Friday, 11 January 2002

Bryan Magee: Confessions of a Philosopher (1997)

Edition: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997
Review number: 1035

Brian Magee has spent much of his adult life presenting "highbrow" TV programmes, mainly attempting to popularise philosophy. This book is partly autobiography, and partly short accounts of the ideas of some of the philosophers who have been important in his life.

Having been disturbed by philosophical problems (such as whether the world we see is real) to an unusual extent as a child, Magee studied philosophy. However, he was disillusioned by postgraduate study at Oxford, then in the grip of linguistic analysis, which he felt was both sterile and, because not concerned with what he considered the real problems, not really philosophy. Eventually moving into TV, he used the fact that it paid well to work only half the time, spending the rest of his life studying philosophy, attending concerts and seeing plays. In the course of time, he came to know two of the outstanding philosophers of the twentieth century, Bertrand Russell and Karl Popper.

The major portion of the book consists of explanations of the main philosophical problems as Magee sees them (those raised by Kant, basically), and descriptions of the ideas of several philosophers, both those who have attacked these problems (particularly Schopenhauer, for whom he has a great admiration) and those who turned important schools of twentieth century philosophy away from them into the dead ends of logical positivism and linguistic analysis. These explanations, generally well integrated with the biographical material, are clear and easy to read, and have the real virtue of pointing the reader to the original sources (while warning of some of the most difficult to read - Hegel, Fichte in particular).

Confessions of a Philosopher has certainly made me want to go away and read more philosophy and think about these problems; and that is something that I think would make Magee feel he has succeeded.

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