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Bryan Magee

Muslims and Europeans

By Bryan Magee, European philosophers, Muslim philosophers
In defiance of various ethnocentric attitudes, I will invoke cross-cultural vistas in the treatment on this site, as I have already done in my books. This gesture does not merely imply a diachronic assessment of thought via historical circumstances, but a recognition of recurring trends in different linguistic formats and at different angles of mentation. In the next several entries, I propose to mention some basic features in the careers of six philosophers, three of them medieval Muslims, and three of them modern Europeans. More specifically, I am referring to al-Farabi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Sir Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, and Baruch Spinoza. 

The first three in this list are primary representatives of falsafa (Islamic philosophy as derived from the Greeks), the fourth was a committed inductionist and empiric, while the two lastmentioned entities were innovative rationalists in the European “gentlemanly amateur” tradition.

The selection is thus fairly wide-ranging. The ethnic features are varied. Farabi was apparently an Iranian, Ibn Rushd a Spanish Arab, Ibn Sina an Iranian, Bacon a British politician, Descartes a French Catholic radical, and Spinoza a freethinking Jew. Taken together, they exhibit a spectrum of philosophical attitudes.  A blog format of description can only indicate a few of the complexities.

Most Western readers are only familiar with the last three entities. It is worth repeating here that Bacon, Descartes, and Spinoza pioneered two dispositions that were basically foreign to most of their academic contemporaries. Many of those contemporaries were Aristotelians of a formal category deriving from the days of the Christian Schoolmen. They had not gained effective answers in their worldview, as scientists like Galileo and Kepler discovered. Modern Western philosophy was born in the “citizen” sectors. The academics were then very substantially uncomprehending; retrospectively they have been far more generous.

The Islamic phase dimensions of philosophy have customarily been relegated in the Western tradition. Even Bryan Magee, the “populariser of philosophy,” and advocate of the progressive Yale syllabus, failed to incorporate reference to the falasifa (Muslim philosophers) in his The Story of Philosophy (London: Dorling Kindersley, 1998). This compact coverage favours 2,500 years of Western philosophy, basically moving from the Greeks to the moderns. The gaps are rather substantial. 

Magee stated rather briefly (in brackets) that “cultural contact with the Arab world in the 12th and 13th centuries was to have altogether a transforming effect on European intellectual development, and not only with regard to Aristotle” (Magee 1998:55).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
March 20th 2010

ENTRY no. 16 

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Bryan Magee’s Critique of Oxford

By analytical philosophy, Bryan Magee, Oxford philosophy, Yale University

Bryan Magee

Bryan Magee (born 1930) is a British philosopher associated with the Oxford tradition, of which he is not at all typical. In his earlier years, his discontent with prevailing ideology caused him to avoid the role of a professional philosopher. Instead he took the varied roles of a broadcaster, independent writer, and politician. However, he did subsequently hold university appointments at both Oxford and London, becoming 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 in Oxford. He clearly preferred the former; the reasons are worth investigating here.

The outspoken autobiography of Magee asserts that twentieth century Oxford philosophy was 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.). A strong statement indeed; there are many others in the same book. For example, “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. “As a direct consequence he [Popper] suffered not only isolation but active discrimination” (ibid., p. 89).

The Oxford orthodoxy emphasised 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 preferred 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: “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: “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 needed to become more universal in historical reference points, and ever more comprehensive in ideology and proposition. The methodology of “doing philosophy” appears to need a basic reappraisal. 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. Opinions differ as to the ongoing momentum.

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.

G. E. Moore and Commonsense

By analytical philosophy, Bertrand Russell, Bryan Magee, G. E. Moore

G. E. Moore

The Cambridge philosopher George Edward Moore (1873-1958) is strongly associated with the advocacy of “realist” commonsense. Together with his acquaintance Bertrand Russell, he originated the analytical philosophy that took strong root in Britain. There was a difference in the outreach of those two entities. Russell became an international figure, whereas the influence of Moore was largely confined to Britain.

