10.06.13, 04:19 PM

I propose to say no more on the subject of recent allegations. I wanted to avoid it from the beginning, for many reasons. But public accusations were made and I had to say something or else be supposed to have nothing to say.  

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UserpicFrench Open
09.06.13, 12:04 PM

A fascinating tournament overall, despite the absence of Andy Murray. Phenomenal semi-final between Nadal and Djokovic. Today's final had Nadal in top form and Ferrer finally in a final. Nothing much Ferrer could do against the Nadal hurricane. He just played amazingly well (I like his new slice). He gave his usual modest speech, with his raised eyebrow, and his brave English. Uplifting.

Now I have to go and play myself.


09.06.13, 08:48 AM

Maxim: if you can be misunderstood you will be. My talk of "the genius project" was (of course) tongue-in-cheek. I am not a genius. I am not sure the concept makes much sense in philosophy. Nor was I trying to make the student into a genius. The idea was to try to encourage intellectual quality and originality. Irony, remember. I conceived the "genius project" as an experiment: try out various ideas and see what works. A mundane part of it was to reserve a part of each day, preferably the early morning, for thinking through one's own ideas without reliance on texts of any kind. Another part was insistently asking the question: "Is this really true?" about some contemporary canard. I see nothing sinister or weird in this.

09.06.13, 07:45 AM

Elizabeth Sheldon makes a very interesting point, which had not occurred to me before. She notes that mentoring by professors is important in enabling promising students to make it in philosophy, and that this usually goes on between male professors and male students. If a male professor takes a female student under his wing in this way, he is immediately subject to suspicion; and it is assumed that the student is selected because of her looks not her brains. Therefore male professors steer clear of female students to mentor. Therefore (since male professors are in the majority) the student does not receive the necessary mentoring. Therefore the student does not make it in philosophy. Therefore there are fewer female philosophers. And so the cycle continues. This strikes me as a better explanation of the dearth of female philosophers than many I have heard.

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UserpicEparter les bourgeios
08.06.13, 11:57 AM

Eparter les bourgeois


My cultural heroes are: Oscar Wilde, Bertrand Russell, Vladimir Nabokov, Jean-Paul Sartre, Philip Larkin, Kingsley and Martin Amis, Peter Cook, John Lennon, and Larry David (among many others). What they all have in common is the quality captured by the French phrase “eparter les bourgeois”, which the OED defines as “shock people regarded as conventional or complacent”. We might paraphrase this in a number of ways: taunt the prudish and prim, ridicule the conventional and boring, outrage the pious and conformist. The cultural tradition that falls under this description sees itself as in favor of art, freedom, creativity, spontaneity, playfulness, life, and experience; it casts itself as standing against stifling social norms and dull conformity. It is given to provocation, controversy, and shock tactics. Accordingly, it is often pilloried and persecuted, and of course misunderstood. It does not see itself as against morality as such, but it does view conventional pieties with a beady and skeptical eye. It is on the lookout for hypocrisy, dogma, intolerance, suppression, and sheer dullness of spirit. These to me are admirable values that I try to bring into my own life. I am particularly fond of provocative irony, which has got me into trouble on more than one occasion (especially in irony-deficient America). I am often amazed that people fail to see the irony in this or that utterance of mine.

 I trust readers will see the relevance of these remarks to current events. 

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08.06.13, 09:03 AM



I have been pleased (but not surprised) to receive a lot of support from women. They seem to grasp the whole situation with greater clarity than many men out there. Why? I suspect it is partly because they understand the varieties of human relationships better than men; they appreciate the subtleties and nuances of different kinds of affection between people. They have greater emotional and imaginative range than (many? most?) men. The male mind tends to be crude (in several senses) and dichotomous. Also, I get the sense that they think in less stereotyped ways about interactions between people. Hypothesis: women have a better “theory of mind” than men (speaking statistically). Then too, many men simply project their own attitudes and motivations onto others—this is what they would do in such-and-such a situation. Thus they suspect the worst, sans evidence. In any case, I have been impressed and moved by the good sense and decency of many of the women with whom I have been in contact.

I have never once reached for the phrase “complete fool” to describe a woman, but with respect to men I find myself using it quite frequently.

07.06.13, 05:56 PM

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.


2. I had no desire to remain in a place I had come to hate.


3. I did not want 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 and wouldn’t mind spending the rest of my life reading the books I want to and playing more tennis.


7. I didn’t know whether my old enthusiasm for teaching would survive my disenchantment with graduate students.


8. I was sick and tired of the whole thing and just wanted not to have think about it anymore or waste my time on it.


9. I had books to write that I wanted to get on with.


10. I felt insufficiently intellectually stimulated in Miami anyway.


The downside was that I wouldn’t “get my day in court”, but I made a point of writing a long refutation of the accusations against me and giving it to the university.

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UserpicSome basic facts
07.06.13, 02:14 PM

Some basic facts


I have not been fired from the university.


I have never been charged by the university with sexual harassment; nor did the student accuse me of that. The lack of such charges can be attributed to the simple fact that I have not been guilty of sexual harassment (which I deplore).


