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The Making of a PhilosopherReview - The Making of a Philosopher
My Journey Through Twentieth-Century Philosophy
by Colin McGinn
Perennial, 2002
Review by Matthew Ray
Nov 24th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 48)

Taking the longer view, one might feel that as a self-confessed philosophical autobiographer Colin McGinn stands in the company of some extremely impressive forebears: philosophers of the theoretical calibre and rhetorical notoriety of an Augustine, or a Nietzsche. Yet McGinn's clearly written The Making of a Philosopher arguably distinguishes itself from the genre to which Augustine's Confessions belongs by explicitly presenting itself not as a full autobiography or even as a autobiography of one's spiritual life as a whole but rather as a strictly intellectual autobiography (p.x). This latter is a genre to which Nietzsche's Ecce Homo also belongs, although with Nietzsche one gets the sense that in his case there was very little left over to say about his life beyond the books, anyway. This is not necessarily so with McGinn.

Essentially, The Making of a Philosopher is a medium-length book written to introduce people to philosophy -- 'as it is practised today in the university philosophy departments of the world' (p.xi) -- by showing how central philosophical questions arose within McGinn's own life. To take one instance, McGinn was first introduced to the subject via some remarks concerning Rene Descartes made by his Divinity teacher, a Mr. Marsh (p.6). Thus we are lead on by McGinn to an introductory and engaging discussion of the (as professional philosophers and their students will know, still unresolved) philosophical issues surrounding the ontological proof of God's existence and then we are lead on to the argument from illusion and to a consideration of the general enterprise of Cartesian scepticism. Other philosophers approached from a similarly autobiographical direction include Sartre, Chomsky, Quine (on the indeterminacy of translation), Kripke, Davidson, Frege and Wittgenstein. These philosophical discussions, it seemed to me, were mostly pitched at just the right level for keen and astute beginners and gave an insightful view into modern philosophical practice, although his aforementioned characterisation of the content of his discussions as philosophy 'as it is practised today in the university philosophy departments of the world' (p.xi) seemed a little stipulative to me: philosophy departments also often contain people working within slightly different traditions to McGinn's, and they also house scholars with different philosophical interests: people working primarily on reconstructions of the thought of, say, Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, Malebranche or Martin Heidegger are to be found in philosophy departments, too; as of course are people mainly interested in political thought or the philosophy of religion. Overlooking them in a characterisation of philosophy 'as it is practised' arguably gives an odd picture of the landscape of academic philosophy today.

As one would expect from such a notable philosopher as McGinn, there is, it scarcely needs to be said, little here that one would query on philosophical grounds. His philosophical argumentation is, of course, first rate throughout. However, it seems interesting to note that in one area at least, the margin between an intellectual autobiography such as McGinn's and an autobiography proper narrows dramatically: I am thinking of the question of the existence of God. From an early religiosity, McGinn tells us that he eventually loses his faith and this is an area where we can surely see that the resolution of a strictly philosophical question must then have profound effects upon the person's life as a whole (religious beliefs are normally taken to have normative implications). In any case, McGinn tells us that he became attracted by a naturalistic view of man and that he 'also became increasingly disturbed about the possibility of free-will, which is presupposed by the entire Christian conception of praise and blame, reward and punishment, heaven and hell.' (p.35). My only scholarly quibble with the whole book is that I found this sentence arguably historically misinformed: by no means the whole of the Christian tradition doctrinally espoused the idea of free-will in the way McGinn seems to assume: so this observation will certainly not worry, say, Luther.

This sole scholarly quibble aside, McGinn's The Making of a Philosopher must be recommended to potential readers as an eminently trustworthy and very understandable introduction to some important philosophical issues written by a leading modern practitioner of the subject today.

 

2003 Matthew Ray

    

 Matthew Ray, Bristol, UK


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