Bryan Magee died today, aged 89. I last saw him in Oxford a few months ago at an event celebrating the launch of Henry Hardy’s fascinating memoir about Isaiah Berlin. Already in his late 80s, and sadly in decline, he managed to get to Wolfson College to enjoy listening to Hardy and Tim Garton Ash talking about the subjects closest to Magee’s heart, philosophy and the history of ideas.
It was particularly appropriate that Magee was there to celebrate the legacy of Berlin, because Berlin was the first subject in Magee’s brilliant BBC series, Men of Ideas (1978), fifteen interviews with leading philosophers about current philosophy, from Marxism and Logical Positivism to Wittgenstein and linguistic philosophy.
This was followed almost a decade later by The Great Philosophers (1987), fifteen more interviews with leading philosophers about the great figures of western philosophy, from Plato to Wittgenstein.
Magee had an extraordinarily rich career: friends at Oxford included Robin Day, Jeremy Thorpe and Michael Heseltine; he was a Labour (and briefly SDP) MP for almost a decade, from 1974-83; a prolific author (he wrote almost thirty books, including several books on Wagner and Karl Popper); a well-known TV presenter, first at Thames and then at the BBC through the 1970s and ‘80s. But he will be best remembered for these two BBC series on philosophy.
They were classics of a golden age of public service broadcasting, bringing some of the best-known philosophers of the time to a mainstream audience (the interviews were published in The Listener and then in paperback by Oxford University Press). Magee was clear, calm and made the hardest of ideas seem accessible, without ever talking down to his audience or being simplistic. Above all, he knew his subject, covering a huge range of ideas over a vast period of western thought. The interview with Isaiah Berlin, “An Introduction to Philosophy”, is a masterpiece: Berlin at his peak, in full flow, is exhilarating.
Writing now, forty years later, when philosophy has become increasingly arcane and cut off from ordinary readers, these programmes reached out to a large TV audience and made philosophy matter. There is nothing like these programmes today, and there hasn’t been for more than twenty years.
Of course, there were criticisms. It was too blokeish. Iris Murdoch was the only woman in Men [sic] of Ideas, Martha Nussbaum the only woman in The Great Philosophers. That is two women out of thirty interviewees. It was all white, all Anglo-American, at a time when continental (especially French) ideas were storming seminar rooms on both sides of the Atlantic. At times it felt very Oxbridge common room. Half the interviewees on Men of Ideas taught at Oxford or Cambridge. Seven taught at a handful of universities on either the East or West coasts. The same was largely true of The Great Philosophers, almost a decade later.
On the other hand, many of the best philosophers of the mid-20th century appeared on these programmes: Berlin, AJ Ayer and Chomsky; Marcuse, Charles Taylor and John Searle. These were major figures and, best of all, they were terrific talkers. Searle and Morgenbesser were fast-talking, super-smart American philosophers who took on difficult subjects like Wittgenstein and the American Pragmatists. Magee’s interview with Berlin was the best ever recorded, catching Berlin in his heyday, still in his Sixties. Bernard Williams (on Descartes and Linguistic Philosophy) was one of the great communicators of his generation.
Magee also presented a series of interviews, Modern British Philosophy, on Radio 4, Something to Say on Thames and Thinking Aloud for BBC2. He was replaced as the presenter of Thinking Aloud by Michael Ignatieff. Ignatieff, good-looking, super-smart, almost twenty years younger, seemed cooler, with his trans-Atlantic accent, more in touch with contemporary writing and thinking, presenting programmes on ideas but also on the fatwa and the Fall of the Berlin Wall. Magee never regained his position on British television.
But it is wrong to end on a note of decline. In his day, Magee was a superb broadcaster and a decent and generous man. You can see him at his best on You Tube. This is how he should be remembered.