Princeton University Press, 2016
A public intellectual is a rarity. This is especially true in our nation where there is a slew of talking heads and pundits but a dearth of critics that engage in thoughtful and thought provoking conversation. So starved of this role in our culture, we tend to over-inflate the quality of commentators who resist mere entertainment.
In our nation, there has long been a virulent strain of anti-intellectualism so woven into our culture as to become a major trait of our national character. There are, of course, those who push back against this as well as those refusing to engage in unnecessary, damaging competition. Many of these individuals are critics with more than a casual grounding in philosophy. There’s a reason for this. The study of philosophy is the practice of thinking and acting in the world.
So coming to British public intellectual Bryan Magee’s latest book, Ultimate Questions, was a delight. Magee is a former Member of Parliament and well-known television presenter who made popularizing philosophy a priority. In April of this year, Magee will turn 86 giving the title of his slim volume more than a bit of an existential urgency. Ultimate Questions isn’t so much about popularizing philosophy as it is a work demonstrating how one can achieve understanding.
Like the meditations of stoics and the discourses of Plato, Magee gives us a work striving to think its way through living. It is at once a theoretical and pragmatic articulation of being. Magee wrestles with just how he knows what he knows, how his life experiences have not just formed him but how his understanding of experience has shaped him. This is one of the most beautiful and compelling uses of philosophy: thinking through oneself so as to know as well as provide an example for others.
Make no mistake, there are more than a few parts of Ultimate Questions where Magee is rather rambling as well as sections where his examples or metaphors are poorly chosen. But for the most part, Magee’s musing resists provocation delivering eloquently vexing awareness. Delving into the concept of time, Magee simply asserts “most people are as provincial in time as they are in space: they huddle down into their time and regard it as their total environment” encouraging us to be more aware of ourselves not just as existing in a particular place but in a particular time. The maneuver sets us in a more complicated and natural relation to history, both personal and public:
We can better understand the meaning of this if we reflect that every moment in the history we know was ‘present’ for the people living in it, ‘future’ for those who lived before it, and ‘past’ for those who came after, yet the events and their sequence were exactly the same for everybody
It is here we can then accept and internalize the fact that “there is no privileged moment which is ‘now.'” This is casually startling because it reveals just how easily we misapprehend our experience yet also how vigorous our reason can be when presented with one of the most simple things. With the reality of ‘now’ problematized in such a way, Magee begins the first of his Socrates-like conclusions:
Any individual who looks at the world around him and tries to master it with his understanding is all the time having the rug pulled out from under his feet. He has scarcely finished struggle to liberate himself from the inadequacies of an earlier way of looking at things before he finds the inadequacies of the new way being exposed. There is no end to the process.
Magee sets us up to know that we don’t know and that we’ll forever be striving. Yet he refuses to see this in any way as a negative. He calls for “an active agnosticism” that he figures as “a positive principle of procedure, an openness to the fact that we do not know, followed by intellectually honest enquiry in full receptivity of mind.” It’s too easy to see this as some sort of attack or dismissal of religion. Although Magee does make it a point to stand outside and in stark contrast to religion or the occult, dwelling on this aspect would be a pointless quibbling. More vital is the fact that Magee isn’t interested in any kind of metaphysics but rather a deep experiential pragmatism. His is a belief rooted in togetherness, a world that is what he calls “us-dependent” rather than independent, individual, or isolated: “One essential aspect of our situation is that we are social creatures, indeed social creations: each one of us is created by two other people. If we are not cared for by them or someone taking their place, we die. Our existence and our survival both require active involvement by others.”
I love how this line of reasoning because it is a deft summation of Magee’s own political grounding, that is, his relationship to other around him. As someone with a rather strong sympathy with communitarianism, discovering how Magee’s thought reflects his acts in the world and vice versa is seeing an elegant authenticity. It moves us closer to his notion of “intercommunication,” which he believes to be “at the heart of human existence.”
This intercommunication is our “profound need, rooted in our need for survival, to believe that what exists does so in terms we can understand.” How we attempt to make sense of ourselves, other, and the world created between and among is the intercommunication of us-dependent creatures. Here is the joy Magee finds in what some could view from a quite bleak and pessimist perspective. Quite simply, “none of us can cope with life in this world if we throw up our hands in helpless bewilderment and passivity” so we must engage with others in a deeply social manner. Such an engagement feeds itself and our continued apprehension for “We cannot avoid taking action, doing things and whatever actions we perform require us to make decisions, and these involve choices.” The impact we have on others, with others, and from others demands choice “made only with reference to a criterion, even if it operates unconsciously. So we do in fact have, and have to have, standards and values, where we are aware of them or not. These have huge practical effects on our lives, however little we consider them.” What Magee brings us to is the bare naked fact that philosophy imbues our every relation leading us striving to become the most aware “we can make ourselves” so to be as “self-aware we can be in the use we make of whatever freedoms we have.” We so desperately need others in a very immediate and real sense because “with the death of every other individual, another unique sequence of experiences will come to an end” without which our hope to understand the world diminishes.
And that is our key, we strive to understand a world. Magee’s book is nothing if not an attempt to redress a very simple assertion: “I know that I exist, but I do not know what I am.” As he sat writing this book “in a bare, almost empty room, with no one else around…in an out-of-the-way house” surrounded by silence, he fills the void with his most authentic thoughts. Not out of vanity or pride or for any true purpose but because Magee believes “our assumptions, values, standards, morals and tastes should be never-endingly subjected to criticism, and should be revised or abandoned in the light of that criticism; and we should continue to entertain only those that stand up to this treatment.”
This is his attempt, late in life, to make one more pass over his own experience, beliefs, knowledge, and understanding. To do so for no benefit, but for that of intercommunication to show how us-dependent experience, reality, and, thus, life is.
Read an excerpt from Ultimate Questions