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Confessions of a Philosopher

Ralph Blumenau reviews Bryan Magee’s philosophical autobiography.

Confessions can be of two kinds: confessions of faith and confessions of failure. Bryan Magee’s vividly written intellectual autobiography has the character of both. His convictions make for exhilarating reading; but his failure to find in philosophy a reliable answer to his deepest concerns casts a shadow over the book, which darkens in the last chapter to a tormented despondency.

Magee’s basic conviction is that philosophy is hugely important, in that it deals – or should deal – with all our ultimate questions about what the world, and therefore our existence in this world, is really like. His most trenchant attacks are on the Logical Positivists who dominated the Oxford scene at the time when he was an undergraduate there, and for many years afterwards. Claiming to be “scientific” in their approach (often without knowing very much about modern science), they concentrated exclusively on what would make the language in which philosophical discourse could be carried on “meaningful”, by which they meant empirically verifiable. They ruled out as “non-philosophical” any discussion which was carried on in language that did not meet their criteria of meaningfulness. They were influenced by the work done on language by Bertrand Russell and the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus, but they ignored or even misinterpreted these two philosophers, who had stated that the rigorous use of language was indeed important and had worked out ways in which to make it so, but at the same time had declared that the philosophical issues which could not be discussed in this way were more important than those which could. The Linguistic Philosophers, who gradually took over from the Logical Positivists, based themselves on the later Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations, and were even less concerned with the truth or verifiability of a proposition. Instead, they thought that the principal task of philosophy was to elucidate the way words were used in practice, by examining, for example, the way in which the same word might mean different things to different people. They believed that it was not the business of philosophers to go beyond that and to produce any theories: as Gilbert Ryle defined it, philosophy was merely “talk about talk.”

Magee describes these Oxford philosophers as having all the characteristics of a narrow and intolerant sect. They considered that Kant and Schopenhauer, who showed up the limits of empiricism, had so little to say that seemed to them ‘meaningful’ that no acquaintance with them was required of undergraduates. Neither Kant nor Schopenhauer were part of the philosophy courses at Oxford, which jumped straight from Hume to Wittgenstein. The Establishment kept Karl Popper, whom Magee considers by far the greatest philosopher of our time, out of a professorship at Oxford and Cambridge. Popper was, like them, an empiricist; but one who, unlike them, understood the way science really worked and had demonstrated the impossibility of the verification principle.

But even Popper leaves Magee ultimately dissatisfied. Magee had the strong conviction that the empirical world cannot be all there is: empirical and linguistic theories had nothing to say about those experiences we have, and have very intensely, which are therefore profoundly meaningful, but whose source we can hardly explain adequately: these include the arts (and especially Magee’s great love of music) and intimate personal relationships.

After Oxford, Magee took a postgraduate course at Yale. He draws a vivid contrast between the cliquish atmosphere among Oxford philosophers and the broad and generous interest in the whole field of philosophy at Yale. There Magee discovered Kant, and at last he had found a thinker who spoke to his intuition that there was more to philosophy than the dry, narrow and limited fare that was dished out at Oxford. For it was Kant who explained that there must be a reality (the noumenal world) beyond the phenomenal world of which we have experience; that the noumenal world is something we cannot ever know because we are forced to perceive the world in terms of the concepts and categories which we have as human beings and which may not correspond at all with what Reality is actually like. Bertrand Russell in his explanation of Kant famously used the analogy of blue spectacles: if you were forced always to look at the world through blue spectacles, you could only know the world tinted in that way; but once you were aware that you were forced to look at the world through blue spectacles, you would know that you could not know what the world really looks like. The concepts and categories through which we have to experience the world, and which therefore are subjective and not objective, are Time and Space, Cause and Effect, and a number of other such pairs. Kant went further; he demonstrated in ways which cannot be gone into here (but whose conclusion was later, by quite different methods, confirmed by Einstein) that Time and Space cannot operate in the noumenal world in the way in which we experience them here. We experience Time as sequential; in the noumenal world there can be no such thing as Past, Present and Future.

So here Magee found a philosophy that spoke of the existence of a noumenal world, but one which was for ever hidden from us. The existence of a truth hidden from us, has, however, always been for him “almost intolerably frustrating” (a phrase he uses several times in the book); and so it was not until he discovered Schopenhauer – of whom Magee would later write a splendid study just reissued in paperback by the Oxford University Press – that his thirst for a philosophical glimpse of what that Reality might be was somewhat assuaged.