There are no findings of any kind against me by the university.


The only charge the university considered that involved a (putative) violation of university rules was that of failing to report a consensual (though nonsexual) relationship.


The student’s accusation was made many months after the alleged offenses (as much as seven months).


The student’s complaint occurred soon after a dispute between her and me over research work she was supposed to do over the summer (for which she was paid $4000) that she failed to do.


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UserpicThe Genius Project
07.06.13, 09:04 AM

On a couple of emails


The student (hereafter NN) and I were engaged on what we called “the Genius Project”. The purpose of the genius project was to make NN into a truly original and outstanding young philosopher (one who could expect to find an attractive job later). Part of this project involved techniques for encouraging unconventional thinking, and the concept of “taboo-busting” was deemed helpful towards this end. We had developed a very open and candid style of communication, and were in contact extremely frequently. (She came to my house several times to play tennis and go paddle boarding, as well as talk about the work we were doing.) The understanding was that we could say anything to each other, in a spirit of mutual trust (she would often use the phrase “cluster fuck” to me). Humor and playfulness were much in evidence. We also liked each other very much. The relationship was close, reciprocal, and much valued by both parties. She sent me many affectionate and exuberant emails, often of a very personal nature.

In this spirit I sent NN two short email messages, spaced over three months, which contained some (mild) sexual content, which was related to the seminar of mine NN had attended and which was relevant to work we were doing together. This content pertained to the hand in relation to human evolution and human life (including sexual life), and referred back to material discussed in the seminar I gave and which NN enthusiastically attended. These emails were received in the spirit in which they were intended (certainly no complaint was voiced about them), and they gave rise to some mild amusement between us over the months. They were quite banal. Many other personal and professional matters were discussed in our email correspondence, as well as our very frequent meetings; these two were exceptional and designed to achieve a specific pedagogical end. In no sense were they intended (or interpreted) as attempts to elicit anything from the recipient (except perhaps a chuckle).

            To impose disciplinary action on the writer of these two emails would be a clear infringement of academic freedom and freedom of speech. I judged that these emails were in line with the project on which NN and I were (consensually) engaged, and I think they served their purpose (taboo-busting—though they described rather mundane matters). Most of the genius project took a more conventional form, but it is within this context that they should be interpreted. They were not just gratuitous snippets of risque prose, sent out of the blue. I believe that had the genius project continued it would have borne significant fruit; and indeed a colleague has remarked to me that NN’s philosophical abilities went from “good” to “superb” following the several months during which I was attempting to make her into a “genius”.

            It is very important to view these emails in context, which includes both their pedagogical history and the verbal responses from NN that followed and preceded them. It is also important to avoid stereotypical thinking. It should also be noted that it was explicitly agreed between us that if anything in our relationship was felt to be unacceptable it could be stopped simply by saying so.

            I am sorry to have to air these personal matters in a public setting, but recent events have forced me to it. What should have been entirely private has become a matter of (prurient) public speculation.


Colin McGinn

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UserpicRecent Events
06.06.13, 12:11 PM

Morality, Reported Speech, and ”Hand Job”: A Refutation



What kind of hand job leaves you cleaner than before? A manicure, of course. Why does this joke work? Because of the tension between the conventional idiomatic sense of “hand job” (a certain type of sex act) and its semantic or compositional meaning (in which it is synonymous with “job done by or to the hand”). When you think about it virtually all jobs are “hand jobs” in the second semantic sense: for all human work is manual work—not just carpentry and brick laying but also cookery and calligraphy. Indeed, without the hand human culture and human economies would not exist. So really “hand jobs” are very respectable and vital to human flourishing. We are a “hand job” species. (Are you now becoming desensitized to the specifically sexual meaning of “hand job”? Remember that heart surgeons are giving you a “hand job” when they operate on you; similarly for masseurs and even tax accountants.)

I have in fact written a whole book about the hand, Prehension, in which its ubiquity is noted and celebrated. I even have a cult centering on the hand, described in this blog. I have given a semester-long seminar discussing the hand and locutions related to it. I now tend to use “hand job” in the capacious sense just outlined, sometimes with humorous intent.

            Suppose now a professor P, well conversant in the above points, slyly remarks to his graduate student, who is also thus conversant: “I had a hand job yesterday”. The astute student, suitably linguistically primed, responds after a moment by saying: “Ah, you had a manicure”. Professor P replies: “You are clearly a clever student—I can’t trick you. That is exactly the response I was looking for!” They then chuckle together in a self-congratulatory academic manner. Academics like riddles and word games.

            But suppose a naïve eavesdropper, overhearing this witty conversation, jumps to the conclusion that “hand job” was being used in the narrow sexual sense. He then reports the speech act of Professor P as follows: “Professor P told his student that he masturbated yesterday”. He has failed to see the joke and has no knowledge of the linguistic and intellectual background of the speech act he is trying so ineptly to report. He clearly misreports what Professor P said (oratio obliqua), missing both the content and the humor. We might accurately paraphrase P’s remark as follows: “I had a job performed on my hand yesterday”. Perhaps the inept reporter’s mistake is understandable, but it is still a mistake. This might lead to some unfortunate consequences if he rashly goes around telling people what he thinks Professor P said, especially if he fails to repeat the very words used by the speaker and paraphrases him in the erroneous way described. Why would the speaker use the rather odd construction “I had a hand job” (which sounds like he paid for one) if he merely meant to say that he masturbated?

