Bitten by the Bug

By Gottlieb, Anthony | The Spectator, March 15, 2003 | Go to article overview

Bitten by the Bug


Gottlieb, Anthony, The Spectator


Bitten by the bug Anthony Gottlieb

THE MAKING OF A PHILOSOPHER: MY JOURNEY THROUGH TWENTIETH-CENTURY PHILOSOPHY by Colin McGinn John Murray, L25, pp. 496 ISBN 0719559391

Time has not dealt kindly with the disputations of mediaeval philosophy. Except for in theology and a few far-flung outposts of logic. it is almost unheard of for today's thinkers to cite Abelard, Scotus or Ockham as they do Descartes, Kant or Nietzsche. But autobiographies are another matter. Abelard's History of My Misfortunes, written in the 12th century, is one of the most enjoyable and informative self-portraits by a philosopher until Bertrand Russell's Autobiography came along. And not just because of Heloise.

To say that Colin McGinn's The Making of a Philosopher is the story of a latter-day Abelard, with Oxford exchanged for Abelard's Paris, no trouble with girls, no castration, and Professor McGinn ending up in Manhattan rather than a monastery, would perhaps sound a little perverse. Yet some parallels are worth pursuing. Abelard went from humble beginnings to Paris, where above all in those days the art of dialectics was most flourishing', but fell out with his teachers because he challenged them in debate, and - in his own estimation won. To his colleagues he was `all the more insufferable because of my youth and the brief duration of my studies'. He never lost his intellectual aggressiveness or independence, and these early troubles rankled throughout his life. McGinn, the first in his family to go to university, studied psychology in Manchester, then made it onto Oxford's B. Phil postgraduate course, where most other students had already done three years of philosophy. He excelled, but made enemies, and repeatedly returns in this book to the slights he feels he suffered in parochial Oxford.

Abelard was not only passionate about philosophy, but sexually invigorated by his own logical prowess. One may suspect the same of Russell and of A. J. Ayer, but they did not say. McGinn restricts himself largely to intellectual autobiography, with few confessions (aside from a cured near-- addiction to videogames), so this intriguing syndrome may have been confined to Abelard. But McGinn's delight and infatuation with his subject are palpable. The all-- consuming nature of his early fascination with metaphysical conundrums will be familiar to many who have been bitten by the philosophy bug. …

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