Sunday, March 22, 2009

Colin McGinn - Mindf*cking: A Critique of Mental Manipulation

This review will appear in Philosophy in Review

Colin McGinn Mindfucking: A Critique of Mental Manipulation. Stockfield: Acumen 2008. Pp. 76. $24.95 (cloth ISBN-13: 978-1-84465-114-6).

Deja-vu! A respected analytic philosopher publishes a medium length paper as a tiny yet self-standing hardcover book. In it he analyses a folk-epistemological term whose obscenity allows it also to serve as the book’s provocative and eye-catching title.

Is McGinn’s book simply his attempt to gain the fifteen minutes of celebrity enjoyed by Harry Frankfurt when the essay ‘Bullshit’ was republished as the overpriced nanobook, Bullshit? The question is unavoidable, but out of fairness I shall address that comparison only after discussing the book’s actual content.

What, then, is the meaning of ‘mindfucking’? The term usually (but only usually, as we shall see) refers to the uninvited and malevolent manipulation of someone’s mind and beliefs through illegitimate, non-rational, emotion-based techniques. Such techniques prey upon the particular psychological weaknesses of their intended victims and also require their practitioners to engage in a preliminary process of ‘seduction’ in which the confidence of the victim is gained and his or her resistance worn away. Mindfucking is an especially reprehensible form of deception because, unlike simple lying or ‘bullshitting’ (in Frankfurt’s sense of speech completely untethered from considerations of truth and untruth), it intrinsically involves the deliberate infliction of grave psychological harm upon its victims. McGinn is exactly on target when he mobilizes Iago’s manipulation of Othello as the classic illustration of these phenomena. When carried out by collectives or institutions, mindfucking is related to the all-too-familiar practices of indoctrination, brainwashing, and propaganda.

For better or worse, it appears that the term ‘mindfucking’ is not an entirely unambiguous. McGinn insists that ‘the meaning of “mindfuck” is not exclusively negative; the phrase is sometimes used to describe the positive sensation involved in having, or in being presented with, some striking new idea, or in having some sort of agreeably life-altering experience’ (5). This assertion makes one wonder why McGinn is so eager to promote a term whose inherent ambiguity is bound to promote confusion, especially when the phrase ‘to fuck with someone’s mind’ can usually be replaced without loss of meaning with the clearly negative but admittedly less titillating expression, ‘to mess with someone’s mind’. In any event, we learn that certain films (Fight Club!), Kuhnian paradigm shifts, and even romantic love might count as mindfucks in this non-pejorative sense. However, the concluding pages of the book assure us that it is not itself a mindfuck, but rather merely an essay on mindfucking that ‘will have served its purpose if it alerts the reader to a phenomenon on which it is advisable to have a clear grip’ (76).

So: is this a worthwhile book or just a Bullshit wannabe? McGinn must certainly be aware that people are bound to make comparisons; in fact, he makes constant references to Frankfurt’s work, starting from the very opening sentence of his preface. Unfortunately for McGinn, while Bullshit is actually the shorter of the two works, its philosophical and literary references are more intriguing -- and numerous -- than those found in Mindfucking. Bullshit also contains the germ of a theory of the prevalence of bullshit in our day, while McGinn has basically nothing to say about factors affecting the frequency with which mindfucking occurs in contemporary society. Most importantly, in Bullshit Frankfurt brings to light a new epistemological category, while people have long been aware of mindfucking, even if they lacked an obscene term with which to speak of it. A simple Google-search for 'psychological manipulation' will produce countless articles on what McGinn calls 'mind-fucking'. How great would have been the loss to philosophy if McGinn had used the book's subtitle as its main title: A Critique of Mental Manipulation?

Sometimes McGinn seems bored with his topic; he dutifully cranks out a workmanlike and predictable analysis of a not especially promising concept. It is disappointing that given the tremendous amount of new research in cognitive science taking place today, McGinn could find nothing in its results worth mentioning when writing an essay about psychological manipulation. Such practical information would have helped readers learn how to escape the clutches of potential mindfuckers.

If McGinn’s little book draws new readers into the philosophical audience, more power to him. However, the whole affair strikes me as unworthy of his considerable philosophical talents.

Berel Dov Lerner
Western Galilee College