The Making of a Philosopher: My Journey Through Twentieth-Century Philosophy

By Colin McGinn

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Part memoir, part study, The Making of a Philosopher is the self–portrait of a deeply intelligent mind as it develops over a life on both sides of the Atlantic.The Making of a Philosopher follows Colin McGinn from his early years in England reading Descartes and Anselm, to his years in the states, first in Los Angeles, then New York. McGinn presents a contemporary academic Part memoir, part study, The Making of a Philosopher is the self–portrait of a deeply intelligent mind as it develops

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Book details

Paperback, 256 pages
July 8th 2003 by Harper Perennial

(first published 2002)

Original Title
The Making of a Philosopher: My Journey Through Twentieth-Century Philosophy
0060957603 (ISBN13: 9780060957605)
Edition Language

Community Reviews


You know, any mate of Jonathan Miller’s is a mate of mine. And it is worse than that, the cover of this book has quotes with the highest praise from both Oliver Sacks and Stephen Pinker. This bastard knows people I can only dream of knowing. Worse, they are even prepared to say incredibly nice things about him. I’ve no idea if I should love him or hate him.

I couldn’t have come to a book with higher expectations. Miller interviews McGinn in his utterly masterful The Atheist Tapes and A Brief History of Disbelief. There are few people I would be prepared to prostrate myself before – but Miller is one of them. I mean, not only would this guy be one of my heroes just for his religious beliefs (or lack there of), but he directs plays of Shakespeare, operas, does documentaries on the human body, and was one of the original members of Beyond the Fringe - as someone once said, “once you’re finished with your life, do you mind if I have a go?”

And McGinn was one of the highlights of Miller’s Atheism documentaries. Their conversations were really remarkably interesting.

You know you are waiting for it – you want me to say this book is crap. Well, it sort of was, but not totally. I think it was a book that didn’t quite know what it wanted to be. I would have said it was a complete waste of publication if it wasn’t for the last 50 or so pages.

This is a book that is trying to be an autobiography and a kind of introduction to the problems that have fascinated a particular philosopher. Look, I’ve an undergraduate degree in Philosophy, so I’m going to find this sort of thing interesting, even if other people would find it as dull as dish water, but even I had troubles. There was a time when I thought I would quite like to become a philosopher – admittedly before I first read Plato’s Gorgias and began to question the entire philosophical project – despite this being the opposite of the message of the Plato’s dialogue. If only Plato had answered Callicles’s concerns as well as he had stated them…

I would have liked either more detail on McGinn’s life or more detail on his philosophy. The whole thing left me oddly unsatisfied. I think this is because I can say so little about either his life or his philosophy. I know, this doesn’t make much sense, but all the same, I came away really quite liking him as a person, but so be it.

You know, I can’t even tell you if McGinn is straight or gay. Now, what sort of autobiography leaves that an open question? A pretty hopeless one, I would have to say.

I was very nearly going to give up on this book, but towards the end there is a wonderful bit where he talks about his fight with Daniel Dennett (of Consciousness Explained fame) and I was totally fascinated. But he doesn’t explain enough of the philosophy to let me understand or for this whole part to be really as interesting as it ought to be. I know, I’m not begin clear, so let me explain.

McGinn claims in this book that he has had a very original insight into the nature of the mind / body problem and that that insight has upset a lot of philosophers. The mind / body problem comes from Descartes (remember at high school, you had to draw graphs on X and Y planes? Well they are called Cartesian planes and were named after my mate Descartes). Descartes is famous for saying – I think therefore I am. I don’t want to get too side-tracked, as I need to talk about Kant in a minute too, but saying this most famous of quotes also contains his major ‘contribution’ to Western Philosophy – the mind / body split. Descartes held that what is mind is not body and what is body is not mind. I think it is pretty close to Philosophy’s greatest mistake. Oh, if only there was space to explain and there could be an end to dualism…

