So many people have been calling my attention to Colin McGinn's review of Ted Honderich's On Consciousness (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004) from Philosophical Review, vol. 116, no. 3 (2007), that I thought I should comment on it. Here is how the review opens:
This book runs the full gamut from the mediocre to the ludicrous to the merely bad. It is painful to read, poorly thought out, and uninformed. It is also radically inconsistent....The second half [of the book] tries to develop a new theory of consciousness, according to which the positive theses of the first half of the book are all wrong (not that this was signposted while the first half was assertively in progress) and the fact is only slyly acknowledged toward the end of the discussion--hence the radical inconsistency I mentioned. Throughout, the book is woefully uninformed about the work of others and at best amateurish. Honderich's understanding of positions he criticizes is often weak to nonexistent, though not lacking in chutzpah. And the view he ends up defending is preposterous in the extreme and easily refuted.
That's just from the first paragraph. The review makes good (i.e., offers prima facia plausible evidence) on most of these charges. It concludes:
Is there anything of merit in On Consciousness? Honderich does occasionally show glimmers of understanding that the problem of consciousness is difficult and that most of our ideas about it fall short of the mark. His instincts, at least, are not always wrong. It is a pity that his own efforts here are so shoddy, inept, and disastrous (to use a term he is fond of applying to the views of others).
Perhaps most remarkable of all, the review begins with a footnote that says: "The review that appears here is not as I originally wrote it. The editors asked me to 'soften the tone' of the original; I have done so, though against my better judgment." What did the original review look like, one wonders?
Disputes about "tone" almost always mask, of course, disputes about "substance," which is probably why McGinn was disinclined to "soften the tone" since he presumably thought it properly matched to the substance. Assuming the substance of the criticisms are sound, what do readers think about the "tone" of the review? Are the two separable? It seems to me that there are too few honest book reviews out there, and too many puff pieces. But even if one agrees with me about that one might still think McGinn's approach to this is wrong. I find McGinn's approach refreshing, but I wonder what others think? As usual, non-anonymous postings are far more likely to appear (and they will have to be signed if you plan on criticizing McGinn or Honderich). Post only once! Comments may take awhile to appear.