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Now that the basic facts of the case have been disclosed, and the roles of various agents in this wretched melodrama have been exposed, I think it is time to move on to more positive things (though there may be some mopping up to do later). It is now surely clear enough what happened and what did not, and the requisite normative conclusions can easily be drawn. I want to get back to being fully productive philosophically. To this end I have just signed a three-book contract with MIT Press. Two of the books are already written and the third is complete as a first draft. They are: Philosophy of Language: A Student Text, which undertakes to explain classic writings in philosophy of language; Prehension: A Philosophical Anthropology, which is mainly about the role of the hand in human cognitive and linguistic evolution; and Innate Ideas: Why Descartes Was Right, which is about what it says it is about. Expect to see these books appear in the next year or so. I would like to look beyond the recent nonsense and try to make the best of a bad situation. I advise all involved to do the same. This has been good for no one and nothing can be gained by prolonging it.
A Movie Experience
Last night I attended the premiere of the film “The Silver Mirror”, written, directed and produced by Ali Habashi, based at the University of Miami. The film is about aging and mortality and is a marvelous film in many ways. It was my first visit to the UM campus in many months and the Cosford theater is near the building in which the philosophy department is located. Various university bigwigs were present. I went with my wife. I attended because the director personally asked me to. Why? Because I was myself in the film—not as someone aging (!) but because I contributed to the panel discussion that was part of the film. It was extremely odd to sit and watch myself in that environment, all the while conscious that I had been forced from my position at the university less than a year ago. Many in the audience were aware that this was the situation, and some may have been instrumental in bringing it about. There was a palpable tension in the air.
Afterwards, at the reception, various members of the audience approached me to congratulate me on my contribution (a philosopher among scientists), asking me if I were a teacher at UM. This was awkward, as I had to inform them that I had been (effectively) dismissed from the university for reasons that I found entirely bogus. Looks of incredulity ensued. Was I trying to be funny? I assured them that it was true and that they could consult that day’s Slate for an account of the matter. So there I was, a “star” of the film (the director’s description, not mine), attending its premiere at a university from which I had recently been removed. Does anyone think this is a good thing? Was it really warranted?
I advise a close reading of Katie Roiphe's article that has just appeared in Slate.
Truthfulness involves two virtues: the virtue of Sincerity and the virtue of Accuracy (I borrow Bernard Williams' terminology). One should speak what one believes to be the truth, but one should also strive to discover the truth. A person who (intentionally) fails to do the former is a liar, but a person who is gulled by a lie often fails in the duty of Accuracy. It is no excuse for making false statements that one was misled by someone else--if these lies were within one's power to detect. Sincerity is not enough in the goal of speaking the truth. You can be culpable for being complicit in a lie, even when you don't know that it is a lie.
The truth can be slow coming, but when it arrives it is clad in shining armor.
That’s an odd label for the view it purports to describe. The most conspicuous feature of the doctrine in question is its negative attitude toward traditional metaphysics: it is a form of philosophical “negativism” i.e. metaphysics is meaningless and should be abandoned. And what is with the adjective “logical” here? Doesn’t every philosophical doctrine regard itself as “logical”? Who would call their view “Illogical Idealism” or “Poorly Reasoned Relativism”? Doesn’t every proponent of a philosophical position take it to be both “logical” and “positive” (i.e. on the side of the good)? A better description of the doctrine would surely be “Methodological Negativism”, since it subscribes to the view that correct methodology excludes metaphysics. Or it might be called “Semantic Nihilism”, since it declares so much philosophical discourse to be devoid of meaning. But these labels don’t carry the same uplift. Doctrines often catch on because of catchy labels.
I think the phrase “logical positivism” well describes the pro-metaphysical metaphilosophy I favor: that all of philosophy is really logic (the a priori analysis of concepts), but that this conception is maximally inclusive, i.e. “positive”. Even the most non-empirical branches of metaphysics are respectable, because grounded in logic. There is nothing “negative” here! But to avoid confusion I might call this doctrine "Positive Logicism".
Department of Ontics, Nowhere University
I’m thinking it might be a good idea to form a virtual philosophy department, named as above. I see it as a research group, open to all qualified people (no need to be interviewed etc). All you need to do to join is send me your name by email. If anyone wants to be a research assistant just contact me. We might even have Skype seminars. We can be virtual colleagues, instead of congregating in a physical space like the old-fashioned kind. Is this the way of the future?
This is a letter by Ed Erwin to the NY Times corroborating what I have said. One would think this would be sufficient to prompt a correction.
Dear Ms. -------------------:
In writing your article about the McGinn case, you honored our agreement that our conversation was off the record. I appreciated that. Thanks.
Nevertheless, I want to express my disagreement about one point. There is no need to reply or to even read what I have to say. I just want to see if the Public Editor has any comments. If she does, you, of course, should know about them.
In the article, you were careful to say that McGinn’s case is short on undisputed facts, but not so careful as to refrain from asserting, without any evidence, that he left his tenured post because of allegations of sexual harassment brought by a graduate student. Your assertion is false for the simple reason, as I explained to you, that the student did not allege sexual harassment. Her complaints are stated in the university’s letter of charges, containing her charges and theirs, referred to in McGinn’s statement “The Truth” which appeared on his blog on August 11, 2013. She did not allege sexual harassment and he did not resign because of such an allegation.
The Origin of Ideas
Where do our ideas come from? What gives ideas their content? There is an old and natural story about this: call it the “exemplar theory”. Consider the idea of blue (the concept blue, the meaning of “blue”): it arises in the mind by virtue of perceptual contact with exemplary blue things—this contact with exemplars gives it the intentional content it has. We have an idea of a particular sensible quality, which objects can instantiate, and the idea has that content because of its origin in instances of the quality that are perceived by the subject. To be more explicit: the idea refers to a specific universal, viz. the color blue, and it does so as the product of two other relations—instantiation and perception. Particular objects instantiate the universal and then perceiving subjects encounter those instances and derive the concept from them. In some versions the derivation works by simple causation, as the perceived quality causes sensory experiences with the corresponding content; in other versions it is deemed necessary for the subject to perform an operation of abstraction on the perceived instance—the universal is abstracted from the encountered particular. The essential point, however, is that the mind apprehends the universal by way of responding to instances of it in the perceived environment: this process is what mediates the referential link between mind and universal. We come to form an idea of a sensible quality like blue because we interact through our senses with the extension of that quality—with external objects that exemplify it. The exemplar establishes the idea in our mind.
We can think of the exemplar theory as an account of emergence that offers a kind of reduction. Intentionality emerges from a basis in perception of instances: the mind grasps the universal by encountering instances of it—the grasping supervenes on the encountering. Alternatively, the apprehension of universals reduces to the Read more
 Locke introduces the notion of abstraction in chapter XI, section 9, of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London: Penguin Books, 1997), ed. Roger Woolhouse (followed by the charmingly named section “Brutes Abstract Not”). Earlier he states his basic thesis thus: “First, our senses, conversant about particular sensible objects, do convey into the mind, several distinct perceptions of things, according to those various ways, wherein those objects do affect them: and thus we come by those ideas, we have of yellow, white, heat, cold, soft, hard, bitter, sweet, and all those which we call sensible qualities, which when I say the senses convey into the mind, I mean, they from external objects convey into the mind what produces there those perceptions.” 109-10. Notice here the emphasis on external objects: the senses convey the qualities of objects outside of us into the mind—they don’t just present subjective impressions quite distinct from such objects. Just as I think about external objects by perceiving them, so I think about their qualities by perceiving them. I venture to suggest that this is not just a broad philosophical tradition, associated with empiricism, but also the view of common sense: it just seems obvious that we derive our ideas of the qualities of things by perceiving those qualities in things. So if this view proves false, a chunk of common sense collapses.
