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Reading Philosophy (1): True Confessions

Bryan Magee, Confessions of a Philosopher: A Journey Through Western Philosophy (Phoenix, 603 pages, 1997)

A friend of mine in the philosophy department where I work, Yolande Westwell-Roper, mentioned to me a couple of years ago that she had read Bryan Magee’s Confessions of a Philosopher and thought that I would probably like it. Since I’d heard of Magee –- he’s a fairly well-known populariser of philosophy who hosted a series of TV programs in Britain in which he interviewed prominent philosophers –- I put this passing reference onto my “to read” list in case I should happen to run into his book. Eventually, I did. I suppose it was the casual way that I came to read Magee’s book that produced some of the surprise of discovering that his Confessions is one of the most unusual, well-written, and absorbing books of modern philosophy that I’ve read.

Magee’s “journey through Western philosophy” is a combination of intellectual autobiography, portraits of important philosophers he’s known, and expository essays about the ideas of the philosophers he thinks are the most significant ones. The book is cleanly and engagingly written, it’s thoroughly accessible to non-philosophers, and most important, it’s about the deepest questions concerning the nature of reality and the meaning of life that we’ve historically come to ask.

The intellectual autobiography includes a good deal of Magee’s variegated career as TV presenter, Labour Party Member of Parliament in Britain, and occasional professor of philosophy, but it begins with his childhood — Magee was born in 1930 -– and the story of how he got interested in philosophy. As a five-year-old, he recalls, he shared a bedroom with his older sister, and “after our parents had switched out the light we would chatter away in the darkness until we fell asleep. But I could never afterwards remember falling asleep. It was always the same: one moment I was talking to my sister in the dark, and the next I was waking up in a sunlit room having been asleep all night. Yet every night there must have come a time when I stopped talking and settled down to sleep. It was incomprehensible to me that I did not experience that, and never remembered it.” That “source of active mystification” was the beginning of Magee’s philosophic journey.

Subsequent childhood puzzlements included problems of time and space, the question of whether future events were determined, and the relationship between one’s consciousness of things and their existence. For Magee, these “were real gripping problems, and they were problems about reality, about the actual world I was living in, and the life I was living, and me. I had them, whether I liked it or not. There was no choice about it.”

To make matters worse, his childhood friends seemed to fall into three unsatisfactory categories: 1) “people who took the world for granted as they found it” and believed there was no purpose in thinking about it; 2) those with religious views who believed that God had all the answers and would provide them in due course sometime after this life; and 3) the “children of the Enlightenment” who “seemed to believe that everything was explicable in the light of reason.” Although Magee was closer to the latter than the former, he was puzzled by their seeming “to think that the world was an intelligible place,” whereas the adolescent Magee “did not see how in the light of a moment’s thought this belief could be entertained. Their faith in the power of reason seemed to me almost unbelievably unreflecting and misplaced in view of the fact that it was the application of reason that perpetually gave rise to insoluble problems, problems that were brought into existence by thinking but could not be removed by it.”

I dwell on Magee’s persistent childhood feelings about the world as a mysterious place because he recurrently makes the point throughout the book that there’s a difference between people who really develop a philosophical interest and those that don’t. That recognition becomes tinged with bitterness when he discovers, once he’s at Oxford University in the early 1950s, that a lot of the people not particularly interested in philosophy are people who are either students or teachers of philosophy!

As Magee explains in three substantial chapters about the inadequacy of linguistic philosophy, Oxford, as well as many other universities in the 1950s, was dominated by a kind of philosophy that focused almost exclusively on the analysis of concepts and the particular uses of language. In the process, the activity of attempting to understand the world seemed to disappear. One can understand why philosophers (and others) would be interested in language, given that these open-ended systems of symbolic representation and communication are what distinguish humans from other beings. Further, it may be very hard to separate our use of language or our form of consciousness from the rest of “reality.” Indeed, it may be the case that the only reality we can know is reality-for-us.

So, while intense interest in language is clearly part of philosophy, what happened in mid-20th century Anglophone philosophy, when figures like Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gilbert Ryle, A.J. Ayer and J.L. Austin dominated the field, is that linguistic analysis went overboard, to the point of excluding an understanding of the world and our lives. Magee, and a lot of other people I’ve talked to who were students at the time, found analytic philosophy particularly deadening and disappointing. They had come to philosophy hoping to better understand the whole, blooming, buzzing confusion of the universe and our selves, only to be told that philosophy was more or less limited to parsing the meaning of sentences and examining the “language games” and “speech acts” that we engage in. That this reductionist view of philosophy was accompanied by snobbish smugness, dripping condescension, and general snottiness did little to endear it to the memory of those who experienced it. Magee’s bitterness about this initial experience in philosophy is evident throughout his journey.

