Even Men Of Ideas Are Mortal

The philosopher Bryan Magee offers up his ultimate philosophical reflections

Anthony Kenny

In a long life Bryan Magee has served philosophy well. In the 1980s, as a television presenter, he hosted two series of programmes, 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.

The ideas Magee presents have a distinguished pedigree. His dualism can trace its ancestry to Descartes, and his empiricism goes back to Locke. However, there is an alternative account of human nature, according to which human beings are simply rational animals without any mystical inner selves. They are material objects gifted with life, sensation, and thought. They are social animals whose experiences are not private but may be manifested to other members of society.

This alternative philosophy has an even more venerable pedigree, going back to Aristotle. But it acquired new life in the 20th century when Wittgenstein took the axe to dualism and empiricism. Magee frequently expresses admiration for Wittgenstein: but when he quotes it is from the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, not from the mature Philosophical Investigations which offered us liberation from false pictures of the human mind.

It is in relation to an afterlife that Magee is, in my view, too agnostic. He more than once puts the question “Do we cease to exist when we die?” and he tells us that only a being with higher powers than ours could know the answer. He imagines himself being asked, about a loved one, such questions as “Is she an immortal soul?” His answer is “I don’t know . . . I do not know these things even about myself, let alone her.” I believe that he should have answered “No.” We are not immortal souls. We are animals that are not only rational, but also mortal.

In several places Magee expresses his worry about death. This is totally understandable, given that for all he knows he might live on in some totally unknown — and therefore possibly horrendous — form. But he is horrified also by the possibility of annihilation. I find this hard to understand. I do not see my own annihilation as any event of grand tragedy. The universe existed for many millennia before I was born and no doubt it will do so very well for long after I die. And as for me, once I am annihilated, there will be no me to feel any pain, anguish, regret or despair.

Magee’s writing always makes very easy reading. Some object to this, saying that philosophy has no shallow end, and cannot but be difficult. That is true, but Magee is addressing not those who are already in the water, but those who are shivering on the bank wondering whether to dive in. This book may well encourage them to do so. If they believe everything it says, then in my view they will be seriously misled. But the same is true of Descartes’ Discourse on Method and Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding.

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