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on 1 December 1999
Magee has spent a good slice of his life trying to popularise philosophy. He has never cheapened the subject. On the way he has written a very competent introduction to Popper and an unusual yet compelling account of Schopenhauer. Those who might expect some detailed personal insights into his life will remain disappointed. However his love affair with philosophy is perfectly represented and as your other reviewers suggest he constantly engages us. I also believe that tribute should be paid to his open mindedness-anyone who can appreciate both Karl Popper and Martin Heidegger deserves to be heard. This is an excellent and unpretentious account which can be safely read as an introduction to some central issues in philosophy. Long may Mr Magee continue to write
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on 5 March 2017
This philosophical "autobiography" starts off on the initial page well enough. However even by page 6 you're beginning to think this is a bit torn and tedious. By this stage he's already gone through naïve speculations about space and time even about movements through space by objects. His conclusions seem maddening, and even in tune with modern adult philosophers, who maybe he wants to seem in tune with or maybe not? However nobody can really be that interested because the biographical details are almost non-existent. I don't know if he changes track to include more of himself, but if he doesn't then maybe he's too scared of the actuality, and these things are necessary for a good text of this kind, in fact if it is to be an autobiography at all. His Great philosophers is a masterful text, but to my mind I think this one is severely faulty. If you want a philosophical autobiography then Ted Honderich And Paul Feyerabend do far better by including themselves and others and seeming normal to an extent by doing so. poor
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 11 September 2005
Bryan Magee's masterly confessions cover not only his philosophical work, but also his life as a Labour politician and his TV and writer's career.
As a politician, he was disappointed by the only marginal impact of government interventions and became a political Liberal. But his main aim has always been individual freedom.
His analyses of the philosophy of Popper, Russell, Kant, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Mill, Augustinus, Schelling, Fichte, Frege, and others, are profound, extremely clear and to the point (a rarity today).
He is absolutely correct in his evaluation of the British language philosophy: she constitutes the bankruptcy of philosophy and ends in a morass of 'playing with words'. The assumption that everything can be expressed by words is too preposterous to take it even into consideration: how do you say a piano concerto of Mozart or the Mona Lisa. As one other philosopher asked in an interview on the BBC: have they nothing else to do in this world?
His world view is rather pessimistic: people are lead by false values (mimicry, compromise ...) rather than by love, loyalty to truth or integrity.
Other leitmotivs in this book are his fear for death and the intellectual catastrophe of common sense (our senses discern nothing of what happens in the real, physical world: atoms, speed of the earth...)
Nevertheless, I disagree with him on one crucial point : his Kantian philosophical problem of the link between personal freedom and the determinist physical laws. For Magee, it is impossible to have individual freedom in an empirical world reigned by these laws. There must for him be a world (a part of the human body) outside these laws, that provides the foundation for freedom.
I side here with Popper and Stephen Hawking who say that the solution of this problem lays in the brain. Our brain is subject to the uncertainty principle, in other words, to the randomness associated with quantum mechanics (S. Hawking 'Black Holes and Baby Universes).
For a refutation of Kant, see W. Heisenberg 'Physics and Philosophy'.
This book constitutes an enriching and most entertaining dialogue with the reader. Not to be missed.
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on 13 September 1999
I've just subjected this book to the ultimate test: did I want to read it in hospital while waiting for surgery? It takes a truly compelling book to pass that one, and Magee's book passes it with ease. As others have noted, the mix of autobiography with potted insights to what Real Philosophy is about is a delight. But the most valuable thing for me is the way Magee fearlessly exposes the sham philosophy indulgently "studied" for many years in the UK, specifically in Oxford. It was this linguistic analysis that led to philosophy becoming a laughing stock outside the narrow confines of academe in the UK, derided as navel-gazing of the very worst sort. Magee shows how it came about, and why it proved worthless. And one knows it's not sour grapes propelling his attack (he had a perfectly respectably academic career himself), but genuine insight. As someone trained in physics, I never thought I'd say this, but...philosophy might actually be worth finding out more about after all.
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on 29 March 1999
For most of us philosophy has very little to do with real life. Indeed the word conjures up visions of ivory towers where academics debate at length how many angels can dance on a pin head. Philosophy is dry, boring and not something that concerns us because we have more important things to worry about. Granted we are from time to time vaguely concerned with questions like, "What does it all mean?" or "Can a scientist believe in God?", but we quickly put it out of our minds and start thinking about the Budget or little Robert's toothache.
It was therefore a revelation to me to read the "Confessions of a Philosopher" by Bryan Magee. Here is a man who, from childhood has been deeply worried about the meaning of reality, who came to philosophy via a PPE degree at Oxford and who realised that the subject was absolutely central to his own sanity and well-being. The story of his philosophic journey is a fascinating one which I found difficult to put down. There are not many books that will keep me reading into the small hours, but this was one such.
Here is a readable explanation of the contributions made by most of the great philosophers from Plato to Wittgenstein. Here is a crushing attack on the Oxford school of linguistic analysis which dominated English philosophy in the 1950s and 60s. Here for the first time I found a convincing, logical argument that science has nothing to say about what is outside the experience of our senses and that there is therefore no contradiction between science and religion. This was particularly topical for me because I had just been listening to an engineer friend expressing his disappointment that his son, also an engineer, was a sincere Christian.
