like Straight and Crooked Thinking, books in which professional philosophers, avoiding arcane speculation, tried to make the rest of us more sensible by...

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Too hard for our kind of mind?

Jerry Fodor, 27 June 1991

Whatever, you may be wondering, became of the mind-body problem? This new collection of Colin McGinn’s philosophical papers is as good a place to find out as any I know of. Published over a...

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Putnam’s Change of Mind

Ian Hacking, 4 May 1989

Big issues and little issues: among established working philosophers there is none more gifted at making us think anew about both than Hilary Putnam. His latest book is motivated by large...

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An End to Anxiety

Barry Stroud, 18 July 1985

Wittgenstein predicted that his work would not be properly understood and appreciated. He said it was written in a different spirit from that of the main stream of European and American...

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Brian O’Shaughnessy, 1 April 1983

The philosophy of mind is a branch of the philosophy of nature. But it has this peculiarity, that the very item that conjures up its questions and vets its answers is the very part of nature...

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