Here’s the idea he puts forward: let’s rename ‘philosophy.’ Let’s call it ontical science. Or ontics. There are two basic reasons he puts forward for this.
One is that the etymology of the word, meaning a love of wisdom, seems to mischaracterize the field. Lots of scholars love wisdom, he argues. Not just philosophers, but physicists, and chemists. And then he argues: do we philosophers really love wisdom? And do we philosophers really love wisdom?
Um, no, not really, probably. And yes, to whatever degree that philosophers can be said to “love” “wisdom,” I am sure molecular biologists love it, too. But who really cares about the etymology of the word? It’s not as if it means something entirely unrelated to what we do. And we’ve been using it for a while now, and it has a meaning everyone understands.
The other reason, which I suspect is what’s motivating him, is that very few people know what we actually do (in Anglophone analytic departments, which is the majority of degree-granting departments in the U.S.). So people tend to grossly underestimate or overestimate or misestimate our value.
Every professional philosopher, or student of philosophy, knows how linguistically confusing the name of our discipline can be when talking to people outside the field. They immediately assume you are in the business of offering sage advice, usually in the form of unargued aphorisms and proverbs. You struggle to explain that you don’t do that kind of philosophy, at which point you may well be accused of abandoning your historical calling — unearthing and explicating the “meaning of life” and what the ultimate human goods are. You may then be castigated for not being a “real philosopher,” by contrast with assorted gurus, preachers, homeopaths and twinkly barroom advice givers. Our subject then falls into disrepute and incomprehension.
Yes, people do think your job actually involves demonstrating that the chair you’re sitting on doesn’t exist, or that you’ve just about worked out that meaning of life. Or that for a proposition to be really philosophical, it must be only an unprovable opinion. Or that, being an academia, you’re not a real philosopher. Others start talking about Derrida or Nietzsche or Heidegger, or (heaven forbid) Ayn Rand.
Most people don’t realize that even though we deal with normative concepts at times, many of us tend to see ourselves as contiguous with the sciences. McGinn argues that we are scientists. His argument from dictionary definition is, shall we say, weak (I would criticize it in an undergrad paper). But I know what he means. Many of my papers really do amount to a form of speculative psychology. I have much more contact with academics in the sciences than in the humanities, and I read science journals far more than humanities journals. I don’t think I am a scientist, but my work is more like science than the average guy on the street, or, for that matter, the average scientist, realizes.
McGinn wants dreamers to take us a bit less seriously, and scientists to take us a bit more seriously. So do we all. A few departments have bandied about moving from the humanities section of their university to the sciences. Great! But do we need to change our name? McGinn characterizes what we do as:
My conception of philosophy is broadly Aristotelian: the subject consists of the search for the essences of things by means of a priori methods. Thus, for example, we seek the essence of knowledge by investigating what is involved in the concept of knowledge — where knowledge turns out to be true justified belief (give or take a bit). The things whose essential nature is sought range from space, time and matter, to necessity, causation and laws, to consciousness, free will and perception, to truth, goodness and beauty. There is nothing parochial about this conception of philosophy; it certainly includes ethics, aesthetics and politics.
Is that not a continuation of the work of Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, etc. etc.? Are they not philosophers? Are we shifting fields just so people won’t sneer at us so much?
Maybe instead, we could just describe what we do to more people.