Both Moore and Russell started their academic career at Cambridge as neo-Hegelians. These inhabitants of Trinity College were inheritors of the nineteenth century overspill from German idealism, a format found in British philosophy by the end of that century. Moore went to study at Trinity in 1892, adding philosophy to classics. There he met Russell and J.M.E. McTaggart (1866-1925), the latter a critical Hegelian and a lecturer at Trinity. Moore subsequently broke away from the influence of McTaggart (who eventually reaped a strong degree of oblivion for many years). This development prompted Russell’s similar revolt against the idealism of McTaggart. Yet unlike Russell, Moore nurtured a continuing aversion for empiricism, a trait which he acquired from the neo-Hegelians.

In his dissertation of 1898, Moore turned against Kantian idealism, confirming his new angle in realism. He became a Fellow of Trinity, and eventually a lecturer. His intellectual development is not straightforward, and has been subject to some generalisations. Only his friend Russell identified fully with the empiricist tradition stemming from Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. However, Moore did share in the “realist” reliance on sense data, which now became the operative mode of analysis, disdaining metaphysical elements.

While Russell moved into the rather cerebral world of mathematical logic, Moore established an analytical approach to ethical problems in Principia Ethica (1903), which transpired to be his most famous work. He has been credited with a “Platonistic” view of good as an objective but indefinable property. In this work he argued that ethical disputes cannot be resolved by criteria of the natural or social sciences; ethical values should be acknowledged in their own right.

From 1925 to 1939, Moore was Professor of Philosophy and Logic at Cambridge. By that time he had developed his “commonsense” realist position, first explicitly expressed in lectures of 1910-11. Here he remarked: “What is most amazing and most interesting about the views of many philosophers, is the way in which they go beyond or positively contradict the views of Common Sense” (Moore, Some Main Problems of Philosophy, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1953, p. 2).

This attitude was consolidated in his subsequent paper A Defence of Commonsense (1925). He was not a systematic philosopher. “Moore’s legacy is primarily a collection of arguments, puzzles and challenges” (Tom Baldwin, “George Edward Moore,” Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy).

Moore was a friend of Wittgenstein, possessing a different temperament. They were not always in agreement. In other directions, Moore rejected the logical positivism that gained strong ground at Oxford via such entities as Alfred Ayer.

“Although Moore always denied that philosophy is just analysis, there is no denying that it [analysis] plays a central role in his philosophy” (Baldwin, art.cit.). See further P.A. Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of G. E. Moore (1942); T. Baldwin, G. E. Moore (London, 1990); Baldwin, ed., G.E. Moore: Selected Writings (London, 1993).

Moore felt that the commonsense boundaries of experience were sufficient to explain existence. He exercised a strong influence on the Oxford academic philosophers, firstly the logical positivist wave, and afterwards the linguistic analysts like J. L. Austin.

Accusations have been made that philosophy became “talk about talk,” a phrase associated with the analysis of concepts and speech. That disposition has frequently been critical of anything idealist or rationalist, or even scientific. Moore was content to analyse statements in ordinary language, without relying on science or any form of technical logic. This commonsense outlook was favoured by the Oxford philosopher J. L. Austin, who furthered the resistant attitude to logical positivism (and criteria of scientific standards dominating speech). The new trend viewed “philosophical problems” as confusions caused by the inappropriate use of language; the unravelling of the confusion via linguistic analysis was now believed by Austin and others to dissolve the problems.

The mergence of commonsense and linguistic analysis has been criticised in other directions, as not being any path to deliverance from problems. The nature of commonsense analysis has come under attack for being a simplistic mode, not the ultimate recourse. For instance, “modern science has shown that behind our moment-to-moment experience of the everyday world teem truths and realities that commonsense is totally unaware of, that are frequently astounding and often counter-intuitive, and sometimes deeply difficult to grasp even when we know them to be true” (Bryan Magee, Confessions of a Philosopher, London: Phoenix, 1998, p. 52).

