Bryan Magee
Magee in 1987
Born(1930-04-12)12 April 1930
Hoxton, London, England
Died26 July 2019(2019-07-26) (aged 89)
Headington, Oxford, England
EraContemporary philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolRevival of transcendental idealism[1]
Main interests
Metaphysics, epistemology, history of philosophy

Bryan Edgar Magee (/məˈɡ/; 12 April 1930 – 26 July 2019) was a British philosopher, broadcaster, politician and author, best known for bringing philosophy to a popular audience.

Early life

Born of working-class parents in Hoxton, London, in 1930, within a few hundred yards of where his paternal grandparents were born, Magee was brought up in a flat above the family clothing shop, where he shared a bed with his elder sister, Joan.[2] He was close to his father but had a difficult relationship with his abusive and overbearing mother.[3][4] He was evacuated to Market Harborough in Leicestershire, during World War II, but when he returned to London, much of Hoxton had been bombed flat. Magee 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.[3][5]

During his National Service he served in the British Army, in the Intelligence Corps,[3] 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.[6] 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 later became an honorary fellow at Keble College.[7]

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").[8] 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."[3] (Later he would also publish fiction, including a spy novel To Live in Danger in 1960 and then a long work Facing Death. The latter, initially composed in the 1960s but not published until 1977, would be shortlisted for an award by The Yorkshire Post).[9][2][3]

In 1955 he began a year studying philosophy at Yale University on a postgraduate fellowship.[10][11] He had expected to hate America but found that he loved it. His deep admiration of the country's equality of opportunity was expressed in a swift series of books, Go West, Young Man (1958), The New Radicalism (1963) and The Democratic Revolution (1964).[11] He taught philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford for a period but was not enamoured of the analytical philosophy then in vogue there.[4]


Bryan Magee
Member of Parliament
for Leyton
In office
February 1974 – June 1983
Preceded byPatrick Gordon Walker
Succeeded byHarry Cohen
Personal details
Political partyLabour Party (1958–1982)
Social Democratic Party (1982–1983)

Magee returned to Britain with hopes of becoming a Labour Member of Parliament (MP). He twice stood unsuccessfully for Mid Bedfordshire, at the 1959 general election and the 1960 by-election, and instead took 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).[3] Interviewed in 2003, Magee said:

British society was illiberal in a number of areas that are now taken for granted... Roy Jenkins changed them and he was bitterly opposed by the Tories. But if you were liberal with a small L there was a menu of social change and I believed very strongly in that whole liberal agenda.[12]

He was eventually elected MP for Leyton at the February 1974 general election, but from 1981 found himself out of tune with the Labour Party's direction under Michael Foot.[12] On 22 January 1982 he resigned the Labour whip and in March joined the defection of centrist Labour MPs to the newly founded Social Democratic Party. He lost his seat at the 1983 general election.[12]

Magee returned to writing and broadcasting which, indeed, he had continued during his parliamentary career and would also serve on various boards and committees. He notably resigned as chairman of the Arts Council music panel in 1994 in protest at funding cuts.[12][13]

He also returned to scholarship at Oxford, first as a fellow at Wolfson, then at New College.[11] He was also, from 1984, a senior research fellow in the History of Ideas at King's College London and, from 1994, a visiting professor.[2] He also found more time to write classical music reviews and worked on his own compositions. He admitted that, while his own work was "whistleable", it was also "inherently sentimental".[11]

Interviewed in 2003, Oxford contemporary Lord Rees-Mogg recalled "we never knew which way Bryan would jump. And as his life later demonstrated, there was always a question of whether he was basically at heart an intellectual or someone interested in public life. So it wasn't a surprise that he went into public life, but the intellectual was really the predominant element in his personality and the books seemed to represent the real Bryan more than the political activity did."[3]

Broadcaster and writer

Interviews with philosophers

Magee's most important influence in popular culture were his efforts to make philosophy accessible to the layman.

