G(EORGE) E(WARD) MOORE: 1873-1958
Moore was born into a prosperous middle class family, his father an M.D. As a boy he attended a good school where, apart from music (which he loved) and a little mathematics, he did Latin and Greek. In 1892 he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge to study classics, expecting that he would become (the equivalent of) a high school classics teacher. Late in his first year he was noticed by a group of very bright students, including Bertrand Russell who was two years ahead of him. Russell and the others were so taken with Moore's intellectual ability and personality that he was brought into a semi-secret intellectual group known to its members as the Apostles. Membership in the Apostles, the ideas he was exposed to and the friends he made there, became a dominant feature of Moore's life. Russell urged him to take up philosophy as a major. He did so in his third year, although also continuing in classics.
Upon graduation, his teachers thought he had enough philosophical ability that he should attempt to become a Fellow and so he spent two years writing a dissertation on the metaphysical basis of ethics in order to qualify. The first version of the dissertation did not win him the fellowship, so he rewrote it, with significant changes, the second year. He was awarded the fellowship which enabled him to spent the next six years (until 1904) at Trinity College doing philosophy.
Moore inherited enough money to be independent and so at the expiration of his fellowship, it not being extended, he continued working on philosophy in Edinburgh and London for several years. In 1911 Cambridge invited him to return as a University Lecturer and he remained there for the next twenty-eight years, until his forced retirement at age 65, having become Professor in 1925. (Wittgenstein was then appointed to replace him as Professor.) Upon his retirement, he was invited to the U.S. and held a sequence of appointments in prestigious philosophy departments from 1940 to 1944.
During the Cambridge years, he married and raised a family. In 1921 he became editor of Mind, a position he held until 1947. Given his writings, his lectures, his friendships and associations, and his long-running role as editor of the most important journal in philosophy, Moore had a major impact on the course of twentieth century, especially Anglo-American, philosophy.
Moore was not a prolific writer of polished and publishable pieces of philosophy. But contrary to some opinion (opinion based on the model of 19th century philosophical production), he wrote a great deal. His university lectures were always written out to be read and were treated by him as original pieces of work, though they never saw the light of published day. He wrote as much to himself: his commonplace book (or philosophical diary) has been posthumously published. Moore was not a dashing stylist: he corrected everything many times over and was never prepared to throw things into the marketplace at first or second draft.
His publications consisted first of all in only two slim books, both in ethics: Principia Ethica (1903) and Ethics (1912). His most important form of writing was the philosophical essay (a mark of the swiftly increasing professionalization of philosophy at the turn of the century and thereafter.) Of those essays, two collections were made: Philosophical Studies (1922) and Philosophical Papers (1959). Published late in Moore's life (1953) were a set of lectures originally given way back in 1910, entitled Some Main Problems of Philosophy.
Moore, though not a good writer (unlike Russell and Wittgenstein who were masters of English and German prose respectively), worked very hard at writing straightforward English. But his powerful desire for clarity and freedom from jargon was confronted with his (strong, excessive) desire for care and accuracy in the expression of his ideas. That conjunction of aims led his style to be long-winded, with piled up qualifications and attempts at clarification. Reading Moore is quite a bit of a slog.
3. Moore's Character
One matter which turns up consistently in writings about Moore has to do with his character. Part, perhaps the most significant part, of his impact on his contemporaries derived not from the nature and quality of his philosophical ideas, but from certain powerful features of his personality, features which it may be difficult, impossible, for those who know him only from his writings to recognize.
Apart from his first years at Cambridge, no one thought Moore to be intellectually brilliant. (Wittgenstein said "Moore shows how far it is possible to get in philosophy with limited intelligence.") But what came through, at least in personal contact with him, was a purity of intent and a passion for truth. (Words such as 'purity' and 'passion' are frequent in his friends' writing about him.) "In my third year I met G.E. Moore, who was then a freshman, and for some years he fulfilled my ideal of genius. He was in those days beautiful and slim, with a look almost of inspiration, and with an intellect as deeply passionate as Spinoza's. He had a kind of exquisite purity." (Russell, Autobiography, p. 85)
Moore's extraordinary determination to get some piece of the truth, to get things right, was what determined his fanatical desire for clarity: he thought that getting things right was retarded among people, especially philosophers, because we are never clear enough about what exactly the question is and about precisely what any proffered answer means.
