Bryan Magee brought philosophy to the masses

He explored the big questions without ever dumbing down. RIP.

Patrick West

Topics Culture UK

The author and broadcaster Bryan Magee was not a great philosopher, but he was a great populariser of philosophy and the great philosophers. Magee, who died last Friday at the age of 89, was a man of many talents, but he was best-known to the public for his two television series, Men of Ideas (1978) and The Great Philosophers (1987), in which he achieved the seemingly impossible feat of distilling the ideas of some of the great thinkers of past and present. And he did so without dumbing down.

The format was unglamorous, free from gimmickry and aesthetic decoration, with Magee, replete with plummy, cut-glass accent, talking one-to-one for an hour to the likes of AJ Ayer, Isaiah Berlin, Iris Murdoch and Noam Chomsky, about one central idea – invariably related to the meaning of life, the nature of existence, or the concept of knowledge.

The British public should have been daunted by such a prospect and ducked the challenge, but the outcome was the reverse: Men of Ideas attracted one million viewers per show in its 15 instalments, and it went on to win an award from the Royal Television Society.

It was thus no surprise that the format remained unchanged when The Great Philosophers was aired in 1987. Even the brown suits and beige furniture, then so out of place in the late 1980s, were retained. Here we had Martha Nussbaum extrapolating on Aristotle, Peter Singer on Hegel and Marx, and JP Stern on Nietzsche (all episodes can be found on YouTube). The format stands in stark contrast to the format we have become used to today, with a breathless presenter constantly on the move, transported from location to location, concluding his monologue by turning on his heel and walking into the distance. Magee taught us that ideas in themselves can be exciting.

Magee appealed to the British public not merely because of his communication skills, but also because he addressed the big, classic questions of philosophy, questions that all of humanity has asked and will continue to ask: Why is there something instead of nothing? What is knowledge? What is language? What is time? Where do we go when we die?

When he went to Oxford to study philosophy in the 1950s he was grievously disappointed at what was on offer. Linguistic analysis was all the rage, with philosophers such as JL Austin, Gilbert Ryle and PF Strawson teaching that all Western philosophy was based on linguistic mistakes or misunderstandings. ‘Professional philosophy as I discovered it for the first time in the Oxford of the early 1950s’, he recalled in his 1997 memoir Confessions of a Philosopher, had ‘pretty well abandoned philosophy’s traditional task of trying to understand the world’.

Magee, who had been both fascinated and terrified by the mystery of existence, took it as his mission to rescue philosophy from cold logical positivism or the trivialities of linguistic analysis. For him, philosophy was about asking the big questions. This may be a daunting task, but one ever-more alluring for being so.

Dare to be a heretic

‘Highly politicised’ transgender rights groups are pressuring school counsellors and mental-health workers and putting children at risk, a gender-identity expert told the Observer at the weekend. ‘The trans political agenda has encroached on the clinical environment’, said Marcus Evans, former governor of the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, which runs a gender counselling and transition clinic. ‘Young people need an independent clinical service that has the long-term interests of the patient at heart. To some extent, this requires a capacity to stand up to pressure… from the young person, their family, peer groups, online and social-networking pressures and from highly politicised pro-trans groups.’ Evans said experts live in fear of being labelled transphobic if they do not affirm a child’s belief that they have been born the wrong sex.

Every society needs its taboos, and today being ‘transphobic’ is one of the most grievous accusations an individual can face. This is why the extreme trans lobby is throwing its muscle around, aware as it is of the shame, ostracism or threat to his or her livelihood that awaits anyone found guilty of ‘transphobia’. Our society is conformist, herdlike, cowardly and terrified of unfashionable opinions – and they know it.

Our society doesn’t genuinely and thoroughly accept diversity of opinion. Human beings have a desire to censure and punish incorrect behaviour or use of taboo words, and we will always find a means of doing so. The worst reaction is compliance and self-censorship. The best reaction is to dare to be a social leper.

Jazz is terrible

In the popular 1990s comedy series The Fast Show there used to be a recurrent sketch called ‘Jazz Club’, loosely based on The Old Grey Whistle Test, in which the pretentious and smooth presenter Louis Balfour would praise the next act in nonsensical jazz-speak and baffling musical terminology. But every time the act would prove to be appalling, their music being a ludicrous and awful experimental cacophony. The message of ‘Jazz Club’ was that jazz is the pits. And the message is right.

So it is alarming to read reports this week that jazz is becoming fashionable again, especially among the young. Spotify told the Guardian that about 40 per cent of jazz-listening on the streaming service is done by people under 30, with the percentage holding steadily since 2014. It reported that the number of jazz listeners in this age group has risen year on year since 2016.

The only form of jazz that is remotely entertaining (or remotely jazz) is ragtime music, a lively and spritely proto-genre that enjoyed popularity in the first two decades of the 20th century. But otherwise jazz is appalling, narcissistic music, in which the emphasis is always on the individual performer, who isn’t so much entertaining the audience with his music as torturing it with his embellishments.