In 1970–1971 he presented a series for BBC Radio 3 entitled Conversations with Philosophers.[14][15][3] The series took the form of Magee in conversation with a number of contemporary British philosophers, discussing both their own work, and the work of earlier 20th-century British philosophers. The series began with an introductory conversation between Magee and Anthony Quinton. Other programmes included discussions on Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore and J. L. Austin, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the relationship between philosophy and religion, among others. Extracts of each of the conversations were printed in The Listener shortly after broadcast.[16] And extensively revised versions of all the discussions would be made available in the 1971 book Modern British Philosophy.[14][3] Karl Popper would appear in the series twice and Magee would soon after write an introductory book on his philosophy that was first published in 1973.[17]

In 1978 Magee presented 15 dialogues with noted philosophers for BBC Television in a series called Men of Ideas. This was a series that, as noted in The Daily Telegraph, "achieved the near-impossible feat of presenting to a mass audience recondite issues of philosophy without compromising intellectual integrity or losing ratings" and "attracted a steady one million viewers per show."[2] Following an "Introduction to Philosophy", presented by Magee in discussion with Isaiah Berlin, Magee discussed topics like Marxist philosophy, the Frankfurt School, the ideas of Noam Chomsky and modern Existentialism in subsequent episodes. During the broadcast run, edited shorter versions of the discussions were published weekly in The Listener magazine.[18] Extensively revised versions of the dialogues within the Men of Ideas series (which featured Iris Murdoch)[19] were originally published in a book of the same name[20] that is now sold under the title of Talking Philosophy.[15] DVDs of the series are sold to academic institutions with the title Contemporary Philosophy.[21] Neither this series nor its 1987 'sequel' are available for purchase by home users but most of the episodes are freely available on Youtube.[22][23]

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, including a discussion with Peter Singer on the philosophy of Marx and Hegel,[24] and ending with a discussion with John Searle on the philosophy of Wittgenstein.[25] Extensively revised versions of the dialogues were published in a book of the same name that was published that same year.[26] Magee's 1998 book The Story of Thought (also published as The Story of Philosophy) would also cover the history of Western philosophy.[11]

Between the two series, Magee released the first edition of the work he regarded as closest to his "academic magnum opus": The Philosophy of Schopenhauer (first published in 1983, substantially revised and extended, 1997).[27][28] This remains one of the most substantial and wide-ranging treatments of the thinker and assesses in-depth Schopenhauer's influence on Wittgenstein, Wagner and other creative writers. Magee also addresses Schopenhauer's thoughts on homosexuality and the influence of Buddhism on his thought.[27]

Later work and interest in Wagner

In 1997 Magee's Confessions of a Philosopher was published.[29][30][31] This 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.[32] 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.[33] 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.[34]

Magee had a particular interest in the life, thought and music of Richard Wagner and wrote two notable books on the composer and his world, Aspects of Wagner (1968; rev. 1988),[35] and Wagner and Philosophy (2000).[36][37] In Aspects of Wagner Magee "outlines the range and depth of Wagner's achievement, and shows how his sensational and erotic music expresses the repressed and highly charged contents of the psyche. He also examines Wagner's detailed stage directions, and the prose works in which he formulated his ideas, and sheds interesting new light on his anti-semitism." The revised edition includes a fresh chapter on "Wagner as Music".[38]

In 2016, approaching his 86th birthday, Magee had his book Ultimate Questions published by Princeton University. Writing in The Independent, Julian Baggini said "Magee doesn't always match his clarity of expression with rigour of argument, sometimes ignoring his own principle that the feeling 'Yes, surely this must be right' is 'not a validation, not even a credential'. But this can be excused. Plato and Aristotle claimed that philosophy begins with wonder. Magee is proof that for some, the wonder never dies, it only deepens."[39]

In 2018 Magee, then living in one room in a nursing home in Oxford, was interviewed by Jason Cowley of New Statesman and discussed his life and his 2016 book Ultimate Questions. Magee said that he believed he lacked originality and, until Ultimate Questions, had struggled to make an original contribution to philosophy, saying:

Popper had this originality, Russell had it, and Einstein had it in spades. Einstein created a way of seeing things which transformed the way we see the world and the way we even understand such fundamental things as time and space. And I fundamentally understand that I could never do that, never. I wish I was in that class – not because I want to be a clever chap but because I want to do things that are at a much better level than I've done them.

