Bryan Magee: A Charmed Life
Confessions of a Philosopher

An essay by Rafe Champion

*  ESSAY *

Magee: Logical positivism must have had real defects. What do you now, in retrospect, think the main ones were?

Ayer: Well I suppose the most important of the defects was that nearly all of it was false.

The main theme of the book is Magee's dissatisfaction with the mainstream of analytical philosophy, and his quest for a philosophy that has something to say about the big questions that philosophy and science do not attempt to answer. A subtext to the main theme is Magee's progress through life as a writer, politician, social commentator and broadcaster.
In many ways Magee has lived a charmed life, following his interests and effectively combining business with pleasure in a long, varied and productive career.  On the way (70 not out) he has written some sixteen books, anchored a leading weekly TV current affairs program, studied and taught in leading universities, served ten years in the British Parliament and pioneered the serious presentation of ideas to mass audiences on radio and TV.

He has rudely violated the tough versus tender minded dichotomy; in his career he has clearly been tough and durable, however the man within has been tormented by fears that are supposed to be the preserve of the introverted and indecisive Hamlets of the world. Consequently the structure of the book combines the personal and the public in a manner which some readers will find disconcerting and even exasperating. The personal in this instance does not involve the revelation of a lurid and scandalous private life, rather it is the inner life that is explored, starting from childish wonder at small things, a sense of wonder which matured into an abiding passion for the big questions of meaning, purpose and identity in the face of mortality. These interests were no doubt nurtured by his immersion in the musical and cultural life of London, however at Oxford it took a long time to find that philosophy could address big questions, or even modest but important topics such as the philosophy of science. Liam Hudson's book The Cult of the Fact is an amusing and revealing memoir of the same period, and Tom Stoppard's play Jumpers lampooned the mannerisms of unworldly philosophers, possibly inspired by the example of George Moore.

Magee read history and philosophy at Oxford and Yale (a breath of fresh air), then in 1956 he moved to London and found his way into radio and TV. Blessed with a flair for research and presentation he rose to anchor the leading British weekly current affairs program on TV. This advanced his political education in a very interesting way because he travelled all over the world and discovered the reality of life under communist and socialist regimes.  To his dismay, back home even his conservative friends could not credit the full extent of the brutality and squalor that he encountered under the Marxist regimes of the world. The tough-minded side of Magee clearly had a firm grip on reality even though he started on the left of politics.

The international jet-setting involved in the TV work took a huge toll on the private lives of the crew, so Magee's opted to work six weeks on and six weeks off.

"After I had achieved a measure of success on television, inducements of money and fame were dangled in front of me to work in it full-time, but I never felt any temptation to accept them. To me, TV was a fortunately available way of earning a full-time living in half the time, leaving myself free to devote the other half to work of my own choice.”

Work of his own choice consisted of reading, writing and Labour politics, with parallel immersion in music, drama and love affairs. At Oxford he read Popper’s Open Society and its Enemies, a book that made a profound impression upon him, and he encountered Popper in the flesh in 1958 at a meeting of the Aristotelian Society. This contact revealed Magee at his toughest.  Popper delivered the Presidential address, a paper on the pre-Socratic philosophers, the Ionian school of Thales and his pupils , among them Anaximander and his pupil Anaximenes.  Popper arguing that this school was the nursery which launched  the Western tradition of critical thinking and speculative thought, so that knowledge advances by bold speculations, controlled by criticism, not by the incremental accumulation of information. Magee was spellbound by Popper's thesis because it challenged and potentially demolished hundreds of years of philosophising and especially the prevailing philosophy of science. He was agog to hear what the assembled luminaries of the trade had to say about it.  He could not believe his ears.

“The entire discussion, which became impassioned, turned on whether or not this or that particular pre-Socratic philosopher had been correctly represented by Popper, and whether the ambiguities of a key word in the original Greek had been properly accounted for...We had just been presented with a possible turning point in the ongoing history of philosophy, and no-one in the room was sufficiently interested even to discuss it.”

