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Bryan Magee

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Bryan Magee

Bryan Magee
Born (1930-04-12) 12 April 1930
Hoxton, London, England
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
Main interests
Metaphysics, epistemology, history of philosophy, classical music

Bryan Edgar Magee (born 12 April 1930)[1] is a noted British philosopher, broadcaster, politician, poet and author, best known as a popularizer of philosophy.

Early life

Born of working class parents in Hoxton, Magee was close to his father, but had a difficult relationship with his abusive and overbearing mother. An evacuee during World War II, he was educated at Christ's Hospital school on a London County Council scholarship. During this formative period, he developed a keen interest in socialist politics, while during the school holidays he enjoyed listening to political orators at Speakers' Corner, Hyde Park, London as well as regular visits to the theatre and concerts.

During his National Service he served in the British Army and in the Intelligence Corps seeking possible spies among the refugees crossing the border between Yugoslavia and Austria. After demobilisation he won a scholarship to Keble College, Oxford where he studied History as an undergraduate and then Philosophy, Politics and Economics in one year.[2] His friends at Oxford included Robin Day, William Rees-Mogg, Jeremy Thorpe and Michael Heseltine. While at university, Magee was elected president of the Oxford Union. He spent a year studying philosophy at Yale University on a post-graduate fellowship.[3] He is an honorary fellow at Keble College, Oxford.[4]


Bryan Magee
Member of Parliament
for Leyton
In office
February 1974 – May 1983
Preceded by Patrick Gordon Walker
Succeeded by Harry Cohen
Personal details
Nationality British
Political party Labour Party (1958–1982)
Social Democratic Party (1982–1983)

He returned to Britain from Yale in 1958 with hopes of becoming a Labour Member of Parliament (MP). In this he was unsuccessful, and instead took up a job presenting the ITV current affairs television programme This Week. He made documentary programmes about subjects of social concern such as prostitution, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion and homosexuality (illegal in Britain at the time).

He was eventually elected MP for Leyton at the February 1974 general election, but found himself out of tune with the Labour Party's leftward tendencies under Michael Foot. On January 22 1982 he resigned the Labour whip and he subsequently (in March 1982) joined the defection of moderate Labour MPs to the newly founded Social Democratic Party. He lost his seat at the 1983 general election and returned to writing and broadcasting which, indeed, he had continued during his parliamentary career.

Broadcaster and writer

At Oxford, Magee had mixed with poets as well as politicians and in 1951 published a volume of verse through the Fortune Press. The publisher did not pay its writers and expected them to buy a certain number of copies themselves – a similar deal had been struck with such writers as Dylan Thomas and Philip Larkin for their first anthologies. The slim volume was dedicated to the memory of Richard Wagner, with a quote from Rilke's Duino Elegies: ... das Schöne ist nichts als des Schrecklichen Anfang, den wir noch grade ertragen ("... beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear").[5] Magee said later: "I'm rather ashamed of the poems now, although I have written poems since which I haven't published, which I secretly think are rather good. It has always been a dimension of what I do."[6]

Magee's most important influence in popular culture, however, remains his efforts to make philosophy accessible to the layman. Between 1970–1971, he presented a series for BBC Radio entitled Modern British Philosophy. The series took the form of Magee in conversation with a number of contemporary British philosophers, discussing both their own work, the work of earlier 20th century British philosophers (and Wittgenstein and Karl Popper), and the relationship between philosophy and other fields such as religion and the arts. The series began with an introductory conversation between Magee and British philosopher Anthony Quinton. Other programs included discussions on Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore and J. L. Austin, and the relationship between philosophy and religion, among others. The transcripts of the series are available in the book, Modern British Philosophy.

In 1978, Magee presented for BBC television 15 dialogues with noted philosophers in a series called Men of Ideas. Following an "Introduction to Philosophy" presented by Magee in discussion with Isaiah Berlin, Magee discussed topics like Marxist philosophy, the Frankfurt School, and modern Existentialism in subsequent episodes. Transcripts of the dialogues within the Men of Ideas series are available in published form in the book, Talking Philosophy.

Another BBC television series, The Great Philosophers, followed in 1987. In this series, Magee discussed the major historical figures of Western philosophy with fifteen contemporary philosophers. The series covered the philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes, among others, ending with a discussion with John Searle on the philosophy of Wittgenstein. Transcripts of The Great Philosophers are available in published form in a book of the same name. The Story of Thought (also published as The Story of Philosophy) also covers the history of Western philosophy.

In 1997 Magee's Confessions of a Philosopher was published, which essentially offered an introduction to philosophy in autobiographical form. The book was involved in a libel lawsuit as a result of Magee repeating the rumour that Ralph Schoenman, a controversial associate of Bertrand Russell during the philosopher's final decade, had been planted by the CIA in an effort to discredit Russell. Schoenman successfully sued Magee for libel in the UK, with the result that the first printing of the British edition of the book was pulped. A second defamation suit, filed in California against Random House, was settled in 2001. The allegations were expunged by settlement, and a new edition was issued and provided to more than 700 academic and public libraries.[7] In Confessions of a Philosopher, Magee charts his own philosophical development in an autobiographical context. He also emphasizes the importance of Schopenhauer's philosophy as a serious attempt to solve philosophical problems. In addition to this, he launches a critique of analytic philosophy, particularly in its linguistic form over three chapters, contesting its fundamental principles and lamenting its influence.

