As a philosophy student in the 1980s, the New Statesman’s editor-in-chief Jason Cowley learned more from Bryan Magee than from any seminar or lecture. Magee’s 1987 BBC television series The Great Philosophers, described by one critic as “two boffins on a sofa”, examined some of life’s most recondite questions in an accessible way. Magee was also a prolific author (of philosophy, poetry and fiction), a Labour and then an SDP politician. But when Cowley later met Magee, sent to interview him by the Times in 1997, he was struck by something the philosopher said as he left: “I get the impression that you feel I am lonely and unfulfilled.”
Was he? Eleven years later, now editor of the New Statesman, Cowley visited Magee in a nursing hospital in Oxford, shortly after publication of the 87-year-old’s book Ultimate Questions. The issues that had made Magee restless in his sixties still loomed large: “What the hell is it all about?” he asked, and compared himself unfavourably to Bertrand Russell and Karl Popper, men he had known (“they were a whole class above me in intelligence”). In this rich and beautifully observed profile, Cowley explores these themes, as well as the formative years of one of Britain’s most interesting thinkers.
Written and read by Jason Cowley.
This article originally appeared in the 08 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman. You can read the text version here.
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