He went home, nursing his wrath, and wrote to Popper to say that the intellectual frivolity of the gathering was unforgivable but he, Popper, had been partly to blame for presenting his revolutionary epistemology under the guise of a historical study. He had done something similar in the Open Society so that this magisterial statement of the principles of equalitarian democracy was being widely dismissed as a clever, maybe even brilliant, critique of long-dead scholars, but in no way of contemporary relevance. "He really must stop doing this, I said. His ideas were immensely important, but he was presenting them in a way that almost ensured that they would be misunderstood." A long-running and stormy but rewarding friendship ensued. Magee's chief memory of his early meetings with Popper was that of

“ intellectual aggressiveness such as I had never encountered before. Everything we argued about he pursued relentlessly, beyond the limits of acceptable aggression in conversation. As Ernst Gombrich - his closest friend, who loved him - once put it to me, he seemed unable to accept the continued existence of different points of view, but went on and on about them with a kind of unforgivingness until the dissenter, so to speak, put his signature to a confession that he was wrong and Popper was right. In practice this meant that he was trying to subjugate people...All this was the grossest possible violation of the spirit of liberalism exemplified and advocated in his writings..."The totalitarian liberal" was one of his nicknames at the London School of Economics, and it was a perceptive one. I did not approve of this, and as a result all of Popper's early discussions with me were carried on by him in a kind of rage, regardless of the subject matter.”

At that time Magee was only in his twenties but he was one of the few people who was prepared to stand toe to toe in argument with Popper. They had plenty to argue about, including major differences in musical taste, for example Magee loves Wagner, who Popper loathed. They also had major political differences because at that time Magee advocated a large role for government intervention while Popper was suspicious of social democrat parties because they advanced socialism by stealth under the influence of radical fringe groups and the trade unions.

Magee had a short but rewarding friendship with Bertrand Russell until the old man was cut off from the world by his mendacious private secretary Ralph Shoenman. Magee visited Russell in Wales to discuss an appearance on a TV current affairs program. Russell (aged 87) waited hand and foot on the young reporter (to Magee's intense discomfort) and the visit continued into the evening when Russell discovered Magee’s interest in politics and philosophy. Due to Russell's great age and his elevated station both in society and in the realm of intellect it seemed to Magee that most of the history of the last 85 years had passed through his life. When Magee made a critical comment on some aspect of Marxism, Russell replied "Yes, I made exactly that point to Lenin, but I couldn't get him to see it".

With his half-time  work regime Magee's writing proceeded at a great rate. To Live in Danger, a novel, appeared in 1960 and next he applied his mind to the need for reform of the Labour Party. The result was The New Radicalism, an attempt to purge socialism from the platform, to be  replaced with Popperian principles of social democracy. Russell objected to the word 'new' in the title because he pointed out that much of the philosophy expounded in the book could be traced back more than a hundred years through the liberals of the 18th century such as Mill and Humboldt, to the Whigs who opposed the Tories  before there was any organised labour movement. Both author and publisher expected this book to unleash  a storm of cathartic debate and the initial reviews were highly favourable. Then it disappeared with little trace. Friends and colleagues said "Why didn't you write a book to criticise the Conservative Party?" or "If you don't like Labor, why don't you join the Conservative Party?" Magee was alarmed to find how many intelligent people treated politics like a football game, where you cheer your side and boo the other lot, without any conception of the function of criticism in a democracy. Later Magee found that his book was read by many young activists, of the generation that is now running British Labor.

A spin-off from this book was an invitation from an African publisher who wanted something on non-socialist radicalism aimed at "the trousered African".  Magee wrote a short book titled The Democratic Revolution (1964) and he has subsequently met numerous Africans who were influenced by it, though one suspects not in sufficient numbers to make much difference on the sub-Continent.

His next book was written to complement a TV series Towards 2000, dealing with the transformation of society by science and technology. He liked much of the content but found two major faults with the transcripts of the show. He considered that the view of science and its growth expressed in the program had been rendered obsolete by Popper's philosophy. Second, there was no attention to the importance of free speech and liberal political institutions to provide the milieu for scientific investigation and the appropriate application of technology. He insisted on a free hand in writing the book and he used this opportunity to sketch the historical linkage of critical, scientific and democratic thought. Next he wrote One in Twenty, a sympathetic examination of homosexuality that made an important contribution to the cause of law reform, closely followed The Television Interviewer, drawing on his experience in the trade.

In his middle-thirties (which coincided with the mid-1960s) Magee was hit with an alarming and prolonged crisis, a constant apprehension and dread of mortality and an obsession with fundamental questions related to the meaning of life. Interestingly, this was not a self-centred obsession because the questions that haunted him were in the plural "What are we?" and  "What happens when we die?”.

“To anyone in this frame of mind nearly all human pursuits seem vain beyond all description...To anyone thinking like this the only human activity that seems to have any importance at all is the search for meaning in life...In this frame of mind I read or re-read the central masterpieces of the great philosophers [only somewhere between a  dozen and twenty] and read them as if my life depended on it.”