His book, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer (first published in 1983) remains one of the most substantial and wide-ranging treatments of Schopenhauer; it is particularly appreciated for its several essay-appendices in which Magee assesses in depth his influence on Wittgenstein, Wagner and other creative writers. He also addresses Schopenhauer's thoughts on homosexuality and the influence of Buddhism on his philosophy. He regards the work as his "academic magnum opus".

Magee has a particular interest in the life, thought and music of Richard Wagner and has written two notable books on the composer and his world Aspects of Wagner (1968; rev. ed. 1988), and The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy (2001). He is also an admirer of the philosophy of Karl Popper on whom he has written an introduction (Modern Masters series, 1997).

Magee's novel Facing Death, published in 1977, was originally written under the title Love Story, though it is not to be confused with the 1970 film of the same name, nor the book by Erich Segal upon which that film was based.

Personal life

In 1953 Magee was appointed to a teaching job in Sweden and while there met Ingrid Soderlund, a pharmacist in the university laboratory. They married and had one daughter, Gunnela and, in time, also three grandchildren. Magee later said: "The marriage broke up pretty quickly and it was a fairly disastrous period of my life. I came back to Oxford as a postgraduate. But since then Sweden has been a part of my life. I go there every year and my daughter visits me. I always assumed that sooner or later I'd get married again but it never quite happened, although I had some very long relationships. And now I don't want to get married again. I like the freedom."[8]

His autobiography, Clouds of Glory: A Hoxton Childhood, won the J. R. Ackerley Prize for Autobiography in 2004.


  • Crucifixion and Other Poems, 1951, Fortune Press
  • Go West, Young Man, Eyre And Spottiswoode, 1958, OCLC 6884140
  • To Live in Danger, Hutchinson, 1960 (softcover Random House ISBN 0-09-001700-5)
  • The New Radicalism, Secker & Warburg, 1962, ASIN B0006D7RZW
  • The Democratic Revolution, Bodley Head, 1964
  • One in Twenty: A Study of Homosexuality in Men and Women, Stein and Day, 1966. OCLC 654348375 (later published as The Gays Among Us)
  • The Television Interviewer, Macdonald, 1966, ASIN B0000CN1D4
  • Modern British Philosophy, Secker and Warburg, 1971, ISBN 0-436-27104-4; Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-283047-3
  • Karl Popper, Penguin, 1973, ISBN 0-670-01967-4 (Viking Press, ISBN 0-670-41174-4; later titled Philosophy and the Real World)
  • Facing Death, William Kimber & Co Ltd, 1977, ISBN 0-7183-0135-8
  • Men of Ideas: Some Creators of Contemporary Philosophy, Oxford University Press, 1982 (reprint; first published 1978), ISBN 0-19-283034-1
  • Philosophy and the Real World: An Introduction to Karl Popper, Open Court Publishing, 1985, ISBN 0-87548-436-0 (originally published as Karl Popper)
  • Aspects of Wagner, Secker and Warburg, 1968; rev. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 1988, ISBN 0-19-284012-6
  • On Blindness: Letters between Bryan Magee and Martin Milligan, Oxford University Press, 1996, ISBN 0-19-823543-7
  • The Philosophy of Schopenhauer, Oxford University Press, 1997 (reprint; first published 1983), ISBN 0-19-823722-7
  • Popper, Fontana Modern Masters, 1973, reprinted 1997, ISBN 0-00-686008-7
  • Confessions of a Philosopher, Random House, 1997, reprinted 1998, ISBN 0-375-50028-6
  • The Story of Thought: The Essential Guide to the History of Western Philosophy, The Quality Paperback Bookclub, 1998, ISBN 0-7894-4455-0
  • Sight Unseen, Phoenix House, 1998, ISBN 0-7538-0503-0
  • The Great Philosophers: An Introduction to Western Philosophy, Oxford University Press, 2000, ISBN 0-19-289322-X
  • Wagner and Philosophy, Penguin, 2001, ISBN 0-14-029519-4
  • The Story of Philosophy, Dorling Kindersley, 2001, ISBN 0-7894-7994-X
  • The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy, Owl Books, 2002 (reprint; first published 2001), ISBN 0-8050-7189-X
  • Clouds of Glory, Pimlico, 2004, ISBN 0-7126-3560-2 – winner of the J. R. Ackerley Prize for Autobiography
  • Growing up in a War, Pimlico, 2007, ISBN 1-84595-087-9


  1. ^ "Birthday's today". The Telegraph. 12 April 2012. Retrieved 11 April 2014. Mr Bryan Magee, writer, 82 
  2. ^ Magee, Bryan (1998). Confessions of a Philosopher. New York: Random House. p. 10.  
  3. ^ Magee, Bryan (1998). Confessions of a Philosopher. New York: Random House. pp. 122–138.  
  4. ^
  5. ^ Magee, B. (1951), Crucifixion and Other Poems, London, Fortune Press
  6. ^ "I think, therefore I write" at
  7. ^ Staff. "". Schoenman Settles Defamation Suit Against Random. Retrieved 31 July 2011. 
  8. ^ "I think, therefore I write" at

External links

  • Hansard 1803–2005: contributions in Parliament by Bryan Magee
  • Guardian Unlimited profile
  • Sijmen Hendriks Photography Web Photo of Magee.
  • Bryan Magee at the British Film Institute's Screenonline
  • Bryan Magee at the IMDb
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Patrick Gordon Walker
Member of Parliament for Leyton
Feb 19741983
Succeeded by
Harry Cohen
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