I happened upon Kerry McKenzie’s review of my book Basic Structures of Reality recently and was struck anew by her final paragraph: “For me, then, the one pertinent question this work raises is why all of this went unrecognized [the badness of the book]: this book, after all, issues not from one of the many spurious publishing houses currently trolling graduate students, but Oxford University Press—a press whose stated aim is to ‘publish works that further Oxford University’s objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education’. So why did they publish this? I can hazard no other explanation than that Colin McGinn is a ‘big name’, and if that is sufficient for getting work this farcical in print with OUP then shame on our field as a whole. As such, McGinn’s foray into philosophy of physics may in the end provoke a worthwhile discussion, if sadly one focused on concerns rather different from those he himself had in mind.”
This is an extraordinary passage if you think about it. McKenzie is implying that OUP, one of the foremost university presses in the world, published a book by someone that was clearly “farcical” simply because he is a “big name”. What exactly is she thinking? Is it that the editors there simply accepted the book without any expert review because of the “bigness” of my name? Surely she cannot mean that; and I can assure her that it is not true. Does she then believe that referees were consulted but that they recommended the book for publication despite knowing it was “farcical”? Or was it that they were so incompetent that they couldn’t see how terrible the book was? So they are either corrupt or incompetent. In fact, of course, they were experts in the field, and also anonymous. It is obviously inconceivable to McKenzie that they were neither corrupt nor incompetent but that they saw merits in the book that she cannot see. The fact that a prestigious press published the book after appropriate expert review is inconsistent with her highly negative assessment, so she makes reckless allegations against the integrity of the editors and referees. Did she not wonder whether perhaps she was missing something?
In addition, other reviewers, such as Stephen Leeds, had nothing like her negative reaction (which is not to say they were full of unmitigated praise): does McKenzie believe that they too are either corrupt or incompetent? Does she believe that the publication of my book by any press, and any favorable reaction to any part of it by anyone, should be reasons for shame (her word)? That does appear to be her stated position.
I wonder too what she thinks of the rest of my work: is it all this “farcical” or was this book an aberration? It seems unlikely that she could think all my work is as bad as she finds this book (I may be wrong), but then isn’t it a bit strange that an author with my experience and reputation should produce a book so woefully bad? Why that book and not others? Again, shouldn’t this reflection make her wonder whether she is giving the book a fair review? Evidently not.
But what is truly breathtaking is her self-confidence in condemning OUP and its referees for knowingly publishing a book this “farcical” just because the author is a “big name” (she should know that OUP has rejected other books of mine, so it can hardly be that they just automatically accept whatever twaddle I write). In fact, the referees made a number of suggestions for improvements that I followed (none of them anything like McKenzie’s criticisms). Does she really believe I could send OUP any old piece of junk and they would publish it knowing full well that it was junk? To me her accusations against OUP and its referees verge on the slanderous. They are certainly very poorly judged.
 I am quoting here from McKenzie’s website because I don’t have access to Mind, but my recollection is that this paragraph survived intact in the final published version.
It survived. Mind, Vol. 122 . 487 . July 2013, p. 816.
Come to think of it our astute reviewer has understated her case. Surely it is inconceivable that anyone who could write the “farcical” embarrassment that is Basic Structures could have written any other good books: how could the very same author be that uneven in the quality of his performances? If you are a charlatan in one book aren’t you bound to be a charlatan in all? But then the publishers of all this author’s other books and anyone who had a kind word to say about him must be total frauds too. They must all have been corrupted by his “big name”. So now I see it: there has been a vast 40 year conspiracy to evaluate my work positively when it has been “cringeworthy” and “farcical”. Shame on the entire field!
That is certainly remarkably ugly and vile. Not worth arguing with, of course. I just trashed it so as not to give that malevolent individual any free publicity.
This is very much not my area; but it seems to me that many of the negative reviews ignored the philosophical points raised in the book. Instead, the reviewers concentrated almost entirely on what they alleged to be technical mistakes about physics.Even if these critical points were correct, a matter I am in no position to judge, the philosophical arguments seemed to survive intact.
I completely agree. But bear in mind that only this one reviewer (that I know of) harped on those alleged technical mistakes about physics. The philosophical points are quite independent of these technical issues (which were vetted by experts in the area). In fact, I was repeating well known points about the nature of our knowledge of the physical world (Poincare, Eddington, Russell, et al).
