Honderich vs McGinn II

Judging from the discussion on Leiter Reports the merits of McGinn’s review is sub judice. To be fair, there is a great deal of pap out there not all coming to the attention of first order minds like McGinn. In a footnote to the review, McGinn writes:

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.

As I see it the issue divides up into two groups:

Group A:

1. Ignoring a poor book is the best fate to befall it;

2. A review acts as a public service: reader be forewarned!

Group B:

1. Bland undiscriminating reviews are just space fillers; 

2. Surely much of the blame for a poor book must be laid at the publisher’s doorstep: just because one has a “name” does not ensure quality.

I haven’t read Honderich’s book: in any event this wouldn’t be the first turkey he has produced. His The Real Meaning of Conservatism, taking a swipe at Roger Scruton’s influential though itself middling The Meaning of Conservatism, was dreadful. I’m inclined to A1: I do not review books that are, at best unengaging or, at worst, just downright wrong (and I don’t mean to suggest that I don’t appreciate well-argued views that run contrary to my own – indeed, that’s where the value lies). Reviewing poor books is too much like hard work.

For those who haven’t actually read the review, here are some choice extracts, occasionally reminding me of that master of the put-down, A.E. Housman.

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 structure of the book consists of a series of previously published papers, somewhat modified, with short introductory sections, going back to 1981.

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.

After a banal and pointless chapter on seeing and sense-data (even the author refers to it as “this faltering paper” [123]), we finally reach the crux and, presumably, the excuse for the book.

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).

Philosophical Review, Vol. 116, No. 3, 2007