(adapted from 1987 BBC TV series "The Great Philosophers", hosted by Bryan Magee)
In the English-speaking world philosophy is not part of the mental furniture of most people, even most of those educated at universities. I suppose a majority of intelligent men and women regardless of education read novels and see plays; they take a newspaper-reading interest in politics, and through that and their work-experience pick up some economics; many of them read biographies, and thereby learn some history. But philosophy remains a closed book, except to the few who make a study of it. Partly this is due to the fact that in the twentieth century the subject has become professionalized and technical. Partly it is due to excessive specialization in all subjects British education in particular is open to the criticism that it does not carry general education to a high enough level. Partly it is due to Anglo-Saxon pride at not being too concerned with abstract ideas. Whatever the reasons in full, most well-read Anglo-Saxons are familiar with the names of the great philosophers throughout their adult lives without ever knowing what their fame rests on, what indeed any of the famous philosophers is famous for.
Why are Plato and Aristotle household names more than two thousand years after their deaths? A similar question can be asked about certain philosophers of more recent times. The answer, of course, is that their work is part of the foundations of Western culture and civilization. But how? This guide offers the beginnings of an answer to that question.
If you were to go to a university to study philosophy you would almost certainly find that the core of the curriculum was about the nature, scope and limits of human knowledge, something which -- after the Greek word 'episteme' meaning knowledge -- is called epistemology. For most of the subject's history, certainly in recent centuries, this has constituted its main preoccupation, and for that reason it dominates university courses, and dominates this guide. But subsidiary branches of philosophy can be fascinating too. For some people the most interesting of all are moral and political philosophy; but there are also aesthetics, logic and philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, and many others. Several are touched on in this guide; but in the nature of things it has not been possible to do justice to them all in so short a space; so for clarity's sake I have stayed close to the central stream of the subject's development and followed that through, and looked at subsidiary aspects of it only when they compelled attention. Resisting temptations to digress was difficult, for there were so many things I would like to have included but , alas, could not find the space for.
The guide is based on a series of television programs first transmitted by the BBC in 1987. It does not consist merely of transcripts of the programs: the contributors and I started with those but then treated them with the irreverence that we would treat any first draft. The chief point which I as editor reiterated was that the guide would have a life of its own independent of the television programs, and therefore that we should take the trouble to make it as good as we could in its own right, unconfined by what we had said on the screen. The contributors responded with improvements at every level, from detailed polishing to radical restructuring. The need to publish the guide at the time that the television programs went on the air meant that the complete manuscript had to be rushed to the publishers immediately after the last of the programs, which happened to be the one on the American Pragmatists, had been put on tape. This was particularly hard on the protagonist in that program because he wanted to recast his whole contribution, whereas the exigencies of time were such that responsibility for seeing it to the press had to be undertaken immediately by me in London, he being in New York. He gave me detailed notes and guidelines, and I did my best, but that is the one discussion in the guide for which we would have liked more time.
The television series was prepared and put on tape over a period of two and a half years, but the most important decisions were the earliest: how to divide up the subject matter and which contributors to invite. Different and equally defensible answers were available to both questions, and on both I went through changes of mind. During this period I conducted running consultations with a private think-tank consisting chiefly of Bernard Williams and Isaiah Berlin but including also Anthony Quinton and John Searle. As often as not these four gentlemen would give me four incompatible pieces of advice on the same issue**, and for that reason alone they can none of them be blamed for the decisions I actually took. But their help was beyond price, for it meant that every decision was subjected to critical evaluation by someone other than myself and compared with viable alternatives before being adopted. I extend my warmest gratitude to them all. I want to thank also the producer of the series, Jill Dawson, who managed the very extensive administrative arrangements involved, as well as directing studio crews and cameras in most of the programs. Lastly I would like to thank Susan Cowley for her typing of the manuscript and David Miller, of the University of Warwick, for his reading of it and his many useful suggestions.
Bryan Magee (March 1987)
**Conversations (in dialog form) with several of these contemporary philosophers appear in Magee's book, Talking Philosophy: Dialogues with Fifteen Leading Philosophers (Oxford Univ. Press, 2001)
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