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Great Philosophers, The (1987)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Great Philosophers, The (1987)
BBC2, 6/9-27/12/1987
15 x 45 minutes, colour
ProducerJill Dawson
ScriptBryan Magee

Presenter: Bryan Magee

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A history of Western philosophy from Plato and Aristotle to Wittgenstein.

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This excellent (and enthusiastically reviewed) BBC2 series traced the history of Western Philosophy over two millennia: in each edition Bryan Magee discusses the ideas of one or more great thinker of the past with an expert guest (some - like Peter Singer and A.J. Ayer - distinguished thinkers in their own right).

Two editorial choices should be noted. Most of the selections of great philosophers from Plato through Kant are uncontroversial. Then among nineteenth century philosophers, the programme-makers concentrate on the European figures commonly belittled in the English-speaking world (Hegel, Marx, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche). By contrast, except for one episode on Existentialism, the final selections are all solidly within the 'Anglo-Saxon' tradition of Analytical Philosophy, ignoring later developments in Continental Philosophy.

Also reflected in the choice of subjects, and in their treatments, is the focus on two branches of the subject: Metaphysics (what is the nature of reality?) and Epistemology (what do we really know, and where does our knowledge come from?). Other important areas, such as Ethics, are merely touched upon. This ensures thematic continuity from programme to programme.

The success of the programmes depends on the relationship between the interviewees' expertise on their subject matter and Magee's insightful grasp of the techniques of presentation and interviewing, honed ever since his days as a regular reporter on ITV's This Week (1956-92). Magee opens every edition delivering to camera an unhurried summary of the chosen philosopher's life and work. Once the interview is underway he frequently pauses to summarise in extremely lucid terms, and sometimes at great length, what his guest has said about abstract issues that could easily confuse viewers being confronted with them for the first time.

Aside from its heady subject matter, much of the pleasure in watching the series comes from observing the dynamics between host and guest. In most cases, these serve the programmes beautifully, but occasional tensions can be sensed. For example, the edition on Schophenauer presented the production team with a problem: Magee is himself a published expert on the great German thinker, but could hardly conduct a dialogue with himself. The very distinguished historian of philosophy, former priest Frederick Coplestone, was chosen to speak about Schopenhauer, and there seems to be a slight testiness in some of his responses to the much younger Magee. By contrast, Ayer, in speaking about Bertrand Russell, is both warm and considered in his discussion of his mentor and friend.

Patrick Russell

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Video Clips
1. Method of doubt (6:00)
2. Cartesian dualism (2:45)
3. Who am I (3:38)
Complete edition: 'Descartes' (43:20)
Magee, Bryan (1930- )
Authored Documentary