It would be a pity if the performance of our reviewer were to put off philosophers in general from getting into philosophy of physics. Physics and philosophy are quite close, but philosophy of physics tends to be too technical for the average well-intentioned and curious philosopher. There should be room for philosophical reflection on physics that avoids technicality and which might be useful in other areas, such as philosophy of mind. It shouldn’t be restricted to specialists. Harping on about supposed technical “errors” without considering the broader picture might well put some philosophers off getting involved.
I’m thinking of such questions as whether there is a well-defined notion of “the physical”, the reducibility of all science to physics, the nature of laws of nature, the relationship between mathematics and physical reality, the knowability of physical reality, questions of meaning and verifiability, philosophical assumptions made by physicists, functionalism in psychology and physics, and so on. None of these questions requires knowledge of the technical aspects of current physical theories–and they are precisely the kind of questions I explored in my book.
Doesn’t Mind bear any responsibility in this affair? A tiny bit?
I generally think editors should not interfere with reviewers, but there can be hard cases.
A journal always has editorial limits: there are thoughts that cannot be articulated in its pages, or words which are regarded as too contextually inappropriate to publish. The McKenzie review might have been aborted at any number of stages in the process for failing to meet house standards of technical accuracy, literary style, maturity of argumentation and apparent fairness of attitude, breadth and subtlety of overall cultural reference and so on. What in showbiz are called production values. The final decision, to be sure, necessarily being influenced by complicated and fraught personal relationships.
Ms McKenzie’s review, we must assume, was given a home because enough of the right people felt sufficient warmth toward it to help pull the basket in over the doorstep. And support for it did quickly appear online. Wayne Myrvold alerted Brigand Lighter and then popped up in a blog along with David Wallace and others in a demonstration of naked Kerryolatry. There was almost a Beavis and Butthead quality to the celebration. But nothing about it seemed accidental.
I knew nothing of any of that but there did seem something calculated about it, and it was far too personalized. But I am reluctant to criticize a young philosopher just starting out too severely; and there is nothing wrong with very negative reviews, though they should not be undertaken without careful reflection and a scrupulous regard for fairness.
Another curiosity of this review is that it avoids mention even of the existence of a substantial part of the book, namely Principia Metaphysica, which is mainly about the nature of laws, as well as objects, events, causality, etc. There is no discussion of physics in this section at all, so nothing in it could be vitiated by supposed “errors”concerning that science. It is pure a priori metaphysics. Why not mention this or even attempt to evaluate it philosophically? Could it be that it couldn’t be brought under the critical umbrella favored by our reviewer? What is one to say about this curious omission?
In large part, from what I’ve gathered, they (the science-philosophers) resent what they take to be your assumption that no one cares about the questions you find important as demonstrated by the fact that those questions don’t get mentioned in text books — and which additionally suggests you think of science-doers as specifically obtuse, philistine, materialistic. Believe me, as a progressive-minded citizen, you wouldn’t want to see ambitious hard-working kids with near-full-time jobs, many of them from immigrant or poor white families, who are taking highly technical college courses in electronics, physics, chemistry so they can maybe drag their asses up the socioeconomic ladder be made to feel they owe it to themselves to plumb phenomenal essences. Which doesn’t mean they never wonder. My answer back in the day to “what *is* electricity?” was that it’s a form of energy whose interaction with the environment you can sometimes see but that fundamental energy itself is invisible. Why doesn’t that wisdom find its way into the texts? Maybe because it’s so pathetically self-evident seen on paper or on a screen.
That is very odd: physicists in textbooks don’t need to worry about these epistemological and metaphysical questions. I am simply repeating what others (Russell, Eddington, et al) have said about the limits of physical knowledge. There is no need to go into philosophy of math in math texts either. So it’s all about what they think I think? Bizarre.
In case it should need saying, I think the current philosophers of physics (Albert, Loewer, Maudlin, et al) are brilliant and philosophically sophisticated people. Let me add that I am reading Marcus Du Satoy’s “What We Cannot Know” and think it contains some of the clearest exposition of physics that I have come across and an admirable exploration of the limits of scientific knowledge.
Re: Principia Metaphysica. Principium 15, arguably the most fundamental, has been fairly recently discussed, if briefly and obliquely, by you and Ken Levy. There are non-Humean approaches as well.
In point of fact, as Allen Orr would tell you, vast swathes of modern biology are of necessity described without reference to causality, instead limned in terms of statistical kinematics … energy distributions and least resistance. Hamiltonian, not Newtonian mechanics. McKenzie simply has to know that and may have lacked space to note that you didn’t mention it.
She doesn’t note even that I have this section of the book.