Associated with that drive to truth was, again in terms used frequently by those who knew him, a saintliness, an innocence. Russell: "I have never but once succeeded in making him tell a lie and that was by subterfuge. 'Moore" I said 'do you always speak the truth?' 'No' he replied. I believe this to be the only lie he has ever told." (Autobiography, p. XX )
We, at a distance and with only his writings at hand, have a difficult time seeing those features of his character which made him so impressive in person. For his writing is characterized by a native dullness of style and by the fruits of his drive for clarity: the reader readily acquires a sense of getting bogged down in qualifications and repetitions and expressions of doubt.
However, Moore's drive for truth and for clarity became a central value in the tradition of analytic philosophy he helped found: some would say that, as in Moore, the desire for clarity became too much an independent, over-riding desire ('Clarity is not enough'.)
4. Moore's Philosophical Worries
In a brief autobiography Moore says "I do not think that the world or the sciences would ever have suggested to me any philosophical problems." (Schilpp, The Philosophy of G.E. Moore, p. 14) That claim, plus certain features of his later work, has influenced interpretations of Moore's work. "He seems to have been, in the first place, entirely without any of the motives that tend to make a metaphysician. He was neither discontented with nor puzzled by the ordinary beliefs of plain men and plain scientists. He had no leanings whatever towards paradox and peculiarity of opinion. He had no particular religious or other cosmic anxieties; and he seems to have felt that in aesthetics and morality (not, of course, in moral or aesthetic philosophy) all was as well, at least, as could reasonably be expected. He thus did not hanker for any system on his own account." (G. Warnock, English Philosophy Since 1900, p. 12)
It is now recognized that Moore's autobiography is seriously misleading and that one of the respects in which it fails is in Moore's characterization of his own philosophical motivation. The key piece of work here is Tom Regan's book Bloomsbury's Prophet: G.E. Moore and the Development of His Moral Philosophy. Regan went back and studied Moore's early unpublished philosophical papers, writings done at Cambridge as a student, read and discussed at meetings of the Apostles. What those papers reveal is that Moore lost his religious belief at a decently young age and that his early philosophical work was intended to find some rational support for morality, and some understanding of the real substance of morality, in the absence of any divine sanction and guidance. After Regan, it is clear that Moore's ethical preoccupations up through the first decade of the twentieth century were driven by his worries about the nature and standing of morality.
Moore, then, was stimulated to philosophical thought by problems thrown up by the world - at least his worries about morality were produced by what he took to be substantial difficulties in the area of moral belief. For the rest, what did cause him to philosophize? Moore continues the above autobiographical quote by saying "What has suggested philosophical problems to me is things which other philosophers have said about the world or the sciences." (Schilpp, p. 14.) He was attracted to philosophical issues (morality aside), not because the world or the sciences were problematic but because what other philosophers said about those matters was problematic. At times Moore has been sharply criticized (chiefly by non-analytic philosophers) for not seeing the world itself as deeply, philosophically, problematic. The fact is that he did not have a temperament which had natural philosophical worries - yet he found ample cause to philosophize in the remarks of other philosophers.
Moore speaks of "the world and the sciences" as not in themselves causing him philosophical anxiety. Something should be remarked here about his attitude toward science. Bluntly, he seems to have little interest in it. This makes him very unlike Russell and many other analytic philosophers who were decisively influenced by and interested in science. There is an entire wing of the analytic tradition which was strongly influenced by Moore in not being especially concerned with science and which did not regard philosophy as the hand-maiden of science. Many of Moore's students became attracted to Wittgenstein's later philosophy because that too did not revolve around science.
5. Moore's Ethics
The younger Moore was deeply involved with moral philosophy. His two published books were both in ethics and were done relatively early in his philosophical career: Principia Ethica (1903) (which was by far the most important) and Ethics (1912). Perhaps he thought that he had been largely successful in solving his problems about morality in those works, perhaps youthful worries about morality simply faded: at any rate, after 1912 he turned away from ethics (for the most part) and concentrated on (1) epistemological questions, (2) on non-moral concepts and (3) on the philosophy of philosophy.
Moore's contributions to moral philosophy now seem rather slender. He left one and possibly two enduring legacies in this area.
