||ISSUE 92: NOVEMBER 2003
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made me a philosopher?
great teachers, the promise of escape and a neat pencil case
I have been an academic philosopher
for the past 30 years. I came from an academically disinclined background in the
northeast of England, my relatives being mainly coalminers and other manual workers.
I was the first in my family to attend university, and indeed had no thought of
it until age 17, when a teacher mentioned it at school.
|My father had
become a successful builder, so we were not materially deprived, and it was expected
that I would become some sort of technical worker, possibly a quantity surveyor.
The idea that I might one day become a professional philosopher was inconceivable
in those days, to me and everyone else. I was simply not living in a place where
that kind of thing ever happened; it was far likelier - though still not at all
likely - that I would become a pop star (I played drums in a rock band).
The paperback British edition of my memoir The Making of a Philosopher has a photograph
on the cover of a man sitting on a bench, placed in a grey and listless landscape.
He is overlooking the sea on a misty grim day, and the atmosphere is bleak and
melancholy. The man, hunched up, immobile, coiled almost, has a pensive posture,
as if frozen in thought. This picture is based on a story I tell in the book about
sitting on a bench in Blackpool, aged 18, pondering the metaphysical question
of how objects relate to their properties. Is an object just the sum total of
its properties, a mere coalescence of general features, or does it somehow lie
behind its properties, supporting them, a solid peg on which they happen to hang?
When I look at an object do I really see the object itself, or just the appearance
its properties offer to me? I remember the feeling of fixation that came over
me when I thought about these questions - a kind of floating fascination, a still
perplexity. The photograph itself is an exercise in Cartesian dualism, presenting
both the outer world of substance and drizzle, and the weightless inner world
of thundering thought, so silent and so arresting. I had begun living in those
two worlds, suspended between them, as my intellectual interests took root.
When I look back on this period in my late teens, I recall the harnessing of undirected
mental energy by intellectual pursuits. Up until then, my mental energy had gone
into things like reading Melody Maker, which contained fairly serious articles
about pop musicians; I always knew the top 20 off by heart, and studied the articles
about drummers intensely, hoping to improve my own technique. I suspect that this
kind of swashing mental energy is fairly typical of boys that age. School doesn't
seem to connect with it, and it goes off in search of some object of interest,
often trivial, sometimes destructive. In my case, it was philosophy that seized
that energy and converted it into a passion - though one that took several years
to form fully. It is a delicate and fastidious energy that I am speaking of, despite
its power, and it will only be satisfied by certain employments, which of course
vary from person to person. I had had a similar passion for chemistry when I was
ten, and for butterflies and lizards before that. How to harness such passions
to formal education remains a great and unsolved problem: how to convert a love
of Harry Potter stories, say, into a taste for good literature. The mental energy
of young people is not to be underestimated, even when it leads to nothing but
an elaborate obsession with piercing.
It was - of course - a teacher who tapped into my formless and fizzing mental
energy. Mr Marsh, teacher of divinity, brimmingly Christian, a man with very active
eyebrows and sharp enunciation, in love with scholarship (oh, how he relished
that word) - it was he who first brought out my inner philosopher. From him I
heard of Descartes, locked up in his room, wondering whether anything could really
be known beyond his own existence, contemplating the possibility of an all-deceiving
evil demon that delights in human error, finally saving human knowledge (and dignity)
by proving God's existence and goodwill. But what I mainly got from the enthusiastic
Mr Marsh was the desire to study. His own passion for study shone through, and
he managed to make it seem, if not glamorous, then at least exhilarating - when
done the right way and in the right spirit. Pencils and stationery were made to
seem like shiny tools, and the pleasure of making one's mark on a blank sheet
of paper hymned. Choosing a good spot to study was emphasised. Above all, I learned
a very valuable lesson, one that had hitherto escaped me: make notes. When reading
a book, or listening to a lecture, or even just ruminating, put the salient points
down on paper: this will fix them in your mind, give them firm expression, and
provide a quick and easy way to recall what you earlier learned. Simple, I know,
but even today I notice legions of my students sitting through lectures without
pen in their hands. Thinking and writing should be indissoluble activities, the
hand ministering to the thought, the thought shaped by the hand. Today, if I find
