The worst book review ever written

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.”

Thus begins the story in today’s Guardian about the controversy that has erupted around McGinn’s review of Honderich’s book. The two protagonists have issued charge and counter-charge, both personal and professional, and the philosophical blogosphere has weighed in with opinions ranging from “unprofessional” to “right on the money” (not forgetting “great fun to read”).
It so happens that I have a small contribution to make on this subject. Back in the spring of 2005 I was attending Dan Dennett’s Philosophy of Mind course at Tufts, and inevitably I had to write a term paper. ((This was the first academic course I’d taken since the mid-70s, and my paper-writing skills were not merely rusty but positively fossilized!)) We were free to use any (relevant!) book or article as the starting-point for the paper, and after considering Hornsby’s “Simple Mindedness” and Noë’s “Is the Visual World a Grand Illusion?”, I decided to work with Honderich’s “On Consciousness”. I’d picked it up at the Harvard Coop some months before, for reasons that are now entirely forgotten.
Within a couple of days I knew that I was in trouble. The more I read and re-read the book, the more it seemed to be no more than a sustained argument from personal incredulity. Honderich repeatedly declared that certain propositions were “unswallowable”, as if this constituted a knock-down argument. I checked in with Dan and told him that instead of identifying, expounding, and critiquing Honderich’s thesis, I would only be able to address the fatal weaknesses in one of his core motivations. And so I did. (PDF here.) It wasn’t a great paper, but I felt that it was a reasonable effort given my unfortunate choice of material. As I wrote:

Beyond his unshakeable belief that functionalism is unbelievable, Honderich offers no argument. Indeed he acknowledges that “it is not easy to construct an argument against strict functionalism”, and that is is perhaps impossible to find a premise more secure than his inescapable conviction. In a note, he acknowledges that his objection can be said to beg the question. Nevertheless he argues that this “shows that there is a role in inquiry for something other than arguments.”

Something other than arguments? Not, apparently, if you want to be taken seriously in Philosophical Review.

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