The attack on commonsense advocacy in British philosophy alighted upon Bertrand Russell’s denial of commonsense in his well known book The Problems of Philosophy (1912). Russell here emphatically stated that “commonsense leaves us completely in the dark as to the true intrinsic nature of physical objects.”

Professor Bryan Magee adds in supplement: “The greatest tragedy of academic philosophy in the twentieth century in the English-speaking world is that it was developed as a profession largely by people to whom these things were not obvious, people who did not themselves have philosophical problems and who – perhaps for that reason – operated with a commonsense view of the world, and equated philosophical activity with conceptual analysis” (Magee, op. cit., p. 53).

A further observation is that the alternatives to commonsense philosophy seemed to be contradicted by religious elements, the absolute idealism of Hegel, and the oracular writings of Nietzsche (ibid.). Therefore everything else was eschewed as inferior or confusing.

British conceptual analysis (or “commonsense”) leaves rather large areas of questioning in matters that should not be taken for granted. For instance, the Magee formulation prompts a query as to the identity of the people who do experience “philosophical problems.” Perhaps Magee is one of them; that contingent may also include more obscure persons possessing a valid angle on the resolution of problems.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
December 8th 2009

ENTRY no. 4

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

Bertrand Russell

By analytical philosophy, Bertrand Russell, Bryan Magee

Bertrand Russell

One of the most influential modern philosophers was Bertrand Russell (1872-1970). Some commentators say that he was the dominant figure in twentieth century philosophy. This being so, one is obliged to probe some aspects of his career.

Bertrand Russell was the grandson of Lord John Russell, being reared in a British aristocratic milieu, and eventually inheriting the status of an Earl. However, he allied himself with the Labour Party, being radical in his views. At Cambridge he studied mathematics, a subject which he adapted to philosophy. In 1898, Russell abandoned his neo-Hegelian idealism in favour of realism as the “new philosophy of logic.” He acknowledged the importance of science in this transition.

His early work Principles of Mathematics (1903) became famous for contending his subject in terms of a close relationship to logic. This has been described as logicism, meaning the view that mathematics is significantly reducible to formal logic. Russell arrived at his basic view of “mathematical logic” quite independently of the obscure Gottlob Frege (1848-1925), the German mathematician of Jena University who converged in this form of conceptualism (or logicism).

In collaboration with Alfred North Whitehead, Russell subsequently produced Principia Mathematica (1910-13), a three volume work that became celebrated in terms of a “new logic.” He was viewed by his admirers as a British version of Aristotle. Russell has been described as deducing mathematics from logic. “One of the effects has been not so much to subordinate mathematics to logic, which is what Frege and Russell wanted, but to subordinate logic to mathematics” (Alfred Ayer, “Frege, Russell and Modern Logic” in Bryan Magee, The Great Philosophers, Oxford University Press, 1988, p. 308).

Bertrand Russell became a Professor of Philosophy. From 1910 to 1915 he was a lecturer at Cambridge University, during which period he was tutor to Wittgenstein, whom he regarded as a genius. He departed from mathematical logic and composed some books on general philosophy, including The Problems of Philosophy (1912). His Oxford follower Alfred Ayer referred to this work as “the best introduction to philosophy that there is” (ibid., p. 309). Russell here describes “various traditional philosophical problems from an empiricist standpoint” (ibid.). He was continuing the British empiricist tradition associated with Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. Russell is celebrated as having inspired the analytic philosophy favoured by universities, sharing this honour with G. E. Moore.

Later, Russell veered away from philosophy, becoming engaged in political and educational activities having a flavour of radical socialism. He gained fervent admirers and strong critics. “The permissive society was implemented by Bertrand Russell, whose advocacy of free love is memorable for the misery created in his family” (Shepherd, Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals, 2004, p. 251). He married four times and became notorious as a womaniser. His book Marriage and Morals (1929) gained brickbats. In contrast, he later acquired the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950.

Russell was eventually hero-worshipped by the younger generation of the 1960s, who uncritically assimilated his political and social views, including the unwise disposition for free love that created so many problems. Russell was not only a symbol of pacifism and the campaign for nuclear disarmament, but also more questionable deportment.

