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Bryan Magee


A Journey Through Western Philosophy

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2002).

Bryan Magee is probably best known to the public as a broadcaster, particularly about philosophy, though he has also been a Member of Parliament, a novelist, and a music and theatre critic. He is an academic in his own right and has held a number of university appointments in London and Oxford. This book is an intellectual autobiography, the main emphasis being on the intellectual aspect; we learn about Magee's personal life only to the extent that is needed to shed light on his philosophical preoccupations.

Magee studied philosophy at Oxford in the 1950s and also spent a year at Yale, but he did not become a professional philosopher, in part because of his profound dissatisfaction with the way in which the subject was taught and practised at Oxford in the mid-twentieth century. Linguistic philosophy was dominant and was based, Magee says, on the view (endorsed by Ayer) that an investigation into the use of language is equivalent to an investigation of the structure of the world as experienced by us. This idea he entirely rejects. The reason that he became interested in philosophy in the first place was because he hoped to find answers to fundamental questions about the meaning of life and the nature of the self. Questions of this kind, he believes, are what interest most "ordinary" people too, but they were not addressed by many of the professional philosophers he encountered.

There were some exceptions. Magee has been fortunate in that his work in television has allowed him to get to know some of the foremost philosophers of the twentieth century, including Bertrand Russell and Karl Popper. Popper, in particular, excites Magee's admiration as a "serious" philosopher, and Magee makes much of the fact that Popper was neglected by the Oxford school precisely because he had a radically different view of philosophy from them. Incidentally, Popper, with his thick German accent, provides Magee with one of the few jokes in what is otherwise a rather solemn book. When Magee first visited the great man he was instructed to take the train to Havacombe, but on arriving at the station he discovered that there was no such place; only after some discussion did he realise that he was supposed to go to High Wycombe.

In addition to Popper and Russell, philosophers whom Magee admires (without necessarily agreeing with them) include Marx, Nietzche, Heidegger, Wittgenstein in his early but not his later phase, and Cassirer, all of whom, he believes, change one's outlook permanently if one reads them. But the two philosophers to whom he attributes the greatest importance of all are Kant and Schopenhauer. He came to Schopenhauer quite late in his intellectual development but was then swept off his feet completely; he rates the book he wrote about Schopenhauer more highly than any of his others.

As one might expect from his background as a populariser of philosophy, Magee presents the ideas of the thinkers he discusses with commendable clarity. Inevitably, of course, this results in considerable simplification at times, and indeed he makes the important point that reading what someone says about a great philosopher can never provide the same experience as reading that philosopher for oneself. Secondary sources are never a substitute for the primary.

This is a long book; perhaps over-long. I skimmed over the chapter on political philosophy, and some of the accounts of Magee's experiences in making television programmes might have been shorter without much loss. I also got the impression, whether justified or not, that some of his criticism of Oxford philosophy as he encountered it in his youth was touched by personal bitterness. Fortunately these parts can be skipped without detriment to the main theme of the book, which is a fine exposition of why philosophy should matter to us. Magee has succeeded brilliantly in showing that the real point of philosophy does not consist in being clever but in confronting profound problems honestly.

In his final chapter, "Left Wondering", Magee offers an account of where he stands as a result of a lifetime of inquiry. As the title implies, he has no answers, but at least he thinks he has identified some of the main questions. His basic position seems to be that we can never hope to know what reality is in itself. There is something behind appearances that will always, in principle, be inaccessible to us. But he insists that this does not make him religious. He complains that religious believers think he makes token acknowledgement of the mystical while remaining excessively rationalistic, while rationalistic humanists think he is a kind of religious fellow-traveller. "A third alternative—that we can know very little but have equally little grounds for religious belief—receives scant consideration, and yet seems to me to be where the truth lies." This is a position I can sympathise with.

Magee sees the nature of time as being at the centre of the mystery of what reality is; perhaps, he says, "the passage of time is unreal, an illusion, and … in reality all time is present". This seems to be very close to the theory put forward by Julian Barbour in his book The End of Time, though Magee does not mention this. Magee regards this question as closely bound up with that concerning the nature of the self. If, as he suspects is the case, our selves are in some sense outside space and time it is conceivable that we may not perish together with our physical bodies, though this is something we can probably never know.

Although I am sure there is an immaterial self I am far from being sure that it has any existence except in relation to a body. My own particular self may have come into existence when or after my body did, and may cease to exist when my body dies. It may be something that has evolved over millions of years in undisentanglable relationship with brains, and may have no way of existing separately from my brain. This was, for example, Popper's view. He was persuaded of its truth and untroubled by it. I am unpersuaded of its truth, and am deeply troubled by it.

This book is well worth reading by anyone who feels that much contemporary philosophy is either incomprehensible verbiage or alternatively simply clever talk about talk and in either case of little interest. It certainly caused me to make a good resolution for 2003 to go back to some of the primary sources.

%T Confessions Of A Philosopher
%S A Journey Through Western Philosophy
%A Magee, Bryan
%I Phoenix
%C London
%D 1998
%G ISBN 0-75380-471-9
%P 603 pp
%K philosophy, biography
%O paperback

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