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Bryan Magee


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
In Confessions of a Philosopher, published twenty years ago, Magee described his thoughts about the possibility of survival after physical death and said that this was a question that troubled him deeply. In his new book he returns to this theme, whose importance for him is now even greater than it was when he last wrote because of its greater immediacy (he is now in his late eighties). The book could be described as an extended meditation on the nature of the self and what this means for our future prospects, if any.

Many people would turn to religion for answers to questions of this kind but not Magee; he has no religious faith. The alternative is often taken to be the view that there is nothing beyond the empirical world—what we know or can know. But this is wrong too, according to Magee, who holds, on rational grounds, that we cannot know the whole of reality.

We can know (and I think we do know) that aspects of reality exist that are permanently outside the possibility of human apprehension. We can raise questions about them which, as questions, have enormous significance; but unless we can make contact with a source of information which is outside the range of human apprehension we cannot get answers on which we can rely.
Religious people think that God is such a source of information but Magee does not find this credible, although he is agnostic about the existence of God as he is about practically everything else, including our own nature.

Science is important in helping us to shape our view of ourselves and the world but it is not sufficient. Magee names three philosophical mentors who have done most to guide his thinking; he sees them as links in a continuous chain of development extending over 200 years.

There is a tradition within Western philosophy that has irradiated these questions with light, even though it has not and cannot provide them with definitive answers. This tradition began with Locke, proceeded through Hume, and reached its highest development in the works of Kant and Schopenhauer.
The lack of definitive answers may make some readers feel that this is a bleak outlook. Magee himself seems to feel this. Now that he is in his eighties he finds that his attitude to the search for truth has changed somewhat.
I used to regard commitment to this kind of truth-seeking as the overriding value—the need to discover and live in the light of as much truth as we can find out about whatever it is we are—and it is still how I would like to live as much as I can. But I have discovered that there are things that I cannot bear.
But this not his ideal position—it is a compromise, as he makes clear later.
What I find myself wanting to press home more than anything else is that the only honest way to live and to think is in the fullest possible acknowledgement of our ignorance and its consequences, without ducking out into a faith, whether positive or negative, and without any other evasions or self-indulgences.
This is a deeply personal book. Although Magee occasionally quotes other philosophers he provides no references or lists for further reading. Perhaps for this reason, I found it impressive but rather claustrophobic. Not everyone is as appalled by the thought of extinction as Magee is. In Confessions of a Philosopher he mentioned that Karl Popper was not troubled by it; nor was David Hume, and there are plenty of other examples among philosophers. In fact, the late C.D. Broad said that he would be more annoyed than surprised to find he had survived the death of his physical body.

As always, Magee writes clearly, without jargon, and he makes his case for profound agnosticism with considerable force. I find it difficult to disagree with him, but I think the distress he describes himself as feeling is probably an individual quirk of character.


%T Ultimate Questions
%A Bryan Magee
%I Pinceton University Press
%C Princeton and Oxford
%D 2016
%K philosophy
%O kindle version downloaded from, 3017

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