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A lovely little thinker but a bugger when he's pissed
December 27, 2007 9:46 AM   Subscribe

"This book runs the full gamut from the mediocre to the ludicrous to the merely bad." So begins philosopher Colin McGinn's review of Ted Honderich's On Consciousness. "It is a pity that his own efforts here are so shoddy, inept, and disastrous." The harsh words are the latest conflict between the radical externalist and new mysterian views on consciousness, but Honderich traces the disagreement to a conversation the two men had 25 years ago: "I suggested to him that his new girlfriend was not as plain as the old one, and I could see the blood drain out of his face." The feud is discussed at the philosophy blog Leiter Reports.

(I don't actually know a thing about philosophy but I do so love a good academic pissing match. Apologies if I have misused any of the terms.)
posted by LarryC (50 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
The review has reignited a feud between the two philosophers that shows how bitter, unforgiving and (to outsiders) unwittingly hilarious academic disputes can be. It certainly makes the bear pit that is journalism seem like sunshine and lollipops by comparison.

It's just the annual replay of an old saw: why are academic disputes so bitter? Because there is so little at stake.
posted by three blind mice at 9:54 AM on December 27, 2007 [2 favorites]


Finally, a philosophical debate with testable claims: Let's see some pictures of these girlfriends.
posted by DU at 9:59 AM on December 27, 2007 [7 favorites]


But philosophers, on occasion, are not very philosophical. Ludwig Wittgenstein allegedly threatened his fellow Viennese Karl Popper with a poker during an argument about the existence or otherwise of moral rules at the moral sciences club at Cambridge.

Now there's a guy who takes his field seriously.

Thanks for posting this, LarryC.
posted by jason's_planet at 10:12 AM on December 27, 2007


I love academic disputes with years of history. The well written destruction of someone's work is so intriguing when you can sense the personal feud therein.

I wish there was a blog that chronicled nothing but academic disputes like this. Kind of a blow-by-blow academic fight blog.

Sometimes the professors themselves are even buddies outside of the interactions within the field, but bitter rivals inside it, with a kind of shared mutually-assured-destruction of a respect, that lingers on throughout the years and is entertainingly shear at many points.
posted by cashman at 10:19 AM on December 27, 2007 [2 favorites]


McGinn, by contrast, is the world's leading proponent of the so-called new mysterian position (named after the rock band Quark and the Mysterians)

mmm, name of the band was Question Mark and the Mysterians. Wouldn't want a factual issue to stand in the way of a good philosophical row, however.
posted by cogneuro at 10:40 AM on December 27, 2007


Nerd War
posted by poppo at 10:43 AM on December 27, 2007 [2 favorites]


correction, technically it was ? and the Mysterians.
posted by cogneuro at 10:49 AM on December 27, 2007


three blind mice: "It's just the annual replay of an old saw: why are academic disputes so bitter? Because there is so little at stake."

Never heard that before but it really explains a lot about the internet.
posted by Opposite George at 11:04 AM on December 27, 2007


From Ted Honderich:

But nor were actions to be taken as compounds or mixtures made up of movements and of mental facts before them, perhaps intentions or volitions, as Colin McGinn and predecessors had supposed. Maybe he'd got the idea in an afternoon of practising his rock-band drums next door to my eyrie, but he should have had second thoughts afterwards.

Bwa ha ha.
posted by jokeefe at 11:27 AM on December 27, 2007


Ripped from the pages of Pale Fire.
posted by chinston at 12:47 PM on December 27, 2007


I don't understand why people get so worked up about public feuds between celebrities, but not intellectuals.

But nor were actions to be taken as compounds or mixtures made up of movements and of mental facts before them, perhaps intentions or volitions, as Colin McGinn and predecessors had supposed. Maybe he'd got the idea in an afternoon of practising his rock-band drums next door to my eyrie, but he should have had second thoughts afterwards.

Oh, wait, yes I do.
posted by davejay at 12:48 PM on December 27, 2007


I'm not familiar with this term "Mysterian"... does it actually have meaning substantially different than "mystic" or is someone trying to avoid association with the occult and esoteric religion?
posted by XMLicious at 1:26 PM on December 27, 2007


XMLicious: some Mysterians.
posted by synaesthetichaze at 1:38 PM on December 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


Mysterian means a belief in the intractibility of certain philosophical problems; mysterians believe that it is impossible to formulate a complete, consistent and correct theory of consciousness, for example.
posted by klangklangston at 1:55 PM on December 27, 2007


But seriously, a mysterian is someone who believes certain things are unknowable, or indescribable. It's a fucking stupid name.

