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In a long life Bryan Magee has served philosophy well. In the 1980s, as a television presenter, he hosted two series of programmes, Men of Ideas and The Great Philosophers, which were highly popular and widely admired by professionals. To this day many teenagers get their introduction to philosophy through these interviews, whether in book form or on YouTube. In his books he has taught philosophers things they did not know about Wagner and Schopenhauer. Now in his eighties, and preoccupied with the thought of death, Magee offers us his own ultimate philosophical reflections.

The main aim of his book is to remind us how little we know about ourselves and our place in the universe. Magee’s appeal for modesty is infinitely more attractive than the stance of those philosophers and scientists who believe that we now know almost all that there is to know of importance, with only a few details remaining to be tidied up. He sums up his position in a resounding manifesto. “We, who do not know what we are, have to fashion lives for ourselves in a universe of which we know little and understand less.”

In the way that Locke is known as the empiricist among philosophers, and Hume as the sceptic, and Schopenhauer as the pessimist, we are told by Magee that he would choose, “if I were to merit a tag, to be known as the agnostic”. As his manifesto indicates, he is agnostic both about the structure of the universe and the nature of human beings. In my view, he is insufficiently agnostic about the universe, and excessively agnostic about human nature.

With regard to the universe, Magee is sure that it is not the work of a creator God. “I have never found myself able to believe in the existence of a god , though again I cannot prove his non-existence, just as no one can prove his existence” and he goes on to say, “Anyone who sets off in honest and serious pursuit of truth needs to know that in doing that he is leaving religion behind.” Though I share Magee’s agnosticism about the existence of God, I think that the arguments and attitudes of religious believers should not be so cavalierly dismissed.

With regard to human nature Magee, as I have said, is too agnostic. But before showing that, I should say that he does in fact claim to know a number of things about human beings, or at least about himself. He knows, for instance, that he is not identical with his body: “I own it and am in it, as a driver owns and is in a car . . . But I am not it.” He has a self, which is not the same as himself, but is something that he knows, in an incommunicable way, from the inside. His knowledge of things other than himself is built up from a private, inexpressible, experience of consciousness.

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All he surveys
March 9th, 2016
2:03 PM
For once, a piece that's too brief. I should have liked far more explication on the Wittgenstein stuff. As for those critics who dismiss Magee for being too easy to read, at least some of them are charlatans. It is true that philosophy cannot but be difficult, but it is also true that there are a lot of people who confuse opacity of thought with profundity. Magee, like Kenny, is to be saluted for never having done so.

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