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Book review / Onward and upward; Confessions of a Philosopher by Bryan Magee, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 20

Michael Tanner meets a philosopher who always looks on the bright side
This book is a stone which is trying to kill two birds that are further apart than Bryan Magee may realise. The first is the author's intellectual autobiography, and begins with some delightful passages in which he recalls his early childhood perplexities about the moment when one goes to sleep, the infinity of space and time, and the bewildering way in which the body obeys the will. Later Magee was to find that Kant had preceded him in feeling some of these worries, as well as offering remarkable accounts of their relationship to what we can and can't know.

That takes him on to his second subject, the nature of the philosophical enterprise. He considers some of its major western contributors over the millennia, and repeatedly excoriates 20th-century philosophy as practised in the majority of the universities of the UK. Magee considers this a self-serving affair of professionals with no serious intellectual concerns, who kill any serious interests which their pupils might have and write in a manner calculated to put off anyone but their colleagues.

By contrast with "analytic" or "linguistic" philosophers, Magee has spent most of his life outside of academe, usually earning his keep by pursuing a media career while preserving enough time to study the great issues in depth.

His mode of education has been enviable. "I would take longer works with me on my travels and soak in them for weeks at a time," he recalls: "Kant's Critique of Pure Reason during six weeks in the quiet heart of Majorca, the collected dialogues of Plato in Salzburg, Heidegger's Sein und Zeit in Bayreuth, the Confessions of St Augustine in Sicily, Hume's Enquiries in Sweden, the works of Leibniz on Lake Garda, Pascal in the West of England."

In between these depth excursions, Magee often took part in trail-blazing intellectual chat shows on TV, pursued a career as a critic of opera, records, the theatre. He wrote books on the way forward for Labour, on homosexuality, Wagner and Karl Popper; and had periodic sojourns in universities.

But something was lacking, despite seeming "to have everything I could reasonably want - good health, energy, an adventurous life, rewarding friendships, exhilarating love affairs, success in my work, exciting travel, the sustained nourishment of music, theatre, reading". Simply: "The realisation hit me like a demolition crane that I was inevitably going to die".

A couple of chapters later things are still just as bad: "I had published eight books, stood for parliament twice, and for some years had been appearing on a regular peak-hour television programme. In a way I was a sort of minor celebrity; I was recognised by strangers in the street, addressed by name in shops and restaurants, asked for my autograph. But none of this had any value for me."

The search for meaning went on. Magee had the privilege of knowing Popper and Russell well, but though he regards them as probably the two greatest geniuses of philosophy in our century, they had nothing to say on the issues which plagued his life, to that point where he often felt he was going mad. Even after writing his philosophical novel Facing Death he is still dissatisfied. Three chapters later still, "I had published several books that had received good reviews, and I was earning my living enjoyably as a broadcaster on radio and television."

It was only when, finally, after reading all the other great philosophers, he turned to Schopenhauer - notoriously neglected by academic philosophers - that he at last found someone who had felt the problems he felt, and went at least some way to assuaging the anguish they cause. "He speaks to me as no other philosopher does, direct and in his own human voice, a fellow-spirit, a penetratingly perceptive friend, with a hand on my elbow and a twinkle in his eye."

The two chapters on Schopenhauer are the climax of this long book. Anyone who has heard something about Schopenhauer but not much is likely to expect, and justifiably, that a lengthy consideration of him will mention that, most unusually in the western tradition, he was a pessimist. That word doesn't occur in Magee's book, and by design. He holds the extraordinary view that Schopenhauer got most things impressively more right than other philosophers, but that he made a mistake in being a pessimist - an ill- advised optional extra to his overall view.

That seems to me so monumental a blunder as almost to disarm criticism. But over and over again, Magee registers his dissent from views in terms which leave it unclear that he has any basic grasp of them. Kant, his second most admired thinker, gets a roughly similar treatment to Schopenhauer.

And Magee's criticisms of analytic philosophy, with what he considers its sterile confinement to issues of language rather than of reality, show that he hasn't ever seriously considered the fundamental issue of how one is to find out the nature of the real merely by taking thought.

Fairly early on, rebuking Wittgenstein in Russell-like terms for ratting at "the grave and important task of understanding the world," he summarises what he believes to be true: "the perception that there is something mystical about the very existence of the world; the realisation that any significance that life has is transcendental, as must be also all values, morals, and the import of art; and that it is for that reason inherently impossible to give a satisfactory account in language of these things".

As an old-style unregenerate analytic philosopher, in part, I want to ask Magee why he thinks that "I ought not to write spitefully about other people" is a transcendental truth, and even what that might mean. No answer is forthcoming. This book chattily goes on its way, at what I can only describe as a middlebrow level. Big issues are constantly wielded, but since their resolution inevitably turns out to be transcendental, no one will be left the wiser, except as to the driving impulses in the life of Bryan Magee.