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. They ruled out as "non-philosophical" any discussion which was carried on in language that did not meet their narrow criteria of meaningfulness. The Linguistic Philosophers, who gradually took over from the Logical Positivists, 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.
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 post-graduate 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.
For Magee, however, the existence of a truth hidden from us has 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 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 also 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 non-sensory experience which transports us into a non-sensory 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. But Magee is 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.
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.