In many ways, Schopenhauer says, we see ourselves phenomenally, as material objects mediated by space and time; but as material objects we are unique in knowing ourselves also from the inside. Because we are part of the noumenal reality, we therefore experience something of the noumenon, as it were, from the inside, feeling the noumenon at work within us (even though we don’t know what it is.) That experience is direct and intuitive; it is not the result of reasoning or of perceptions mediated by our concepts. It is not sensory at all and cannot be adequately described in sensory terms. For example, when we hear music or see a work of art, we can give a sensory description in terms of sound or sight signals we receive, but more significant is the nonsensory experience which transports us into a nonsensory realm, gives us a feeling of at-One-ness with something beyond ourselves, i.e. with the noumenal.

That discovery was for Magee an enormous enrichment of the way he understood himself and could establish in some way a connection between himself and the noumenon. But even Schopenhauer does not fully deal with Magee’s “almost intolerable frustrations”; and we now have to turn to the second meaning of “Confessions”: the confession of a kind of failure, the cloud that casts a shadow over his entire philosophical enterprise.

Almost throughout his life Magee has been haunted by an existentialist Angst, and he records times when this has plunged him into real terror. In his last chapter he defines the ultimate questions of philosophy as “questions that are of the greatest possible urgency for us, concerning as they do our annihilation or survival.” He courageously admits, more than once, that the prospect of extinction terrifies him. He is not religious; he thinks that religious beliefs in any kind of immortality are based on wishful thinking; but he hopes desperately that there might be philosophical grounds for believing in some kind of the survival of the Self. If there is no kind of immortality at all, then life is absurd in the sense in which some of the continental Existentialists used that word.

Magee is rather dismissive of ‘continental philosophy’: he finds it insufficiently rigorous, and often “parochially concerned with human affairs” instead of trying to understand “what is” (p.454). I find that dismissal somewhat cavalier, and indeed at odds with the respect he pays elsewhere to Nietzsche and Heidegger; and I venture to speculate that there is a deeper reason for it. Magee must find in those humanist existentialists descriptions of the human condition which he would have to share if indeed there were no such thing as immortality; but, although he tells us that of course a philosopher must not engage in wishful thinking, he is yet not prepared to conclude that life is absurd; he is still hoping that philosophy may break through to produce a convincing argument for some kind of immortality. This is, in my opinion, the reason why again and again he returns to the Kantian assertion that Past, Present, and Future cannot exist in the noumenal world, that in the noumenal world there is a ‘tenseless’ time in which some aspect of the self can exist for ever. But he also has philosophical problems about what the ‘self’ might be, since it is not a possible object of observation or experience and since he recognises the distinct possibility that, whatever the self might be, it might perish with the body.

Magee says he cannot understand how so many philosophers are content to leave what he himself considers such crucial questions to one side – either because they are not greatly troubled by them or because, even if they were perturbed by them, they consider them unanswerable. Magee confesses that his own temperament does not allow him to leave these questions alone for either of these reasons. His is not a Stoic personality.

This review has dealt with the main thread that runs through the book; perforce it has had to leave many fascinating aspects undiscussed. There are stimulating thoughts on almost every page. He calls on common sense as a corrective to what the linguistic philosophers had to say about what we can experience; but he also remarks how deceptive common sense can be, how “counter-intuitive” even the phenomenal world is often shown to be by the sciences. There are valuable reflections on History. He has interesting things to say about how he constructed the philosophical novel he has written and about the art of producing radio and television programmes on philosophy. He gives us striking pen-portraits of Russell and of Popper, with both of whom Magee had many discussions. There are fine pages on Wagner (as one would expect from the author of a famous little book on the composer) and on Mahler. Most of the book can be understood and enjoyed by readers who come to it with no previous knowledge of philosophy; the style is crystal clear, expansive and vigorous, except perhaps in the last chapter whose content is also rather harder going. The book is sure to run into several editions; in which case it is to be hoped that the editors will be a little more generous with commas and will not repeat the frequent and ghastly separation of the syllables in “Schopenhauer”!

© Ralph Blumenau 1997

Confessions of a Philosopher by Bryan Magee pub. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997, ISBN 0 297 81959 3 £20 (hardback)

Ralph Blumenau teaches philosophy at the University of the Third Age in London.

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