A Journey Through Western Philosopy
Phoenix, London, 1998
Magee is known to many British people as the presenter of two excellent television series about philosophy. This book is an exhilarating account of his own relationship with philosophy, one which was mostly conducted outside of academic life. He worked as a TV producer and author, and was also a Labour member of parliament, and a theatre and music critic. Despite all this activity, he managed so to organize himself that he could engage in deep study of the philosophical problems that had troubled him since childhood, and situate these concerns in an active, rather than purely contemplative life.
The reason why this story is of interest beyond his own personal experiences, is that his engagement with philosophy reveals substantial failings in professional philosophy in respect of two major thinkers. Magee's independence of mind allowed to him realize the importance of a then neglected figure who he came to see as the greatest philosopher of the 20th century: Karl Popper.
The other name is Schopenhauer:
"There are many respects in which, at the very deepest level, our understanding of the human condition remains where Kant and Schopenhauer left it".
The saga of Western philosophy is made vivid by Magee's discussion of Bertrand Russell, whom he knew personally:
"if only Russell had taken Kant on board as a young man he could have begun his career as a philosopher from the point at which he ended it... it took him the whole of a magnificent career to reach the conclusion that empiricism is fundamentally inadequate for a reason given by Kant".
This kind of oversight is of course not merely the tragedy of one person, given Russell's enormous influence on philosophy. We have here massive cases of cultural scotoma, in Sacks' sense.
Magee wrote a very successful book "Aspects of Wagner" as well as innumerable music reviews. In his student years, he writes, "My supreme love was music, and from an early age I had boozed and swilled it". There is a fascinating discussion of his friend Deryck Cook, who created a performing draft of Mahler's 10th Symphony from sketches left by the composer. The brilliance of Cooke was further fuel for Magee's argument, against linguistic philosophy, that our experience is not fundamentally constructed along linguistic lines.
This is a rich book, which will repay many re-readings. I cannot go along with all the arguments, but am reminded by them to go back to Kant and other major thinkers, which is part of the purpose of the book:
"...whoever one is, and at whatever age, and whatever else one may have read, there is more insight to be gained from reading, let us say, Spinoza for the first time, or Schopenhauer for the first time, than anything that has been published in the last thirty years. Anyone who does not understand this does not understand the fundamental nature of philosophy".
Since I wrote this review, there is another reason to skip secondary sources and go back to Kant directly: Magee's book has been pulped due to a disastrous libel case. My own copy has now been buried in a time capsule in Wiltshire.
© Paul Taylor 2001