On preview, klang already supplemented my unhelpful, jerky response.
posted by synaesthetichaze at 2:11 PM on December 27, 2007


Heh. I got my philosophy degree from University College, London. I don't recall much about Honderich's love life but McGinn's was common knowledge among the student body as it frequently involved student bodies. I also seem to recall he was photographed for the New York Times magazine a few years ago doing shirtless gymnastics on his desk at Rutgers. Unfortunately I can't find the image online as I'm sure it could clarify some of the finer philosophical nuances in the disagreement.
posted by liam at 2:30 PM on December 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


Mysterian means a belief in the intractibility of certain philosophical problems;

Yeah, that's what I mean. It sounds exactly like
(n) mystic, someone who believes in the existence of realities beyond human comprehension
or
(adj) mystic, having an import not apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence; beyond ordinary understanding
conveying both "I'm totally smarter than you!" and "Do not look behind the curtain!" at the same time.
posted by XMLicious at 2:35 PM on December 27, 2007


(And of course it has exactly the same etymological root, mystery)
posted by XMLicious at 2:36 PM on December 27, 2007


Mystic implies, as noted in your definition, "realities" beyond human comprehension. Mysterian means that certain problems can't be solved. You could argue that this would mean mysterians believe THIS reality beyond human comprehension, but there's a fairly significant semantic difference.

You wouldn't call someone who believes it impossible to know what happened prior to the Big Bang or where the first wheel was created a mystic; you might call them a mysterian.
posted by klangklangston at 2:40 PM on December 27, 2007


I still think it's splitting hairs to say that a real problem beyond human comprehension and a reality beyond human comprehension are significantly different things. If someone said we don't have any way of knowing where the first wheel was created I wouldn't call them a mystic, but if they said that the answer to that question is a special kind of knowledge that is simply beyond rational thought I would call them a mystic.
posted by XMLicious at 3:20 PM on December 27, 2007


it's splitting hairs

yes. welcome to philosophy. here is your tiny, tiny little knife.
posted by blacklite at 4:02 PM on December 27, 2007 [6 favorites]


"I still think it's splitting hairs to say that a real problem beyond human comprehension and a reality beyond human comprehension are significantly different things. If someone said we don't have any way of knowing where the first wheel was created I wouldn't call them a mystic, but if they said that the answer to that question is a special kind of knowledge that is simply beyond rational thought I would call them a mystic."

As for splitting hairs, I don't believe you understand what you're talking about—if you can't see that there may be biological limits to human conceptualization, and that this is different from asserting a separate reality, I don't know what to tell you. The first posits one reality which we may never comprehend fully, the other posits competing multiple realities. That's not splitting hairs any more than hard agnosticism is splitting hairs with theism. There are fundamentally different assumptions and conclusions at play.

There's no claim of a special kind of knowledge, just a recognition that our ability to come up with testable theories on some issues is fundamentally limited by the constraints of our bodies and our universe.

To claim that humans are fundamentally unlimited in what they know is both unsupportable and stupid, and the "New Mysterians" simply take that position doctrinally when confronted with some philosophical problems, usually involving subjectivity.
posted by klangklangston at 4:07 PM on December 27, 2007


Ripped from the pages of Pale Fire.

Hell, yeah, with a little Pnin for good measure.
posted by Kinbote at 5:29 PM on December 27, 2007


I'm not saying anything about these New Mysterians in particular, like I said I've never heard of them before. Nor am I saying that human knowledge is unlimited. I'm just saying that asserting the existence of unponderable things fits perfectly well with the term "mystic" and it's entirely reasonable to think they might have neologised "mysterian" for PR reasons. Mysticism, to my knowledge, doesn't have anything to do with multiple realities, it's used to describe truth that is not accessible in normal ways.
posted by XMLicious at 5:45 PM on December 27, 2007


Wouldn't you have to be kind of a dick already to tell a "friend" that his new girlfriend is "not quite as plain" as his last one?
posted by clevershark at 6:02 PM on December 27, 2007


They neologized Mysterian as a riff on ? and the. And the mysterian position is that we can't know the truth about certain things due to limits in humanity's ability to conceptualize, not that there's a truth that's not accessible. We can't know whether something is or is not the truth, which is opposed to saying that there is a truth that we can't access through normal means. That posits the existence of a truth.

So, in short, go read at least a couple of brief wikipedia links so that you can stop being both confused and wrong, since you're not going to bother to listen to what I'm saying.
posted by klangklangston at 6:04 PM on December 27, 2007


The biggest irony in this, from my perspective, is that any philosophical position on consciousness that doesn't proceed from neurology and physics is essentially mysticism.
posted by lodurr at 6:14 PM on December 27, 2007 [3 favorites]


Because I usually find you to be informed and reasonable klang, I went and did the wikipedia et cetera tour, and I'm not seeing anything. If it's just the cultural reference synaesthetichaze was pointing out, that's all you've got to say, but "mysticism" fits just fine whether the thing preventing us from comprehending truth is biology or lack of a divine nature.
posted by XMLicious at 6:28 PM on December 27, 2007


Proceed from physics and neurology? We simply do not know enough about physics and neurology to proceed from them. Neurology and physics are a necessary part of our understanding of consciousness, but saying that arguments must proceed from them is to adopt a hard materialism position that's currently seriously contended, and according to the Mysterians, ultimately unknowable.

