Reply to Michael Huemer

Reply to Michael Huemer


I had hoped to send this reply to Huemer by email but the department website apparently blocks email sent to faculty (I have no idea why). So with some reluctance I am posting it here in the hope that it comes to his attention.


Dear Professor Huemer,


I have read your comments in the interview about a seminar you attended with me many years ago at Rutgers (probably in the early 1990s). I wish to point out to you that your statements are quite untrue. First, my recollection is that the topic was the mind-body problem not the free will problem, but I may be wrong about this and it is immaterial. On the substance of the issue I was then and still am a compatibilist, so I don’t know what I could have been objecting to in your describing me as a compatibilist: that would be perfectly true and not at all stupid. You then suggest that I was reluctant to  engage in philosophical argument, which would be deplorable. Nothing could be further from the truth, as my entire teaching history (and publishing history) amply confirms. You are quite correct in your quotation of my words to you—I did indeed say that your comment at the time was stupid (I don’t recall now what it was). Why did I do that? Because I thought it was stupid and just one instance of a train of stupid comments you had made. The question then is whether it was indeed stupid. Why did I think it appropriate to say it to you? Because you had proven yourself completely oblivious to earlier hints that you were not making helpful comments, and it seemed to me that you needed to hear some stern words if you were to be prevented from continuing in this way. I have never before or since felt the need to speak so harshly to a student and certainly weighed my words carefully on that occasion. Wouldn’t it be odd if my alleged tendency to refuse to engage in argument had led to a single instance of calling a student stupid (or rather their words) if that were the reason for my comment? Surely you yourself have taught classes in which some young guy (it’s always a guy) lowers the tone by repeatedly making stupid comments and you are faced with the question of what to do about it. Is it inconceivable to you that you might at one time have been that guy? Is that the true explanation or is it that I call anyone stupid who raises a reasonable objection to me in a class or elsewhere (where would that get me)? I think you should after all these years have thought a bit harder about your version of events, even going so far as to make your grievances public, thus compelling me to reply.        


Best wishes,

Colin McGinn

10 replies
  1. Free Logic
    Free Logic says:

    I read that interview. Huemer is so full of himself that he literally can’t imagine he could had deserved what you said to him in that class. Here are two characteristic Q&As:

    – Still feel smart when you got to Berkeley?
    Yes. People had told me that when I got to Berkeley, things would be very different from high school, because suddenly, everyone around me would be smart. Then school would be hard, and I’d have to finally work hard. Nope, false. It was still easy. I was still at about the top of every class. I could still get A’s without doing most of the readings.

    – You seem fairly self-confident. Any nagging doubts, philosophically?
    No. I’m sure some of the stuff I’ve written is false (since that has been true of every other philosopher ever). But this doesn’t really nag at me. I have trouble relating to people who have constant intellectual self-doubt, and I don’t know what to tell them, since I don’t even know what they’re experiencing.

  2. Random Teacher
    Random Teacher says:

    I have never read an interview that caused the subject to seem so unappealing. Even the story about how he asked out his eventual wife, which he trots out as somehow charming, reeks of childish solipsism. Yeesh.

  3. GJ
    GJ says:

    I stopped reading Huemer’s blog because of his nauseating habit of remarking on how smart he is in virtually all of his posts. When I read this I thought, “Oh, he was soooo that guy.”

  4. Timothy Cushing
    Timothy Cushing says:

    This rebuttable reminds me of the legendary book review/responses to Ray Kurzweil’s “How to Create a Mind”. Lesson: scientists/engineers don’t even know the questions to ask, let alone the answers. Famous Quote: “ wings indeed enable a bird to fly, but it is false and confused to say that wings fly—birds do. Neurons enable people to think and read and process information, but they don’t themselves do any of these things.”
    Back on topic: if he was so smart, why didn’t he get into Stanford?

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      The point I would make is that there are a lot of smart people in the world, but being smart will only take you so far. The extra ingredient is that elusive thing called judgment.


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