He went on to discuss his continuing interest in politics and current affairs and to describe the Brexit yes vote as a "historic mistake".[40][41]

Personal life

In 1953, Magee was appointed to a teaching job in Sweden and while there met Ingrid Söderlund, a pharmacist in the university laboratory. They married and had one daughter, Gunnela and, in time, 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.[3]

His memoir, Clouds of Glory: A Hoxton Childhood, won The Ackerley Prize in 2004.[42]


Magee died on 26 July 2019, at the age of 89, at St Luke's Hospital in Headington, Oxford.[4] He is survived by his Swedish daughter Gunnela and her children and grandchildren.[43][2][4] His funeral took place on 15 August.[44][45]

The last of Magee's books to be published during his lifetime – Making the Most of It (2018) – closes:[46][44]

If it could be revealed to me for certain that life is meaningless, and that my lot when I die will be timeless oblivion, and I were then asked: "Knowing these things, would you, if given the choice, still choose to have been born?", my answer would be a shouted "Yes!" I have loved living. Even if the worst-case scenario is the true one, what I have had has been infinitely better than nothing. In spite of what has been wrong with my life, and in spite of what has been wrong with me, I am inexpressibly grateful to have lived. It is terrible and terrifying to have to die, but even the prospect of eternal annihilation is a price worth paying for being alive.

A celebration of his life was held in the chapel of Keble College, Oxford, on 29 October 2019. The event was opened by Sir Jonathan Phillips, Warden of Keble College, and was introduced by Magee's executor, the academic, author and editor Henry Hardy. It included audio and video clips of Magee, music chosen by him and played by the Amherst Sextet, and addresses by David Owen and Simon Callow. The music choices were the sextet from Strauss's Capriccio, the largo from Elgar's Serenade for Strings and the prelude to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.[47] The addresses by Owen and Callow were published together with a notice of Magee's life by Hardy in the Oldie.[48]





(Some available for loan on Open Library)

Journal articles

At JSTOR – free to read online with registration:[75]

