McKenzie's review of McGinn's book raises three distinct, larger 'issues:'
(1) How much incivility in reviewing is still acceptable?
(2) Do Oxford UP and other prestigious academic presses apply different 'rules' for 'senior' figures?
Let's ignore (3), really. When I mention him in what follows, it is only to discuss (1-2).
In my opinion (2) is the more important issue because it gets at the political economy of our profession. For, let's be clear; McGinn and OUP are not isolated cases. Here are some other examples: today I read a polite, albeit devastating review of a book by Strevens (Harvard UP) that recounts a whole host of problems, including "failure to reference properly the remarkably rich research tradition." All the reviews of McGinn's 'triple' (see the links in discussion) make clear that he was permitted to allow himself to systematically ignore ongoing discussions in pertinent areas of scholarship. Whatever one might think of Nagel's Mind and Cosmos, however enjoyable and provocative, one cannot accuse it of generous engagement with informed, alternative views.
There is something outrageous about philosophers (or other scholars) that try to get away with systematically ignoring existing scholarship and alternative views. This vice is not uncommon in professional philosophy--even folk that do engage with scholarship tend to engage with what often seems a pre-approved list of recognized, privileged interlocutors. Leaving aside the fact that I often suspect most of our peers don't like reading much, a rhetoric of approved interlocutors is a standard technique to stay on-message or even to maintain clarity of focus.* It is an important task (duty?) for referees and reviews to call attention to the existence of such scholarly oversights, citation-networks, or worse; this is something I have advocated through the life of this blog.
Even so, I am also, and perhaps inconsistently, sympathetic to the idea that in a monograph one can develop non-standard approaches, or develop a view that is part of one's larger system yet orthogonal to existing literature(s). Philosophy would get really boring if editors were never willing to take a gamble on an author (or some views); it is not obvious, after all, that the demands of procedural justice in combination with existing expert consensus on quality are a necessary bar for philosophical excellence to meet (if that makes sense). Moreover, whether fairly or not, some philosophers have earned (yes/no?) a measure of philosophical latitude not accorded to the rest of us. (When I was still really junior I sometimes had cognitive dissonance when I heard distinguished speakers praised for what I took to be abject performances. Now I view these occasions as instances where I failed in activating my tribal instincts.) One wonders how much of this latitude is even fully conscious. What causes outrage is, I think, in part the abuse of such latitude.
So far I have said nothing about the fact that the incentives of publishers, the incentives of (sub-sets within) the professional community, and the incentives that allow inquiry into truth need not align perfectly. Even academic publishers care about book-sales; controversy tends to be good for business. So, a controversial book by a figure that has earned latitude may well be treated with different rules, even if everybody involved feels that they are applying the very same standards they would ordinarily use (but, of course, such circumstances are not ordinary). What is clear, is that lots of folk in the profession (including me) are heavily invested in the idea that OUP, which (thankfully) is a huge operation in professional philosophy and, of course, has a long record to be judged by, is thought the best publisher we have by a considerable margin. The size of our shared investment in a few privileged presses might be worrisome; I am unsure, because I know I have instinctive concern over concentrations of privilege.
So, while I still hope somebody will muster a compelling defense of the worth of (parts of) McGinn's 'triple,' I would not be surprised if, indeed, there may well be grounds here for "shame on our field as a whole." Many of us don't like the very idea of collective complicity and negligence, but given that so many of us benefit from the norms and institutions that make cases like McGinn's 'triple' possible, the charge is prima facie plausible. The fact that the review spread rapidly with approval is defeasible evidence for this.
But rather than exploring the state of book-publishing in philosophy, most critical responses, if any, to McKenzie's review have focused on her lack of civility and philosophers's misplaced joy at intellectual savagery. There clearly is some rite of passage in philosophy in which a young talent makes a name by critically reviewing a senior figure. My discomfort about this is small. I love experiencing and reciprocating civility, but to insist on it in others is often (not always) a means toward rigging the rules in favor of the powerful or the status quo.
I do wonder sometimes to what degree there exists a kind of tacit pre-approved list of 'targets' for this rite of passage. So, a savage and funny, dismissive review of a fellow junior philosopher is, I think, widely thought unacceptable and, thus, very rare. (This is good.) In my perception the young sharks rarely turn on, say, their own PhD supervisor nor on the current group of philosophical alphas, so, perhaps, the critics have a point. Even so, one can recognize such sociological norms and the inequity in them, while still sharing in the often legitimate sense that 'the target' has violated very serious intellectual norms (or worse).
*It might also be a way to develop a historical narrative that is the royal road to me (recall).