Making of a Philosopher: My Journey Through Twentieth-Century Philosophy

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 Part memoir, part study, The Making of a Philosopher is the self–portrait of a deeply intelligent mind as it develops over a life on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Making of a Philosopher follows Colin McGinn from his early years in England reading Descartes and Anselm, to his years in the states, first in Los Angeles, then New York. McGinn presents a contemporary academic take on the great philosophical figures of the twentieth century, including Bertrand Russell, ...

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 Part memoir, part study, The Making of a Philosopher is the self–portrait of a deeply intelligent mind as it develops over a life on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Making of a Philosopher follows Colin McGinn from his early years in England reading Descartes and Anselm, to his years in the states, first in Los Angeles, then New York. McGinn presents a contemporary academic take on the great philosophical figures of the twentieth century, including Bertrand Russell, Jean–Paul Sartre, and Noam Chomsky, alongside stories of the teachers who informed his ideas and often became friends and mentors, especially the colorful A.J. Ayer at Oxford.

McGinn's prose is always elegant and probing; students of contemporary philosophy and the general reader alike will absorb every page.

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Editorial Reviews

Stephen Pinker
“McGinn is an ingenious philosopher who thinks like a laser and writes like a dream”
Oliver Sacks
"If Wittgenstein had written an autobiography it might have resembled this...brilliantly written, devastatingly honest, often very funny"
— Oliver Sacks
“If Wittgenstein had written an autobiography it might have resembled this...brilliantly written, devastatingly honest, often very funny”
Publishers Weekly
"I had gone from underachieving jock-mod to pocket-sized intellectual in less than a year, and philosophy had to take a lot of the blame," writes Rutgers University philosophy professor Colin McGinn (The Mysterious Flame) in The Making of a Philosopher: My Journey Through Twentieth-Century Philosophy. Hoping to explain contemporary analytical philosophy without having his book "remind the reader of school," McGinn, renowned for his work on consciousness, gives a personal account of his encounters with philosophy, including his discovery of Descartes as a teenager in Blackpool, the revelation of reading Chomsky as a psychology undergraduate and his preoccupation with Wittgenstein while teaching at UCLA. He also discusses the work of mentors and colleagues like Jerry Fodor and Thomas Nagel. (Apr.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
After pondering on a proper genre in which to explain philosophy in an accessible and engaging way, McGinn (philosophy, Rutgers U.) decided on autobiography. He makes a point of situation philosophy in its personal context emphasizing the people, places, and times involved; and describes the struggle inherent in living a life of philosophy. He does not include an index or bibliography. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Kirkus Reviews
Playful memoir offering an amusing view of academic philosophy's day-to-day tussle, as well as a clear introduction to the author's thought. By his own description, McGinn (Philosophy/Rutgers) is short, in his 50s, likes to surf kayak, and is thought to look like Anthony Hopkins. This sort of self-revelation is usually anathema in the abstract realm of philosophy, but McGinn provides ample doses of it, side by side with introductory treatments of his own ideas and those of philosophers who have shaped his thinking, from St. Anselm and Descartes to Bertrand Russell, Saul Kripke, and Donald Davidson. The stated, largely fulfilled purpose of this intellectual autobiography is "to explain philosophy in an accessible, engaging way" by situating it "in its personal context." The grandson of coalminers, McGinn grew up in working-class England, interested chiefly in rock drumming until a "switch" turned on in his teens and his attention shifted to philosophy. Believing he could never make a living at it, he majored in psychology in college, but found his way back to philosophy in graduate studies at Oxford. As a philosopher, McGinn is best known for his "mysterian" view that we lack the cognitive equipment to solve the mind-body problem; as a public intellectual, he's familiar from appearances on television and essays in the New York Review of Books. His memoir omits love and sex, but almost everything else is up for grabs, including his one-time obsession with Ms. Pacman, his friendships (with, for example, Oliver Sacks), his frequent fallings-out (with such worthies as Daniel Dennett and Oxford University), his taste in clothes (Levi's), and a great story about Jennifer Aniston. While notplumbing all the intricacies of the ideas he cites, McGinn succeeds in elucidating their basic outlines and in showing winningly what it's like to be a philosopher "from the inside."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060957605
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 7/8/2003
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: First Perennial Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 982,625
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.57 (d)

Meet the Author

Colin McGinn was educated at Oxford University. The author of sixteen previous books, including The Making of a Philosopher, he has written for the London Review of Books, The New Republic, the New York Times Book Review, and other publications. He has taught philosophy at University College of London, Oxford, and Rutgers University, and is a distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of Miami.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

