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Magee's anti-fallibilism and anti-morality

I finished reading Confessions of a Philosopher by Bryan Magee. I have several comments on the last chapter. One is that replacing the phrase "X is a certain truth" with "X is an almost certain truth" does not make one a serious fallibilist. There have been hints that Magee doesn't really understand fallibilism throughout the book, and it's pretty blatant in the final chapter. On the last page of the book Magee talks about what we can and can't prove as if that's important. A fallibilist would know that we can't prove anything, so "can we prove X?" is not a useful thing to wonder about X.

Here is an example of Magee's disrespect for fallibilism on page 454:
We may not know how to answer [the questions above], but their significance--and, what is more, their fundamental importance--can scarcely be open to doubt.
And another on page 452:
I think I know that our situation is at least roughly as I have described it up to this point.
BTW, what is he so sure of? That realism is false! He's so sure that we have "selves" that are not part of the natural world. He's so sure that looking into a person's eyes is not a physical process. He's so sure that his favorite school of philosophy (German Idealism) is correct. How sad and parochial!

I think the worst passage in the book is this one, on the second to last page (462):
Throughout my life I have believed that I knew when I was doing wrong. The problem in those cases has not been knowing what was right but doing it.
Throughout the book Magee makes one thing especially clear: he loves philosophy. He is curious. He has questions and he wants answers. He loves to learn new things. He cares about creating knowledge.

This passage is a striking exception. It is extremely disrespectful to philosophy. It says that with regard to morality, philosophy has nothing to offer us. It says there are no interesting or important problems or questions to explore about how to live. It says that thinking is not needed. All that is needed is to obey the moral rules his parents taught him, and they are good enough for all of time, and the only problem is how to obey them more faithfully.

Elliot Temple on September 18, 2008

Comments (1)


I am perplexed that Magee is so good on some things and not so good on others. Maybe he is above all a communicator so he communicates good and bad stuff with equal facility. That came through in the two TV series that he did with men of ideas. Most unfortunately Popper was not available for either of the two, Men of Ideas and The Philosophers (or words to that effect).

Magee spent about two or three weeks reading up on each one, then a week talking to the person, then about two days recording the interview (ending up with an hour of tape). So no effort was spared to get it right. Then the text was edited for the books (which I read without ever seeing the TV version). I was especially perplexed with the sympathetic and uncritical way that philosophers like Heidegger were portrayed. Never mind about collaborating with the Nazis, just stick to the philosophy. What is in there that has enabled Heidegger to be regarded in some circles as the most important thinker of the 20th century?

Amazingly, Heidegger represents one of the end points of an "Austrian" movement in philosophy where one of the other end points is Karl Popper. Work that out! Here are some clues.

Anonymous at 10:10 PM on September 18, 2008 | #1526

What do you think?

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