New York Times
The article about me on the front page of the New York Times on August 2, 2013, by Jennifer Schuessler, contains the following sentence: “Colin McGinn, a star philosopher at the university of Miami, had agreed to leave his tenured post after allegations of sexual harassment brought by a graduate student.” There are several errors of fact contained in, or implied by, this sentence. First, it is claimed that the student brought a claim of sexual harassment against me to the university when the original charge was made. This can be seen to be false by consulting the university’s letter to me containing a record of what the student’s complaint was: no such allegation is mentioned or even hinted at (the phrase “sexual harassment” is never used, nor any synonym). Second, the sentence suggests that my reason for resigning had to do with a charge of sexual harassment made by a student. This too is false, since no such charge was ever made; so my decision to resign could have nothing to do with any such putative charge. In no sense did I resign because of such a charge (since there was none). Third, the sentence clearly implies that the university must have endorsed the (non-existent) charge of sexual harassment. Any normal reader would naturally assume that the university did endorse such a charge, since I would clearly have no reason to resign if the university had rejected a student’s allegation. Obviously, if the university had told me that they did not endorse a student’s allegation of sexual harassment, regarding it as groundless, then I would have had no reason to resign at all. So the sentence gives the misleading impression that the university must have taken the putative allegation seriously, i.e. taken it to have merit. But this is inconsistent with the verifiable fact that the university never accused me of sexual harassment, but only with failing to report a consensual romantic relationship. The sentence from the New York Times, so prominently displayed, therefore conveys a number of serious falsehoods that are damaging to my reputation and good name.
I have requested that the New York Times issue a correction to their misleading sentence, but so far have not received a positive response.
I posted a version of this before, but now seems a good time to re-post it--now that the dust has settled and the facts have become clear.
Reasons for Resignation
1. The rules of the university allow the president to overrule the findings of the faculty senate committee that investigates cases of alleged misconduct, and I believed this was very likely in my case. The university had repeatedly demanded my resignation and clearly wanted me to leave. They had all the power and I had none.
2. I had no desire to remain in a place I had come to hate. How long would I want to stay anyway, given this fact? I was also disappointed with most of my colleagues.
3. I did not want to have to keep paying my lawyer at exorbitant rates for several more months.
4. I was concerned about the effects on my wife’s physical and mental wellbeing.
5. I wanted to spend more time with my son and grandchildren in England.
6. I have been a professor for forty years (I am sixty-three) and wouldn’t mind spending the rest of my life reading the books I want to, writing, and playing more tennis.
7. I was sick and tired of the whole thing and just wanted not to have to think about it anymore or waste any more time on it.
8. I had books to write that I wanted to get on with, instead of spending who knows how long fighting with the university.
9. I felt insufficiently intellectually stimulated in Miami anyway.
None of this means I wouldn’t consider a position elsewhere, but it seemed pointless to waste time and money trying to keep my job at UM with the cards so stacked against me and my own attitudes toward the place become so negative. Who wants to stay in a place that has asked for your resignation?
For the first eight or nine months, beginning in September 2012, the only accusation I faced was that of failing to report a “romantic or amorous relationship” (though not a sexual one). This was the nature of the accusation made against me by the university. I replied to this accusation both through my lawyer and in a written response to the university’s official letter of complaint. At no time during this period was I confronted with any charge of sexual harassment. The reason for this was simply that the university, having reviewed all the emails and conducted interviews, found no evidence of any such thing—though they did fault me for not severing academic ties with the student. The relationship was (rightly) deemed consensual.
The question of sexual harassment came up only when the CHE ran a story in June 2013 about my case. It is true that there were rumors spread by ill-informed and ill-motivated outsiders to the process prior to this date, which I heard about, but the university authorities did not adopt this view. But the CHE article put this notion into the public mind, mainly because of statements made by people who had little inside knowledge of the case. At this time I deemed it necessary to respond to such statements, having not had to do so previously. Despite clear and authoritative rebuttals by Ed Erwin and me, the sexual harassment story proved tenacious, for reasons I won’t explore here. In the end it seemed necessary to quash these allegations simply by quoting the university’s actual letter of complaint, in which the real charge was laid out. But it should be noted that no such allegation was part of the previous nine months of the case. It is really nothing but a figment of people’s imagination. Thus there is an enormous disconnect between the facts of the case, as revealed in the months following September 2012, and the media coverage, which dates from June 2013. These concerned entirely different issues, which I had to deal with separately. Since the public only became aware of the case in June 2013, they naturally assume that the issues relate to the content of reports dating from this time; but in fact the case had existed for many months before this and concerned completely different issues. Reality and appearance thus diverge radically.