myself without pen and paper and thoughts start to arrive, my fingers begin to
twitch and I long for those implements of cogitation. With such rudimentary tools
you can perform the miracle of turning an invisible thought into a concrete mark,
bringing the ethereal interior into the public external world, refining it into
something precious and permanent. The physical pleasure of writing, which I find
survives in the use of a computer, is something worth dwelling on in matters of
Around this time I started to write a diary, chiefly as a way to practice my writing
skills. Since there is no need to monitor the quality or interest of what is being
written, the diary is an ideal form for developing the technique of writing, and
for taking the anxiety out of it. No one will correct your grammar and spelling,
or make fun of your naive thoughts and banal phrases, so you are free to get on
to friendly terms with the language you speak. I would often try out new words
I had learned - the dictionary had become my friend, rather than a standard I
was failing to live up to - secure in the knowledge that solecism would not lead
to embarrassment. A few hundred words a day, complemented by steady reading, will
soon produce a passable prose style. The habit of daily reflection also fosters
a critical sense, and an articulacy about what is going on; moral acuity can grow
from this, as well as self-knowledge. Yes, a diary can seem like self-indulgent
wallowing in the trivial details of day to day life, but it is the form, not the
content, that counts. I have never read any of my old diaries, and I haven't written
one for over 20 years, but I do think that composing them helped teach me how
to write and even how to think. Everyone should have one, starting young.
All this was before I went up to Manchester university in 1968. Since Mr Marsh
had taught me how to study, I had done well enough to be admitted to university
to study for a degree in psychology, thinking I might become an educational psychologist
or some other useful and worthy thing. Philosophy was more of a hobby then, and
maybe its tangential relation to my main studies added to its allure. In any case,
philosophy wasn't something you did for a living. I had two notable teachers at
this time: Professor John Cohen, head of the psychology department, and Dr Wolfe
Mays, a senior member of the Manchester philosophy department. I would describe
both, intending no disrespect, as short Jewish men with funny voices. Cohen had
trouble with his "r's," producing a slightly guttural sound, which is hard to
put into phonetic form. He would say things like, "Colin, have you chrread Pchrroust?"
(I pronounced it Prowst). Mays had that habit of saying his "th's" as "v's," as
in, "Vis is the ve difference." His accent seemed suspended somewhere between
south London and Cambridge.
Not to put too fine a point on it, I adored these two men, despite the fact that
they were many decades my senior. And, for some reason, they both took a shine
to me. John Cohen, who I always referred to simply as "Prof," would invite me
into his cluttered office and discuss some psychological topic with me in a man
to man kind of way, just as if he valued my opinion. He would joke with me, smoke
his pipe, make fun of some of his more earnest young colleagues, and offer encouragement,
all done in the lightest and least condescending way possible. What seemed to
me his vast erudition would fill the room, and I felt that here was a man for
whom learning and life were one.
Mays was my link to philosophy. His style was more pugnacious, though twinkly
and guffawing. His lip would curl in humorous disdain when skewering the follies
of other philosophers, often mounting to a giggling fit as he warmed to his demolition.
In one class of his we went painstakingly through Sartre's formidable Being and
Nothingness, with Mays operatically reciting the text and then revealing its mysteries
with a prefatory, "It's simply vis!" as he brought Sartre's impenetrable words
down to earth. One of the qualities I liked most about him was his open immodesty,
his sense of his own importance, as well as his love of showing off. Apart from
being extremely entertaining, this struck me as an admirable form of candour,
and it reflected the importance he attached to the views he held (views which
today I would largely reject). I suppose what I responded to was the way he brought
ego into the proceedings, an air of intellectual superiority, an idea of excellence;
it wasn't all remote and dry and disinterested. He always called me simply "McGinn,"
and tried not to make fun of me when I got things wrong; not always successfully.
I remember the time, a couple of years into our relationship, when we were walking
back from a class, discussing something or other, and he abruptly turned to me
and said, "Cup o' tea?" We went into the senior common room and chatted philosophically
over our tea and biscuits - a high point for me in my student career. It was that
unforced meeting of minds, combined with a fondness (in no way erotic) that can
blossom between teacher and pupil, which meant so much to me - and still does
to this day.