Other written works


  1. ^ a b Magee, Bryan (27 July 1997). The Philosophy of Schopenhauer. Oxford University Press – via PhilPapers.
  2. ^ a b c d e "Bryan Magee, author, broadcaster, MP and academic with an unsurpassed ability to render complex philosophical ideas easily digestible – obituary". The Telegraph. 26 July 2019. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 26 July 2019.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "I think, therefore I write". The Guardian. 6 June 2003. Retrieved 24 August 2016.
  4. ^ a b c d Kavanagh, Dennis (26 July 2019). "Bryan Magee obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 26 July 2019.
  5. ^ Magee, Bryan (5 December 2008). Growing Up in a War. Random House. ISBN 9781407015316 – via Google Books.
  6. ^ Magee, Bryan (1998). Confessions of a Philosopher. New York: Random House. p. 10. ISBN 0-375-50028-6.
  7. ^ "Current Honorary Fellows – Keble College". Archived from the original on 14 July 2015. Retrieved 24 August 2016.
  8. ^ Magee, B. (1951), Crucifixion and Other Poems, London, Fortune Press
  9. ^ LeMahieu, D. L. (3 July 2018). "Life Writing and Philosophy: Bryan Magee and the Subjectivities of the Examined Life". Life Writing. 15 (3): 399–411. doi:10.1080/14484528.2016.1267547. ISSN 1448-4528. S2CID 152081898.
  10. ^ Magee, Bryan (1998). Confessions of a Philosopher. New York: Random House. pp. 122–138. ISBN 0-375-50028-6.
  11. ^ a b c d e "Bryan Magee obituary". The Times. 27 July 2019.(subscription required)
  12. ^ a b c d "Profile: Bryan Magee". The Guardian. 7 June 2003. Retrieved 27 July 2019.
  13. ^ "Music adviser quits over cuts". The Independent. 8 January 1994. Retrieved 9 August 2019.
  14. ^ a b Magee, Bryan (1971). Modern British Philosophy. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0192830473. OCLC 13329024. OL 24753553M.
  15. ^ a b c Magee, Bryan (2001). Talking Philosophy: Dialogues With Fifteen Leading Philosophers. Magee, Bryan. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0192854178. OCLC 47676350. OL 20954079M.
  16. ^ Modes of philosophizing – A round table debate (with Jonathan Barnes, Myles Burnyeat, Raymond Geuss and Barry Stroud).9 May 2008 Eurozine
  17. ^ Bibliography Karl R. Popper 2.1 Writings on Karl Popper and His Work (Current state: June 2019) University of Klagenfurt (AAU)
  18. ^ "Whatever happened to the public intellectual?". 31 January 2017. Retrieved 18 August 2019.
  19. ^ Hampshire, Stuart (13 May 1979). "Talking With Thinkers". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 9 August 2019.
  20. ^ a b Snelgrove, David (Spring 1980). "Men of Ideas (Book Review)". Journal of Thought. Fayetteville, Ark. 15 (1): 103–104. JSTOR 42590182.
  21. ^ "Contemporary Philosophy". Films Media Group. Retrieved 1 August 2019.
  22. ^ "Bryan Magee (RIP) Presents In-Depth, Uncut TV Conversations With Famous Philosophers". 26 July 2019.
  23. ^ "Bryan Magee Interviews – Philosophy – YouTube". YouTube. Retrieved 18 August 2019.
  24. ^ "Bryan Magee Talks to Peter Singer about Hegel and Marx (1987)". CosmoLearning. Retrieved 7 January 2020.
  25. ^ "Great Philosophers". Films Media Group. Retrieved 1 August 2019.
  26. ^ a b Magee, Bryan (1987). The Great Philosophers : An Introduction to Western Philosophy. London: BBC Books. ISBN 0563205830. OCLC 17157462. OL 2043183M.
  27. ^ a b "Profile: Bryan Magee". The Guardian. 7 June 2003. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 9 March 2019.
  28. ^ Janaway, Christopher (1984). "Review of The Philosophy of Schopenhauer". Mind. 93 (372): 608–610. doi:10.1093/mind/XCIII.372.608. ISSN 0026-4423. JSTOR 2254272.
  29. ^ Miller, Stephen (1998). "Review of Confessions of a Philosopher: A Journey through Western Philosophy". The Wilson Quarterly. 22 (2): 104. ISSN 0363-3276. JSTOR 40259748.
  30. ^ a b Wellbank, Joseph H. (1999). "Review of Confessions of a Philosopher: A Journey through Western Theism [sic]". The Personalist Forum. 15 (1): 188–190. ISSN 0889-065X. JSTOR 20708808.
  31. ^ Rogers, Ben (15 June 1997). "My favourite Schopenhauer". The Independent. Retrieved 10 August 2019.
  32. ^ Baldwin, Paul (11 November 1999). "Bertrand Russell aide wins libel damages". The Guardian.
  33. ^ "". Schoenman Settles Defamation Suit Against Random. Archived from the original on 17 June 2012. Retrieved 31 July 2011.
  34. ^ Noble, Barnes &. "Confessions of a Philosopher: A Personal Journey Through Western Philosophy from Plato to Popper|Paperback". Barnes & Noble.
