Bryan Magee is probably my favourite philosopher, if not of all time then certainly of those who have lived and worked during my lifetime. The book I’m reviewing here is Magee’s autobiography, and was first published in 1997, though he has gone on to write many more books and I believe he is still writing now, despite being in his late 80’s at the time I write this.
Why do I hold Magee in such high esteem? Because I believe his approach to philosophy is the correct one, and is one that is often neglected in contemporary study of the subject. As I wrote in the introduction to Part 2 of my book The Philosophy of a Mad Man, philosophy should be about the investigation of all of life’s mysteries, rather than a technical exercise undertaken by academics.
In fact, a large part of Magee’s autobiography is dedicated to his expressing an understandable frustration concerning what the study of philosophy has become. He heavily criticises the traditions of analytic philosophy and linguistic philosophy as being largely uninteresting and peripheral to what real philosophy should be.
Magee is what I would describe as a ‘philosopher of philosophers’ in that he isn’t well-known for producing any groundbreaking original ideas that have shaken the world of philosophy, but he has instead dedicated himself in an admirable way to understanding the great thinkers from the history of philosophy.
He has had a quite amazing career, which involved a nine-year spell as a member of Parliament in the UK, and he hosted various television series which brought philosophy to a mainstream audience, as well as authoring over 25 books. If you search the name Bryan Magee on YouTube you will be able to find some of his discussions and interviews with other philosophers, and if you watch them you’ll see what an incredibly articulate and adept presenter he is.
In Confessions of a Philosopher Magee talks about experiencing a kind of existential terror as a young man, due to having deep questions about the nature of reality that he couldn’t answer. In one particularly interesting passage, he describes watching himself bending his finger and being mystified and fascinated by the fact that he could do such a thing at will. Later in the book Magee describes various crises that he experienced (most notably what he described as a mid-life crisis) and how reading the great philosophers, especially Kant and Schopenhauer, provided a great deal of help during difficult times.
Being a theist myself, it pains me that Magee never received a revelation of the reality of God. So many of the problems that he struggled with throughout his life and career can be answered with reference to God, but Magee always felt (as many atheist philosophers do) that positing the existence of God was a kind of cop-out. He simply had no revelation that God exists, and this explains many of his struggles.
As I read Magee describing questions that he felt no philosopher has been able to answer, I felt a great sense of blessing that God has gifted me with answers to many of those difficult questions, though if I were to tell this to Magee I fear he would be sceptical (although who knows, maybe not beyond persuasion). I did actually write to Magee once when I was considering undertaking postgraduate studies at Oxford, as I knew he was associated with the university and I hoped he would be able to tutor me. He wrote me a lovely letter back explaining he had now retired from such work, but to receive a response from a philosopher who I admire so much was precious.
I believe that Confessions of a Philosopher serves as a good introduction to many of the great names and problems of philosophy, and it’s a large book that covers a lot of ground. Magee has a knack for writing in an accessible way, although I will warn readers that he uses some distinctly philosophical terms (e.g. phenomenal and noumenal, metaphysics, epistemology, etc) that might be off-putting to those who have no familiarity with the subject. He does make an effort to explain complex terminology when he uses it.
Magee’s life story is fascinating, especially so for British and American readers (he’s an Englishman but spent some time at Yale University in the US), though his work has been translated into many languages which demonstrates its broad appeal. Though he may not be widely recognised as one of the all-time great philosophers, I feel inspired by his integrity and knowledge, and his dedication to grappling with the deep mysteries of existence.
I purchased this book myself and was under no obligation to write a review, I just did so because I love reviewing important books that are relevant to theology and philosophy. You can check out some of my other book reviews by clicking here. If this review has whetted your appetite for philosophy, you can read my recent post entitled ‘Is Philosophy Important?’ by clicking here. Thank you for reading!