An Exchange on Disgust

Many of you will remember Nina Strohminger‘s amusing review of Colin McGinn’s book, The Meaning of Disgust. The review, written with the kind of frankness McGinn’s own reviews are known for, appeared in the journal, Emotion Review. Several months after its publication, the journal received a letter from McGinn responding to the review. That letter, along with Strohminger’s response, has now been published, and can be viewed here.

In her original review, Strohminger (Duke) took McGinn to task for, among other things, ignoring what she called “the most widely accepted theory of disgust today…  [as] an emotion whose principal function is to help us avoid contaminants and disease.”

The exchange between the two of them is interesting for the competing views of philosophy their contributions represent. Here’s a sample from McGinn’s  letter:

A final methodological point: Suppose a philosopher sets out to write a book on romantic love or the analysis of knowledge or the human significance of death. It would clearly be misguided to complain that this philosopher has ignored scientific work relating to the subjects mentioned. To point out, in this vein, that the philosopher had not discussed the latest scientific ideas about how romantic love or knowledge or death anxiety evolved would be to miss the point entirely…  philosophical questions… are not identical to questions about evolutionary origin or biological utility. 

And this is from Strohminger’s response:

We should be careful what we wish for. Were we to treat McGinn’s theory as impervious to data, as he asserts it should be, this also renders his view irrelevant to other theories of disgust. McGinn argues that his theory is superior to all others—pathogen avoidance, taste-toxicity, animal reminder— but these are theories grounded in empirical evidence. By banishing itself to an orthogonal universe, the life-in-death theory consigns itself to a pale, limited sort of existence: untouched by the dirty hands of reality, of no consequence to those theories it wishes to consider itself superior to, and eventually forgotten.

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9 years ago

I know it’s been said before, but it deserves to be said again: Nina Strohminger’s review of McGinn’s book is among the funniest and most erudite book reviews ever published, in any field.

David Sobel
David Sobel
9 years ago

I do not see that the exchange highlights “competing views of philosophy” so much as it highlights Strohminger recalling, and McGinn not recalling, what McGinn’s thesis was in his book.

9 years ago

In lieu of a “Like” button, I’ll paste the abstract of Strohminger’s response and merely note that I fully agree with it:

“The life-in-death theory makes empirical claims, and is therefore subject
to empirical verification. Even if this theory were purely analytic or
phenomenological, it would be accountable to countervailing empirical
evidence. If we cannot use empirical evidence to support or refute this
theory, then it cannot be compared with competing theories, which defer
to observable reality.”