Kant is the first modern philosopher (this is as close to a heresy as I’m capable of uttering as by saying this I have to ignore my dear, incomparable Hume) but Kant is a modern philosopher in a very odd sense – one who was trying to resurrect Aristotle (rather him than JC - although given Kant’s religious allegiances, perhaps both). Anyway, Kant was fascinated with one question in particular. Up until him philosophy was in a bit of a quandary – there were two sides, Empiricism (everything that comes into our minds is first in our senses) and Rationalism (oh, I don’t know, with our thoughts we make the world???) Anyway, Kant wanted to end this increasingly pointless split in philosophy. And he did so by asking if our brains were actually up to the task of understanding the world – thereby more or less creating dualism.

His greatest work is called, A Critique of Pure Reason – and it seeks to find out if the human brain is up to the task of understanding the world. His answer is that we simply can’t understand the world as it is in itself. This is referred to as the unknowability of the thing-in-itself. We understand the world as ‘humans’, but we can’t understand the world as it really, really is. This is seen by many people as Kant’s major contribution to Philosophy. It is the birth place of much of modern philosophy (I would be unkind enough to say that Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, the whole of Existentialism and even James, Dewey and the Instrumentalists can’t be understood at all without understanding Kant on this point. You know, that doesn’t leave a lot of modern philosophy. I’m trying to stress that this is a pretty important point).

I would go so far as to say that Hegel’s critique of this point missed the point of how important it would later be. Hegel thought he killed off 'the unknowability of the thing in itself' in his introduction to his Science of Logic – but that was not to be.

So, when McGinn says his greatest contribution to modern philosophy is that he questioned whether our brains are up to the task of ever understanding the world – well, you know, Kant had already ‘settled’ that question three hundred years ago.

I can only assume that I’ve not understood what McGinn is saying here. Look, I’m pretty thick – I know I come across as a pretty articulate kind of guy – but really, most of it is bluff. I know I really know nothing about these things and that it is easy to know infinitely more than I do – but it really annoys me when I’m trying to follow something and then someone claims something that is much more than I know they ought to.

This sounds like I disliked this book much more than I did. I actually really liked McGinn after reading this, I thought he was really a nice sort of person and I thought his interaction with Anthony Hopkins was inspired – but he has left me wanting more. I guess I’ll need to read one of his ‘real’ books now…


An interesting intellectual journey with Colin McGinn, as he recounts his love and pursuit of all things philosophical. I learned some of the fundamentals of modern philosophical thought along the way; and found out that Daniel C. Dennett and Colin McGinn differ greatly in their assessment of the conscious mind. McGinn believes that the secret behind how the mind and body work together will forever remain a mystery. Dennett believes in our ability to solve life’s great mysteries. The book is a quick read as it follows McGinn’s teaching career, and the various papers and books he wrote along the way.

