Reading Journal 2023: Ultimate Questions; The Story of Philsophy
Author: Bryan Magee
I paired this with Magee’s The Story of Philosophy. If Philosophy functions as a textbook inviting us to consider philosophy as a means of common wonder rooted in reason, ultimate questions is a heart laid bare autobiography into why Magee values philosophy. One is personal the other is didactic. One is void of documentation and details, the other an in depth examination of the how philosophy came to be.
There are definite overlaps however. Such as the notion of Platos cave, which rests on the idea that we can only ever see and understand the world from our unique perspective, bound as we are to our bodies. Or the relevance of language as the container through which we can express what we know. Language is the thing that limits our ability to know. It’s also what allows us to know.
Or the stark relationship between space and time, especially as it relates to past, present and future. Experience roots us in the present, but knowledge itself is not bound by such constraints. Within that we have the push and pull of philosophy in many different directions- towards the relativists, the humanists, the skeptics, the nihilists, the materialists, the romantics, the stoics, and on and on, shaping, movements throughout history from its common beginnings to its Greek expressions to its modern evolution. Magee is distinctly interested in its western progression, which shows itself most clearly in Ultimate Questions, although you can see his bias’ sown into the fabric of his textbook material as well.
On a base level Magee hitches the story of his fascination with philosophy on a trajectory away from religion. He does so, however, under the guise of a wanted agnosticism. His ultimate goal in Ultimate is to demonstrate that knowledge is limited, it will always be limited, therfore we operate on the basis of not knowing which moves us forward in our questions towards a reconciling of our limited knowledge with the truth that knowledge itself stands apart from the confines of our experiences. This, he says, is a good thing, and I’m inclined to agree.
At the same time though, I think he betrays some of his own inconsistencies towards that end. He wants to distance himself from religion because he sees religion as anchored in claims of certainty. And yet the very reason he does this is based on certain claims he believes to be true about religion. Here he demonstrates a tendency to avoid the fact that he holds convictions, and those convictions drive how he sees the world and how he experiences reality. In truth, in naming knowledge as limited he refuses to apply those same constraints when it comes to his convictions. He can’t quite figure out a way to avoid becoming what he desperately does not want to be; a person making certain claims about the world. Thus he uses religion as a scapegoat hoping that it will divert the attention away from him. Perhaps the most noted thing that Magee glosses over is that there are different ways of knowing, and that knowing doesn’t mean the absence of mystery.
Now don’t get me wrong. I actually really enjoyed reading through The Story of Philosphy. The facts can still stand even while acknowledging the interpretation exists alongside that. Something I think Magee could stand to learn. And there is much about his personal journey that I agree with and connected with, even if I interpret the same ideas towards different ends. I really appreciated how he highlights the importance of language. I think language lies at the heart of understanding the relationship between philosophy and religion and knowing God and ourselves. I like his appeal to mystery and a willingness to ask questions. I loved his reflections on space and time. I think he places western philosophy on way too high of a pedestal and misconstrues its strengths when it comes to dealing with life’s biggest questions, but I do like the way he uses it to reason in concise and well constructed patterns of thought. The books might seem daunting, and demand rereading large sections in order to connect the flow of thought, but it’s actually quite accessible. On the front I would definitely recommend.