“I could list a great number of these one-sided diminutive romances. Some of them ended in a rich flavor of hell. It happened for instance that from my balcony I would notice a lighted window across the street and what looked like a nymphet in the act of undressing before a cooperative mirror. Thus isolated, thus removed, the vision acquired an especially keen charm that made me race with all speed toward my lone gratification. But abruptly, fiendishly, the tender pattern of nudity I had adored would be transformed into the disgusting lamp-lit bare arm of a man in his underclothes reading his paper by the open window in the hot, damp, hopeless summer night.” Lolita, V. Nabokov, p. 20.
I am that man reading his paper.
Here is a statement by Ed Erwin. It is a powerful indictment of what has gone on over the last three months. I will let it speak for itself but it has my full endorsement.
A True Romance?
Concerning the Colin McGinn case: A philosopher at another university delivered salacious messages to a female undergraduate who took a course with him.
The student never reported the faculty member to the Administration, but this does not mean that sexual harassment did not occur. Even if it did not, messages of this kind, any reasonable person would agree, were unprofessional and extremely inappropriate. We can tell this, can we not, just by reading them?
We cannot. These two people had developed romantic feelings toward each other which deepened as time went on. Theirs was a true romance.
If outsiders had overheard some comments or picked up certain messages but knew nothing about the details of the relationship, they would have been utterly incapable of judging what had occurred. What might look to an outsider like an entreaty, or enticement, or harassment might be a joke, a pun, an expression of romantic feelings, or none of these.
Suppose that the romance had ended abruptly and badly, and the student had lodged a complaint. This would have had no effect on what had happened. They had had a romantic affair and no subsequent event could have altered this.
What does any of this have to do with the Colin McGinn case? A lot. As to the journalists who wrote the stories for the New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education, who very much wanted to write a story about sexual harassment and McGinn, a fallen star, even after being told that there was no such charge in this case, or the philosophers who have made accusations in interviews, who have pursued McGinn even after he had lost his job, or the many philosophers who signed petitions knowing next to nothing about the facts, or the many bloggers who have carelessly and callously insulted him, do any of them know what they are talking about?
After looking at all of the evidence, including the e-mails and testimony of both parties, did the university investigators conclude that it was indisputable that McGinn and the student had had a romantic relationship? McGinn answers this question in “The Truth”, Philospot Website, August 11, 2013.
Those who wanted to further the discussion of sexual harassment and insisted on using McGinn to further their agenda, and all those who joined the chorus, have damaged lives and broken some hearts, and ultimately they will break the student’s heart. She is no longer just a student, but a cause, “a whole climate of opinion”, not mentioned by name, thankfully, but referred to in the pages of the New York Times and the not so gentle British newspapers, and discussed in philosophers’ offices on several continents.
Ed Erwin, University of Miami
These are the words from the university’s formal letter of accusation:
“Pursuant to Section B4.9 (d)(ii) of the Faculty Manual, the University believes that Professor McGinn’s conduct is unprofessional due to the amorous relationship that developed between a senior faculty member and his student [my italics]…. The “relationship” violated the Faculty Manual’s policy on Consensual Amorous, Romantic or Sexual Relationships. Pursuant to that policy, ‘a faculty member who engages in amorous relationships with a person over whom he or she has evaluative authority without taking steps necessary to resolve the conflict, including reporting such a relationship at the earliest opportunity, may be subject to disciplinary action under the policies embodied in the Faculty Manual governing charges of unprofessional conduct.’… In this case, there is no dispute that…prior to and during the duration of the Independent Study Course and the research assistantship, Professor McGinn and Ms. X had a romantic relationship…”
Note that this explicitly states that an “amorous relationship” existed between Ms. X and me. (The university had access to both my and her email messages and interviewed both of us.) The relationship thus falls under “Consensual Relationships” between students and faculty, and is expressly not considered a case of sexual harassment, which is covered in another section of the Manual. There was never any allegation of sexual harassment--quite the contrary. This is clearly very far removed from what has been reported in the press, disseminated by irresponsible commentators, and apparently widely believed. In the light of what the university’s letter actually contains, much of what has been publicly stated about the case qualifies as libelous. It is certainly wildly inaccurate (as I and Ed Erwin have been saying for some time).
