The author, broadcaster and MP sparked a love of academic philosophy in countless curious viewers and readersby Julian Baggini / July 29, 2019 / Leave a comment
If you ask British philosophers who grew up in the 1970s and 80s whose work first got them hooked on the subject, two names come up again and again: Bertrand Russell and Bryan Magee. Russell was a titan of the field, famous for his philosophy the world over and the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Magee was a writer, broadcaster and politician without a major original philosophical book to his name. But without his work, many of us would have grown up without any contact with philosophy at all and with no sense of how compelling it can be. Magee passed away on Friday, and it is worth reflecting on why he had such an enormous impact.
Those who became familiar with Magee’s cut-glass BBC broadcaster’s accent would never have guessed that he was born in 1930 to a working class clothes shop owning family in Hoxton, London. His move to the middle class began early with a scholarship to Christ’s Hospital school, followed by National Service in the Intelligence Corps and then another scholarship to read History at Keble College, Oxford, which he followed up with one year of Philosophy, Politics and Economics. It was at Oxford that he secured his seat at society’s high table, being elected president of the Oxford Union and becoming friends with future pillars of the establishment such as Robin Day, William Rees-Mogg, Jeremy Thorpe and Michael Heseltine.
Magee became a man of many parts, which included being elected as a Labour MP at the third time of trying in 1974. He held his seat for nine years, losing it a year after defecting to the SDP in 1982. He was also a poet and the author of numerous works of non-fiction. His widely acclaimed Wagner and Philosophy secured his reputation as a serious writer. But for many of us he will forever be remember as the presenter of two seminal television series, recorded nine years apart. Men of Ideas (1978) was a 15-episode introduction to philosophy. Each consisted of nothing more than Magee and his guest on a sofa talking. The formula was repeated with The Great Philosophers in 1987.
Watching the programmes today (all can be found on YouTube) the plummy accents, the brown furniture sets and the beige suits are only the most obvious ways in which they are incredibly dated. AJ Ayer puffing away on a cigarette is perhaps the standout period…