Justine Jones

My commencement into the world of philosophy, came by way of a book my brother once gave to me, leftover from one of his college freshman courses. A book by the philosopher James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy.
Rachels was an American philosopher who specialized in ethics and animal rights and who’s arguments persuaded me, for a time at least, to even adopt vegetarianism for myself.
As I pondered the questions Rachels asked of his readers, I became alive, I believe, intellectually, for the first time. I was absolutely on fire with philosophy from that point on. And I’ve read innumerable books dedicated to the subject since then. But I will always remember and cherish Rachels book as one of the first, and certainly among the few, books that has made a lifelong impact.
I first became aware of Colin Mcginn, however, back around 2004 when he was featured on the BBC documentary series, The Atheism Tapes with Jonathan Miller. Actually that’s also how I have been introduced to a number of great thinkers, through one documentary series or another.
In The Making of a Philosopher, Mcginn touches upon some of the more major strands of what is, I have heard referred to, rather crudely, as, "analytical philosophy," be it language, the meaning of meaning, the mind, the body (where one starts and the other finishes), the Subject, the Object, Phenomena, the Thing-in-Itself, primary and secondary properties, mathematics and logic, ethical judgments, and all that senselessness. Which makes this is a good read for the non-specialist interested in why a philosopher might want to become a philosopher and spend their years pondering, why there is something rather than nothing.
As McGinn makes it clear up front, this autobiography focuses on his intellectual life rather than his personal life. And as someone who once considered a career in academic philosophy themselves, I found this book to offer a fascinating insider's perspective, even if it mainly represents the perspective of one man. McGinn also has an enviable ability to summarize and explain even the most obtuse of ideas, Saul Kripke and Donald Davidson's work certainly falls under that category, making the book fascinating as well as interesting.
But I did find Mcginn’s tone to be a little off-putting at times; the "isn't it amazing! and me just an ordinary sort of chap!" inflections, ad nauseam, strike the ear as a bit self-satisfied and pompous. But, you shouldn’t mistake my meaning here, as Wittgenstein himself said, language can be tricky, especially when it comes to matters of tone and idiom. I did very much enjoy McGinn's book. But, with that said, and as my own working class Grandmother might have said, he does come across as "a bit full of himself."
The only other problem I had with the book, and it’s one other reviewers have had as well, is Mcginn’s strict avoidance of any personal information. So much of our thinking is influenced by our emotional life and so I think more details about Mcginn’s personal life would have added a much needed and important dimension. But I respect his decision to devote the book exclusively to his evolution as a philosopher instead.
What I did find most striking about the book was Mcginn’s conclusion, fully discussed in some of his other books, that the human mind is not equipped to understand the fundamental issues of philosophy, such as the mind-body problem, the determinism-free will riddle and the nature of consciousness. As he puts it, “in my bones I felt that there was some deep-seated obstacle in our intellectual makeup that prevents us from discovering the missing clue…We are suffering from what I called “cognitive closure” with respect to the mind-body problem. Just as a dog cannot be expected to solve the problems about space and time and the speed of light that it took a brain like Einstein’s to solve, so maybe the human species cannot be expected to understand how the universe contains mind and matter in combination. Isn’t it really a preposterous overconfidence on our part to think that our species—so recent, so contingent, so limited in many ways—can nevertheless unlock every secret of the natural world?”
Essentially what Mcginn is saying, is that there are really two sorts of questions: problems and mysteries. Problems are those questions it is within our capacity to answer, whereas a mystery is a question that falls outside our cognitive space. The problem with McGinn’s theory, what’s been labeled mysterianism or new mysterianism, is that one can never know when it applies. “If there are things we are constitutionally incapable of understanding,” writes Daniel Dennett, “then where to draw the line will clearly be one of them, as this would seem to require our being able to stand on both sides of the problem. A paradox would be involved where we would know enough about the issue to say that we can never comprehend it.” Interestingly, however, the philosopher Thomas Nagel also reached a similar conclusion to Mcginn’s, in a 2012 book which stated that there is in fact something very obviously missing in our understanding of our own evolution.
The term “mysterianism” is also, actually, incredibly misleading: discussing inherent limits of the human mind is a legitimate and indeed much-needed concern and I think Mcginn, and others like him, add an important dimension to the emerging study of “ignorance” and pose serious question marks to the “Singularity” expectations, put forward by Kurzweil, of humanity constructing a super-intelligent AI.
Most philosophers today, however, can no longer genuinely tell us anything really meaningful about the world anymore. And even though philosophy may very well be, as Hegel once said, “utterly useless and fruitless.” It is for this very reason, the sublimest of all pursuits, the most deserving of our attention, and the most worthy of our zeal. A somewhat Coleridegy assertion to be sure, with a rivulet of deep meaning in a meadow of words. But, nevertheless, quit astute.

Caleb Liu

I raced through this fascinating introduction to philosophy, written in the form of an intellectual biography of sorts. McGinn has an enviable ability to summarise and explain even the most obtuse of ideas (and Saul Kripke and Donald Davidson's work certainly comes under that category) making it fascinating and interesting. I also loved the little anecdotes and bits of self reflection.


