The Making of a Philosopher
Slate, October 2013
Edited by Andy Ross
Colin McGinn, 63, has lost his job, his reputation, his income, and his
ordered life. He had worked his way to Oxford, won prestigious awards,
written acclaimed books, inspired a group of philosophers called the new
mysterians, and taken plum academic appointments. His last was at the
University of Miami, where he lost everything over a woman aged 26.
Colin, who was 61 and married, sent emails to a graduate student, Nicole
(sic). In one he wrote that he "had a hand job imagining you giving me a
hand job" and in another he floated a proposal to have sex three times. A
few months later, the New York Times reported that "after allegations of
sexual harassment" Colin had resigned. An avalanche of articles followed on
the problem of sexual harassment in philosophy.
Nicole was a
first-year graduate student who took a fall 2011 seminar with Colin on
philosophical explorations of the hand. In early 2012, they ate together and
talked about philosophy. They played tennis and water sports. Over the
summer he hired her as a researcher and she went home. In September she
reported him at the university for sexual harassment. The university
formally charged him in a letter. In January 2013, he resigned from his
Ben was Nicole's boyfriend. He is a philosophy
graduate student, and he tells a story of sexual harassment. In his account,
Nicole began working with a famous philosopher in the fall. After some time,
she was made increasingly uncomfortable by his sexual innuendoes and
flirtations. She tried to ignore them but then she rejected them and told
him she wanted a professional relationship. The professor wrote her
The emails and texts between Colin and Nicole do
not support Ben's account. A picture emerges of a strange but avid and
affectionate rapport between them. Until June, there appeared to be a
reciprocal warmth. The two developed a playful private language based on
their work about the hand. Her tone in the emails and texts over the winter
and spring was often enthusiastic and effusive. She reassured him when he
pulled back or expressed pessimism.
Sexual harassment is about words.
As someone who teaches at New York University, I wholly sympathize with the
general impulse to protect a student's privacy, but the only way to
understand Colin's communications is to read them in context, and imagine
what they would have meant at the time to the people involved.
university chose not to pursue charges of sexual harassment. From their
letter: "The university believes that Professor McGinn's conduct is
unprofessional due to the amorous relationship that developed between a
senior faculty member and his student." Colin had violated a policy from the
University of Miami faculty handbook governing "consensual amorous, romantic
or sexual relationships" between professors and students.
professor myself, I am hugely critical of romantic relationships with
students. When I hear of male professors having affairs with students, I
always feel a powerful instinctive disapproval. Looking back, Colin says he
should have seen the danger in their relationship and told Nicole he could
not work with her.
The relationship was not sexual. According to
Colin, they discussed and dismissed the possibility of having a sexual
affair. The two were deep in a private world, working together on arcane
philosophical research on the hand, and they developed an affectionate
private patois which included private hand jokes and a pet name for one of
During their meetings they would hold and caress hands
and feet. As Colin describes it, the physical side of things emerged from a
thwarted energy between them, as a way of expressing intimacy without sex.
Colin: "We were creating a relationship through the hands. In a way, sex is
clichéd. This seemed more original, free of all the problems." Nicole later
said the touching of hands and feet made her uncomfortable.
called Nicole "original, quirky, highly intelligent, strong willed" and
said: "It was impossible she was manipulated by me." At times in her mails,
she seems exuberant, clever, playful, eager, warm. At other times, she seems
to be pulling back, apologizing, making excuses. Ambivalence is clear in
moments of stiffness, a return to formality, a psychic retreat.
Nicole was afraid of mediocrity, of her own limitations as a thinker and
scholar. In the spring, Colin concocted what he called "the genius project"
to turn her into a tenured philosophy professor. Nicole seemed hungry to
hear more. Graduate students simmer with a sense of powerlessness. The
system breeds insecurity in them. A gifted or charismatic professor who
recognizes a "spark" has power.
People said Colin was not sensitive
enough to his own power. He responds: "Real power didn't reside with me at
all. With the mere fact that a female student goes to the authorities at
all, it becomes sexual harassment."
It is surprising that Colin did
not wake up in a cold sweat every day. Most professors these days engaged in
any sort of romance would be terrified. From the tenor of the emails it
seems he was smitten with Nicole. He said he was sure she did not have a
boyfriend when he got to know her. He asked her once if Ben was her
boyfriend and she denied it. When I told him Ben had been her boyfriend all
along, he paled.
Something happened over the summer that turned
Nicole against Colin. In June she was sending him affectionate texts, and in
September she was reporting a case of sexual harassment. It seems there was
tension over work, and Colin had suggested they have sex three times. She
may have felt that things had run out of control.
Colin seems very
tired. At 63, he takes pride in his tennis and swimming, but now he looks
devastated. He didn't fight back because he felt sure he wouldn't win and he
was worried about his wife. From his 2002 autobiography, The Making of a
Philosopher: "I began to realize that even the most familiar belief might be
mistaken, a mere prejudice — that everything had to be open to rational
Colin McGinn assails former
colleague Ted Honderich in axe murder review
My account of the axe murder for the
Journal of Consciousness Studies
My review of autobiographies by Ted
Honderich and Colin McGinn
My 2009 book containing the above
account and review
My own 2012 autobiography
AR At last my Oxford contemporary Colin may know
how it feels to be a true philosopher.