And it is cacophonous, with modern or experimental jazz sounding like acoustic death metal, with someone having thrown a load of instruments down a stairwell and calling it a tune.

But what about trad-jazz, you might protest? Isn’t that smooth and mellifluous and pleasing to the ear? Perhaps, but it’s also for unctuous, lecherous morons and creepy lounge-lizards who are too stupid to be properly pretentious. People like Swiss Toni, for instance.

Patrick West is a spiked columnist. His latest book, Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche For Our Times, is published by Societas.

Picture by: YouTube.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Culture UK


Steve Gray

5th August 2019 at 7:32 pm

People who talk about Truth, with a capital ‘T’, tend to get themselves into trouble with the law, with a capital ‘L’.

Hana Jinks

3rd August 2019 at 7:24 pm

I wanna test the limits of free speech on this site.

Is that a crime, cos it’s just that its something that you lame hypocrites are proclaiming.

Can l test your limits on it, or what.

Are you so gay as to have lilmits on free speech?

Hana Jinks

3rd August 2019 at 7:25 pm

Just let me talk, you hypocrites.

Hana Jinks

3rd August 2019 at 6:09 pm


Just so everyone knows…

I’m about to referbto him ax ..”Dandy-Non Moyle.

Hana Jinks

3rd August 2019 at 6:10 pm

* I’m about to refer to him as…Dandy Non-Moyle.

James Knight

2nd August 2019 at 4:35 pm


Ven Oods

2nd August 2019 at 4:29 pm

The jazz comment seems daftly provocative. I’m still ‘discovering’ great acts from the Sixties through to Eighties, and there’s lots of new talent like GoGo Penguin, Mammal Hands and Matthew Halsall to enjoy. (And 90% of movie soundtracks contain jazz…)
And of course every musical genre has its extremes. While enjoying the occasional tune from classic opera, I find myself unable to endure three hours or more of overweight folk screaming at each other in Italian or German. Millions of people disagree with me, of course, and good luck to them.

Jim Lawrie

3rd August 2019 at 12:22 pm

Repeating what the article says but directed at European Classical Music is not a riposte. The article does not mention Classical Music, you do so because, unable to argue for jazz on its own merits, so resort to the straw man.
The elevation of jazz reflects a leftist desire to impute to Black Americans the achievement status of Europeans in the subjective sphere of music, because it cannot be done in any other. The rest of the left go along with it for fear of being called racists. They have in their collections the mandatory albums, all in pristine condition.

Jazz has its share of fatsoes. Usually they get to sit down.

Christopher Tyson

2nd August 2019 at 1:52 pm

Drivng in my car with Kinda Blue on the CD the other day, I got to thinking about what my ideal legacy would be, what club would I want to belong to, and I thought about my black role models and I thought about the coolest black people ever and I thought I’d like to be in the same club as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix and Prince. Okay when Jazz is bad it’s terrible, but when it’s good it’s really good. The other club I’d like to belong to is the club of great philosophers as characterized by Bryan Magee, specifically Bryan Magee, I imagined being interviewed by Bryan Magee, but that ain’t going to happen now. Only a few weeks ago I picked up a copy of men of ideas in a charity shop, my own copy went AWOL long ago. But there is this thing of a parallel universe of celebs and people we, I? admire, you kind of think you might meet them one day and then they die and you say how great they were. Maybe I’m not the friendliest, one of my bosses once put in a report that I might seem taciturn but that I’m really not, I’m really not the miserable f**ker I appear to be. So maybe I’ll seek out some of my heroes, not in a stalkerish way, just to mumble some monosyllabic comment in their direction of maybe shake hands and just say ‘hi’ I need to do this before death and/or dementia sets in for them or for me.

Ven Oods

2nd August 2019 at 4:06 pm

Nothing wrong with taciturn. Perhaps one of your bosses was just terribly shallow?

Christopher Tyson

2nd August 2019 at 4:41 pm

I don’t think fondly of all my past bosses, but he was a really good guy.

Eric Praline

2nd August 2019 at 1:15 pm

“a breathless presenter constantly on the move, transported from location to location, concluding his monologue by turning on his heel and walking into the distance”

Amen to that. Sometimes they have to contort themselves rather than simply face the camera head-on. It’s impossible to concentrate on what they’re saying.

Ven Oods

2nd August 2019 at 4:17 pm

My favourite is historian Bethany Hughes, who can’t speak to camera unless she’s striding from one artefact to another. My theory is that she’s on commission from whoever makes her ubiquitous boots.
Least favourite is Mary Beard, who does her share of walking, but seems to be under contract to gurn at the camera.
I’d mention the men, but they’re virtually indistinguishable.

Ultra Nova

2nd August 2019 at 11:32 am

I only like three pieces of “jazz” and only because they use unusual time signatures. They are all by the Dave Brubeck Quartet: Unsquare Dance; Blue Rondo a la Turk; Take Five. Every few years a new intake of advertising wallahs discovers them for the first time and uses them in TV adverts.