He then expanded his search to cover other major writers such as St Augustine, Nietzsche and Tolstoy, followed by the mystics and the basic texts of the great  religions. This went on over several years, a desperate search "as if my survival were at stake".  He explored territory that was totally foreign to Anglo-Saxon philosophy, the Germans who followed Kant (especially Fichte and Hegel) and the modern existentialists such as Heidegger and Sartre.  His greatest discovery was Arthur Shopenhauer and in due course this resulted in another book  The Philosophy of Schopenhauer.

In his professional life this change of mood was manifest as an impatience and distaste for the staples of journalism, the breathless reporting of events that keep Cabinet Ministers out of bed one month and fill the headlines, then disappear to be replaced by equally ephemeral crises and alarms the next month. He similarly recoiled from most of the artistic products that dominated stage, screen and canvas.

“I lost patience with the shallowness of most artistic productions, and even more so that of most socially aware commentary on the arts, whether this came from prominent intellectuals or academics or journalists, or even, as increasingly it did in those days, from the artists themselves...First of all I changed the subject matter of my television programs from the crisis of news and current affairs to those of personal life - adultery, abortion, alcoholism, suicide, prostitution, crime, and so on. Then I extended it to the arts, and launched the first regular arts series on commercial television, and followed it up with a related series on BBC radio.”

One of the fruits of this period was a slim book Aspects of Wagner (1968) which addressed the ideas as well as the music, including Wagner's theory of opera and the way that he wanted the works performed, his anti-Semitism and the way that people tend to either love or hate his music. The book assumed a kind of cult status, with many reprints, translations into several languages and a good deal of enthusiastic correspondence, some from Jews who were interested in  the discussion of the role of Jews in modern culture.

He then decided to give up paid employment and live off his savings to write a novel, a labour of love devoted to the exploration of his existential anxieties in the context of fictional characters thrown into a life situation of profound moral challenge. The resulting book Facing Death was completed at the end of the 1960s but took almost a decade to find a publisher. In the meantime Magee resolved to return to his roots in philosophy to find if anything of interest had happened. Problem: How to be paid for all the time he would need to spend in the library? Solution: Sell the idea of a radio series to the BBC and be paid in advance. Result: A thirteen-part radio series of interviews, which went to air in 1970-71. The heavily edited transcripts were printed as Modern British Philosophers. His overall aim with this series was to allow the philosophers enough rope to hang themselves, to permit the whole of the educated public to see how empty academic philosophy had become, at least in Britain. This had come about under the influence of logical positivism, inspired by Wittgenstein in his first phase (that which cannot be verified is meaningless) and through the more recent obsession with the nuances of ordinary speech under the influence of Wittgenstein in his second phase.

For some people the most interesting aspect of this book will be the insights and perspectives that Magee provides on modern British philosophy. In his capacity as the helpful but somewhat passive interviewer he was not able to say what he really thought in the program, and his associates were somewhat dumbfounded when he confided his views, as was the case when he wrote his critical book on the Labour Party.  In addition to the years that he spent as a student and his private reading program, he had the good fortune to take on a teaching position at Oxford and this gave him a good, close, inside view. The major defect of the system was the tendency for philosophers to be recruited from students of Greats - that is, Greek, Latin and Ancient History. They knew nothing of science and in many cases were actively hostile to it. There was probably a class bias as well, and a tendency to live their lives apart from the wider world of commerce and politics.  In addition to the deficiencies of the recruits, both phases of Wittgenstein's influence tended to work against imaginative and original thinking. One of the results was the frequently observed tendency for the brighter and more independent students to obtain very ordinary examination results in philosophy.  Another result, which Magee only found late in the piece when he had become good friends with many philosophers, was for many of the leading figures to have private doubts about the vocation of philosopher. For example, Ayer wondered if he should have been a judge, Mary Warnock a poet, and Iris Murdoch actually left the academy to be a novelist.

The series of radio interviews attracted a good following (as Magee had hoped) but it did not achieve his objective of unmasking the pretenders because the viewers were generally taken in by the fluency and elan of the "talking heads".  The popular success of the series reinforced Magee's belief that the television executives were underestimating  the capacity of their audiences to handle more challenging material than the pre-digested pap that generally passed for intellectual content on air. He persuaded Thames to try out a series called Something to Say in which Magee chaired one-hour debates between high-powered opponents: Aron and Marcuse; Hayek and Bernard Crick; Galbraith versus Crosland (on the  need for economic growth); Monod versus Eccles (on the human soul); Ayer versus a Roman Catholic bishop (on the existence of God). The format worked and Magee made 39 programmes in 1972 and 1973. Among the other guests were Barry Commoner, Herman Kahn, Margaret Mead, James Baldwin, Enoch Powell, Keith Joseph, Peter Bauer and Raymond Williams. Amazingly, Thames refused to allow Magee to convert the best debates into a book. Even more amazingly, they wiped most of the tapes.

