Colin McGinn is best known for his view that the mind/body problem and other problems in philosophy are - in a special sense all his own - mysteries. His radical claim is that the questions philosophers ask, while legitimate, have answers that are beyond the reach of human cognitive capacities. We are, MGinn says, "cognitively blocked" from finding the answers to philosophy's questions. Human beings cannot solve philosophical problems. We cannot solve them just as cats cannot play chess (McGinn's own example). The most readable expressions of this view for non-philosphers, are THE MYSTERIOUS FLAME and (somehat more technical) PROBLEMS IN PHILOSOPHY - THE LIMITS OF INQUIRY. McGinn's conjecture, which he calls "Transcendental Realism", by its nature cannot be proved. To do so one would need to step outside one's own cognitive limitations in order to gain a view of their geography. McGinn is well aware of this. Still he offers what might be thought of as "plausibility arguments" for his view. One might well wonder, if McGinn is right, whether there is anyting left for philosophers to do. Among the tasks McGinn thinks philosophers can still profitably pursue is phenomenology.
The book MINDSIGHT might be thought of as an exercise in analytic phenomenology. I think it is a creditable piece of work, a book which offers important and plausible claims, penetrating distinctions and interesting thought experiments. This is phenomenology that is mercifully devoid of the bombast with which that subject is too often addressed. Quite the contrary, McGinn, as always, writes in a most lucid and reader-friendly matter. In the early chapters of the book, McGinn seeks to get clear on the important differences between perception and imagination - or to put it another way, the differences between percepts and mental images. These chapters make interesting and non-obvious claims - most of which I find at least plausible and well-argued and, in most cases, correct.
In the fifth chapter, "The Picture Theory of Images" McGinn argues against the notion that mental images (and percepts too) take the form of pictures in the mind which are themselves observed and scanned in order to attain information. This idea is deeply imbedded in western philosophy (and in recent work in cognitive psychology) and McGinn's rejection of it and his alternative view might help to illuminate how these deep but mistaken assumptions underly some of philosophy's notorious difficulties - including those skeptical problems connected with a representational theory of perception. This may conflict with McGinn's philosophy-as-mystery overview, but his insights are welcome ones. His main claim is that "we no more see pictures in our heads when we have images than we see pictures in our head when we perceive" - an important claim if true and one that is well and ably argued. The idea is not entirely new, but McGinn's defense of it breaks new ground. Oddly, McGinn underplays somewhat its significance.
For me, the book's most interesting exercise is the analysis, in the sixth and seventh chapters, of dreams. This is attempted using the terms McGinn develops in the book's early chapters. Dreams, he argues fit neatly into the category of images and he proclaims them a species of imagistic experience. His argument depends upon his claim that dream experiences share the characteristc features of images and lack the characteristic features of perception. The latter point and the overall claims McGinn makes in his analysis of percepts and images, is especially interesting because, if true, it should put to rest Descartes' famous claim that there is no internal mark by which dream experience can be distinguished from waking experience. McGinn, in effect, supplies an army of such marks and does so convincingly. For me, it is a strange omission that McGinn is silent on this most interesting consequence of his view. For all that, McGinn also wrestles with, and gives a plausible account of the undeniable fact that dreams generally carry with them an undeniable element of belief - that is, some sort of sense that dream contents, while being dreamed, are really happening. McGinn's analysis of this is subtle, nuanced and seeks to do justice to this phenomenon without mistaking it for something more than it is. The problem here is real and McGinn both states it and responds to it in an impressive and original amnner.
There are some claims in this book that strike me as doubtful. McGinn says for example, that one cannot simultaneously entertain two mental images. It seems to me that it is possible to simultaneously imagine a tune in the "mind's ear" while entertaining a distinct visual image in the "minds eye". I'm not sure much turns on this, since McGinn could amend his claim without eviscerating it to accomodate such an objection. Still, I was never quite convinced. I also find myself wondering on what authority McGinn makes some of his phenomenological claims. One for example stands out: he states that while having a percept, one can also entertain an image of anything at all except the object of that percept. For example, while looking at my beloved's face, I can form a mental image of anything but that face. This strikes me as correct, but could this be failure of imagination on both of our parts? And how are we even to decide the issue? I would also like for McGinn to have addressed the difficult, but common mental phenomenon of imagining fictional characters. It is obvious that I can form an image, say, of Huck Finn. This is not at all a counterexample to anything McGinn says, but what he does say about images does not readily suggest how he would analyze or explain such occurrences.
I am a professional philosopher who is interested in the sorts of subjects McGinn takes up in this book. I supervised a directed study in which I read and discussed this book with one of my ablest students. I feel we both profited from the experience. For readers with some knowledge and interest in philosophy, this book could well serve as a good read that deepens one's understanding of some central issues.