Thursday, 14 February 2019

A tribute to Brian Magee, superb broadcaster and philosophy's great late 20th Century populariser

One of the unintended benefits of television being so monumentally lousy at the moment - and the fact that, no matter how hard I try, I can't find a single "original" film, drama series or documentary on Netflix or Amazon Prime I have any desire to watch - is that, apart from vintage films, most of my time slumped in front of the TV in recent weeks has been spent watching 20 to 30-year old BBC programmes featuring one very clever man discussing philosophy with even cleverer men, without the aid of graphics or filmed inserts or CGI or anyone dressing up in wigs and historical costumes or hilarious contributions from stand-up comics or a voiceover telling us "Time's running out - our two contestants have less than five minutes to sort out the mind-body identity problem!" An odd way to spend one's time, you might think - but, I assure you, most of these one-on-one interviews are rivetting. The very clever man is always Brian Magee...

an erstwhile right-wing Labour MP, broadcaster, academic and prolific author who (I was pleased to learn the other day) is still with us at the age of 87, and the even cleverer men he's interviewing include some of the most eminent philosophers of the 20th Century - e.g. Isaiah Berlin, A.J. Ayer and Willard Van Orman Quine.

The programmes I've been enjoying are from either Men of Ideas, first broadcast by the BBC in 1978, or The Great Philosophers, which went out in 1987. It's hard to believe that the broadcaster which has just given us a two-part "history" programme called Right Royal Family hosted by the Eastenders actor, Danny Dyer, used to broadcast serious discussions about some of the most intellectually-challenging ideas ever tackled by human beings - but it's true! I actually saw most of the Men of Ideas series when it first went out. One could argue that spending the licence fee on the sort of stuff that would have baffled 90% of the people who paid for it was a grotesquely elitist act - but I would argue that spending the licence fee on the sort of programmes that commercial providers are perfectly capable of churning out is more difficult to defend: if there's any role for the BBC these days, it would be to produce the sort of culturally nourishing programmes that the likes of ITV and Sky can't or won't. (Anyway, that's a discussion for another day.)

I studied philosophy at university, so I come to the Magee discussions with a smattering of knowledge - and, because there is no attempt to dumb down by the programme-makers, I sometimes have to rewind and listen to parts of the argument again. I have no idea how difficult it would be for someone who was new to the concepts under discussion to follow them. Fortunately, Brian Magee is a superb, sympathetic guide: he starts each programme by giving us a quick overview of what's going to be discussed, he regularly summarises what he and his guest have been talking about, and he is gentle but ruthless in keeping the discussion on track ("We'll be covering that particular topic a little later, but what I'd like us to concentrate on now is..."). If he's unclear as to what his interviewee is saying, he admits it and always manages to tease out a clearer formulation. And while Magee is happy to disagree with his interlocutor (he's a professional philosopher with his own distinct opinions), he neither pretends to be an intellectual equal - one of his great regrets is that he doesn't have a truly first-rate mind - nor he indulge in for any Uriah Heepish false modesty. Finally, one of his great strengths as an interviewer is that he never treats the discussion as a contest - his role is to illuminate his interviewees' thinking so that the audience can understand it, not to score cheap debating points.

Philosophy was lucky to have someone as superbly professional as Brian Magee as its chief late-20th Century populariser - his 1997 intellectual autobiography, Confessions of a Philosopher, is one of the most enjoyable books about philosophy I've ever read, and I say that as someone who has little time for Magee's great hero, that arch-pessimist Schopenhauer, and who is most interested in the philosophy of language, which Magee loathes.

It's hard to know which of the Magee programmes to recommend, as that would depend on your interests, but here are my five favourites out of the ones I've watched so far:

I have absolutely no interest in medieval philosophy, but I enjoyed this interview with Anthony Kenny:

Here's my old professor, Bernard Williams, on linguistic philosophy:

John Passmore, talking about David Hume:

John Searle on the Philosophy of Language:

And the rather stern J.P. Stern on Nietzsche:

As I said, I don't agree with Bryan Magee on philosophy, and I certainly don't agree with him on politics: he is nevertheless one of my intellectual heroes. I'm sorry his chief regret is not being clever enough to be a true front-line philosopher - but, if he had been, he wouldn't have been half as effective at introducing philosophical ideas to the public.


  1. I very much enjoyed this post and watched the programmes on Nietzsche and Hume. Then I followed the path to others on Frege and Wittgenstein. I am not interested in Frege, but Walden's guest was AJ Ayer who gave a lecture at the LSE in the mid-60s [ chain-smoking Senior Service using a holder -he captivated a very large audience without recourse to notes]. In the Walden interview [20-years later in 1987?] the flashy brilliance is all intact.