A major aim of Moore's earliest published work in ethics was to deny that the notion of good can be defined. Utilitarian philosophers used to say things like 'good is whatever is productive of the greatest happiness'; more theologically inclined thinkers would hold that 'good is whatever is willed by God'. These claims were put forward as definitions of 'good', as specifications of what 'good' means. Moore argued that all such attempts at definition committed what he called the naturalistic fallacy. That was a misguided piece of terminology (though it did show who he took to be his main opponents) since he was also criticizing non-naturalistic, especially theological, definitions of 'good'. Both the terminology and the substantive issue, however, loomed very large in Anglo-American moral philosophy until well after World War II.
To show that such definitions involved a fallacy, Moore invented a simple but striking line of argument called 'the open-question argument'. He observed that it makes sense to ask 'That action is ... but is it good?' where the blank is filled in by whichever of the supposed definitions of 'good' one chooses. E.g. Moore held that the following is a perfectly sensible question: 'Doing such and such produces the greatest happiness of the greatest number but is it good?' Moore's conclusion was that since that question makes sense, 'good' cannot mean 'what produces the greatest happiness' since if it did mean that, the question would amount to 'Doing such and such produces the greatest happiness but does it produce the greatest happiness?' That, however, is not a sensible question. Hence the definition is not correct, it does not specify what 'good' means.
Since the same outcome obtains no matter what supposed definition of 'good' is supplied, since it is always an open question whether something satisfying a given description is good, Moore held that 'good' is undefinable.
Moore's argument had its effect. For a very long time no one in moral philosophy thought that 'good' is definable in any such interesting way. What has become clear to many philosophers in light of Moore's thought is that such claims as 'good is what produces the greatest happiness' should not be taken as definitions of the term 'good': they are rather substantive and so arguable theses about what makes something good, about why we would or should attribute goodness to something, and are not explications of what the term 'good' means. Although it is a clever move to attempt to get one's favored claim about the substance of goodness smuggled in as the very meaning of the term 'good', the move is not acceptable. This view is a direct result of Moore's work.
(There has recently been a resurgence of interest in this aspect of Moore's moral philosophy, in the naturalistic fallacy. My very swift discussion above must be examined in light of recent work.)
There may also be a second lesson that philosophers later in the twentieth century have learned from Moore's moral philosophy, although this lesson would be one Moore did not intend to teach.
He rejected all attempts to define 'good'. The epigraph to Principia Ethica was Bishop Butler's line 'Everything is what it is and not another thing.' So good is good and not any other thing. But Moore thought that something further can be said which helps to make clear what kind of thing, metaphysically speaking, good is. He compared goodness to yellowness. Yellow is a simple, i.e. undefinable, natural property. Here 'natural' means 'observable' (e.g. 'Ah yes, I see the yellow, over there in the corner.') Good is like yellow in being simple, undefinable - but it is a not a natural property. That is, the goodness of something cannot be detected through observation in the way that one can detect the yellowness of something. Good is not perceptible as yellow is. So Moore concludes that goodness is a non-natural property, a characteristic of things but one which cannot be discerned through the senses. We detect the presence of goodness in a thing, Moore held, through a faculty he called 'intuition'.
Although there were some significant Intuitionists following Moore, most analytic philosophers rejected the idea that good is a non-natural property apprehended by a special mental faculty. They took the lesson of the indefinability of 'good' to be, not that good names some mysterious property, but that it does not name a property at all. That is, they came to regard Moore's characterization of good as a non-natural property as a paradigm failure to distinguish form and function. 'That is good' does have the same form as 'That is yellow' just as Moore noticed; and 'That is yellow' does function to ascribe a property to a thing. But it does not follow from those two facts that 'That is good' also has the function of ascribing a property to a thing. For if you make that inference, as Moore did, you end up with a non-observable property and perhaps also with an unusual and otherwise unknown part of the mind which is capable of 'noticing' that otherwise non-observable characteristic of those things.
Agreement that 'good' is not a property word, that is to say agreeing that 'That is good' is not a description of the thing, did not lead to agreement in analytic moral philosophy about what function 'good' does have. Some, those in the Logical Positivist camp, came to hold that saying 'That is good' is an expression of emotion, equivalent to 'Wow!'; others, in the later ordinary language group, held that to call something good is to offer a commendation of the thing.
6. Moore and Bloomsbury
Moore is usually described as a 'philosopher's philosopher' - someone, that is, who wrote for an audience of professionals. While that is true of most of his work, Principia Ethica did have a substantial impact outside the world of professional philosophers. At least it did so on a particular group of people and perhaps through them on the world at large.