  35. ^ Seaman, Gerald (1 January 1989). "Aspects of Wagner". History of European Ideas. 10 (4): 494. doi:10.1016/0191-6599(89)90019-3. ISSN 0191-6599.
  36. ^ Lezard, Nicholas (13 October 2001). "Review: Wagner and Philosophy by Brian Magee". The Guardian.
  37. ^ Rockwell, John (5 December 2001). "Books of the Times; A Philosopher Explains Wagner's Third Element". The New York Times. Retrieved 19 August 2019.
  38. ^ Magee, Bryan (1 September 1988). Aspects of Wagner. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780192840127.
  39. ^ "Ultimate Questions by Bryan Magee: A wonderful, wonder-full life". The Independent. 24 March 2016. Retrieved 24 August 2016.
  40. ^ "Even in old age, philosopher Bryan Magee remains wonder-struck by the ultimate questions". 8 April 2018. Retrieved 3 June 2019.
  41. ^ Russell, Emelia Hamilton (17 December 2018). "Books: The Spear's big reads of 2018 I Spear's Magazine".
  42. ^ "PEN Ackerley Prize".
  43. ^ Hardy, Henry. "Bryan Magee – Obituary". Retrieved 8 August 2019.
  44. ^ a b "Funeral notice for Bryan Magee". Retrieved 17 August 2019.
  45. ^ Bryan Edgar Magee 12 April 1930 – 26 July 2019[permanent dead link] (funeral service sheet)
  46. ^ Derbyshire, Jonathan (16 August 2019). "Bryan Magee, philosopher, writer and broadcaster". Financial Times. Retrieved 17 August 2019.
  47. ^ A Celebration of the Life of Bryan Magee on YouTube
  48. ^ "The life of Bryan Magee". The Oldie.
  49. ^ "Men of Ideas". 27 April 1978. p. 57 – via BBC Genome Project.
  50. ^ "Thinking Aloud[28/10/84] (1984)". BFI. Archived from the original on 11 October 2021.
  51. ^ "The Great Philosophers". 20 December 1987. p. 43 – via BBC Genome Project.
  52. ^ King, Anthony (27 March 1964). "The New Radicalism. By Brian Magee". American Political Science Review. 58 (1): 161. doi:10.1017/S0003055400288710. S2CID 148484056.
  53. ^ Magee, Bryan Edgar (27 July 1964). The Democratic Revolution. A Background book. Bodley Head – via National Library of Australia (new catalog).
  54. ^ Magee, Bryan (27 July 1965). Towards 2000: The World We Make. Macdonald – via Internet Archive.
  55. ^ "One in Twenty by Bryan Magee". Kirkus Reviews.
  56. ^ Magee, Bryan (1966). The television interviewer. Macdonald & Co.
  57. ^ Weinberg, Justin (26 July 2019). "Bryan Magee (1930–2019)". Daily Nous.
  58. ^ Magee, Bryan (27 July 1973). Karl Popper. Viking Press. ISBN 9780670411740 – via Google Books.
  59. ^ Magee, Bryan (27 July 1974). Popper. Psychology Press. ISBN 9780713001099 – via Google Books.
  60. ^ Magee, Bryan (27 July 1977). Facing death. Kimber. OCLC 3771699.
  61. ^ Magee, Bryan (27 July 1982). Men of Ideas: Some Creators of Contemporary Philosophy. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780192830340 – via Internet Archive.
  62. ^ Magee, Bryan (27 July 2000). The Great Philosophers: An Introduction to Western Philosophy. Oxford University Press – via PhilPapers.
  63. ^ Hacking, Ian (2 January 1997). "The Passing Show". London Review of Books. 19 (1): 9–10.
  64. ^ "Book review / Onward and upward; Confessions of a Philosopher by Bryan Magee". The Independent. 7 June 1997.
  65. ^ Magee, Bryan (1 January 1998). The Story of Thought. The Quality Paperback Bookclub. ISBN 9780789444554 – via Internet Archive.
  66. ^ Magee, Bryan (1998). The Story of Philosophy (PDF) (1st American ed.). DK Publishing. ISBN 0-7894-3511-X. Archived from the original on 17 May 2020. Retrieved 27 July 2019 – via
  67. ^ "Wagner and Philosophy by Bryan Magee | Issue 34 | Philosophy Now".
  68. ^ Fodor, Jerry. "Opera Today : MAGEE: THE TRISTAN CHORD – Wagner and Philosophy".
  69. ^ Reisz, Matthew (29 June 2003). "Observer review: Clouds of Glory by Bryan Magee". The Observer. ISSN 0029-7712. Retrieved 19 August 2019.
  70. ^ Wesker, Arnold (15 August 2003). "Review: Clouds of Glory by Bryan Magee". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 19 August 2019.
  71. ^ Magee, Bryan (27 July 2007). Growing up in a war. Pimlico. OCLC 75713988.
  72. ^ "Even Men of Ideas Are Mortal | Anthony Kenny". Standpoint. 23 February 2016. Archived from the original on 3 August 2019. Retrieved 27 July 2019.
  73. ^ "Ultimate Questions by Bryan Magee: A wonderful, wonder-full life". The Independent. 24 March 2016.
  74. ^ Lyons, Johnny. "Philosopher in a Hurry". Dublin Review of Books.
  75. ^ "How to register & get free access to content". JSTOR Support Home. Retrieved 9 August 2019.

Further reading


Parliament of the United Kingdom Preceded byPatrick Gordon Walker Member of Parliament for Leyton Feb 19741983 Succeeded byHarry Cohen