Review: The Great Philosophers

The Great Philosophers
The Great Philosophers: An Introduction to Western Philosophy
Bryan Magee
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987 (2000)

Review Copyright © 2004 Garret Wilson — 11 August 2004 4:00pm

The Great Philosophers provides a surprisingly thought-provoking introduction to major figures in western philosophy through an unexpected format: a series of interviews. In 1987 the BBC created a series of television programs in which Bryan Magee interviewed recognized experts on prominent philosophers. This book was created by editing and in places enlarging the transcripts from those shows. What results is a lively play that draws the reader into important philsophical issues and at the same time provides an insight into the experts doing the discussing.

The Great Philosophers serves as an excellent companion to Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy, as much of the same material is covered in a shorter format; the "live" debate fills in the gaps and gives even more personality to the subjects on which Russell already expounded. (Later developments are also covered, such as existentialism and even the contributions to modern logic of Russell himself.)

In fact, the book gives the sense that Magee followed Russell's work as a backdrop for this series; not only is Russell and A History of Western Philosophy mentioned, certain sections of Magee's introductions seem to spring from the pages of Russell's book. Take, for example, the description of Descartes:

Descartes never married, though he had an illegitimate daughter who died at the age of five: her death was the greatest emotional blow of his life. He always had an eye to dress, was proud of being an officer, and on the whole preferred the company of men of affairs to that of scholars. (Magee, 78).

Descartes never married, but he had a natural daughter who died at the age of five; this was, he said, the greatest sorrow of his life. He always was well dressed, and wore a sword. (Russell, 560).

Magee's effort has created a short but engaging dip into major flows of western philosophical thought. Beside Bertrand Russell's extensive work, The Great Philosophers provides a refreshing alternative but supporting view into the same subject matter.




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