    Also, in the 60's I attended a lecture by Bertrand Russell at the same venue. He must have been into his nineties and it was slightly marred by the creepy presence of his youthful leftie advisor - the creepy Ralph Schoenman [echoes of Seamus Milne.] Anyway, I shall seek out the Russell interview - I think he had an excellent sense of humour so he must have been a pretend-Socialist?

    I will watch the programmes on Plato and Aristotle by which time my brain will probably seize up. Tough subject. Will definitely give Kant and Hegel the widest berth. Too late now.

    "....or anyone dressing up in wigs and historical costumes"? I hope you are not referring to Juicy Lucy. She is beyond reproach!

  2. Blogmeister, thank you for that post. I hadn't realised how thirsty I was until you offered that drink, so to speak, I polished off all five interviews + Plato + Quine last week before heading off for a country house party at the weekend.

    The new rules of country house parties were in operation and our hosts asked four Remainers and me please to get our argument out of the way before dinner on Saturday in a distant corner of the house which, dutifully, we did.

    If you ignore the people's decision in the referendum, why would you observe it in a future general election, I asked. Response from a lady who has delivered leaflets for the Conservative Party for several decades? General elections are less important. So much so hilariously wrong there, I don't know if Bryan Magee would have been floored but I was.

    You can't accuse 52% of voters of being stupid, I said. I agree, said a successful architect, it's just that rational people who are emotionally well-balanced all support Remain. Magee would have been politer as would the other Brian, SDG's Walden but "you just can't help yourself, can you", I heard myself saying.

    Tonight, Hegel.

    And by the way, Lucy W is appearing at the Wimbledon spring Bookfest. At KCS. At last some recognition for the school from a major public figure.

  3. Whoops! In commenting, I was going to make a point about Brian Walden's excellent presentational style as well and ended up using his name instead of Magee's. So sorry.

    1. John Wayne Sleepover24 July 2019 at 09:12

      Walden had a fine Brummie accent, as did Clare Short.

      Enoch Powell's was best.

  4. Another good post which I'll have to come back to if only to renew my tussle with Wittgenstein.
    One semester was sufficient to prove to me just how ferociously hard Philosophy can be - all respect to those who took it as a Major.
    I've a sneaking feeling studying the likes of the above did give you an edge in the fields of advertising, publishing, the Civil Service and whatever else suited your fancy.
    Did it also ever accord a peak, no matter how momentarily, through those forever drawn curtains of life's unsolved mysteries? I'll be very jealous if it did.

    1. Wittgenstein at Trinity was a trial and not just for his Fellows. At High Table he was presented with a pudding the colour of a peach.

      He prodded the offering tentatively until a College servant gently said " If you delve a little further Sir, you may find a peach".

      Wittgenstein remarked that these were the kindest words said to him during his entire time at Cambridge.

  5. Hmm...According to the experts, SDG, these lapses are not uncommon in those who make the mistake of ordering their Munsingwear garments in a size or two too small....

  6. "One of the unintended benefits of television being so monumentally lousy at the moment" is the discovery of the BFI collection of film documentary going back over a century now. There's something in there for everyone.

    For SDG, an advertising campaign test. Asked how to promote civic responsibility in Merton, which two features of the borough would you focus on? (Here is the model answer from 1951.)

    And for the blogmeister, a compilation from the 1947 All-England Lawn Tennis Association championships, including a one-armed Austrian and a little-known fact about George VI. (My brother, who knows everything about tennis, tells me that Bjorn Borg's coach is featured.)

  7. Withdrawal symptoms aside there are so many compelling reasons to revisit Mr. Gronmark's blog.
    Where else apart from The Spectator or Salisbury Review can one find such witty informative ideas uncontaminated by pc/woke bollocks.
    I was going to comment on pubs which just like the Gaumont and Elite cinemas in The Broadway SW19 are an endangered species especially if you go further south to Colliers Wood and Tooting.
    However, I thought I'd tuck into Nietzsche.
    Brian Magee in his opening statement said... "two Nineteenth century philosophers who had the widest influence outside philosophy were Marx and Nietzsche. "
    Then why the f...weren't we given more cognizance of this at Sussex University. Funny that. Once mein blogmeister had to fill in the gaps of my knowledge over a large scotch (let's not forget the Special Brew chaser) in his cosy studio flat in Paddington I think it was. A thoroughly enjoyable evening.
    Talking of enjoyment I hope Mr. Gronmark continues to have those "peak experiences" although it's sad to know the reasons which induce these.
    Sometimes in the wee wee hours as my business worries make sleep challenging, I recall Psalm 23 "Yeah, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.. " The 'Nam versions not bad either..and it helps.
    Anyway I digress. Wishing Mr.Gronmark all the best - naturally and hope he's enjoying the best films, the Cricket, and of course to come, his beloved Wimbledon Tennis.