Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Bryan Magee's Confessions

I very much enjoyed Confessions of a Philosopher, even if it turns out that Bryan Magee was not, as I had supposed, a career professional philosopher, but rather a documentary host for English television whose most well-known work is a series of interviews with philosophers, as well as a Labor MP and sometime novelist. His reflections on philosophy were quite interesting for someone like myself who teaches philosophical topics year in and year out. The book is a bit overlong at 450+ pages, and I was not as refreshed by his company after such prolonged exposure as I was at the beginning. He also has it out for philosophy professors, especially of the English variety, and a whiff of vengeance hangs in the air after the umpteenth attack on Oxford philosophy. Still, his sustained critique of logical positivism and of ordinary language philosophy is useful and historically informative. His argument that these philosophers confuse methods (analysis) with goals (questions about metaphysics, values, the meaning of life) is a good one. I want, though, to try to discuss here what I see as Magee's ultimate distillation of philosophy, one I see as interestingly flawed. Claiming Kant and Schopenhauer for his guiding influences, Magee takes exceeding comfort in the idea of a noumenal world-in-itself as opposed to the phenomenal world-of-experience. He several times suggests that some future philosophical genius might make progress (whatever that would be) in the direction of producing knowledge of this noumenal world, where, as he sees it, there is no time or space, no causal relationships, no plurality, only a sort of Parmenidean unity. One idea here seems to be that a global scepticism about the evidence of the senses safeguards one from a noxious reductionism. He is a great admirer of Popper and shows that Popper's "falsificationist" philosophy of science is not merely an elaboration of verificationism, but in fact is a total departure from it. Magee sees Popper as a precursor to Kuhn and even Feyerabend: models of the world reflect the nature of the model-maker, and never the world-in-itself. He shows no interest in, say, the natural history of representation: the plain fact that representations necessarily reflect a certain body and form of life is enough to divorce them from "the world-in-itself." By the way, he has no understanding of the later Wittgenstein, who he dismisses, failing to see the continuity between the PI and his own Kantian reading of the Tractatus. Still, he has a lot to say and he has written a very brave intellectual memoir.

1 comment:

  1. Good to see how distinctions are made in the world of philosophy. Also interesting to reckon how human bias and psychology (or even pre-psychology?)can necessarily shape something as seemingly abstract as these distinctions. The history of thought is carved through the character of intellect. Thanks for your take, and use of "plain fact".