            Similarly, a professional glass blower might remark to his co-worker with a lopsided grin: “Will you do a blow job for me while I eat this sandwich?” The co-worker will interpret the speaker as indulging in crude glass blower’s humor and might reply: “Sure, but I’ll need you to do a blow job for me in return” (recall the SNL skit about “soaking the cork”). A naïve eavesdropper might report the speech act as follows: “He asked his co-worker to perform fellatio on him”—as if this were the serious intent of the utterance. But that would clearly be wrong; in the dialect of glass blowers a “blow job” is just what you do when professionally blowing glass—though these workers will no doubt be aware of the lay use of the term (hence the humor). Compare saying “Will you do me a hand job and pass the salt?” when using “hand job” in the arch manner described above: this speech act is not to be paraphrased as “Will you masturbate me and pass the salt at the same time?”


These reflections take care of certain false allegations that have been made about me recently (graduate students are not what they used to be). Lesson: reported speech is a bitch (a female dog—be careful how you paraphrase me!). One has to be very careful about getting it right. Lives can turn on it. One has a duty to take all aspects of the speech situation into account and not indulge in rash paraphrases. And one should also not underestimate the sophistication of the speaker.


Here ends this sermon in morality and the philosophy of language. (And yes, there will be a test.)


Colin McGinn


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UserpicThe Middle Finger
21.09.12, 05:38 AM

This digit is a fine upstanding member of the manual community, with many beneficial uses, though it must be admitted that some dubious employment has been made of it. The Order has attempted to discourage such employment, and certainly we do not allow it among our membership. In any case, no prospective member of the Cult should be put off by any regrettable misuses of the fingers indulged in by those with little respect for our manual heritage. Devotees of the hand I salute you!

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17.09.12, 11:35 AM

People say travel broadens the mind. But this is not quite accurate: the experiences one has while traveling do the broadening, not the mere displacement of one's body through space. But then it is the mental aspect that constitutes the benefit. And presumably this has to do with the richness and novelty of the experiences and thoughts that physical travel occasions. But couldn't one have just such beneficial experiences and thoughts without physically moving? Couldn't the mental adventure of travel be duplicated by staying put and adventuring mentally. It is said Kant never traveled from his home time of Konigsberg, but in fact he traveled very widely--in his own mind. Kant was a world traveler! Intellectual stimulation, or aesthetic experience, or moral refelction (and living), are all forms of mental travel. The dull-minded traveler learns little from hurtling through space, but the stationary thinker whose mind is free can learn an enormous amount. What broadens the mind is mind travel.

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UserpicClockwork Orange
02.09.12, 07:16 PM

Reading Martin Amis's perceptive essay on Anthony Burgess's Clockwork Orange in today's New York Times made me wonder about the influence of that novel on my novel Bad Patches. Alex is a gleefully evil character who narrates his own depravity in unforgettable prose. My antihero Dave also narrates the less spectacular story of his merely poor character--in what I hope is pungently memorable prose. But Alex is no purebred yob: he is a passionate devotee of classical music, which works its way into his violent acts. The uneasy relationship between art and morality is disturbingly probed. Similarly my Dave is a visual artist, from whom we might expect loftier things--he is not just an outright selfish prick. Also Alex and Dave traffic in dark and dangerous humor, which also highlights the even more uneasy relationship between morality and humor. Was I writing another version of Clockwork Orange without being aware of it (Cockwork Blue)?

UserpicThe Puzzle of Intelligence
23.08.12, 02:05 PM

Human intelligence--including complex language, advanced tool use, and elaborate social organization--is clearly among the most powerful adaptations ever to evolve on planet earth. So why is it unique to the human species? One would think that such a powerful set of traits would be extremely useful to almost any species, yet no others have evolved these traits. Why? In other words, why have evolved brains always been so small compared to ours? Why, say, have our primate relatives not evolved our level of intelligence? Suggestions welcome.

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UserpicDear Usain
11.08.12, 08:54 AM

On reflection, I may have been a bit hard on you yesterday. I realize we have something in common: we are both "athletic" legends. You performed the "double double" by winning those four races in successive Games. I have performed the "double triple" in the intellectual Olympic games. Yes Usain, my friend, you are not the greatest of all time--I am. What am I talking about, you ask. Well, in 2011 I performed the triple, by publishing three books more or less simultaneously (for full documentation see the Oxford University Press catalogue). But in 2012 I have performed another triple--with three books finished and in the works. So, Usain, you need to match that to catch me. I am surely the greatest philosophical sprinter of all time! (Admittedly, two of my events involved books already semi-completed, so I didn't run from scratch, but technically I ran within the rules.)  You still have the relay but that's just an anthology, not all your own work. So I hope you acknowldge your second-place status in future. (And no, I will not run the 400 meters.)