The people in question were the Bloomsbury Group, named after the area of London which was the center of their social lives from 1905 to 1920. The group included two of the future chief novelists of 20th century England, Virginia Wolff and E.M. Forster, one of the 20th century's major economists, John Maynard Keynes, some of the major art critics of the early century, Roger Fry and Clive Bell, and several other very talented writers and artists. "An uncommon collection of highly creative, disciplined, productive artists and thinkers, the Bloomsbury Group was a powerful force in the artistic and intellectual avant-garde of post-Victorian England, pioneering new forms of expression in fiction and biography, forging new theories in economics and aesthetics. They were the harbingers of 'the new,' being everywhere - and often contemptuously - against 'the old,' not only in art and theory but also in their day-to-day lives." (Regan, pp. 7-8)
Though he was not at all a member of Bloomsbury, the Moore of Principia Ethica was a main source of inspiration for them. However what attracted their interest was not the first chapters of the book, which are the source of Moore's philosophical standing. Rather, it was the final two chapters of the book, especially the last one, chapters largely ignored by professional philosophers (perhaps unjustly so.) In those chapters, Moore argues that most of the things we think to be our duties cannot be established to be duties, that there are very few things that can be shown to be duties and that therefore individuals are largely left to their own devices in determining their conduct. What we need to do in acting is not look to what we are morally obligated to do, to moral rules, but rather be guided by what is good.
What things are good then? Moore gives his answer in Chapter 6, 'The Ideal': "By far the most valuable things, which we know or can imagine, are certain states of consciousness, which may be roughly described as the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects. No one, probably, who has asked himself the question, has ever doubted that personal affection and the appreciation of what is beautiful in Art or Nature, are good in themselves; nor, if we consider strictly what things are worth having purely for their own sakes, does it appear probable that any one will think that anything else has nearly so great a value as the things which are included under these two heads." (pp. 188-189)
Moore's attack on the possibility and desirability of producing a satisfactory list of moral rules by which one should live was welcomed by Bloomsbury, who were searching for ways to break free of the dead weight of the past and of traditional, Victorian, morality - and his claim that personal relations and the enjoyment of beauty are what is most valuable precisely fitted, and shaped, Bloomsbury's inclinations and actions. In so influencing Bloomsbury, Moore played a role in the redirection of English values.
7. Moore and The Revolt Against Idealism
Despite its intellectual dominance in English academic philosophy as a whole, idealism was not in as strong a position among the Cambridge philosophy faculty as it was at Oxford. But it did have one major local representative in the person of J.M.E. McTaggart, who was not only one of Moore and Russell's teachers, formally speaking, but was also just a little older than they were, also a member of the Apostle's, and so philosophically and socially involved with them outside the lecture hall. It was no wonder that both Russell and Moore began their philosophical development in the mid 1890's as idealists.
I have already mentioned how misleading Moore's autobiography is about his early philosophical views and interests. It is equally misleading about his relation to idealism. Moore, there, talks as if he had not had an idealist period. He makes it sound as if he were invited to meet and talk with McTaggart in Russell's rooms and immediately started objecting to characteristic idealist theses. The record shows that that is not so. Rather, as would be completely natural, Moore (as was Russell) was initially drawn into those idealist views which were central to his initial philosophical environment.
What is surprising, perhaps, is that Moore did not last long as an adherent of the idealist views acquired from his surroundings. It now appears that Moore was constitutionally not an idealist, was by nature not inclined to see the world as idealists do and, given an opportunity to think and write on his own, his natural inclinations quickly emerged.
The break seems to have occurred as early as 1898 when he was working on the second version of his fellowship dissertation on Kant and the metaphysical basis of ethics. Between 1898 and 1903 Moore completely rejected idealism and published the first major anti-idealist essays: especially 'The Nature of Judgment' (1899, a paper plundered from his second dissertation) and 'The Refutation of Idealism' (1903). Moreover, he not only argued that idealism was wholly mistaken, but came to offer an alternative. In this account, I shall start with the criticism first and discuss the positive doctrine in the following section, even though drawing a line between the two is arbitrary.
In this revolt against idealism, and in the fashioning of an alternative view, Moore is the one who first made the break and drew Russell along. In an autobiographical sketch ('My Intellectual Development' in the Schilpp volume The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell), Russell says that it was Moore who "took the lead in the rebellion [against idealism], and I followed with a sense of emancipation." In the Preface to Principles of Mathematics (1903) Russell allowed: "On the fundamental questions of philosophy, my position, in all its chief features, is derived from Mr. G.E. Moore."
Unless one has looked more carefully at Absolute Idealism than I have in the preceding notes and unless, especially, the arguments which those idealists employed to establish their views are described, it is pointless to attempt too much detail in setting out the reasons Moore gives for the rejection of idealism. So I shall be quick about these matters, following what seems to me the best attempts to give an account of them, namely Peter Hylton's in his discussion of Moore, pp. 117 - 152 in Russell, Idealism and the Emergence of Analytic Philosophy and Thomas Baldwin in G.E. Moore, especially pp. 1 - 38.
"Idealism in all its forms depends, as we have seen, upon a transition, at some stage, from the necessary structure of thought, or the necessary conditions of knowledge, to necessary features of reality." (Hylton, p. 120) Thus, reality becomes infused with mind. Moore simply denied that "fundamental presupposition of any sort of Idealism" by asserting that "the objects of knowledge [are] completely independent of us." Propositions, those things which are true or false, those things which are known or not known, are in themselves totally independent of minds, human or otherwise. "In Moore's stringent and straight-forward anti-psychologism, anti-subjectivism, propositions are objective entities which, when they are known, are not thereby altered or affected by the knowing mind and thus remain quite independent of the mind of the knower."
The proposition that there is tea in the pot is either true or false (Moore also denies the Absolute Idealist doctrine that truth comes in degrees and so denies the idea that the nothing is fully true until it is exhibited as part of the Absolute) whether or not any mind knows it; and should it be known, that knowledge has no effect on the proposition at all, for that knowledge is externally connected to the proposition as well as to the tea and the pot. Judgments, that is, the act of making a judgment, are one thing, are mental acts - but judgments in the sense of what is judged are quite a different thing and are not at all mental. (It must be noted here that the distinction Moore insists upon between, say, thinking and what is thought (knowing and what is known, seeing and what is seen) and the further characterization of the one as mental and the other as not mental have remained a staple of analytic philosophy throughout the century.)
Moore did produce arguments (at all times he was a vigorous arguer) in support of those theses, yet what mostly strikes us about his writings is that they contain a simple insistence that that is how things are. (Baldwin calls that his "hostility to subjectivism". (p. 9)) Minds and their acts are one thing and the objects of those mental acts are another and there is no legitimate inference, as the idealists would have it, from necessary features of our thinking to necessary features of reality.
Idealism may have ceased to be a living philosophical force after and in part because of Moore, but it did not fade away (and it did fade, there was no screeching halt) because it was refuted (despite the title of his famous 1903 paper) by Moore, or by any other philosopher. G.J. Warnock is most insightful on that: "It would also, I believe, be historically improper to give the impression that Idealism perished of refutation. It is true that some of Bradley's fundamental views, such as his doctrine of 'internal relations' or his theory of truth, were subjected to destructive criticism. But metaphysical systems do not yield, as a rule, to frontal attack. Their odd property of being demonstrable only, so to speak, from within confers on them also a high resistance to attack from outside. The onslaughts of critics to whom, as likely as not, their strange tenets are very nearly unintelligible are apt to seem, to those entrenched inside, mis-directed or irrelevant. Such systems are more vulnerable to ennui than to disproof. They are citadels, much shot at perhaps but never taken by storm, which are quietly discovered one day to be no longer inhabited. The way in which an influential philosopher may undermine the empire of his predecessors consists, one may say, chiefly in his providing his contemporaries with other interests." (G. Warnock, English Philosophy Since 1900, pp. 10-11.) [That manner of demise may also be true, sometimes at least, of scientific ideas: "In this, memory transfer is an exemplary case of controversial science. We no longer believe in memory transfer but this is because we tired of it, because more interesting problems came along, and because the principal experimenters lost their credibility. Memory transfer was never quite disproved; it just ceased to occupy the scientific imagination. The gaze of the golem turned elsewhere." (Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch, The Golem, p. 25.)]
Moore was in accord with the spirit of the times in rejecting idealism. While, as Passmore was quoted earlier as saying, idealism, in a number of different forms, was characteristic of the 19th century, the dawning of a new century exhibited a strongly anti-idealist turn, not only in the England of Moore but also in Germany, Austria and the United States. Moore in his hostility to subjectivism, to idealism, was fully in accord with the zeitgeist and it was that spirit of the age, more than Moore's arguments, which produced the demise of idealism in his day.