And to lump in all theories of the mind, such as phenomenology, with mysticism, is stupid.
posted by klangklangston at 6:28 PM on December 27, 2007


XML— Did you start here?
posted by klangklangston at 6:29 PM on December 27, 2007


Yeah, that's where I started. If you've got any recommended reading I'm up for it because it's interesting stuff. I certainly like Chomsky on other topics, if he's considered to be a New Mysterian.
posted by XMLicious at 6:33 PM on December 27, 2007


Like, to mention phenomenology again, Husserl would be opposed to mysticism, because he believed that consciousness was understandable empirically, and opposed to Mysterianism, because he believed that consciousness was ultimately understandable. But he did not proceed from neurology or physics (really, he proceeded from geometry more than anything), so lodurr would toss him in as a mystic.

Or another example—Plato was a mystic, in that he believed there was an inherent truth that was unknowable through empirical means. But he was not a Mysterian, in that he believed the truth was knowable.
posted by klangklangston at 6:35 PM on December 27, 2007


Colin McGuinn's blog is decent. He's the most notable proponent of Mysterianism, and the one I read in my philosophy classes. His Problems In Consciousness was what the prof pulled from. But it can also be seen as drawing from folks like Kant (where he discusses the limits of pure reason) and Hume.

At its heart, it's a very post-modern philosophical argument, and tends to tie in well with other post-modernists like Baudrillard. I had a classmate who wrote a paper and gave a presentation on Mysterianism as it applied to democracy, but I'm not sure I have his email anymore (if I can find it, I'll ask him for more in-depth references).
posted by klangklangston at 6:45 PM on December 27, 2007


And to lump in all theories of the mind, such as phenomenology, with mysticism, is stupid.

Well, since you clearly place a lot of importance on that kind of mind game, I would expect you to believe that.
posted by lodurr at 6:56 PM on December 27, 2007


Wouldn't you have to be kind of a dick already to tell a "friend" that his new girlfriend is "not quite as plain" as his last one?

You'd also have to be kind of a dick to take this as a personal offense, I think. I figure there's lots of dicks to go around in this little dust-up.
posted by jokeefe at 7:28 PM on December 27, 2007


I like how the thread here has degenerated into a few little sub-threads of petty wrangling. It's the academic dispute writ tiny and less interesting.
posted by sonic meat machine at 10:08 PM on December 27, 2007


These "New Mysterians" aren't as cool as the old Mysterians.
posted by Snyder at 11:02 PM on December 27, 2007


I still think it's splitting hairs to say that a real problem beyond human comprehension and a reality beyond human comprehension are significantly different things.

yeah. well. and also having the two words "reptiles" and "mammals" is another example of silly people insisting on a proliferation of hair-splitting terms. obviously both are just animals. sheesh. I'm not rolling my eyes, which is actually physically impossible. I'm just sort of rotating them through a shallow cone that is fairly close to the maximally unshallow cone in which I am capable of rolling them. At you.
posted by lastobelus at 11:53 PM on December 27, 2007


XMLicious,

As strident as klang's tone is, he's correct. "Mystic" refers to a belief in esoteric knowledge, mostly about a posited spirit world. In this usage, "Mysterian" seems to refer to a limit to scientific understanding, which as klang points out, does not imply a different realm of understanding (like mystic does). In the former case there is knowledge, but only the select get to access it; in the latter, there is a limit to what we will ever be able to say about a given subject (in this case consciousness).

It's like the difference between asserting that there is a Narnia to which you, XMLicious, do not have access (although you could, if you got right with God), and saying that although there is no magical world beyond this wardrobe right here, the limits of quantum theory mean that we will never be able to completely describe the position of every element it contains. One is a hypothesis contrary to science, one is a hypothesis of science. They are fundamentally different assertions, and not at all semantic differences.
posted by OmieWise at 8:56 AM on December 28, 2007


A Sufi or Christian mystic or a supernaturalist mystic would consider their field of thought to be equivalent to scientific inquiry too. It's because of pejorative use of the word by detractors of Sufism, etc., that it would evoke any sense of the meaning "quackery", which I think may be what you guys are reacting to.

I think that if I had used a Sanskrit word from Buddhism that meant "mystic" everyone would arch their eyebrows and nod sagely in agreement.

