Revealing story on attitudes regarding McGinn

It’s an understatement to say that they haven’t found many philosophers still willing to defend McGinn, though they appear to have tried hard to do so. Here’s what I say in the story, which I firmly believe to be true. The outpouring of support for Monica Morrison from the philosophical community has confirmed my impression.

Jennifer Saul, who teaches at the University of Sheffield and is director of the Society for Women in Philosophy UK, believes few supporters of McGinn remain. “There is, from what I can tell, near universal agreement that he acted appallingly,” she said.

Coming forward as a victim of sexual harassment in the philosophy world is incredibly risky, Saul said, but she believes things are changing.

“There’s an increasing understanding of these dynamics, and so I think a lessened tendency to view victims as ‘troublemakers,’ and actually increasing admiration for their bravery in speaking out,” Saul said.

For more, go here.

3 thoughts on “Revealing story on attitudes regarding McGinn

  1. I hesitate to leave this comment because I want to be clear that I both deeply admire and respect Monica Morrison and don’t want to take away from the fact that she has indeed made a huge brave step for philosophy, and I also think that it is true that there is, generally, an increasing understanding of these dynamics in philosophy. But I think we should be a bit careful about one thing here: it is much easier for people to nearly universally agree (and they don’t–there are faculty at my own institution who, while they wouldn’t put this on a record, have made statements to me/other grad students to the effect that they strongly disagree) that McGinn acted appallingly than to do so in cases where the harasser in question is a celebrated figure in philosophy, or even just has a large network of friends in philosophy. In my experience coping with these kinds of issues and talking to my friends (female grad students and junior faculty) about these kinds of issues, the consensus is nearly universally that things would not be happening this way if the culprit was both generally well-respected by philosophers and had a lot of friends, who already thought he was a “good guy”, in philosophy. It is a bit of a unique case in that, quite frankly, a lot of people who I’ve talked to independently disliked McGinn and didn’t philosophically respect him–and a lot of those same people, even some who are now publicly making statements supportive of MM, have behaved VERY differently when their own friends, and, in particular, those with more power than them in the profession, have been accused of serious sexual harassment. I really think it’s important to highlight that McGinn was pretty low on this hierarchy, and it’s relatively easier to come out and condemn someone in such a position than to do so with someone who has lots of friends in powerful places.

    Now, this is not intended to point fingers at those people–people who are very publicly supporting MM here–because I think regardless of what anyone has done in any other situation, that is the right thing to do here. It’s just to point out that it is much, much harder to do so, for everyone, when the culprit occupies a powerful position in a hierarchy that shapes much of your professional life.

    I’m tempted to give examples here, but obviously there is no real way to do that. Suffice it to say that, both internal to particular departments, and perhaps more perniciously (because it’s harder to get outside help) in the profession as a whole, it certainly at least *seems* to me, and to many of the other junior women I’ve talked to who have been the victims of sexual harassment by any sort of high-powered, star figure who is charming and well networked and who everyone wants to suck up to, that there is literally no hope that this sort of thing could ever happen.

    So yes, there is a better understanding of these dynamics among philosophers. My fear is that when push comes to shove, people are still going to act in a self-interested way. Of course, there are many people not acting that way in this case, and those people (especially MM) are definitely rekindling some hope for the rest of us. But I really do think it is important to keep in mind the difference between McGinn’s position in philosophy and that of many other harassers. We ought to ask ourselves why it is that there are still so many “open secrets” about harassers in Leiter-top-twenty departments, for example. The situation still feels pretty much entirely hopeless to me, overall, in the profession.

  2. AGS, I’m kind of surprised by your description of McGinn’s position in the discipline. I don’t think “pretty low on this hierarchy” is totally accurate. He was, of course, very famous, and did some very influential work (early) in his career. His more recent stuff did not have the same respect or influence, and many people thought he was a jerk. But still, when McGinn moved to Miami in 2005 Leiter considered it a “big catch for Miami” ( and I think it’s fair to say he was a star in their department. I agree that the wide public support has something to do with his reputation as a jerk, etc. But I do think this is a noteworthy case of a serious response to someone who was very prominent within their department.

  3. I’m a little more inclined to agree with AGS here. McGinn’s early work is definitely influential, and I haven’t read his more recent stuff to judge it or his influence… but he absolutely went out of his way to make himself disliked in the profession. Look up a 2004 post on Thoughts Arguments and Rants entitled “This Charming Man,” which reprints an article where he calls his colleagues (at Rutgers) “stupid”; for that matter, it was pretty surprising for a prominent philosophy blogger to devote a post to talking about what a jerk one of his colleagues was at the time. And some of the reviews of his recent books have been gleefully vitriolic in a way that I don’t think would’ve happened if McGinn weren’t widely personally disliked–they went beyond harsh criticism of the argument.

    I agree that he was prominent in the department, but then his main defender was within the department as well. In the profession at large, I think it’s been easier to disown him because he’s so widely disliked.

    So… what about those open secrets? What can be done, especially by those of us who aren’t close enough to a particular case to take/encourage concrete action? Is it simply a matter of trying to create an atmosphere in which the victims of harassment will feel safer in confronting their abusers?

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