Thursday, May 24, 2012

A stinging review by McGinn

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 [not anymore; see the update below] -- 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 [not anymore; see 2nd update below]).

Update (May 26): Via Brian Leiter's site, I've learned that McGinn's review is freely available now (no pay-wall) and that this controversy has been simmering for several months.You can see what looks like an accusation of plagiarism against Deacon or (at least) failure to acknowledge priority in this comment from last February on a blog post at Dead Voles. Deacon responds in this comment on the same post. Alicia Juarrero (via her colleague, Michael Lissack) replied to Deacon, outlining the alleged similarities in more detail. If you follow the comments that appear after that last link, you learn that Juarrero and Deacon were keynote speakers at the same conference in 2007, that Deacon attended Juarrero's talk there, and that Lissack had discussed Juarrero's views with Deacon as far back as 2003. The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article on the controversy on May 17. Lissack posted several comments there under the moniker 'Munibond', stressing that he has not used 'the "p" word.' Lissack seems to say that some of the key ideas in Deacon's book closely resemble work by other authors besides Juarrero (who herself comments just after that last link).

Update 2 (May 26): Professor Bernard Kobes has directed my attention to the fact that Fodor's review of Deacon's book is now freely available on-line.

Update 3 (May 26): I find Lissack's comments to be perfectly reasonable. If the works in question are as similar as is claimed by Deacon's critics, then -- even if Deacon was not much influenced by others in formulating the main ideas in his new book -- he still should have cited those other people's work once it was brought to his attention that others had written along similar lines. He ought to have acknowledged their work and explained how his own views, while resembling these other theories in some respects, differed from them, too. To draw on a famous historical case, even though Wallace didn't give Darwin any new ideas about natural selection, Darwin did acknowledge Wallace's work (at public presentations and in print).

Update 4 (May 27): Professor Deacon has posted a comment on another blog about this controversy. It appears pretty far done in the comments thread at the previous link, but Munibond has re-posted Deacon's comment at the Chronicle. Deacon says that he has a forthcoming article devoted to examining 'some of the similarities and differences between our [his and Juarrero's] theories as well as discussing how both approaches compare with a few others whose work was not discussed in my book (e.g. Thompson).' He also notes that the literature on the topics about which he wrote is vast (which is true) and that it would not be feasible to hold off on publication until one had studied all of that literature (which is also true). He says that since the publication of his book, he has discovered similarities -- and differences -- between the main ideas in his book and those that have appeared in other people's publications. It's certainly plausible that one can develop some conceptions in a publication (even quite specific ideas) and then discover that someone else had already made similar points in earlier publications. I've had a couple of 'Eureka!' moments when I thought I'd hit upon a brilliant new idea, only to discover that it had already been elaborated in a recent publication. (Such discoveries are a bit strange and give one the sense that in a developed literature at certain junctures, there are only relatively few ways of going forward, few tracks along which that literature may develop.) I haven't read Deacon's work or Juarrero's, so I'm in no position to comment on the degree of similarity between their publications.

Update 5 (May 27): Michael Lissack has put up a site in which he details the evidence for his allegation of 'intentional misappropriation' of someone else's work.

Update 6 (Sept. 30): There's an exchange between Deacon and McGinn in the NY Review of Books (the Oct. 11, 2012 issue).


L. A. Paul said...

For an example of the sort of book review you can't recall, see the recent review by David Albert "On the Origin of Everything" of Lawrence Krauss's book in the NYT.

Anonymous said...

Actually, Deacon cites and discusses plenty of philosophers and their work in his book. I think McGinn primarily dislikes the suggestion that the mystery of consciousness COULD be solved, since his own stance is that this is impossible.

Philipp Schwind said...

Another example is the controversy about Hauser's Moral Minds. He allegedly plagiarized his main ideas from Mikhail:

praymont said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
praymont said...

Thanks for the Krauss and Hauser examples, although AFAIK the Hauser case didn't involve a book review -- Gilbert Harman's note was initially intended to be private. Also, Hauser is alleged to have known all too well the recent work of a philosopher without properly acknowledging it.

I've recalled two other cases where a philosopher has effectively said (in a book review) that so-and-so wouldn't have made these mistakes if s/he'd taken more seriously the recent philosophical literature on the topic. One is Jerry Fodor's review of E. O. Wilson's Consilience. This review -- one of my all-time favourites -- appeared in the London Review of Books in 1998 (v. 20, n. 21, [29 October]). The other is McGinn's review of V. S. Ramachandran's book, The Tell-Tale Brain, in the New York Review of Books issue of March 24, 2011, available at

That last review has none of the poison that you find in some of these other reviews. McGinn makes clear that he holds Ramachandran in very high regard, and in his reply to the review Ramachandran calls it 'excellent'. Still, McGinn says (in his reply to R's reply) that 'Ramachandran’s reply confirms my impression that he combines scientific expertise with philosophical naiveté.' The letters are posted at

Anonymous said...

For purposes of cross-blog fertilization, a review of McGinn's review over at DeadVoles: