Of Philosophy, Friendship and Youtube

30 Jun


When I was a freshman at Hobart & William Smith Colleges, I had the good fortune of befriending an unusual upperclassmen named George Wolfe. George was 24, with silver-speckled red hair and slight remnants of a Russian accent. He first became visible to me on account of an unbecoming tendency to insert himself into discussions around campus with an ostentatious air of enlightenment and provocative, counterintuitive positions. He was also extremely bright. While I initially found him somewhat offputting, I quickly noticed that, with a few subtle differences, we shared a desire to take the perspectives of radical philosophy and put them to the task of polluting the bland Republicrat piety of mainstream political discourse. I also shared with him the socially awkward side effects entailed by such a desire in the infancy of its manifestation — imagine the two of us, in a college cafeteria, putting points gleaned from Zizek and Bookchin to members of the Campus Republicans. George and I quickly forged a friendship.

A pre-existing inclination to be intellectually/ideologically combative contributed to my decision to enter college as a philosophy major. George, while still immersed in the theoretical side of academic discourse, had begun similarly but subsequently shifted over to political science. He had found philosophy inadequately removed from world affairs and opted instead for a major that would have more direct significance for activism and social change. As he felt that the intellectual component of our friendship should involve some mentoring on his part–after all, he had six years on me–he tried to persuade me to make a similar shift to the social sciences.

Another decision George urged me to make was to go with him on a Birthright Israel trip–a trip sponsored by Jewish philanthropists who feel that the youth of the global Jewish diaspora deserve some time in the ancestral homeland (plus a moderate helping of Zionist propaganda). This was an easier suggestion to take him up on, and I registered to go with my then-girlfriend the following July. Unfortunately, George and I found that our availabilities for summer were incompatible, and he arranged to go with his sister on the trip following ours instead.

The day before we were to fly out from JFK, my girlfriend and I went to visit George at his home in Brooklyn. Again, he brought up the question of whether I should stick with philosophy. This time, however, it seemed he considered the question an open one and, for my consideration, he gifted me a book called Confessions of a Philosopher by Brian Magee.

A few weeks after George was due back from Israel I mentioned in an email to his sister that I had not heard from him since visiting his place in New York. She told me that he was still in Jerusalem. He had elected to spend some time at an orthodox Yeshiva. At the time of writing, he is still there, studying theology, a practicing Orthodox Jew.


Confessions of a Philosopher is a wonderful book. An autobiography that goes out of its way to give the reader an overview of the Western philosophical tradition that is both accessible and thorough, Magee also succeeds at adding a deeply human dimension to the figure of the academic philosopher. And as academic philosophers go, Magee’s life was pretty damn epic–he had an exciting (albeit brief) political career (worth noting apropos the question of whether a philosopher can effect social change), worked personally with both Bertrand Russell and Karl Popper, and produced a series of TV shows in the UK featuring leading intellectuals. As a recovering youtube junkie fascinated by the embodied presence of literary figures, I found this last facet of Brian Magee’s life particularly intriguing. Much to my dismay, he notes in his book that “most of the tapes have now been wiped: only a handful, and those not always the best, survive.” (320)

And so I come to the real reason for this post: someone has recently posted full episodes of Magee’s old show on youtube. The made-for-mass-audience discussions might be a bit cursory for the more philosophically erudite, but I think most curious individuals will find these worthwhile. I’ve embedded the program on Nietzsche below, and will leave further youtube-surfing up to y’all:

While I’m at it, another significant series of video interviews with major thinkers–this one more contemporary, but with equally cheesy intro music–is ‘Conversations with History.’ I’ve posted a segment with Martha Nussbaum below:


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