First Stirrings

I was born in 1950, five years after the end of World War II, in West Hartlepool, county Durham, a small mining town in the northeast of England. The hospital in which I was born was a converted workhouse, or homeless shelter as it would be known today. My mother was twenty years old, my father twenty-six, and I was their first child. Both my grandfathers -- whose names were both Joseph, like my father's -- were coal miners, as were all of my uncles except one, who was a carpenter and bricklayer. Life expectancy among miners was low, and both my grandfathers died young from work-related diseases. Everyone in my family was short and wiry. My paternal grandfather was known in the mine as "Joe the Agitator" because of his activities in fighting for improved working conditions; he eventually became secretary of the local miners' union, and read Karl Marx and Rudyard Kipling in his spare time. He was a kindly, clipped man, not much given to conversation, devoted to his Woodbine smokes. I never remember a time when my tiny, shrill-voiced, constantly cussing grandmother had any teeth; she chewed meat with her gums. She said "thee" and "thou" (pronounced thoo) as part of ordinary speech, as in "thee knaas Jack Ridley" (meaning "you know Jack Ridley"). Of a blunt knife she would say "I could ride bare-arsed to London on this" and give out a throaty, high-pitched cackle. I have no recollection of my maternal grandfather, though his widow is still miraculously alive at ninety. My father left school at fourteen and went "down the pit," his first job being to pickstones out of the coal as it was shunted by on a massive belt contraption. But he quickly escaped this form of premature burial by going to night school and learning the building trade. He was sufficiently proficient at this to become general manager of a small building company while still in his twenties, and he made his career as manager of various branches of the building department of the co-op in different parts of England. He retired early and now has a second career as a painter, mainly of scenes from the mining towns in which he grew up. Some of his work is in the historical record of the art gallery that serves the area his paintings record. Both my brothers, Keith and Martin, are artists too, though I was never very strong in that department.

I have no recollection of my first three years in the northeast, and when I was three we moved to Gillingham, Kent, in the southeast of England. What a difference three hundred miles makes. Kent is known as the "garden of England," while county Durham was a place of enormous smoking slag heaps, cramped terraced streets, and chilly outside toilets. In Gillingham I enjoyed the woods and the fields, taking a special interest in wildlife -- particularly lizards and butterflies -- and grew to be the tallest McGinn on record (I am five feet six inches tall), -- until my giant of a younger brother took over at a remarkable five feet nine. At age eleven I took the infamous Eleven Plus, a scholastic test to determine what type of school you would go to for the rest of your school years, and did not perform well enough to go to a grammar school. I was therefore sent to the local technical school, where I was expected to learn the skills necessary to become a tradesman or technician. However, after only eight years in Gillingham we moved again, this time to Blackpool in the northwest, and after a series of mishaps I was sent to the local secondary modern school -- one step down from the technical school in the south.

Blackpool is a rough, tough, garish seaside town, windy and wet, frequented mainly by working-class people taking cheap trips. Its streets are lined with pubs, fish-and-chip shops, and amusement arcades. Cultural it is not. And yet there abided an odd sense of privilege in the locals, even a kind of snobbery, since people did actually choose to pay good money to visit the place. The main activities of young men in the town were drinking and fighting, and trying to take clumsy advantage of visiting girls under the piers. The school I attended was loutish and philistine, mainly an exercise in crowd control, though frequently hilarious (the tubby headmistress was actually named Miss Bloomer -- "Keks" to the boys, local dialect for "knickers"). On one occasion the PE teacher caned an entire year of boys -- some ninety behinds -- because someone had thrown potato crisps over the locker-room wall at the swimming pool and no one would reveal the identity of the culprit. I was caned three times in all, the other two times for no particular reason either (and it really stings too). It was not a school from the experience of which you were expected to amount to anything; most of the boys I knew there were in low-level jobs by the age of sixteen. Still, I always did pretty well in mathematics and English (but boy, was I bad at geography). I made a point of getting my homework over with as quickly as possible and spent most of my time on sports, playing drums in a rock band, and perfecting my pinball skills.

I did, however, perform well enough in my O-levels, taken at age sixteen, to be transferred to the local grammar school to study for my A-levels. Here I was spectacularly outshone by my classmates, who struck me as virtual geniuses, comparatively speaking. Some of these boys actually read books for pleasure! I was a big reader of children's books when I was young, especially the Dr. Doolittle stories, but since adolescence I had read almost nothing, just the odd horror story or piece of science fiction. Reading had lost its magic...

The Making of a Philosopher. Copyright © by Colin McGinn. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix
Chapter 1 First Stirrings 1
Chapter 2 From Psychology to Philosophy 27
Chapter 3 Logic and Language 57
Chapter 4 Mind and Reality 89
Chapter 5 Belief, Desire, and Wittgenstein 123
Chapter 6 Consciousness and Cognition 157
Chapter 7 Metaphilosophy and Fiction 187
Chapter 8 Evil, Beauty, and Logic 215
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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 25, 2003

    Philosophy student

    A very nice read; refreshing for a philosophy student. Moves right along and is over before you know it. It is an autobiography, however, it was still funny how he mentioned most, if not all, of his books. Almost like he wanted you to go out and buy them. But hey, if they are as good as this one, I wouldn't mind.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 23, 2003

    Candid and thought provoking sketch

    I recently finished this delightfully self-centered autobiographical introduction to philosophy. I recommend it to anyone, particularly the impatient novice. It was a quick 240 page read and a fast moving presentation. Serious philosophy students are not likely to find anything new here, save the occasional insight into personalities and politics of the academic world of philosophy. Professor McGinn is unapologetic about digressions into pop philosophy, character assessments and other topics if personal interest. (It is, afterall, an autobiography.) I enjoyed the rather confrontational style he uses. It is challenging, but not off-putting.

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