Philosophy Magazine

A Stinging Review by McGinn

By Praymont
Colin McGinn has been known to write some stinging book reviews (and was recently the target of one). I generally enjoy and learn from McGinn's reviews. There's a new review by McGinn in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books (June 7, 2012 Volume 59, Number 10) -- which is behind a pay-wall -- and it's a doozy. He really didn't like Terrence Deacon's Incomplete Nature: How the Mind Emerged from Matter. Here are some choice quotations:
'This is by far the most unreadable book I have ever encountered.'
 'Predictably, the treatment of sentience invites us to tolerate even more pointless punning, verbal stretching, and implausible assertion ....'
 'I suspect the author secretly realizes how flimsy and inadequate his suggestions are.'
 I love that 'secretly'!
In a nutshell, McGinn says that the good ideas in Deacon's book have already been developed (better) by Alicia Juarrero and Evan Thompson and that the original ideas in Deacon's book are too unclear to be worthy of much consideration. McGinn moves toward personal criticism of Deacon, suggesting intellectual dishonesty (see the third quote above) and either plagiarism or irresponsibility, a disjunction that stems from the observation that Deacon either did know of Juarrero's and Thompson's work or should have known of it. McGinn adds that Deacon should have given more credit to Francisco Varela, with whose work Deacon seems to be familiar (and whom Deacon does cite -- but allegedly without assigning due credit to Varela).
McGinn's review falls into a category that I especially like. Occasionally, an academic in a discipline other than philosophy writes a book on a topic that has been much discussed by philosophers. Said academic makes little, if any, reference to this literature and seems not to have given it much consideration, indicating thereby that s/he doesn't think much of philosophy. It then remains for a philosopher to point out either that the book in question repeats what has already been said by some philosopher(s) or that the author makes errors of a sort that philosophers know better to avoid. I wish I could recall offhand other examples of this kind of book review but I can't just now. Perhaps later I'll refer to some of them in an update to this note or in the comments.
I haven't seen Deacon's book yet. but Jerry Fodor also doesn't like it (also behind a pay-wall).

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