McGinn is best known for his work in the philosophy of mind, and in particular for what is known as new mysterianism, the idea that the human mind is not equipped to solve the problem of consciousness. He is the author of over 20 books on this and other areas of philosophy, including The Character of Mind (1982), The Problem of Consciousness (1991), Consciousness and Its Objects (2004), and The Meaning of Disgust (2011).
In 2013 McGinn resigned from his tenured position at the University of Miami after being accused of sexual harassment by a female graduate student. The resignation touched off a debate about the prevalence of sexism and sexual harassment within academic philosophy.
McGinn was born in West Hartlepool, a town in County Durham, England. Several of his relatives, including both grandfathers, were miners. His father, Joseph, left school to become a miner but put himself through night school and became a building manager instead. McGinn was the eldest of three children, all sons. When he was three, the family moved to Gillingham, Kent, and eight years later to Blackpool, Lancashire. Having failed his 11-plus, he attended a technical school in Kent, then a secondary modern in Blackpool, but did well enough in his O-levels to be transferred to the local grammar school for his A-levels.
In 1968, he began a degree in psychology at the University of Manchester, obtaining a first-class honours degree in 1971 and an MA in 1972, also in psychology. He was admitted in 1972 to Jesus College, Oxford, at first to study for a Bachelor of Letters postgraduate degree, but switched to the Bachelor of Philosophy (BPhil) postgraduate programme on the recommendation of his advisor, Michael R. Ayers. In 1973, he was awarded the university's prestigious John Locke Prize in Mental Philosophy; one of the examiners was A.J. Ayer. He received his BPhil in 1974, writing a thesis under the supervision of Michael R. Ayers and P. F. Strawson on the semantics of Donald Davidson.
McGinn taught at University College London for 11 years, first as a lecturer in philosophy (1974–1984), then as reader (1984–1985). In 1985, he succeeded Gareth Evans as Wilde Reader in Mental Philosophy at the University of Oxford, a position he held until 1990. He held visiting professorships at the University of California, Los Angeles (1979), University of Bielefeld (1982), University of Southern California (1983), Rutgers University (1984), University of Helsinki (1986), City University of New York (1988) and Princeton University (1992). In 1990, he joined the philosophy department at Rutgers as a full professor, working alongside Jerry Fodor. He stayed at Rutgers until 2005, joining the University of Miami in 2006 as Professor of Philosophy and Cooper Fellow.