Colin McGinn is a philosopher whose books include Consciousness and Its Objects and The Meaning of Disgust. His Philosophy of Language: The Classics Explained has just been published.
 (April 2015)

Jonathan Miller and the Kinds of Genius

Jonathan Miller, London, 1967
The usual cliché “polymath” does not do justice to the peculiar case history that is the life of Jonathan Miller. In his own telling, he begins as an unremarkable schoolboy at a semimystical progressive school dedicated to something called “leading-out,” where wet paper was insisted upon in art class. “It …

Storm Over the Brain

A model showing the functioning of human brain cells, Washington, D.C.
Patricia Churchland’s Touching a Nerve belongs to the same genre as a book by Jean-Pierre Changeux that I recently reviewed in these pages1: neuroscience cheerleading, to put it crudely. Churchland is avowedly a big fan of the brain—she loves the brain (as she never tires of reminding us). And …

What Can Your Neurons Tell You?

Eric Edelman: The Main Idea, 2010
The mind being an elusive thing, people are apt to be captivated by borrowed models of what it is and how it works. At one time the mind was likened to a theater, later to a hydraulic system (Freud), then to a collection of behavioral reflexes, more recently to a …

Homunculism

Eric Edelman: Inspiration of a Dreamer, 2013
Ray Kurzweil’s new book promises to tell us, in no uncertain terms, “how to create a mind”: that is to say, he has a grand theory of the human mind, in which its secrets will be finally revealed. These are strong claims indeed, and one looks forward eagerly to learning what this new theory will look like. But the hype of the title explodes very early and with a feeble fizzle.

Can Anything Emerge from Nothing?

René Antoine Houasse: Birth of Minerva, Fully Armed, from the Head of Jupiter; late seventeenth century
Incomplete Nature is about an important and difficult subject: how life and mind evolved from a world of inanimate matter. It is also about what are the right concepts to use in understanding the nature and workings of life and mind. We need to be able to conceive them in …

Can the Brain Explain Your Mind?

Dancing stone nymph, Uttar Pradesh, India, early twelfth century. In The Tell-Tale Brain V.S. Ramachandran asks about this sculpture, ‘Does it stimulate mirror neurons?’
Is studying the brain a good way to understand the mind? Does psychology stand to brain anatomy as physiology stands to body anatomy? In the case of the body, physiological functions—walking, breathing, digesting, reproducing, and so on—are closely mapped onto discrete bodily organs, and it would be misguided to study such functions independently of the bodily anatomy that implements them. If you want to understand what walking is, you should take a look at the legs, since walking is what legs do. Is it likewise true that if you want to understand thinking you should look at the parts of the brain responsible for thinking?

Is Just Thinking Enough?

Children of Jesus, Bugbrooke, England, 1973; photographs by Chris Steele-Perkins from his book England, My England, published last year by Northumbria Press
Philosophers interest themselves in ontological questions—questions about what kind of being something has. What kind of being do mental states have? Are they material or immaterial? What kind of being do numbers have? Are they objective abstract entities or ideas in the mind or marks on paper? What kind of …

The Musical Mystery

Music is so ubiquitous and ancient in the human species—so integral to our nature—that we must be born to respond to it: there must be a music instinct. Just as we naturally take to language, as a matter of our innate endowment, so must music have a specific genetic basis, …

How You Think

The Stuff of Thought is Steven Pinker’s fifth popular book in thirteen years, and by now we know what to expect. It is long, packed with information, clear, witty, attractively written, and generally persuasive. The topic, as earlier, is language and the mind—specifically, how language reflects human psychological nature. What …

Isn’t It the Truth?

Bernard Williams has been a distinctive presence on the intellectual scene for more than three decades. He might be described as an analytical philosopher with the soul of a general humanist. Notably sharp-minded and dialectically skilled, he is also impressively learned in history, classical scholarship, literature, politics, and music. He …

Looking for a Black Swan

Karl Popper, who died in 1994, was one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century—as much outside the profession of philosophy as within it (Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, Sir Peter Medawar, and Sir Ernst Gombrich were ardent Popperians). An emigrant from Vienna in 1937, who had fled the Nazis, …

An Ardent Fallibilist

The following review was written before news of Robert Nozick’s death in January. He was Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Philosophy at Harvard, and was named a University Professor there in 1998, Harvard’s most distinguished professorial position. Anarchy, State, and Utopia, published in 1974, when Nozick was only thirty-five, was …

Sign Language

It is perhaps fitting that a book that frets about the limits and possibilities of interpretation should be hard to pin down. The title itself is a riddle crying out to be deciphered. Eco anticipates this on page one: What has Kant got to do with the platypus? Nothing. As …

Freud Under Analysis

Two recent Freud-inspired exhibitions in New York, Freud: Conflict and Culture, sponsored by the Library of Congress, at the Jewish Museum, and Surrealism: Two Private Eyes, The Nesuhi Ertegun and Daniel Filipacchi Collections,[^1] at the Guggenheim Museum, suggest that Freud still commands considerable interest and esteem. Both exhibitions sought to …

Can We Ever Understand Consciousness?

Consciousness is hard to miss but easy to avoid, theoretically speaking. Nothing could be more present to you than your current state of consciousness—all those vivid sensations, pressing thoughts, indomitable urges. But it has proved only too easy for theorists of mind to turn a blind eye to what gives …