Reality only as we know it

Confessions of a Philosopher
September 5, 1997

This challenging and readable invitation to philosophy by Bryan Magee is exemplary in its clarity and breathtaking in its intellectual self-confidence. Magee is renowned for his ability to expound abstractions accessibly, without distorting simplification. His two television series, Men of Ideas and The Great Philosophers, were justly celebrated, and now he deploys his gifts again in a philosophical vade-mecum made palatable by being disguised as intellectual autobiography.

In his impassioned odyssey through the writings of the great thinkers of the West, Magee has covered the ground comprehensively, from Socrates to Karl Popper, and does so again for the reader of this book. The only lacuna is morality, which Magee regards as beyond the reach of reason.

Self-justification does sometimes come to the fore. There are passages that fail to serve any direct pedagogic function, including repetitive and cumulatively over-long attacks on the philosophical method of linguistic analysis, to which Magee was never sympathetic. The excoriation here smacks of old scores being settled. Fairly uninstructive too is the account of the writing of Facing Death, Magee's philosophical novel. The truth is that this is a doubly motivated book, and it is none the worse for that.

What links the clarity to the complacency is a refreshing fearlessness. Magee attacks problems directly, with firm brush-strokes, without the self-protective watering-down so characteristic of much modern philosophical writing. Mealy-mouthed he ain't. He happily dissents from whole swathes of conventional opinion, backs his own judgement even when he is in a minority of one, never defers to the "experts", whom he portrays as slaves to fashion and prejudice. He is unworried about making a fool of himself; he believes in thinking for himself, and goes for it.

The conjunction of this somewhat rash boldness with his expository gifts is a powerful partnership. The summaries and evaluations of the views of the major western philosophers are mostly as lucid and as arresting as one could wish; if they are reliable too the triumph is even greater. There are times when he forgets to explain key terms fully and early enough - "transcendental", "realism", "idealism" and "noumenal" come to mind - and there are passages of considerable difficulty where abstruseness in the subject matter is only partly to blame. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule. To any person with philosophical curiosity, this will be a book full of excitement and revelation, to be read more than once.

Could this have been achieved without the extremes of self-assurance? What is the real likelihood that this particular non-genius (by his own admission), exceptional as he is, is so often right where so many others are so devastatingly wrong? He firmly ranks thinkers in a highly idiosyncratic order: his special heroes Popper and Schopenhauer come out near the top; the later Wittgenstein is demoted below Popper, below even Susanne K. Langer.

He understands the point of a key work (Wittgenstein's Tractatus) which everyone he talks to has grossly misconstrued. He mercilessly dismisses a whole family of ways of doing philosophy, though brilliant thinkers spent their careers pursuing them. He presents himself as having had basically sound philosophical instincts from childhood, and the philosophies he encounters are assessed according to their (lack of) correspondence to what these instincts dictate. He even writes, of his time at Oxford, "it was lonely being the only one in step". Even if you are blessed with this enviable sureness of judgement, is it British to boast of it? Does it fit one who endorses the Socratic principle that we know nothing? Openness to criticism and scepticism about one's predispositions are the hallmarks of the truly philosophical temperament.

The philosophical viewpoint that emerges from Magee's "confessions" is depressingly undermining. Magee agrees with Kant that the nature of our sensory and mental apparatus inevitably sets limits to what we can know, and determines in advance the structural properties of our knowledge of it. Time, space, thinghood and causality are not features of the world independent of our interaction with it, but are superimposed on it by our minds. Independent reality must be for ever unknowable by us.

Yet it is this reality above all that Magee hungers to understand. At times he admits that the quest is impossible, but at other times he hopes that, perhaps by increasing our understanding of these limits, and why they are limits, we shall cast some light on what lies beyond. If the Kantian vision as he represents it is true, this hope is futile. "What we cannot speak about," said Wittgenstein, "we must consign to silence". When one looks at what philosophers have said about ultimate reality, one cannot help thinking these words wise. All attempts to say something intelligible at this level end up as gibberish, and we return, humbled, to the realm of our experience, the only realm in which we can make sense.

To say, for instance, that ultimate reality has the character of will, or that "music exhibits to us the insides of everything", or that total reality is the growth of a self-existent spiritual entity towards self-knowledge, does not help to dispel the perplexity that engenders such remarks. They are at best arbitrary expressions of intellectual temperament, like many religious attitudes.

Magee himself points out that our mental abilities evolved to do a practical job, and that it is unreasonable to expect them to reach beyond the functions for which they are adapted, to see themselves from an outside vantage point. There may be such a vantage point, but it is not one we can occupy. If one takes this restriction seriously, it is far more devastating than even Magee allows. "It's worse than you think", to borrow his neat encapsulation of Hume's stance.

If the Kantian insight is pressed, almost everything is sucked back within the world of experience, unable to point beyond it. Why should we expect reason itself to tell us anything about ultimate reality? It is a tool, not a mirror. Independent reality is not rational or irrational, not mysterious or unmysterious; it cannot be understood or fail to be understood; we cannot speak truly or falsely of it; it is not explicable and it does not have any characteristics. All this belongs only to the world as experienced by us.

One of the great mysteries of philosophy is that we human beings, unlike other species, believe we can stand outside our own mental capacities; but this is an illusion. And if you maintain that only at this unattainable coal-face is true philosophical work done, you must finally abandon the subject in despair.

A more generous view accepts the limitations, and finds work for philosophers first as conceptual geographers, then as landscapers. This is where the linguistic analysis that Magee so derides comes in. The tools we use for understanding our world all have their linguistic aspect; if we want to understand this world better, we need to understand the tools. Progress on these terms may be much less than we long for, but it is better than defeatism.

Henry Hardy is a research fellow, Wolfson College, Oxford.

Confessions of a Philosopher

Author - Bryan Magee
ISBN - 0 297 81959 3
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £20.00
Pages - 503

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