The rescue from Oxford’s aridity came in the mid-1950s when Magee went to Yale for a year of post-graduate study and found, to his delight, philosophers actively engaged in confronting the “ur-question of philosophy throughout most of its history,” namely, “What, ultimately, is there?” What’s more, the philosophers he studied with at Yale were “immersed in such tasks as quarrying Einstein’s Special and General Theories of Relativity, and quantum physics, for their full implications for our understanding of the nature of the world.” All in all, “exchanging Oxford for Yale had been like stepping out of a dark cellar into the sunlight,” and Magee provides a very fond account of his Yale teachers and the wide range of issues they investigated.

Magee’s philosophic confessions include two charming, especially well-drawn portraits of famous philosophers whom he got to know personally, Bertrand Russell and Karl Popper. Magee met Russell when the latter was in his late-80s, and his sketch of Russell’s philosophic lucidity is something of a corrective to Ray Monk’s biography of the last half of Russell’s life, Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness (2000), which offers a grim account of what the biographer regards as a dismal failure of vocation. Magee shows Russell to have been, late in life, still a man of immense charm who was capable of discussing philosophic problems with clarity and modesty.

The main intimate portrait Magee draws is of Karl Popper, whom he knew for some 30 years, and who Magee regards as one of the great philosophers of the 20th century. Since Popper, mainly known for his Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), an early but powerful critique of Marxism and other totalitarianisms, is not widely read today, Magee knows that he has to make a case for Popper, and he proceeds to do so. The case centers around the ideas of “critical rationalism” that Popper first advanced in his earlier book, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, and the appreciation of those ideas that Magee offers is surprisingly persuasive. (Persuasive enough for me, anyway, that I soon found myself reading Popper’s intellectual autobiography, Unended Quest.)

At the same time as defending Popper’s greatness, Magee doesn’t gloss over the Austrian-born philosopher’s personal deficiencies. Popper was a very cranky, isolated figure in England, where he had settled after being driven from the Continent by the events of World War II. “My chief impression of him at our early meetings was of an intellectual aggressiveness such as I had never encountered before,” Magee says. “Everything we argued about he pursued relentlessly, beyond the limits of acceptable aggression in conversation. As Ernest Gombrich -– his closest friend, who loved him –- once put it to me, he seemed unable to accept the continued existence of different points of view, but went on and on and on about them with a kind of unforgivingness until the dissenter, so to speak, put his signature to a confession that he was wrong and Popper was right.”

As Magee observes, “All this was the grossest possible violation of the spirit of liberalism exemplified and advocated in his writings.” Since freedom is at the heart of liberalism, “if you really do viscerally believe in freedom you accept that others have a right to do a great many things of which you disapprove, including the holding of a wide range of opinions with which you disagree. In a word, pluralism . . . is of the essence of liberalism.” But, “emotionally, Popper understood little if anything of this,” and as Magee and Popper sauntered around the garden of Popper’s remote English country house, Popper continued to behave “as if the proper thing to do was think one’s way carefully to a solution by the light of rational criteria and … impose it by unremitting exercise of will.” Notwithstanding, Magee remained devoted to the older philosopher until his death in 1994, at age 92.

What makes Popper important, Magee argues, are his ideas about reality and knowledge, even moreso than his well-known critique of Marxism. Popper’s ideas are a response to Immanuel Kant, whom Magee and many others regard as the central figure of modern philosophy, the philosopher who best understood the problem of the limits and possibilities of human intelligence. Without attempting to reprise Kant here, one of his main ideas, as Magee puts it, is that “what we can experience or perceive or know must of course depend on what there is to experience … but it must also depend on the apparatus we have for experiencing.” That apparatus, human consciousness –- whose forms of sensibility include space, time, and causality — is also a limit. That is, “this is not to say that nothing else can exist, but it does mean that nothing else can be experienced or perceived or known by us.”

So, while Kant wasn’t a skeptic who doubted the existence of reality, nor was he an idealist who thought that we simply created reality as a function of consciousness, he thought that what we could know of reality (including the theories and findings of science) was limited by our consciousness and its design. The reality we could experience, a real experience of real things, Kant called phenomena; that which we couldn’t experience, reality apart from us, he called noumena, and declared that we could know nothing about noumena, which included everything from things-in-themselves to God. Much of philosophy since the early 1800’s, including Popper’s, has been a response to the issues Kant delineated in his Critique of Pure Reason.

Popper believed that Einstein’s breakthrough on relativity, which put all previous science into question, changed a lot in terms of our understanding. As Magee summarises Popper, “We are never able to establish for certain the truth of any unrestrictedly general statement about the world, and therefore of any scientific law or any scientific theory. (It is important to be clear that [Popper] is talking not about singular statements but about unrestricted general ones: it is possible sometimes to be sure of a direct observation, but not of the explanatory framework that explains it.)” In the end, “all philosophy and all science involving the pursuit of certainty must be abandoned, a pursuit which had dominated Western thinking from Descartes to Russell; that because we do not, and never can in the traditional sense of the word ‘know,’ know the truth of any of our science, all our scientific knowledge is, and will always remain, fallible and corrigible.” Of course, practical science is, in a sense, none the worse for this. But we may be the worse. Our problem is to understand ourselves and the world, in a world in which we cannot know for sure, and in which our own consciousness is a limit on our conception of reality.