But, alas, I let both of them down. John Cohen wanted me to become a psychologist
and I defected to philosophy; Wolfe Mays despised Oxford-style analytical philosophy,
being more of a continentalist and historian of science, while I was bent on a
graduate education in analytical philosophy. Their disappointment was, I think,
quite deeply felt in both cases, but they didn't try to drown me in it. Perhaps
all good teachers must expect, if not encourage, such disappointment, because
it is a sign of intellectual independence on the part of their students; instead
of producing carbon copies of themselves, endlessly repeating their words, teachers
permit their students to have minds of their own, however much those minds might
offend them. Many years later, I was invited back to Manchester to lecture. I
came across Mays, not having seen him once in the interim. His mixture of pride
and disappointment was evident: how could his prize student of years ago, now
returning to give a series of prestigious lectures, come out with such rotten
stuff? He told me, in his old tone of long-suffering amused disdain, that I was
"azzumin' vat ve concept of identity applies to the empi'cal world" - and his
facial expression indicated that he believed he had thereby refuted everything
I had just said. But by this time I knew enough to know that he was the one getting
it wrong, not me. So it inevitably goes between student and teacher. In any case,
it was these two singular men who were my formative models, and a profound sense
of gratitude suffuses my memories of them.
What I liked most about philosophy was its extremely non-local character. Philosophy
is highly general, abstract, impersonal, and even non-factual. Not only is it
about everything that is; it is about everything that might be. Physics takes
in every physical object in the universe, but philosophy takes in every object
- physical or nonphysical - in every possible universe. The question about objects
and their properties that obsessed me at the age of 18 applies to any conceivable
object of any possible type: is an object, quite generally, something made up
of the collection of its properties, or is it an entity distinct from them? Such
questions belong to metaphysics, the study of "being as such," as the dictionary
unhelpfully says, but could just as well be called logical or conceptual questions.
Philosophy is about our most general ideas and how they fit together - ideas of
causality, time, space, object, property, truth, meaning, necessity, identity,
existence, knowledge, self, consciousness, freedom, goodness, beauty and so on.
It is not about some limited set of things; still less local historical circumstances.
Philosophy tries to get to the bottom of our most basic and far-reaching categories.
This abstractness is what so fascinated Plato, with his notion of the transcendent
realm of Forms that hovers over the world of sense-experience, loftily distinct
from all particulars, yet the source of everything real. Even a simple perceptible
property, such as the colour red, takes us from the realm of the particular and
local to the level of the abstract and universal, since that colour will be possessed
by many objects and could be possessed by many more; the colour itself is something
inherently general that is never exhausted by its particular manifestations. The
task of the philosopher, for Plato, is to discover the nature of these abstract
and eternal universals, and in so doing to develop the human mind to its highest
capacity. Bertrand Russell was captivated by this Platonic vision as a precocious
boy, especially in relation to mathematics, and strove to escape his miserable
surroundings by immersing himself in Plato's Forms. I don't doubt that this promise
of escape - of stripping the bonds of local space and time, and of the tedious
particulars of daily life - is part of what motivated me to pursue philosophy.
I may live here and now in this particular body, but I can think of anywhere,
anytime, in whatever degree of abstraction suits me. I am not a being whose nature
is to be tied down to the contingent particularity of my context. At root, this
is a yearning for freedom, of the most inward and radical type. One wants one's
mind to take flight, to abolish all constraint.
But there is another aspect to the philosophical impulse that is less remarked
upon - the preoccupation with technique. Read any piece of serious philosophy,
or attend a philosophical lecture, and you will notice a texture to the discourse
that makes it stand out: there is an expository and argumentative skill at work
that takes considerable development, and which is often difficult for the untrained
person to connect with. Philosophical writing, talking and thinking, deploy various
kinds of methods to achieve their ends, chief among them explicitness, logical
organisation, certain types of sentence formation, a specific vocabulary, scrupulous
attention to such particles as "thus," "therefore," "possible," "not." Writing
philosophical prose is a skill unto itself, and thinking rigorously in the philosophical
mode is what we strive to impart to our students. The ability to grasp and analyse
a long abstract argument is difficult to acquire and takes much practice. And
the ability to generate a novel philosophical idea is something one labours to
acquire over a lifetime. When I first started studying philosophy I was attracted
to this kind of verbal and mental agility. Russell had it in a particularly pure
and powerful form, and I devoured his works as much for their style as their substance.