8. Moore's Realism
One might think that, given Moore's departure from idealism and given the strong pull within British culture toward empiricism, he would have moved on to revive the empiricist tradition. That is not, however, what happened. Moore was led by the nature of his objections to idealism, and led Russell too, into a realist metaphysics in which empiricism was not even considered.
Moore held, in opposition to the idealists, that the objects of thought and knowledge are independent of minds. That view rejects both of the central idealist theses: that reality is dependent upon mind and that reality is a whole.
He took his distinction between thinking (perceiving, knowing, judging) and what is thought (perceived, known, judged) to mean that what we think about and what we know are real entities, objective pieces of reality. They are not, however, in space and not in time either (except for the perception case). Some philosophers, empiricists, think that things not in space and time do not exist and so are not real. Moore holds that it is true that the objects of thought and knowledge do not exist - only spatio-temporal objects do that - but nonetheless they are real, they have being. It is "Moore's view that there are non-existent atemporal entities" (Hylton, p. 132) Propositions are prominent among such entities although, since they have concepts as constituents, concepts equally are real objects, they have being though not existence. Moore goes so far as to claim that reality is composed of propositions and their constituents. "The picture which Moore conveys, then, is of a static atemporal universe, made up of concepts atemporally related to one another in various ways." (Hylton, p. 140)
Hence Moore's version of realism, as it claimed the constituents of reality to be unchangeable non-spatial non-temporal entities with which we are in contact only in thought, is a kind of Platonism. In fact, Moore wrote to a friend "I am pleased to believe that this is the most Platonic system of modern times." (Hylton, p. 137) Since concepts are only externally related to each other, they form ultimate independent units of reality. In that way, they are metaphysical atoms and so Hylton gives the whole system the name Platonic Atomism.
(It should be remembered that at precisely the same time Moore was developing his critique of idealism and its replacement by a realist metaphysics, he was producing his views on ethics and goodness. To say, as he did, that goodness is a non-natural property detected only by intuition, i.e. by thought and not by perception, is to treat it as a Platonic entity, inhabiting some transcendent realm of being.)
All of these ideas are contained in a few papers which Moore published as a young man at the turn of the century. That realist metaphysics, for the most part, was not pursued by Moore later in his philosophical career - in fact it was unacknowledged by its author in his autobiography. We today do not think of it as part of Moore's philosophical legacy, as part of his contribution to analytic philosophy. He is celebrated for the revolt against idealism, but his realist replacement for it is not part of analytic philosophy's self-understanding. Had Moore's Platonic realism not had its effect on Russell, which it certainly did, Russell developing the realist metaphysics in detail, it might have had no philosophical consequences.
9. Moore's Later Philosophical Work
What the analytic tradition has retained of Moore's early philosophical work, the ethics aside, are his objections to idealism, especially the distinction between the psychological act of judging or knowing or thinking and the mind independence of what is known, judged or thought (and thought about.) The realist metaphysics long ago vanished from our map of Moore's thought as it seems to have done from Moore's thinking.
The question, then, naturally arises: if Moore, in his long philosophical career, rejected idealism at a tender age, if he stopped worrying about moral philosophy after the first decade of the century, and if he did not pursue that program of realist metaphysics, then what did he do, philosophically, for all the remaining time?
The answer falls under two headings: he worked upon the analysis of certain concepts, especially and famously perception, and he, even more famously, wrote and thought about the philosophy of philosophy.
It must be observed here that no one has traced out the history of how Moore's views developed following the period 1898 - 1903, especially up to the publication of his 'Defense of Common Sense' in 1925. How his thinking evolved from the early work to his well-known later views is a piece of twentieth century philosophy that no one yet has looked into.
10. Moore on Perception
Much of Moore's work, after he drew to a close his interest in ethics and in promoting realism, had to do with the examination of various philosophically interesting and important concepts. It is not worthwhile in this introductory essay, to discuss Moore's contributions to the philosophical understanding of most of those concepts. Whatever advances in our grasp of those concepts he made are not extensive enough to warrant discussion in the present context.
The one exception in this regard is his thinking about perception. For that work did have a major impact on philosophy from about 1910 to the 1960's.
It is difficult for the contemporary student to realize just how large discussions of perception loomed within the analytic tradition in those years. Philosophical interests began shifting away from perceptual matters in the 1950's or '60's and before long the topic of perception was relegated to the sidelines. It is consequently not substantially encountered in the current standard philosophical curriculum and hence current students tend to not realize the huge role the topic of perception played only a very few decades ago.