Popper’s name in philosophic circles is often associated with the idea of “falsifiability,” in opposition to the “verificationism” of the logical positivists against whom Popper was arguing in the 1930s. Magee makes a big point of distinguishing these concepts (which tend to get treated as mere variants) and to show that the very philosophic projects involving the two ideas are quite different. At one point in the early 20th century, the thinkers known as logical positivists thought that the only subject of knowledge about which we could say anything was science (all else was practically meaningless), and that philosophy’s job was to look at the conditions for verifying knowledge. Popper, in the light of Einstein, argued that knowledge couldn’t be ultimately verified, at most it could be shown to be false. “Like Kant and Schopenhauer,” Magee says, Popper “fully understands that ultimate reality is hidden and unknowable.”

Even rationality itself, for Popper, is impossible to put on rational foundations. “When all analysis has come to an end, our belief in rationality is an act of faith, and an act of faith that can be justified, if at all, only by our success in meeting criticisms and surviving tests. He does not believe in ultimate foundations, neither for morality, nor for rationality, nor for knowledge, and his philosophy asserts that they do not need to be postulated in any of these fields.” In that sense, Popper anticipates contemporary anti-metaphysical, pragmatic philosophers like Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam and Jurgen Habermas.

Just as Popper counterposed falsifiability to verification, in ethics he opposed the utilitarian principle of “the greatest good of the greatest number” and instead “came up with ‘minimize avoidable suffering,’ not as the foundation of anything, since he does not believe in foundations, but as the first rule of thumb in the perpetually ongoing formation of public policy.”

Magee believes that Popper may be the great philosopher of the last century, although of course it’s too soon to make any such judgment. “But the short list of genuine possibilities,” says Magee, “is indeed short: Russell, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Popper –- it seems to me most unlikely not to be one of those.” Whether or not Magee’s case for Popper is persuasive, it’s certainly interesting.

In Magee’s pantheon, while Wittgenstein and especially Heidegger are treated with great respect, the three main philosophers are Kant, Schopenhauer, and Popper. The chapters of exposition about Kant and Schopenhauer are, characteristically of Magee, well-written and engaging.

The surprise name on Magee’s list of greats is Schopenhauer, whom he sees as Kant’s legitimate and successful inheritor. That is, according to Magee, Schopenhauer took the basic Kantian view about what kind of experience we could have given the kind of beings we are and fruitfully developed it in several directions. Schopenhauer, who lived in the first half of the 19th century, is the first philosopher to be openly atheist, the first to explicitly link Western thought to eastern Buddhism, and the philosopher who took both aesthetic and sexual experience most seriously, as a road to this-world transcendent experience, as that which, however briefly, takes us out of time.

“Schopenhauer’s view of total reality,” Magee explains, “is that there is an immaterial, undifferentiated, timeless, spaceless something of which we can never have direct knowledge but which manifests itself to us as this differentiated phenomenal world of material objects (including us) in time and space.” Schopenhauer reluctantly used the term “will” to characterize this manifesting in the phenomenal world, but he would have done better, Magee and other philosophers note, to have simply called it “energy,” to say that what reality manifests for us is energy as the basic form of phenomenal life. A fuller discussion of Schopenhauer is available in Magee’s The Great Philosophers (1987), in which he engages in a dialogue with historian of philosophy Frederick Copleston about Schopenhauer, and in Magee’s own book about Schopenhauer, but the two chapters in Confessions provide an introduction that moves readers toward a reconsideration of a neglected, possibly major philosophic voice.

Finally, in addition to what he has to say about the philosophers he considers great, Magee also has some attractive thoughts about existentialism, “another body of writing to which I found myself unusually responsive.” His discussion of Sartre and Heidegger turns up in a chapter called “Mid-Life Crisis,” which is precisely about what it says it’s about. It’s at such a point in life that the question, What is existence?, often recommends itself, and Magee gives full marks to Heidegger, who is periodically dismissed by analytic philosophers as merely impentrable nonsense. As elsewhere in his book, Magee is convincing that doing philosophy is not just fooling around.

Confessions of a Philosopher is a long book, and not without some languors and irritating tics. Magee’s chapter about writing fiction — he wrote a couple of novels — explains why fiction isn’t really autobiographical, which is probably true, but the discussion is more tedious than enlightening. Magee becomes a bit tiresome about people who are not really interested in philosophy, and positively boring in his reiterated insistence on the second-rateness of secondary writers and readers, which presumably includes all company present. Yes, of course, read the great philosophers directly, but anyone who thinks you can read Kant or Heidegger without plain-speaking commentators is kidding, if not himself, then us. And since Magee himself is such an agreeable expositor of philosophy, the growling about the first-rate is rather ironic.

Magee’s book is refreshingly un-trendy, a little old-fashioned in some ways, but, above all, it brings to the philosophical conversation the sense of wonder without which the pursuit of philosophy is merely another of the dismal discourses.

Berlin, January 18, 2005.

Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano College in N. Vancouver, British Columbia.

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Stan Persky

Stan Persky

Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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