Review of Bryan Magee’s, “Ultimate Questions”


(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, June 9, 2016.)

Bryan Magee (1930 – ) has had a multifaceted career as a professor of philosophy, music and theater critic, BBC broadcaster, public intellectual and member of Parliament. He has starred in two acclaimed television series about philosophy: Men of Ideas (1978) and The Great Philosophers (1987). He is best known as a popularizer of philosophy. His easy-to-read books, which have been translated into more than twenty languages, include:

Confessions of a Philosopher: A Personal Journey Through Western Philosophy from Plato to Popper;
The Great Philosophers: An Introduction to Western Philosophy;
Talking Philosophy: Dialogues with Fifteen Leading Philosophers;
Philosophy and the Real World: An Introduction to Karl Popper;
The Story of Philosophy: 2,500 Years of Great Thinkers from Socrates to the Existentialists and Beyond;
and Men of Ideas.

Now, at age 86, he has written Ultimate Questions, a summary of a lifetime of thinking about “the fundamentals of the human condition.” Its basic theme is that we know little about the human condition, since reality comes to us filtered through the senses and the limitations of our intellect and language. And, according to Magee, the most honest response to this predicament is agnosticism.

Magee begins considering that “What we call civilization has existed for something like six thousand years.” If you remember that there have always been some individuals who have lived a hundred years this means that “the whole of civilization has occurred with the successive lifetimes of sixty people …” Furthermore, “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…” They don’t think about the little sliver of time and space that they occupy. Thus begins this meditation on agnosticism.

Furthermore, we are ignorant of knowledge of our ultimate nature: “We, who do not know what we are, have to fashion lives for ourselves in a universe of which we know little and understand less.” Yet this situation doesn’t lead Magee to despair. Instead he calls for “an active agnosticism,” which is “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.” If he had to choose a tag he says, it would be “the agnostic.”

However most people can’t live with uncertainty, with pieces missing from the jigsaw puzzle as Magee puts it, and they replace the unknown with religion. But religion “is a form of unjustified evasion, a failure to face up to the reality of ignorance as our natural and inevitable starting-point.” The challenge of life is to live and die in a world that we don’t understand “without either … denying the mysteriousness of it or … grasping at supernatural explanations.”

Yet he takes comfort in what he calls the “us-dependent,” rather than the independent 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.”(What a beautiful rejoined to all those supposedly self-made men. Those who were born on third base and think they hit a triple.)

In the broadest light, the book attempts to reply to the assertion: “I know that I exist, but I do not know what I am.” But Magee, after decades of searching, replies that none of us know the answers to the big questions. As for faith, Magee answers firmly: “I can think of no other context in which people are commended for the firmness of beliefs for which there is little or no evidence.” Magee accepts that some need the comfort of religion because, for example, they can’t accept their own death, and he leaves such people undisturbed. “But I do regard such people as no longer committed to the pursuit of truth.”

Magee believes contra Hume that he has a self “but I am unable to fathom its inner nature, and I have no idea what happens to it when I die.” But he rejects the view that being unable to answer ultimate questions implies that asking them is worthless, inasmuch as some understanding of our selves and the world can still be attained. “We may not know where we are, but there is a world of difference between being lost in daylight and being lost in the dark.” Still none of this implies relativism, as reason and evidence support some ideas  and theories over others. Some things are more likely to be true and rational people proportion their assent to evidence.

As for death, “the prospect of permanent oblivion” is painful. In death the magic of the world and our consciousness of it vanishes. Nonetheless, the brave face this truth without comforting themselves with false narratives. Magee says that at the moment of death “I may then be in the position of a man whose candle goes out and plunges him into pitch blackness at the very instant when he thought he was about to find what he was looking for.” These are the words of a brave and fearless intellect. What a wonderful book.

4 thoughts on “Review of Bryan Magee’s, “Ultimate Questions”

  1. You missed his ‘the philosophy of Schopenhauer,’ a lovely little introduction to the work of a great philosopher.

  2. Based on your review, I was inspired to read Ultimate Questions and generally found your assessment to be correct in all regards. There were many thought-provoking insights expressed throughout the book. Professor Magee is an amazing individual and has had an unusually rich and meaningful life.

    I must admit, though, that reading chapters one through four was difficult for a non-philosopher such as me. These early chapters seemed to contain a somewhat random collection of thoughts, with overly long and complicated arguments. Then, suddenly, in chapter five it seemed like I was reading a different book: the prose seemed more readable and the themes easier to grasp. The last three chapters (5-7) could almost stand alone, although it would make the book a little short!

    In light of Professor Magee’s consistent rejection of religion throughout the book, I found it odd that he seemed to believe in an inner self that was not a part of “Nature” (assuming that I grasped that theme correctly). Some of his feelings and knowledge comes from this other world, although he professes complete agnosticism about how that happens or what this other realm is. I’m not sure that this is any more logical than making the next step and positing some religious explanation. Your comment about how the belief in an inner self differed from Hume spurred me to investigate that difference, which led me back to reading a little of the life and philosophy of David Hume. For that as well, I thank you.

  3. You are correct regarding the book. I do think that it moves from being more about technical philosophy to a more of a lessons learned book addressed for a popular audience. I don’t recall the tension you describe, although many atheists and agnostics like myself find themselves still drawn to a kind of mysticism—basically the idea that there are mysteries. But you don’t need to use religion or religious beliefs to explain the mysterious. Rather the mysterious is by nature ineffable and can’t be intellectually conceptualized.

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