I thought: I want to do that! What I wanted was mastery of a certain type of skilled
And here I see a connection to another interest of mine, then and now, which may
surprise some readers - sport. What I have always appreciated about sports are
the skills involved, not the competition. The sports I worked hardest on as a
teenager were pole vaulting and gymnastics, although I played any number of racket
games, as well the standard cricket and soccer. To get anywhere in sport requires
practice and dedication, and a tolerance of failure; persistence is the key. You
will fall, get hurt, make a fool of yourself, swear and sweat, feel like you will
never be able to do it, and then one day it all comes together - the pole plants
firmly in the box, your body inverts, you twist, pull, and you are clean over
the bar, with a soft pit in which to land triumphantly. And then you can do it
nearly every time, ever higher - although there will be those bad days of regression
and failure. I learned how to windsurf when I was 50 and, boy, do you fall off
that board into the water a lot of times: your back hurts, your hands hurt, you
look stupid, you have neither style nor grace. But if you persevere you eventually
get the hang of it, and before too long you are coasting along at a handsome clip,
savouring your skills. Philosophy is a little like that, as are other intellectual
endeavours: it takes persistence, patience, tolerance of failure, a stubborn desire
for mastery. Essentially, it is a matter of gradually acquiring a skill, one component
at a time. And, as with sports, some people are going to be better at it than
The metaphor that best captures my experience with both philosophy and sport is
soaring: pole vaulting, gymnastics and windsurfing clearly demonstrate it, but
the intellectual highwire act involved in full-throttle philosophical thinking
gives me a similar sensation - as if I have taken flight, leaving gravity behind.
It is almost like sloughing off mortality. (Plato indeed thought that acquiring
abstract knowledge is a return to the prenatal state of the immortal soul.) There
is also an impressiveness to these physical and mental skills that appeals to
me - they evoke the "wow" reflex. Showing off is an integral part of their exercise;
but as I said earlier, I don't have any objection to showing off. In any case,
there is not, for me, the discontinuity between sports and intellectual activities
that is often assumed. It is not that you must either be a nerd or a jock; you
can be both. It has never surprised me that the ancient Greeks combined a reverence
for the mind with a love of sports: both involve an appreciation of the beauties
of technique skilfully applied. And both place a high premium on getting it right
- exactly right.
None of this is to extol the supposed virtues of competitiveness in sports or
academia. I don't much care for competition myself. Academic life can be highly,
even disagreeably, competitive, rife with the "top of the class" mentality. I
find this limiting, as well as vaguely contemptible. To measure oneself merely
by how one stands in relation to others is to be constrained by the talents of
others, and it converts achievement into a game of rivalry. No doubt it would
be unrealistic to try to expunge this from intellectual pursuits, but I think
a focus on skill for its own sake - and not for what it can do to elevate you
above others - is an antidote. Winning a point at tennis with an ugly slashing
backhand that bounces off the net cord is unsatisfying; winning an argument in
philosophy by browbeating and superficiality is even worse. One has to learn to
appreciate a good point for its own sake. This is a matter of the aesthetics of
the activity in question.
A reviewer of The Making of a Philosopher remarked that philosophy has been, for
me, the love of my life and the bane of my existence. That is not too far off
the mark. I would say, in fact, that philosophy combines these two features inextricably;
indeed, it is lovely because it is baneful. Philosophy is difficult, taxing, and
infuriating - and these very characteristics are an essential part of its appeal.
It is because it is such a struggle that it can produce exultation. Philosophical
work is demanding, lonely, enervating and inhuman - but it is secretly sublime.
There is probably no time in my life when I am more certain of the meaningfulness
of my existence than when I am thinking about philosophy - and no time at which
I am more reminded of my own inadequacy.
McGinn is professor of philosophy at Rutgers University. His book "The Making
of a Philosopher" has just been published in paperback by Scribner.