I do get this - back in the days when I "did" philosophy of mind and language it annoyed me no end to sit next to someone on a train or plane and get asked about the meaning of life, just because I said I studied philosophy. People don't understand that most of philosophy is not that sort of thing.
But it's not just being taken for a meaning-ologist that bothers McGinn. He wants to be seen as a scientist.
Our current name is harmful because it posits a big gap between the sciences and philosophy; we do something that is not a science. Thus we do not share in the intellectual prestige associated with that thoroughly modern word. We are accordingly not covered by the media that cover the sciences, and what we do remains a mystery to most people. But it is really quite clear that academic philosophy is a science. The dictionary defines a science as “a systematically organized body of knowledge on any subject.” This is a very broad definition, which includes not just subjects like physics and chemistry but also psychology, economics, mathematics and even “library science.”Okay .... I'd sure like to be seen as a scientist, but here's the thing. If you're around philosophy for a long time, you can't help but notice that philosophers don't seem much like scientists. Top level philosophy sometimes does seem to reveal what is simply true. There are genuine insights--discoveries that everyone simply has to bow down to. (Like... what? Hilary Putnam's famous article "The Meaning of 'Meaning'" comes to mind.) But much of the time, philosophy makes me think of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul--lots and lots of stalls, people selling different things at every stall. They sell with the tools of logic, making "arguments", but something funny's going on when "arguments" support contradictory conclusions.
Each of the arguers in the philosophical Bazaar certainly feels like a scientist--a systematic, rationally-guided knower. The focus of each philosopher is on reality-- philosophers are not making stuff up, as in writing fiction or composing music. But there's just no ignoring the people shouting in the other stalls. Their existence calls into question whether what's produced at each stall is really very science-like at all.
Because of all this fragmentation, you get a phrase in philosophy that's really strange, when you think about it. If you're describing what a philosopher thinks, it's common to say "For X, _____." As in, "For Hume, the self is a bundle." What does this even mean? Either the self is a bundle or it is not. How can it be that "for Hume" the self is a bundle? This locution raises a disconcerting possibility. What philosophy offers is not discovery of truths, but ways of thinking about things. Hume thought of the self as a bundle: that was his way of thinking of the self. Thus, "for him" the self was a bundle. Perhaps we'd like to adopt that way of thinking too. Then for us too, the self would be a bundle. But that's not to say it would be a bundle. If you wanted philosophy to be a science, you'd have to somehow overcome the Grand Bazaar tendency, and get rid of all that "for X"-ing.
McGinn doesn't seem to notice the Bazaarness of philosophy. He writes--
Academic philosophy obviously falls under this capacious meaning. Moreover, most of the marks of science as commonly understood are shared by academic philosophy: the subject is systematic, rigorous, replete with technical vocabulary, often in conflict with common sense, capable of refutation, produces hypotheses, uses symbolic notation, is about the natural world, is institutionalized, peer-reviewed, tenure-granting, etc. We may as well recognize that we are a science, even if not one that makes empirical observations or uses much mathematics. Once we do this officially, we can expect to be treated like scientists.Can it really be true that 10 people are being "systematic and rigorous", if they arrive at 10 different conclusions on the same subject? Not really, and that's why we're stuck with the word "philosophy." McGinn says it's "faintly shameful" but so is the whole business of selling views as if they were rationally supported, when the guy or gal at the next stall is selling something else.