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The End of Thought

The life and times of an analytic philosopher.

Jul 15, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 42 • By THOMAS HIBBS
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The Making of a Philosopher
My Journey Through Twentieth-Century Philosophy
by Colin McGinn
HarperCollins, 256 pp., $25.95

COLIN MCGINN is a clever man--the very clever product of that very clever school of British academic thought known as analytic philosophy. His initial impetus for studying philosophy came, he says, from reading Bertrand Russell, and he studied with the formidable A.J. Ayer, the famed practitioner of the analytic style in its most pristine and most ambitious form, whose goal was to turn philosophy itself into science. McGinn is also the author of several influential books of philosophy, and he has taught at Oxford, UCLA, and, now, at Rutgers.

Add it all up, and Colin McGinn is peculiarly situated to provide a picture of the intellectual life of an Anglo-American philosopher in the twentieth century. Which is exactly what he's done in his most recent book, a memoir called "The Making of a Philosopher: My Journey Through Twentieth-Century Philosophy." His goal, he says, is to present "philosophy in an accessible, engaging way," as a "lived subject, . . . part of a flesh and blood human life."

Judged by this goal, "The Making of a Philosopher" is a failure, largely because the abstruse topics characteristic of his brand of mainstream analytic philosophy are not at all conducive to reflections on life--his, or anyone else's. Indeed, the book depicts not so much the integration of thought and life as their unbridgeable separateness.

But there is another sense in which "The Making of a Philosopher" is a resounding success. As McGinn alternates descriptions of his philosophical thought with descriptions of his personal experiences, something profound about analytic philosophy comes into view. The emptiness of the philosophy proves to be a mirror--but which is the original and which the reflection?--of the emptiness of the life.

It must be admitted that McGinn has a powerful and energetic intellect, neatly divided between arid philosophical analysis and the quest for vibrant experience. Living on America's west coast, he plays video games and cruises L.A. listening to the Cars sing "My Best Friend's Girl." On the east coast, Manhattan provides "an escape from the obsession, a rude jolt of teeming life."

Meanwhile, he thinks about philosophy. The presentation of that philosophy is clear enough, although the attention lavished on technical debates over meaning, truth, and reference is odd in a purportedly popular book. The real problem is that McGinn is never able to adopt the standpoint of the non-analytic philosopher and ask why these topics are worth pursuing in the first place.

Indeed, McGinn's own philosophical journey ends with a whimper, in the conclusion that the human intellect is ill-suited to the task of philosophy--which may well be true: The arid inhumanity of analytic philosophy requires for its fulfillment a league of gods, or angels, or stones--anything but human beings.

Only at one point in "The Making of a Philosopher" does McGinn describe a way of doing philosophy at "the level of ordinary experience" on the "neglected topic of life." It's when he talks of the time he began to use great novels as the basis for an investigation of the nature of evil. What insight did this study yield? McGinn's mildly interesting--although rather pedestrian--conclusion is that truly evil people "revel in the suffering of others" and are motivated by a sort of "existential envy of virtue and innocence." In his work on fiction, McGinn also develops what he insists is an "aesthetic theory of virtue," which he identifies as Platonic and "not much in favor with today's analytical moral philosophers." McGinn notes that analytic philosophers have had little to say about these sorts of topics; "perhaps the lack of rigorous methodology deters them."

NOW, the work of Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Martha Nussbaum in moral philosophy seems to disprove McGinn's comment about the incapacity of analytically trained philosophers to turn to genuine issues of moral philosophy. But, in fact, these exceptions suggest that he's right: Each of them has gained a wide audience and had something to say about philosophy and life by deploying resources--from literature, classical philosophy, even Continental philosophy--outside analytic philosophy. And premier analytic philosophers are deeply suspicious of the likes of Taylor, MacIntyre, and Nussbaum, questioning whether they deserve to be called philosophers.