Bryan Magee - Obituary

Published on
Friday 26 July 2019
College & Community
In Memoriam

Bryan Magee, philosopher, writer, broadcaster, politician, died at St Luke's Hospital, Headington, on 26 July 2019 aged eighty-nine. 

Bryan was born a Cockney in 1930 in Hoxton, the son of a gentleman's outfitter who instilled in him a love of music and theatre that came to be dominant passions. He was educated at Christ's Hospital and at Keble College, Oxford, where he took degrees in history (1952) and PPE (1953), and was President of the Oxford Union (1953). After a few years in temporary academic posts and a spell working for Guinness he became an author and television presenter, fronting the ITV current affairs programme This Week, making documentaries about social issues, and writing books, including the hugely successful Popper for Modern Masters. In 1974 he was elected as Labour MP for Leyton, but in 1982 defected to the SDP, losing his seat in 1983. He then returned to full-time writing and broadcasting, notably interviewing philosophers with marked success in the radio series Modern British Philosophy and in the TV series Men of Ideas (1978) and The Great Philosophers (1987). Books on Wagner and Schopenhauer followed (he regarded the latter as his principal contribution to philosophy).

Bryan had links to a number of Oxford Colleges through his life, but it was Wolfson that provided him with his main base for his last three decades. He first came to the College for two years in 1991 as a Visiting Scholar at the suggestion of its founding President, Isaiah Berlin, whom he had befriended in 1972, when he conducted a discussion with him and Stuart Hampshire on nationalism for Thames Television. In 1993 he became a Visiting Fellow for a year, and in 1994 a permanent Member of Common Room. In these early Wolfson years he was working on his celebrated intellectual-autobiography-cum-introduction-to-philosophy, Confessions of A Philosopher, published in 1997.

In 2000 he left London, where he had lived until then, buying a flat in Bardwell Road so as to be close to Wolfson. He became a familiar figure and almost daily presence in College, walking up for lunch after a morning of writing, and holding court in the Common Room over coffee. He was a superb talker, and his multi-faceted life provided a great deal of matter for him to talk about. Many Wolfsonians got to know him well, and he was a widely valued personal and intellectual resource in College. He continued to have short-term academic attachments elsewhere in Oxford, Cambridge and Otago but Wolfson was the home he returned to, sustaining him as he wrote The Story of Philosophy, Wagner and Philosophy, Ultimate Questions, and three volumes of personal autobiography, Clouds of Glory: A Hoxton Childhood, Growing Up in a War and finally Making the Most of It, published last year.

Bryan was a man of many parts who cannot be summed up by a single label, but perhaps his most enduring achievement will turn out to be his brilliant explanation of philosophy to non-specialists. He made the subject exciting and accessible without condescension or dumbing down, and was surely one of the most articulate and engaging expositors who ever lived.

He is survived by his Swedish daughter Gunnela and her children and grandchildren.

Henry Hardy

New York Times obituary

Telegraph obituary

Times obituary

Guardian obituary

Oldie blog by Henry Hardy, David Owen and Simon Callow