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!

10 comments 10 comments ( 669 views )

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.)

UserpicThe Modesty of Usain Bolt
10.08.12, 09:14 AM

I was as thrilled as anyone to see Usain Bolt resoundingly win the 100 and 200 meters events. But is all the crowing and self-adulation really necessary? Why does he have keep calling himself a "legend" and the "greatest ever"? We all saw him do it. Since when did modesty become so passe? I much preferred the demeanor of David Rudisha who was also astounding in the 400 meters. There seems to be some strange insecurity in Bolt, and maybe a hint of paranoia. Congratulations, Usain--but cut the big-headed crap, please!

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UserpicHand Philosophy
03.08.12, 05:51 PM

The Manifesto is a tongue-in-cheek parody with a serious message. It is connected to work I am doing on the role of the hand in human evolution. This has been explored by paleoanthropologists but not by philosophers. Specifically, what is the role of the hand in the origin of language? Can we give a gradualist account of this by examining the hand as it evolved in early human history? Tool use plays an important part.

The Cult is for those who have been struck by the hand and see in it a proper object of wonder. 

UserpicThe Prehensionalist Manifesto
28.07.12, 06:36 PM

The Prehensionist Manifesto

(This document states the main tenets of the Cult of the Hand. All members of the cult are expected to conform to these principles. Formally, the cult is referred to as the Gripparian Order.)

We seek to promote greater hand consciousness

We advocate manual cultivation, arboreal therapy, and brachiation training

We believe in prehension science and are strict evolutionists

We preach hand reverence

We encourage hand intimacy, but not hand promiscuity

We are in the grip of the grip

We deplore hand neglect and hand repression

We thank nature for the gift of the hand

The thumb and forefinger are objects of special reverence

Our prophets are Charles Darwin, Charles Bell, and John Napier

We foster hand virtue

We think the hand is a thing of beauty

All hands are created equal

We contemplate the hand every day

We never take our hands for granted

We observe the hands of others

We prefer writing to speaking

We support an active hand life-style

All fingers are important

Hand communication is encouraged

We practice special secret hand greetings

We think the hand jive was cool

We leave casts of our hands after death

We worry about the decline of the hand in the modern world

We view tools as extensions of the hand

We classify species according to their prehensive profile

We regard the brain as secondary to the hand

We have intense hand discussions

We teach our children hand anatomy

We believe that pointing is profound

Hand exercise is mandatory

We do everything to avoid cold, numb hands

We believe that a flexible hand is a flexible mind

We regard the intellect as an extension of the hand

We tolerate pan-prehensionists but this is not official doctrine

We admire gibbons greatly

We sing praises to the hand

We favor eating with the hands

We esteem the feet because they are the platform of the hands

The muscles of the forearm are fascinating to us

We believe that anatomy is destiny

We regard the body as essentially prehensile

We regard speech as a fall from grace

We reserve a special compassion for those who have lost their hands

We are entranced by trees

We abhor “glad-handing”

We find hand holding extremely romantic

For us the hand has a halo around it

We view the mouth with some suspicion

We see nature as the Great Chain of Prehensive Being

We feel the foot is misunderstood

We collect hand trivia

We admire hand erudition

We disapprove of hand exhibitionism

Our central metaphor is the grip

At wedding ceremonies we say, “You may now hold the bride’s hand”

We have private hand gripping sessions

Shaking hands is taken very seriously

We feel a kinship with apes

Kissing the hand is permitted but not encouraged

Calling someone “handy” is a great compliment

We see no distinction of status between the power grip and the precision grip

We think philosophers have wrongly ignored the hand

In the beginning was the hand-deed

We despise the phrase “hand job”

We believe that capitalism has led to proletarian hand alienation

We think it is bad manners to grab things

We have long arguments about hand etiquette

We regard the hand as corruptible but not corrupt

We are ambivalent about gloves

We are a secular organization but we applaud hand worship in moderation

We support hand pride initiatives, but deplore hand vanity

We feel that musicians are basically good but at risk of hand abuse

We accept that man is nothing without his opposable thumb

We oppose hand oversimplification

We give out hand achievement prizes, especially to children

We invest in hand education

We believe the hand is more trustworthy than the tongue

We climb trees at weekends

We regard fingerprinting as an invasion of privacy

We are continually astonished by the hand

We do not permit hand plastic surgery, except for medical reasons

We are working to create a hand museum and university

One of our highest honors is to be designated a “Keeper of the Hand”

We wash our hands in a spirit of holiness

Violence with the hand leads to immediate expulsion from the Order

Anyone wishing to become a member must pass a simple test in pointing and gripping

We approve of prehensional meditation but it is not mandatory

We believe mind and body are united in the hand

We are a not-for-profit organization dedicated to improving hand wellbeing globally

We do not favor one hand over the other

We believe that 10 is a special number

We are critical of thumb idolatry, though we understand it

We give our children names like Palm and Index and Grippa

We call Sunday Thumbday

We reject the term “pinkie”, preferring “precious”

We treat the back of the hand with the same respect as the front, though it has no name

We have an annual hand poetry prize

We repudiate all hand superstitions

We maintain that the hand is epistemologically fundamental

We love the words “squeeze” and “grasp”

We stage brachiation contests

“I grasp, therefore I am”

Some of us refrain from applause because it is a form of hand slapping

We are working on improving hand nomenclature

We engage in hand sensitivity training, sometimes involving animals

We are suspicious of conventional notions of hand beauty, such as slender fingers

We have convened a special commission to consider boxing and other martial arts

We envisage a hand utopia

We are ambivalent about card tricks

We feel that everyone should work on his or her power grip, no matter how elevated

We memorize hand figures of speech

We conduct remedial hand appreciation workshops for those who need them

Our official icon is a picture of the thumb-index circle

We dream of the platonic form of the hand

We are very careful with kitchen knives

We think Michelangelo was onto something in the Sistine Chapel

We are interested in hand anthropology but believe in hand universals

We have doctors dedicated only to hand ailments

We have special hand holidays and celebrations

We regard ourselves as the only sane cult in the world

We are impressed by the hand theme in the life of Jesus of Nazareth

For us divinity exists only at the tip of the arms

We esteem all forms of prehension but we reserve a special place for the manual kind

In the hand we glimpse the infinite

We believe we were created in the image of the hand

We reject the notion of an immaterial hand

Man is a manual animal, a res manipulans, a digital soul

But we also know that we must trim our nails

(Membership of the cult is open to all, as long as the above precepts are adhered to. No exceptions permitted. Good gripping!)

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Userpictext book
19.07.12, 10:11 AM

I just finished a student textbook on philosophy of language, based on my regular lectures. It goes through the classic articles by Frege, Russell, Tarski, Davidson, Kaplan, etc, giving detailed expositions, with close attention to the text. I have found that other introductions to philosophy of language have not been satisfactory, either because they are too superficial or because they are too technical for the average undergraduate. I wonder what other people think: do they know of any current texts that explain philosophy of language adequately to students?

4 comments 4 comments ( 751 views )

26.06.12, 08:07 PM

What can I say that is provocative enought to kickstart this blog? I know: Wimbledon! It is is going to be fascinating, no doubt about that. I think Sharapova will win the women's. On the men's side, I think Federer will either go out early or win. I'm predicting Djokovic vs. Murray in the final (neck way out there). Djokovic wins. But more important than any of that I think we will see some of the best tennis games ever played. There's something in the air there this year. As for myself, I have the new Babolat Aeropro, as used by Nadeal, so there'll be no stopping me. Provocative enough? 

4 comments 4 comments ( 579 views )

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