Moore was a, perhaps the, major player in the recurring analysis of perception in those years when it was a, perhaps the, central topic in analytic philosophy. In fact, traces of Moore's thought are still significantly found in the relatively infrequent current examinations of perceptual issues.
There are two overlapping reasons for the dominance of the topic of perception in the philosophical writing of the decades prior to 1960.
Analytic philosophy has importantly included among its ranks (e.g. Russell, the Logical Positivists) philosophers who are adherents of empiricism, the philosophical view that all understanding and knowledge are derived from the senses. With the senses thus so philosophically central to the empiricists and with many analysts being empiricists, it is to be expected that the practice of philosophical analysis would be extensively employed upon perceptual concepts.
Moore himself, however, was not an empiricist and so did not have that urge to focus upon perception. However, one does not need to hold the view that all human understanding is ultimately derived from and justified by sensory experience to grant that human perceptual capacities are a major source of our knowledge and a central feature of our lives. That would be sufficient for a philosopher such as Moore to think extensively about perception, especially given that other philosophers around him had a more specific, empiricist, axe to grind.
However, the seemingly innocuous claim that, at the very least, important stretches of our understanding and our knowledge are perceptually based was, for Moore and most other philosophers of the time, immeshed in a problem which had been one of the dominating features of western philosophy at least since Descartes. This was the Problem of the External World: can we know, and if so how is it done, that there are objects, a world, over and above, independent of, our perceptual experiences? Whether one was an empiricist or not, it was a crucial requirement in philosophy from 1640 to 1960 to attempt an answer to that question.
Moore's long running and detailed inquiry into perceptual matters took place against the background of the Problem of the External World and was intended to be a contribution to its solution. In order to understand some of his positions on perception, it is necessary to set the discussion against that background even if he himself frequently does not specify that setting.
Moore's first accomplishment in the domain of perception was to invent a new piece of terminology: the word 'sense-datum' and its plural 'sense-data', which became the favored terms in which discussions of perception were carried on, were Moore's inventions. He had started using them in 1903, officially introduced them in a series of lectures he offered in 1910-11, though it was Russell who picked the terms up (in his very widely read 1912 book The Problems of Philosophy) and made them philosophically popular. Thus it came about that in the middle years of the century, one will probably not encounter any philosophically substantial term more frequently than 'sense-data'. And it remains today the normal term used in philosophical discussions about perception.
Now Moore did not invent the notion he was discussing with his new piece of terminology. In almost all important respects what Moore called 'sense-data' are what are referred to by different words ('sensations', 'perceptions', ideas', 'impressions') all the way back to the beginning of modern philosophy and probably, in important respects, back to the earliest philosophizing about perception in ancient Greece.
What is a sense-datum, what are sense-data? The best way to understand what a sense-datum is is to look at the arguments by which Moore urged that there are such things. While there are several different arguments, not all of which can be mentioned and examined in this introductory essay, and while the notion of a sense-datum embedded in the various arguments may not amount to precisely the same thing, at least two of them are essential to understanding what Moore and others had in mind when they spoke of sense-data.
The first thing to notice is that while Moore (and all those involved in the analytic discussion of perception) holds that for each sense modality (sight, hearing, touch, etc.) there are sense-data, he never seriously talks of any of the senses other than sight. So all the arguments and examples focus upon vision, upon cases of seeing. (It is an open question as to how far Moore's conclusions can be generalized to the other senses: he assumed that they could be without modification.)
A version of one of the major arguments goes something like this. Suppose that Bert says he has seen a cow, in fact saw it while standing just on the other side of the fence from the cow so that he could have reached out and thumped it on the nose. Also suppose that Sally says that she has seen the same cow from up on the hillside on Bert's right, in fact she saw Bert standing there facing the cow. If asked what they saw, both Bert and Sally can say 'I saw a cow, Bessie in fact'. But, the argument proceeds, surely the visual experience which Bert had is quite different from the visual experience Sally had: Bert after all was standing right in front of the cow and could see its wet nose, its brown eyes looking at him, the slobber hanging from its mouth, the small white patch of hair in the center of its forehead. Sally could see none of that: she saw the cow from a distance and only its left side, the brown splotch on its rump, the tail swishing from side to side, its left hind leg being occasionally lifted. In fact, if they were both looking at Bessie for precisely the same minute, if you took a one second slice out of that time, what they were actually seeing during that second (call it S1) would be quite different: Bert was in that single second noticing a small scar on the cow's nose while Sally was, at that precise second, attending to how the brown spot on the left hip was shaped like a fish.
