Disgust Again

I thought this was a good and useful review (from Metapsychology 2012).

The Meaning of Disgust
by Colin McGinn
Oxford University Press, 2011
Review by Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D.,
Mar 6th 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 10)

Colin McGinn’s recent new book, The Meaning of Disgust, sports a tempting enough title to lure the curious reader to join in its painstakingly detailed study of an affect, which has received comparatively little serious attention throughout the history of philosophy, despite the fact that disgust has obvious implications for ethics and politics, as well as for other philosophical fields. Thus the reader may well dive into this book with an enthusiasm that seems to gainsay the repugnance of its subject. Nonetheless, after but a brief ramble into the work, the paradox clearly dawns in the reader’s awareness: the study of disgust is disgusting!

McGinn must therefore be heartily congratulated, not merely for his authorial skills, which endow The Meaning of Disgust with the usual sound qualities of any fine book–it is well written, well organized, clearly and rigorously argued, and thorough and comprehensive in its detail–but for maintaining the internal fortitude to abide so long among the loathsome subjects of his study that he is able to produce from his gruesome ruminations a well-crafted book. Since the reader (at least at first) can barely choke down a chapter or two without seriously considering turning back from her journey, McGinn promptly appears as a knight of great courage, for fencing with things so disagreeable and staying his difficult mission.

McGinn first draws out a detailed analysis of the class of things that people tend to find repulsive, in an effort to get at their “essence and significance.” Here we meet up with rotting corpses, human and animal, in various stages of putrefaction, and the variegated changes in texture, color and smell that comprise the gruesome transformations of the rotting flesh. We discover that the usual fearsome culprit is not solely at issue here; it is not the fact of death, plain and simple, reminding us of our own immortality, that most noticeably gives rise to disgust, but what appalls us most is the intrinsic perceptual condition of the rotting flesh or gangrenous limb, even when no threat of death is imminent. Indeed, this insight clarifies why people are so fascinated by zombies, lepers and vampires; the rotting but still-living corpse that moves about and thus might come into direct perceptual contact with us–might touch us!–is one of the most repulsive objects of disgust. Other categories of objects that elicit the disturbing affect are bodily excretions and bodily wounds, such as lesions and lacerations.

Dear reader, are you feeling it yet? The opening catalogue of disgusting things that supply the study-and-gag matter of the book drags on and on in gruesome detail until it arrives at a startling conclusion: disgustingness is not, McGinn determines, a matter of individual taste, not a merely subjective quality projected onto undesirable things, modifiable by knowledge or belief or erasable by will power. Disgustingness is not a “secondary quality, defined dispositionally” (p. 61). Rather, McGinn argues, disgustingness is an objective property that inheres in the thing’s phenomenal quality and that reflects a general human attitude toward the biological world. “Things are therefore not disgusting simply in virtue of the fact that people take them to be, with possibility of equally correct but different modes of taking” (p. 62). Things are disgusting because we are self-aware beings who recognize ourselves as rot-worthy, decay-destined, smelly, fleshy bodies.

Having arrived at the apex of all this disgusting study, McGinn draws a parallel between disgustingness and funniness: a joke is not funny because people laugh at it; they laugh at it because it is inherently funny. McGinn’s “hermeneutic psychology” of disgust thus lands the reader in a rather funny place, after all its repugnant effects. He shows us that the discomfort we feel around disgusting things emanates from the disgust that we feel toward ourselves as organic biological beings, who for all our lofty ideas and intellectual pretensions, are just animals, after all, and subject to death and decay. Disgustingness is the very stuff of which we are made, but this is what we most frantically try to keep hidden. This is the reason that disgust often gives rise to comedy; laughter declares and releases our embarrassment around the knowledge that we most deeply, biologically, are–beings that are inherently disgusting.

Having surveyed the great variety of objects that provoke disgust and analyzed them in their revolting essence, McGinn proceeds to determine the most viable “theory of disgust” that keeps faith with his working hypothesis regarding the essence and nature of the disgusting. Mapping the terrain of disgust theories, from Taste-Toxicity Theory (Charles Darwin) to Foul Odor Theory (Aurel Kolnai) through the Life Process Theory (William Ian Miller) and the Death Theory (Ernest Becker), McGinn settles on the Death-in-Life Theory, an amendment to the simple death theory which confirms his earlier hypothesis–that death presented in the form of living, moving tissue most essentially captures what we mean by disgustingness, because it describes the dreadful transition, the ambiguous territory between life and death.

McGinn then, quite brilliantly, proceeds toward the book’s conclusion, illuminating the connection between the fact of our general disgust for our vulnerable, lowly, organic bodies, caught in the human condition that ultimately gives us up to putrefaction and death, and the whole range of practices, ideas, and traditions associated with cultural life. Clothes, technologies, societal prohibitions and proprieties, seduction and courtship rituals, love, humor, swearing, art and (of course) religion represent some of the plethora of cultural forms that have arisen as we human beings struggle to cope with our disgustingness and “bracket” it long enough to permit a limited easiness around, and a forgetting of, our fragile organic nature. Disgust, it turns out, “plays a vital role in many cultural formations, powering and shaping them” (p. 225).

So buck up, hardy reader. Pull on your Wellies and wade right in. This book, which at first will revolt and repel you, is well worth the early nausea. It launches a look into the world of human affect not for the faint of heart, but critical to understanding ourselves and the development of our cultural mores. Moreover, it offers a logical opening into further compelling studies, including disgust’s implications for ethics and politics.

© 2012 Wendy C. Hamblet


2 replies
  1. Ken
    Ken says:

    Congrats! Seems much fairer than that other review (i.e., hit piece), which completely missed the book’s point.

    Btw, you should add Metapsychology to the citation at the top; it was accidentally left out.


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