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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,
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
Matthew Ray, Bristol, UK
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