To make these dialogues work for the popular audience Magee had to prepare in depth so he could ask the right questions, and intervene to keep the debate moving at the appropriate level.  Some of this preparation brought him into contact with a body of ideas that had been quite foreign to him. His own political position was quite clear, as a prospective Labour candidate he defined himself as a non-Marxist, non-socialist but heavily interventionist liberal. He felt he had all the answers to the left-wing radicals and the mainstream of conservatives (Conservative Party voters).

“But now, for the first time in my life, I came seriously up against a fourth position, the position of the radical right, whose existence I had known of before but which I had never regarded with respect. In fact, the truth is that I had dismissed it as quasi-fascist and had never given it serious examination.”

This shows in a very graphic manner how close the ideas of classical or non-socialist liberalism came to extinction. In the case of Magee a very well educated man, a voracious reader, active in politics, an international traveler and a journalist of great distinction did not come  into meaningful contact with this body of ideas until he approached middle age. In the event, Magee took on board most of their critique of interventionism but could not go all the way, and so he adopted a position which he described as "Thatcherism plus welfare".

During the period of Something to Say Magee was approached by Frank Kermode, general editor of the Fontana Modern Masters series, to contribute a book on some suitable figure. Freud and Marx were already in preparation and Magee had no other ideas until a few months later the name of Popper drifted into his mind. Kermode urged him to start work but the publishers had not heard of Popper and neither had the bookshops when sales representatives tested the water.  Collins (the British publisher) consulted with Viking in the US and they agreed that they did not want Popper.  Kermode dug in his toes, not to defend Popper but to retain control as the general editor. The publishers backed down, although Viking completely re-wrote the American edition into quasi-Time style in the hope of making it saleable.  Magee would not have that, so the original confrontation was repeated, with the same result.  In the event, the Fontana/Viking Popper soon took second place behind Chomsky and in a couple of years took over as the best-seller in the series.

In 1973 Magee was elected to represent Labour Party in the House of Commons, where he served for almost ten years. During this time he persisted with his own  work in the mornings before attending the House. His main interest was the philosophy of Schopenhauer and this called for a great deal of reading, from the scholars who Schopenhauer had bitterly attacked (Fichte, Hegel and Schelling) to those he deeply influenced (notably Wagner, Nietzsche, Freud and Wittgenstein) and the Upanishads which he read at the end of every day. The  book that Magee eventually  wrote contained the most comprehensive treatment of Schopenhauer available in English.

Later he made two more path-breaking series on philosophy and philosophers. The first was Men of Ideas, broadcast on BBC2,  which took over two years to make. Magee insisted on complete editorial control. There were fifteen 45-minute programs, each calling for several weeks of work while Magee prepared himself and then spent some days in preliminary discussion with each subject before the day in the studio.

Some of the programs gave an overview of particular fields such as Marxism and logical positivism, some examined movements of thought such as existentialism and the Frankfurt School, others profiled leading figures such as Chomsky, Marcuse and Quine.

He reported that for months while the program was on air he was daily accosted in the street, in tube stations, shops and the theatre by people who had been enthused by the interviews, many saying they were the best programs they had ever seen. University friends reported that many students arrived on campus wishing to read philosophy as a result of the programs. Some years later he undertook a similar series titled The Great Philosophers: from Plato to Wittgenstein. One of the features of these series was the clarity and fairness of Magee's own summaries of the subject and many viewers wrote asking why he bothered with the interviewees since he did  such a good job of expounding all the  doctrines that were presented.  Due to other commitments, possibly related to the protracted illness of his wife, Popper was not available for either of these programs.

A strange episode occurred after Men of Ideas, reminiscent of the time that C B Fry, the great all-round English sportsman was invited to assume the throne of Albania. The Prime Minister of Turkey, Bulent Ecevit, arranged for Magee to visit and advise on ways  and  means to introduce critical rationality into the education system. Ecevit saw a desperate need for some way to break the iron grip of Islamic taboos in family life, in religion and culture at large. The government could not interfere with families or religion but there might be some hope of reform in the education system. Magee spent two days with officials discussing teacher training. The situation was tense, with political murders reported daily in the news, and Magee was attended at all times by bodyguards who even stood at the door of the toilet. Ecevit was deposed in a coup six months after the Magee visit, so Magee did not have the opportunity to make a further contribution to the liberalisation of the Balkan area.

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