McGinn, a philosopher at Rutgers, explains what it's like to be a philosopher, and how one ends up becoming a philosopher instead of, say, an accountant. Along the way, we find out a thing or two about the philosophical enterprise itself.

The author is actually an Englishman who starts at Oxford. A dull teen from a working-class family, he holds out little academic promise. Then one day something seizes him – in the form of a question – and off he goes into the world of the mind. Before you know it, he has made it into Britain’s most prestigious philosophy department. The book is a biography of that journey.

McGinn pursues analytic philosophy, so he writes about subjects that a philosopher of the mind might want to investigate. Interestingly, we hear not just his description of topics like intentionality, sense and reference, and idealism versus realism; we find out what philosophers themselves are trying to do with these concepts right now. The author does an especially good job explaining Sartre’s fascinating philosophy of consciousness in a way ordinary readers can understand.

But with so many topics to cover, the discussion is often shallow. He mentions the “brains-in-a-vat” thought experiment, and he’s delighted by The Matrix. Hmmm. I was put out by it, the reason being that it sells audiences the impression that they’ve become party to a hugely significant and esoteric philosophical discovery.

So McGinn, while describing BIV for us, offers no resolution to it; it just hangs there. He handles too many of the questions he takes up the same way, outlining a controversy and then walking away from it. A general reader needs much more guidance than that on philosophy. For a book aimed at a general readership, this is a weakness.

Later on we learn about some of the current trends. One is philosophy’s interest in cognitive science, the point of view that treats the brain like a computer. I found this discussion lacking because it's too trendy. Why, for example, don’t we instead start thinking about computers along the lines of the way the brain works? That’s likely the new new thing anyhow.

And in ethics, McGinn wonders why philosophy has contributed so little to the actual moral development of the world, despite having the best thinking on the subject. My take on it? Like brains-in-a-vat, philosophers and the public see the same thing from a vastly different perspective.

It's this difference in perspective that philosophers, including McGinn, can't account for. After all, they're philosophers, not members of the public, and their perspective greatly constrains the ability to apply philosophy to real problems. McGinn is content to throw questions out there for the sake of the question, like many philosophers. As a result, he cannot actually apply, say, a principle of ethics to a real world situation.

Along with ethics, the author concludes with a discussion of metaphilosophy and aesthetics. This was a much more enjoyable part of the book. Did you know, for example, that most readers may have completely misconstrued the moral in Nabakov’s Lolita? What an idea – and now I seriously have to read the book!

This book is a resource for people looking for new authors and new lines of thought to pursue. At its best, The Making of a Philosopher is a tour guide into the subject that suggests a number of paths to pursue further, that points us toward other books. The book reads easily, and no great depth of previous training in philosophy is required to understand it. All in all, I liked it and recommend it to general readers of the subject.

Enrique Martinez

If you search the Wikipedia article about McGinn you will be greatly surprised. He harassed a woman, she was her student in Miami.

It’s inevitable to find signs of alert in the book (a fascination for Lolita, he never ever let us know in all the book that he is married, a Jennifer Aniston anecdote...) Is painfully similar to Heidegger nazism: when the philosophy stops and starts the monster? Or is all this philosophy a monstrous thing?

Only that this book is excellent, impossible not to recommend this reading as an introduction to analytical philosophy (a brief and delicious introduction).

So I think we need to start to separate the author and the book. If the cancel culture in the future decides to destroy the memory of this book, and condemn anyone who read it, we are losing a remarkable view of what was to be a philosopher in the twentieth century.

What we can do with the sexual harassment part? My opinion is that the crime requires an utterly philosophical discussion and the victim (and is highly probable that there are more victims) needs to be vindicated.

A philosopher that harassed a student: is he a fraud for that? How philosophy saw harassment ? Is it a mind problem? Is an evil person for doing that? What arouse the desire? I think are silly questions but is not easy to find a philosopher trying to explain that.