He wrote some further works on philosophy, including his famous History of Western Philosophy (1946). This book has received very differing assessments. The publisher Routledge refers to “the best-selling philosophy book of the twentieth century and one of the most important philosophical works of all time” (Routledge edition, 2000). A conflicting commentary came from Professor Bryan Magee, who says that Russell’s History is “overrated.” One judgment here is: “The treatment throughout is superficial, not to say flip” (Magee, Confessions of a Philosopher, London: Phoenix, 1998, p. 220).

Furthermore, “for all his [Russell’s] genius he radically fails to understand Kant, and consequently the whole tradition of philosophy that has grown out of Kant’s work; his entire chapter on Schopenhauer is consistent with his never having read that philosopher’s main work” (ibid., p. 221).

These are weighty criticisms indeed. One is obliged to look closely at Magee’s personal description of Russell, whom he met towards the end of the latter’s long life, in 1960 to be precise.

Magee found that Russell was an elegantly courteous host, mentally alert at the age of 87, a fluent and humorous talker, and possessing a social record of impressive contacts the world over. For instance, Russell described how he had taught philosophy to the poet T.S. Eliot at Harvard. “He did not tell me what I subsequently discovered, that he [Russell] had had an affair with Eliot’s wife while the Eliots were living under his roof” (ibid., p. 264).

The subject gains due praise from Magee for his career achievements. However, significant contradictions for contemporary philosophy are emphasised. Although Russell is regarded as the founder of modern analytic philosophy, “he never regarded analysis as an end in itself” (ibid., p. 216). Bertrand Russell started language philosophy, without viewing this as the objective, unlike his successors. More pointedly, “to the end of his days, he believed that the purpose of philosophy was what it had always been thought to be, namely the understanding of the true nature of reality, including ourselves” (ibid., p. 217). In that respect, Russell was a polymath, not a specialist, and certainly not a linguist.

Even more pointedly, Bertrand Russell was one of the few who “understood clearly – what many people to this day fail to understand – that science of itself does not, and never can, establish a particular view of the ultimate nature of reality.” What science actually does is to “reduce everything it can deal with to a certain ground-floor level of explanation” (ibid., p. 218).

The Magee version of this perspective is memorable:

To many working scientists, science seems very obviously to suggest an ultimate explanation, namely a materialist one; but a materialist view of total reality is a metaphysics, not a scientific theory; there is no possibility whatsoever of scientifically proving, or disproving, it. (Magee, Confessions, p. 218)

Magee finds the last philosophical book of Russell to be significant for reasons not always proclaimed. My Philosophical Development (1959) is described as a “substantial work aimed at the serious student of philosophy” (Magee, Confessions, p. 220). The deduction is made that Russell was here acknowledging how his empiricist quest had failed. In the last paragraph, Russell states that “empiricism as a theory of knowledge has proved inadequate” (ibid., p. 222). Magee concludes that Russell had finally arrived at a view which Kant had made a starting point in his own critical philosophy generations before. Moreover, Magee urges that Russell failed in pursuing logic and the philosophy of science, neither of these avenues having afforded a due explanation of known reality (ibid., p. 219).

Ultimately, Magee views Russell as being impractical. His “genius was for solving theoretical problems” (ibid., p. 268). “He treated practical problems as if they were theoretical problems; in fact I do not think he could tell the difference” (ibid.). This made Russell a “blunderer” in private and public life. “He had so little practical intelligence” (ibid.).

The mathematical genius was thus at a disadvantage with the real life problems of philosophy, which is not merely an academic or theoretical pursuit. Russell knew the limitations of language analysis; he apparently grasped, in the end, that his empiricist profile was a limitation. His flawed psyche (meaning his instinctual excesses) has been lamented by some commentators.

Cf. The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell (3 vols, London 1967-69). See also A. D. Irvine, ed., Bertrand Russell: Critical Assessments (4 vols, London, 1999).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
December 4th 2009

ENTRY no. 3

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