Thursday, January 04, 2007

Confessions of a Philosopher

One book that I’m re-reading at the moment is Bryan Magee’s “Confessions of a Philosopher: A Journey through Western Philosophy”. This free-ranging book takes the form of an intellectual autobiography, but includes compact and clear overviews of some of the most important philosophical reflections in the Western tradition. Magee was a teacher of philosophy at Oxford, a member of parliament in England (Labor), and a television personality. He was well-acquainted with Bertrand Russell, and was close friends with Karl Popper. He has written extensively on a range of subjects; he is never boring.

Last night I re-read a section that is a real two-fisted polemic against uncritical atheism. I’m so used to reading academics rail against theism, that it’s refreshing to read what Magee has to say. Just so you know, Magee is a thoroughgoing agnostic. He says, for example, “It is true that we might have immortal souls, though I am inclined to doubt it. And it is true that the might be a God, though I am inclined to doubt that even more. (p199)” So you can see that he doesn’t attack dogmatic atheism from the point of view of a believer. But get this:

“I have little intellectual patience with people who think that know there is no God, and no life other than this one, and no reality outside the empirical world. Some such theistic humanism has been one of the characteristic outlooks of Western man since the Enlightenment, and is particularly common among able and intelligent individuals. It is the prevailing outlook, I suppose, in most of the circles in which I have moved for most of my life. It lacks all sense of the mystery that surrounds and presses so hard on our lives: more often than not it denies its existence, and in doing so is factually wrong. It lacks any real understanding that human limitations are drastic, in that our physical apparatus must inevitably mould and set very narrow bounds to all that can ever be experience for us – and therefore that our worldview is almost certainly paltry, in that most of what there is almost certainly lies outside it. It is complacent, in that it takes as known what it is impossible we should ever know. It is narrow and unimaginative, in that it disregards the most urgent questions of all. I, like Kant, would go so far to say that it is positively mistaken in believing that there is no reality outside the empirical realm when we know that there must be, even if we have no proper understanding of it. Altogether, it is a hopelessly inadequate worldview from several different standpoints simultaneously; and yet it is one that tends to identify itself with rationality as such, and to congratulate itself on its own sophistication. Throughout my life I have found most of its adherents unable to understand that truly rational considerations lead to quite different conclusions…Their attitude is what Schopenhauer called ‘shallow-pated rationalism’” (p200-201).

To get what he’s saying here it helps to have read his comments on Kant and Schopenhauer, but even as it stands it has some real power. What he has to say on Nietzsche is just brilliant; I’ll blog on that anon!

1 comment:

Schütz said...

I was listening to an edition of the ABC's Philosopher's Zone the other day which had a lecture by Professor John Bigelow from the Department of Philosophy at Monash University on "The Australian School" of Metaphysics (yes, apparently there is such a thing!). (See:

It included a lot of stuff about people like Professor David Armstrong at Sydney University and Samuel Alexander who wrote a book of metaphysics called "Space, Time and Deity". Both these guys, and the "Australian School" in general, seemed of the opinion that although Metaphysics had a place in modern philosophy,

"everything there is exists in space and time. There is no supernatural world outside space and time. There is, for instance, no transcendent God outside space and time. There's no platonic realm of pure mathematical forms, there are only the things that exist either earlier or later than us at some particular location in this same world in which we live and move and have our being."

He concludes that "As a result of this approach, many Australian metaphysicians arrive at the metaphysics that lies perilously close to the reductionism of Ancient Greek philosophy who said that nothing exists but atoms in the void."

Finally, in the end, Bigelow says: "Isn't it possible that Australian realist philosophers have just failed to understand the devastating critiques of 20th century critics that have come from 20th century critics like Heidegger and Wittgenstein?"

Quite possible, yes. He goes on:

"It's fairly obvious that belief in a transcendent God, reincarnation or the immortality of the soul, the doctrine of momentariness, and many other metaphysical doctrines, will continue to attract believers all over the globe. Live and let live, I say. Recognition that no-one can prove finally and absolutely that we are wrong, should not lead to the complacent conclusion that we could not be wrong, or that there's no longer any need to keep striving after truth as a regulative ideal."