Sunday, 20 December 2009

Bryan Magee's Critique of Oxford

Bryan Magee (born 1930) is a British philosopher associated with the Oxford tradition, though not at all typical. In his earlier years he did not become a professional philosopher due to his discontent with the prevailing ideology. Instead he took the varied roles of a broadcaster, independent writer, and politician. Yet he did subsequently hold university appointments at both Oxford and London, and became a Professor. Himself favouring Kant and Schopenhauer, his strong critique of the Oxford tradition of philosophy is controversial, though perhaps obligatory to mention.

After graduating at Oxford, in the mid-1950s Magee gained a fellowship in philosophy at Yale University. He discovered how different the prevailing philosophical outlook was at Yale to the counterpart at Oxford. He clearly preferred the former, and the reasons are worth investigating here.

The outspoken autobiography of Magee asserts that the twentieth century Oxford philosophy was so fundamentally different to philosophy as undertaken by figures like Plato and Aristotle, Descartes and Leibniz, Locke and Kant, and even Hume. The two contrasting dispositions are “not only not the same activity but are not, at bottom, importantly related” (Magee, Confessions of a Philosopher, London: Phoenix, 1998, p. 87).

Professor Magee urges that “those who remained for ever within the confines of Oxford philosophy never set foot in the kingdom of real philosophy” (ibid.). That is a strong statement, and there are many others in the same book. E.g., “the general atmosphere among Yale philosophers contained something that was almost wholly lacking in the Oxford of that time, a living sense of philosophy’s continuity with its own past” (ibid., pp. 87-8). Yale philosophers even studied Einstein, who was an alien factor to the Oxford tradition in dispute.

The observation is made by the same writer that the Oxford philosophers placed a low value on past philosophy. “People whose job it was to teach philosophy would announce with obvious complacency, even pride, that they had never read some of the greatest philosophers” (ibid., p. 88).

Magee stresses that the year he spent at Yale enabled him to see Oxford philosophers more objectively, as being “provincial, superficial, self-admiring, and above all intellectually unserious” (ibid.). According to the same commentator, Karl Popper was the only instance at that time in Britain (amongst well known philosophers) of a more comprehensive approach, resembling the Yale outlook, and “as a direct consequence he suffered not only isolation but active discrimination” (ibid., p. 89).

The Oxford emphasis was on British philosophers, with foreigners almost completely excluded. “Most of the questions in the examination paper on the history of philosophy related to four philosophers only: Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume” (ibid., p. 88). In fact, it was usual for those who obtained a first class degree in philosophy “not to have read a word of Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (which was a special option), Hegel, Marx, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, or any other philosopher who had practised outside the British Isles” (ibid.). This ethnocentric horizon stressed recent British exponents like Moore and Wittgenstein.

The Greeks had receded. As for the Muslim falasifa, they were effectively unknown, and certainly off the map. In this unventuresome climate of British conceptualism, the linguistic vogue “was little more than an intellectual exercise, like the invention of difficult crossword puzzles” (ibid., p. 85). Magee further writes of his earlier years that “my contemporaries were having fun, in which indeed I often joined and found pleasure, but what they were doing was seldom if ever of the slightest consequence” (ibid.).

The Oxford dissident was able to cite as a support the verdict of Bertrand Russell in the latter’s book entitled My Philosophical Development (1959). The Cambridge exponent there states that “the new philosophy seems to me to have abandoned, without necessity, that grave and important task which philosophy throughout the ages has hitherto pursued” (Magee, Confessions, pp. 85-6, citing Russell, p. 230).

One may conclude (without necessarily agreeing with all the Magee contentions) that British analytical philosophy has needed to become more universal in historical reference points, and ever more comprehensive in ideology, proposition, and theory. The methodology of “doing philosophy” appears to need a basic reappraisal, and this has been in process. The “crossword puzzles” are now seen by many as being in a different league to solving “philosophical problems,” a phrase that has varied in significance amongst interpreters.

Fortunately, since the 1950s, British analytical philosophy has become rather more complex and diverse, admitting new perspectives and forms of argument.

See also Magee, Popper (1974); idem, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer (1983); id., The Great Philosophers: An Introduction to Western Philosophy (1987); id., The Story of Philosophy (1998).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
December 20th 2009

ENTRY no. 6

Copyright © 2009 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.