Look - do the New Mysterians propose that the nature of consciousness is a mystery? If so, the word "mystic" fits just fine. If not why the heck did they choose the word "Mysterian", even if it's from the name of a band? Why didn't they call themselves the New Monkees?

I'm not saying I'm absolutely unequivocally right, it's just a guess. But you guys are acting as if it's a wild, outta-left-field conjecture that could never hold water in a million years, that I'm making some completely apples and oranges comparison, when it's the same damn word! It's like my uppity aunt objecting that grandma's urn can be called a vase (pronounced väz) but calling it a vase (vās) is ludicrous and inappropriate.
posted by XMLicious at 9:28 AM on December 28, 2007


No it's not, it's like claiming that "hear" and "here" mean the same thing just because they sound the same. ;)

If you want to understand the difference, and perhaps you don't, you're going to have to let go of your focus on the similarities between the two words. What's important for the purposes of this discussion is that there are two different concepts being described. I understand that the concepts appear superficially similar (in this case they both refer to things generally unknown), but that doesn't mean that they're the same. Ironically, I think it's that you're ignoring the religious connotations of the word mystic that you claim that the mysterian label is somehow simply semantic.

I'm not, by the way, making an argument about the rightness of either word or what it describes, but they clearly seem to be describing different things and fundamentally different stances toward knowledge, even if both stances have some relationship to something that is unknown.
posted by OmieWise at 9:55 AM on December 28, 2007


like Liam I got my degree from UCL philosophy dept. where Ted H. is the reigning supremo.
He's an interesting guy - his contribution to the world of philosophy aside. I always enjoyed his crushed velvet 3 pice suits
I recall he once told Elvis to Fuck Off for some reason.
posted by fingerbang at 10:28 AM on December 28, 2007


OmieWise : No it's not, it's like claiming that "hear" and "here" mean the same thing just because they sound the same. ;)

Or that "homonym" and "homophone" are the same word.

Mystic refers to metaphysics, not specifically religion. As klang pointed out Plato would be considered a mystic. To quote klang he believed in inherent truth that was unknowable through empirical means. To me that's pretty similar to the "a complete theory of mind can't be arrived at from materialism alone" that I'm reading all over the internets about the New Mysterians.

I'm going to keep reading about them. Maybe I'll change my mind, I'll let you know. (Or probably not, I realize you don't really care.) But with assertions like "mysticism only deals with multiple realities" and "mysticism only deals with religion" I think that you guys are the ones who aren't so firm on your definition of mysticism.
posted by XMLicious at 10:40 AM on December 28, 2007


As much as reducing every thing to physics should be the ultimate goal of all true thinkers, other sciences like biology and chemistry weren't developed that way. Of course all of these sciences were developed to predict & describe observable phenomenon. I doubt physics, quantum physics will have as much luck with subjective by definition concepts.
posted by Wood at 10:53 AM on December 28, 2007


"To me that's pretty similar to the "a complete theory of mind can't be arrived at from materialism alone" that I'm reading all over the internets about the New Mysterians."

That's because a complete theory of mind can't be described as a truth by Mysterians, whereas a mystic would describe their theory of mind as a truth.

Another analogy, Schroedinger's Cat: A mysterian says that the cat's state as live or dead is unknowable. A mystic says that you can know it, just not by rational means (a psychic knows the cat is dead). It's a huge epistemological difference, not just a semantic one.
posted by klangklangston at 12:21 PM on December 28, 2007


The Schroedinger's Cat analogy is perfect. I don't think it could be made any clearer.
posted by synaesthetichaze at 12:43 PM on December 28, 2007


I always enjoyed his crushed velvet 3 pice suits.

Perhaps this debate over consciousness is best understood as a problem of fashion consciousness. Honderich's crushed velvet purple suits and sandals with socks denote that we must attempt a style, no matter how quixotic. McGinn goes shirtless because it is fundamentally impossible to find a good outfit.
posted by liam at 1:18 PM on December 28, 2007 [2 favorites]


So they're saying something like "you can't know it because it's not information"? Are they really proposing that consciousness exists but it's something that not even omniscience could comprehend? (Were omniscience to exist, of course.)

Because if it's something only humans can't understand it's in the same court as "Thine mine cannot compass this, mortal."

If that's really what they're proposing I'll concede it's different than mysticism. Otherwise I reserve judgment.
posted by XMLicious at 1:38 PM on December 28, 2007


Hmm, I also got my degree from the UCL philosophy department but I don't remember either of these two. Maybe that is why I got a 2:2...
posted by ninebelow at 1:40 PM on December 28, 2007


woo! I'm in the UCL club too! (96-99). McGinn was long gone by then. Hondreich left around the same time as I finished (to go to oxford).
posted by leibniz at 11:46 AM on December 29, 2007


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