I read this book because I am taking a Moral Philosophy course this fall and I have never been exposed to much philosophy fist-hand before. It was really enjoyable (aside from personal tangents the author tended to go of on) because it is a personal story that offers a lot of insight into fundamental philosophical concepts. It follows one man's experiences through childhood to the present as he questions the world and eventually comes to learn that perhaps we may never know the answers to all of our questions--and maybe that's OK.


I really wanted to give this a 3.5. I found aspects of it dry, but when he really got talking about his philosophy and not his life, I found myself quite fascinated. I may venture to try one of his less memoir-y books.


this book is pretty damn mind-blowing...
a lot of these concepts i've encountered at one point or another, but for some reason meeting them at this point in my life is much more impacting...


This book aims to be an autobiography and an introduction to Philosophy.
However, the fundamental problem with the book is identified at the beginning where McGinn states that the autobiographical component will be limited to his professional career.

A life-story is one which interests readers largely because they want to feel a more intimate emotional connection to the writer and it makes the story more-real as a result. By focusing on his professional career we don't really get much, if any, sense of McGinn's emotional experiences and the texture of his life that makes him a person with whom we can identify and root for (which is a shame since he clearly has the makings of a 'poor boy done good' type life-story). After all, if the facts of his career were interesting enough (and, arguably, no one's life is that interesting) then he'd have been better off getting someone to merely author a Wikipedia page on him. So what we needed in this book is intentionally missing and represents an unfortunate misconception of what would make a good book.

Much of the Philosophy in the book is more technical and in what's termed the analytic tradition (as much as anything can be said to be so) and thus I find it confusing that this is the mode of introducing Philosophy in a book whose stated purpose is to bring Philosophy to people who know nothing about it; and at the end of the book he exhorts how he believes that Philosophy has become too, for want of a better term on my own part, rarefied. McGinn talks about some of these less rarefied areas- e.g. applying Philosophy to literary texts- but strangely does not do so in the very book that is all about himself. Instead he slavishly follows the very conception of Philosophy which he thinks, by and large, isn't going to come to conclusions about many topics.

This book should have been a lot more personal: he should have let his personal life and internal experiences take centre stage (that's what the folks pay their money for anyway); his career experiences were, in my opinion, in fact also too toned down: the politics was described mostly indirectly and it would have been useful if this was a blow-the-top off the kettle expose of what really goes on in academia because that is really what you want to know if you plan to study Philosophy as a profession.

On a related note, I get the feeling that Oliver Sacks may have licensed out his name to be used with the Sacksian equivalent of a post-modern essay generator program, design to deliver at the push of an arbitrary button a book-cover quote:

"Brilliantly written, devastatingly honest, often very funny, and tells a personal story as fascinating as the philosophical one"

Here I really can't find a relation between that quote and the actual book, even if I were to concede the first two points.

Skimming some reviews before deciding to read this book I noted a few comments about name-dropping and score-settling. Yes, there is a lot of name-dropping, which probably relates to the insecurity which fuelled his original worshipping of Oxford. On the other hand, if you'd met people who were considered famous (even if only in a specialist field) you'd talk about it too.
You could potentially see some other comments as score-settling but I think that's unfair; if he did experience unpleasant things at the hands of people then it's just a reflection of the experiences he had and the system he's been exposed to. Not to mention that not including them would arguably be cowardly since we are talking about things that directly impacted his career and experience therein.

This review might seem a little harsh but I think that the book is fundamentally misconceived. I think that's a mistake in-itself, of course, but it's also a real shame because McGinn comes across in some ways as a real outsider to Philosophy coming from a working-class family from the north of England, having interests in playing computer games and drumming etc, his meta-philosophical views about the limits and purpose of Philosophy; which are all things that many people could connect with on an emotional and experiential level as well as providing a potentially unique perspective on Philosophy and other topics.

This book in its ideal form would have been entitled:

'The Making of the Philosopher: Colin McGinn'