Ven Oods

2nd August 2019 at 4:32 pm

You didn’t like Pick Up Sticks?

John Millson

2nd August 2019 at 10:56 am

‘Jazz is terrible’

To the cloth-eared & rhythmically-challenged maybe.
We do have to be specific. (Personally cannot abide much ragtime music (hands-up I’ve never heard it live) but love bop and modal jazz plus some fusion – Weather Report etc.))
The ever-popular Kind of Blue, for example, is quite beautiful and not in the least ‘selfish’, imo.

Jim Lawrie

3rd August 2019 at 12:06 pm

“To the cloth-eared & rhythmically-challenged maybe.” So the fault is with the listener?
I have been told by many people that “all” I “have to” do is listen to it enough.

Jazz is wanking in public and its proponents think it uncool to join in.

Ragtime, unlike Jazz, and contrary to what the name suggests, takes enormous discipline, expression and precision to play.

Amelia Cantor

2nd August 2019 at 10:43 am

Another cisgender white male moves to the right of the daisies, i.e. under them, six feet down. Good. The fewer cisgender white males in the world, the better off we are. So-called philosophy has been a core tool in the racist western hegemonization of the world and its natural resources. The subject needs detoxifying before it becomes fit for purpose.

Eric Praline

2nd August 2019 at 1:16 pm

Good one Andrew.

Michael Blackburn

2nd August 2019 at 4:29 pm

Now I know you are a parody. At last. Could never quite tell.
Bryan Magee is many people’s ‘hero’. I’ve never idolised anyone but this man deserves the highest accolades one can give. Although he spoke with a ‘plummy accent’ his background was working class. Regardless, he understood the big questions of life. And that’s the point – questions about life. Not the ‘answers’.
Plato said of Socrates that he was the wisest man he knew because he professed to know nothing.
Bryan may have been ‘wrong’ about many things, but he knew what questions to ask. In an increasingly bitter, divided and sanctimonious world, more people like Bryan are needed.
As well as Amelia Cantors of course…

Amelia Cantor

3rd August 2019 at 10:34 am

Another cisgender white male tells me I’m a parody. Good. The less seriously you take your dedicated enemies, the more powerful we become and the sooner you and your toxic ilk will join Magee on the right side of the daisies.

Hana Jinks

3rd August 2019 at 4:14 pm

Hi Michael.

Stay tuned.

Shit’s about to go down.

Ven Oods

2nd August 2019 at 4:35 pm

One hopes he passed before being told he was ‘cisgender’.

Jim Lawrie

3rd August 2019 at 11:56 am

You are , as ever, happy to be content free.

Paul Ilott

2nd August 2019 at 10:42 am

I know West likes to provoke and wind up his readerships, but his assault on jazz seems a bit daft. West defends not dumbing down and then crticises the high art form that is jazz. Anyone who has attempted to improvise spntaneously along to cord changes know’s how difficult it is. It takes a life time to do it well – ‘a slow burn’ as Jeff Goldblum has said.

Terry Eagleton has a much better appreciation of jazz and uses the analgoy of the jazz band to explain the meaning of life – the individual reaching their creative potential through collective enegagenent with others. In this sense the soloist is not narcissistic at all but is feeding off the band who in turn are complimenting them. If jazz is narcissistic then so is all forms of music, from the girations of Miley Cyrus to the extended guitar solo of an Eddie Van Halen or the virtuoso solo classical pianist.

It is easy to take the mick out of free jazz, which is not very popular even among jazz circles – but as the above comment notes, jazz is a huge, often very accessible -the melodic improv of the million selling Keith Jarrett to the Hendrix influenced fusion of the Mike Stern Band – and ever evolving genre that has not stagnated like pop and rock. West may enjoy humming along to ABBA tunes and thats fine, but it is a mistake to criticise a more intellectual and demanding art form. Is opera crap because it is not accessible? Maybe finally young people have got it right? – Irate jazz fan.

Jim Lawrie

3rd August 2019 at 12:24 pm

Your post is pure assertion and then the expected snipe at classical music. Dreary.

In Negative

2nd August 2019 at 9:39 am

“Jazz is terrible”

Finally, someone said it…

Ven Oods

2nd August 2019 at 4:09 pm

Only if you heard his voice in your head, otherwise, somebody finally wrote it.

Stephen J

2nd August 2019 at 8:55 am

Yes and no…

Sonny Rollins playing St. Thomas is none of the stuff that the writer accuses any jazz that isn’t “ragtime” of portraying.

The key to listening to music is to let it merge with one’s mood, sometimes we need a compliment, sometimes we need a challenge.

St. Thomas just wants you to get up and move with it.

What really brings any music into disrepute is the selfish act of the musician or composer aiming not to be complementary but to be challenging. Such music is what is known as serious, and it is always purveyed by the same kind of lefty.

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