Clearly a man of exceptional intelligence, Mr Magee also has the common touch with a gift for communicating difficult concepts to a wide audience. The book is full of personal reminiscences of the great names in philosophy. Thus, for example, he counted Karl Popper as a personal friend and was waited on at tea by Bertrand Russell.
Bryan Magee made something of a name for himself as the presenter of a series of discussion programmes which brought philosophy to the general public via television. In this he was quite successful though one wonders if the general "dumbing down" of the media which we are experiencing would allow such programmes to be broadcast now. He tells us that television was an enjoyable way of making money while he studied something that interested him. Lucky man! But the story of his lifelong search for meaning (which still continues) is not only fascinating it is also instructive. I can recommend it to anyone who has been put off philosophy in the past but would like to give it a second chance.
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on 3 October 2016
Really disappointed with this book. Self indulgent to the point of unreadability. The author makes the same point over and over again making each chapter longer than it needs to be. Don't get me wrong, the author has vaild points and they are interesting but not the way he presents them here, I feel this book could be half the size and it would be more enjoyable. I skipped half the first chapter and stuck with it for the second and third but am now too disillusioned to finish it and i am not the type of person to not finish books.
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on 6 December 1998
For most people, philosophy is a dry subject. The development and emphasis on linguistics over the past fifty years or so leads the novice and would-be student to conclude it to be a specialist field, of interest only to those who have reached some strange, indefinable height of intellectual achievement, and are more often than not put off further study. Here, at last is a book which is a personal testament of a real philosopher who recognises this to be a flaw in philosophy, who has been drawn to the subject over a long life-time immersed in real concerns and real ideas and how they come to influence the shape of reality as we encounter it. He restores to its study and exploration that cosmopolitan feel which recognises no boundaries that would narrow it to some dusty corner of interest only to a tiny minority of cognoscenti. While his peers concerned themselves with post-Viennese positivistic and linguistic tracts, he went further afield to where philosophers, scientists, religious and the political were exchanging thoughts and ideas with each other on matters of moment. His main concern is always ideas in themselves and not the shoring up of the current status quo burdened by its own weight in the specialism called philosophy. The range of his concerns is extraordinary, and the conduct of his life is no different from that of an explorer embarked upon ventures of discovery, fascinated by everything. Beneath that fascination are still the same fundamental questions of reality and existence, to which philosophy is fast estranging itself, but in reality are the concerns and inspiration behind so much literature and motive in human action and desire. For this reason, the book contains an element of tragedy which comes to light only because Bryan Magee is ruthlessly honest. While his interests are legion, these interests themselves become a source of dogmatism and constriction in their application to problem-solving to certain existential problems which are the heart of real philosophy. He seems to lack the faith in himself to further the exploration of ideas on the frontiers of thought because he does not feel accomplished enough, on the grounds that he feels the lack of originality or that others are better suited than himself. As a result, when faced with a dilemma at a crisis point in his own life, instead of looking inwardly to his own resources, he comes upon the philosophy of Schopenhauer whose perspectives of reality inform him of a way of resolving the dangers that this turning point in his life presented. What he has to say about Schopenhauer is illuminating, but I would have preferred to know how he might have resolved his difficulties unaided. Consequently, while he is capable of instilling in readers the sense of wonder and curiosity (sadly rare these days!) which is the source of being of philosophy, he seems himself to be pessimistic about his own contribution, almost as though it were second rate and not worth mentioning. For instance, he recalls in passing a moment in his life when he was writing a dissertation on the subject of metaphor, and then does not mention it again. We live in a time in which we do not see that what we take for reality is riddled with metaphors that are an aspect only of reality and a partial representation of it. Yet we take it to be complete, or heading for completion. There is so little work done in this area, work requiring a keen mind and a strong background knowledge, making Bryan Magee the most likely candidate to pursue this to which his intuition draws him, yet he shrinks from the challenge, preferring to recommend a reading list (and a very good list at that) and conducts his life teaching and informing others of the best ideas around, while revealing few of his own. This is such a disappointment, since his insights on others are so sharp. However, at a time when there are hundreds of critiques and texts that we are encouraged to read about almost every philosopher that has ever been, it is refreshing to find a philosopher who encourages us to read the original texts and form opinions of our own rather than embarking on a kind of look-around to see what others think of them. It is just such pity that he does not reveal more about his own ideas, and is content to explore other minds more than his own. All the same, because the book reads both like a detective story and biography, I can think of no better introduction to the subject of real philosophy and no better person to write it.
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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.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 22 August 2011
Set in a biographical context, Magee explores his life before and after encountering philosophy; his journey through and within philosophy is charted clearly (just what one would expect from Magee) and in his chronological order:
Academic Philosophy
Logical Positivism and its Refutation
Linguistic Analysis
Inadequacy of Linguistic Philosophy
What Can Be Shown but Not Said
A Yale Education
The Discovery of Kant
Professional Versus Amateur Philosophy
Getting to Know Popper
Getting to Know Russell and so on for another twelve chapters

At times,a challenging read but, generally an enjoyable, fascinating read.
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on 3 September 2010
Bryan Magee takes us through his own philosophical development, and in doing so gives a perspective on the major philosophers who have offered answers to some of the hard questions of life the universe and everything. He is a stimulating companion, and I am finding that he makes sense of philosophers I have previously read with little enlightenment. This is a man who has lived both inside and outside academia, and it shows. This is probably the first philosophy book that has collected descriptions like "exhilarating" (Philosophy Now), "thrilling" (The Times), "extraordinary wisdom" (The Telegraph).
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