Friday, July 26, 2019

Bryan Magee (1930-2019)



Bryan Magee died today at the age of 89.

He sat as Labour and then SDP MP for Leyton between 1974 and 1983 - he was one of the last Labour MPs to make the jump - but it is not his politics that I remember him for.

As a television presenter he was able to make philosophy accessible to the intelligent general viewer.

The clip above shows him talking to A.J. Ayer's about the latter's once scandalous Language, Truth and Logic - Ayer is amusingly candid about the book's faults.

It forms part of a longer interview about logical positivism, and you can find links to many of Magee's programmes on philosophy on Open Culture.

Today it is fashionable to decry 'talking heads' television, but if the heads are interesting enough there is nothing more riveting.

I had already begun my philosophy degree at York when this Men of Ideas series was screened, but I was immensely grateful for it.

A second reason why I am grateful to Magee is that he introduced me to the thought of Karl Popper.

Magee's short book on Popper is well worth seeking out. It presents a Popper who supports social reform, rather than the Thatcherite one later admirers detected. As the left has recently begun to find virtues in Popper again, this view of him may be coming back into fashion.

I no longer believe that Popper defeated Hume's scepticism over induction. But he did show that we don't rely on induction and provided a much better model of how human reason works.

When I wrote the entry on Popper in Duncan Brack and Ed Randall's Dictionary of Liberal Thought, I had not idea that Magee had been evacuated from Hoxton to Market Harborough during the war and  lived literally round the corner from where I lived as a teenager.

Here is a passage from his Growing up in a War:
Logan Street was near the edge of Harborough, and I thought of myself as living a long way from my school in the centre. Each journey there or back was like an odyssey. I would set out through the garden, going out of the back gate and down the lane into Highfield Street. 
In walking the length of Highfield Street I might pick up a friend or two. We would turn right into East Street; and there almost immediately in front of us on the next corner, was the shop that sold things that mattered. 
If any of us had any money we would go in and buy sweets or a comic. In the same shop there was a post office, where Auntie drew out the money to keep me, and where later I was to start spending some of my pocket money on savings stamps to help win the war. 
We would encounter schoolmates in the shop, so an enlarged gang of us would emerge, and then, perhaps, start arguing in the street over sweets or comics, or something that had happened the previous day. 
We might have a fight there and then, or two boys would go at it while the rest of us formed a ring around them and watched; or the general argy-bargy might carry us round the corner into Nelson Street. 
Here the space widened so we would forget about the fight and start a game. But we had to keep moving towards school, so our game would carry us on past the Catholic church and down towards the Coventry Road. 
There on the pavement we would encounter local children about to go to their own school, beside the church, so we would set on them and terrorise them for a bit, perhaps chasing them into school. 
Finally we would arrive at our own school, behind the Baptist church, and carry on our games and fights in the playground until the bell rang.
This is a walk I still do in the reverse direction when I go to cook for my Mum. The shop closed in the New Labour years when it ceased to be a post office, but I bought sweets there myself in the Seventies.

Magee's school 'behind the Baptist church' must have been on the site now occupied by Manor Court and the B&M discount store.

All in all, a remarkable passage to find in a book I bought because I was grateful for the author's influence on my own thinking.

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