It is probably the most negative book review ever written. Or if there is a worse one, do let me know. "This book runs the full gamut from the mediocre to the ludicrous to the merely bad," begins Colin McGinn's review of On Consciousness by Ted Honderich. "It is painful to read, poorly thought out, and uninformed. It is also radically inconsistent."
The ending isn't much better: "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)."...
Don't you regret writing the review that way, I ask McGinn? "I know Ted and know I don't think much of him as a philosopher. But if you ask did that affect the way I wrote the review, absolutely not. If you allow personal hostilities to distort what you write, you're going to get caught out.
"It would have been different if it had been a junior person. I wouldn't do it to a junior. But Ted deserved it. It had to be done."
Honderich replies: "For McGinn to say that is for him to be a philosopher on the moon. Nobody on Earth believes that his review is not motivated by animus. To suggest the tone wasn't dictated by any history of hostility between us is crazy."
Intellectually, they hold very different views on one of the hottest, and most intractable of philosophical problems, consciousness. Honderich calls himself a radical externalist on consciousness, meaning, he writes in his book, that "my perceptual consciousness now consists in the existence of a world".
McGinn thinks Honderich's brand of radical externalism is bogus. "Ted's saying that one's perceptual content just is that thing, a table for example. But if you close your eyes, does the table stop existing? On Ted's account it seems to, which is just wild."
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) whereby some philosophical problems, consciousness among them, are insoluble. In this, he claims other leading thinkers - Noam Chomsky and Thomas Nagel among them - are new mysterians, too. Chomsky, for instance, maintains that just as a mouse will never be able to speak like a human (because of its biology), so certain problems may be beyond human understanding.
Honderich heaps derision on this new mysterian position, describing it as a "form of intellectual wimpishness". "And in any case, how dare McGinn rubbish my position. Twelve leading philosophers contributed to a book about my theory [in a special issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies last August] and not one of them was as abusive as he was."
Honderich believes there is more than intellectual difference behind his and McGinn's row. "At UCL we had a jokey locker-room relationship," recalls Honderich. "But then I made a misstep. 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. That was possibly the start of our frostiness." Forget, perhaps, abstruse philosophical disputes in understanding the men's mutual bile. Rather, cherchez la femme...