Let me make one thing very clear: the reason I have addressed accusations on this blog is NOT that the accuser made a complaint to the university. It is that the accuser made public statements (via her representative) to the media, repeatedly—statements that were calculated to damage my reputation (this after I had already resigned in January 2013). I would have made no public response at all had the matter not already have been made public, complete with lurid pseudo-reports; but given that it had been made public, I had no alternative—except to sit back passively while being publicly defamed. The original complaint was lodged in September 2012 and I made no public response at all for some nine months. Then the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a story in June 2013 containing various (erroneous) accusations against me. Only when this story appeared did I say anything public, reluctantly and with a heavy heart. The idea that my comments on this blog are retaliation for the student making the original complaint is thus preposterous. But then so much of the commentary out there is.
The Faculty Manual at UM (and I believe elsewhere) has a section covering “romantic or amorous or sexual relationships” between faculty and students. It says that such relationships are “strongly discouraged” because of the conflicts of interest and other problems that can arise from their development. But it does not prohibit such relationships—no disciplinary action can be taken against someone just for engaging in them. Why? Presumably because it would be an intolerable infringement of the personal freedom of consenting adults to impose any such prohibition. And we do live in a free country (supposedly).
I completely agree that romantic relationships between faculty and students should be strongly discouraged, but they do sometimes develop, for reasons that are all too human. Even if the parties concerned try their best to resist the formation of a romantic bond, it can still happen; will power can only take one so far in such matters. If a romance develops in this way, it is obviously the responsibility of those involved to handle it in a rational and decent manner, and to mitigate any potential ill effects. But it would be a hard-hearted (and unrealistic) individual who would seek to criminalize the very existence of romantic feelings between faculty and students. Are we really to suppose that the existence of romantic feelings should constitute grounds for dismissal?
These are no doubt difficult and delicate issues, in which competing values come into potential conflict. But they are the issues that should be occupying people's attention (not bogus claims of "sexual harassment" elastically defined).
I find it ironic that my name should now be linked with discussions of sexism in philosophy. I have always been strongly opposed to sexism in philosophy (and everywhere else). I have long advocated aggressive recruitment policies with respect to women, at both the graduate level and when hiring faculty. I have been vocal in my criticism of male graduate students who do not treat women students with proper respect. I have made a point over the years of supporting and mentoring women students. I have been married to two highly intelligent (indeed brilliant and distinguished) professional women philosophers. I treated the student I was mentoring at UM with complete respect, as an equal, and with continuous encouragement and support. In fact, I privately suspect that women are inherently better at philosophy than men—being more patient and imaginative, but less ego-driven. Ironic, then, to find myself somehow linked to sexism, even if only by implication.
As to the New York Times article, the devil is in the details. Read between the lines. Don’t be taken in by spin and exaggeration. Look closely at the language.
Philosophy of Art
I am reading Philosophy of Art by Noel Carroll. As anyone familiar with this author will know, it is an excellent book: clear, well argued, elegantly written, and stimulating. Carroll’s main interest is in defining the concept of art by supplying necessary and sufficient conditions; so it is a classic piece of analytical philosophy—and the better for it. Reading it gives rise to two reflections in me. The first is that the book is a textbook example of the merits of conceptual analysis, as defended in my recent Truth By Analysis. I wish I had read it before so that I could cite it as a fine example of the conception of philosophy I favor; anyway I am citing it now. I sincerely hope this is not the kind of book some current proponents of “ex phi” would like to get rid of. Second, my recent controversy with the neuroscientist Jean-Pierre Changeux in the latest New York Review is usefully understood in the light of Carroll’s book. Indeed, I would recommend this book to Changeux as a philosophical investigation of aesthetics (as opposed to a neuroscientific investigation). This is how to understand the nature of art—by patient philosophical analysis—not by monitoring the neurons in people experiencing art. What I find alarming today is that such a mode of investigation has become almost invisible to (much of) the scientific community, in their zeal to conduct a hostile takeover of traditional philosophy.