Moore would have claimed that one correct answer to the question 'What did Bert and Sally see at S1?" is that they saw a cow, in fact one and the same cow. Moore would also have said that since a cow is a material object, they saw a material object. And as material objects are external to the mind, the Problem of the External World is to be (partially) answered in the affirmative, namely there are external objects and we do encounter them in our perceptual experiences. On this matter, that we really do see objects which exist independently of us, physical objects, say cows and such, Moore had no doubts at all, being struck by the absurdity of saying that Bert and Sally did not see a cow. As they saw a cow and as cows (for Moore though not for Berkeley) are material objects, then material objects really do exist and are perceived by us. In that way, the problem of the external world is 'solved' by Moore. (Moore cannot make the Problem go away by doing nothing more than making that move: for it fails to address, much less critically address, the question of why the problem arose in the first place: Moore can only, at best, say 'You're wrong: we do see material objects'.)
Incidentally, there does also run through Moore one kind of qualm about saying that Bert and Sally saw a cow. For he wants to say, quite correctly, that a cow is an object which is significantly three-dimensional and which has an inside as well as an outside. Yet neither Bert nor Sally, not having x-ray vision nor having walked around the cow, saw those insides or the other side of the cow. Though they didn't see those portions of the cow, Moore nonetheless is sure that it is absurd to deny that they saw a cow. So he tended to say that what we normally see is, strictly, only part of the surface of an object. But that particular puzzle can be set aside in the present discussion of sense-data.
So though a cow is seen, though 'a cow' is a correct answer to the question 'What did they see?', Moore also insisted that there is another correct answer to 'What did they see?' This second answer is a more strict and appropriate answer, one which specifies what they actually saw. That answer would refer to a sense-datum.
In support of that, Moore (et. al) would call to our attention that it is also correct for Bert to say something like 'I saw ' and to append a description of what the cow looked like from his vantage point. So 'a cow' gives the material object answer to 'What did you see?' and (perhaps) 'a brown and white hairy shape with a wet black nasal looking spot (etc.)' is the sense-datum answer to the same question.
While the material object answer to the question, by both Bert and Sally, amounts to saying that they were both seeing the same thing, the sense-datum answers are quite different. Bert's description of what he was seeing at S1 is quite different from Sally's description of what she saw at S1. Moore took that to mean that Bert's sense-datum at S1 was different from Sally's sense-datum at S1.
At this point, it is important to take up another argumentative line which Moore employed in specifying what he meant by 'sense-datum'. In a famous passage he gives directions for finding a sense-datum for those who may be inclined to doubt their existence. "And in order to point out to the reader what sort of things I mean by sense-data, I need only ask him to look at his own right hand. If he does this, he will be able to pick out something (and, unless he is seeing double, only one thing) with regard to which he will see that it is, at first sight, a natural view to take that that thing is identical, not, indeed, with his whole right hand, but with that part of its surface which he is actually seeing, but will also (on a little reflection), be able to see that it is doubtful whether it can be identical with the part of the surface of his hand in question. Things of the sort (in a certain respect) of which this thing is ... I mean by sense-data." (Moore, 'A Defense of Common Sense')
In this passage, Moore is asking a person, who is trying to understand what a sense-datum is, to do something similar to looking into a basket and to identify there ("pick out") one object among many in that basket, with the help of Moore's description of the intended object.
It is time to step back and ask what is going on in these two (and also in other) attempts to say what a sense-datum is. This, of course, is not the place to attempt a general study, only a brief and limited one.
What must first be noticed is a very deep and very influential picture (as Wittgenstein in the Philosophical Investigations spoke of pictures in philosophy) shared by Moore and by the entire sense-datum tradition. They talk and think as if a sense-datum were an object, an entity. In all cases of perception there is some object which we perceive which Moore names a 'sense-datum'. These things which we perceive are objects which exist and so which must be counted among the furniture of the world, even though some philosophers doubt their existence. Because he (and they) conceive of them as entities, on the order of, say, pennies, he gives them a noun as a name and thinks he can issue instructions for picking them out perceptually.
Once that picture is noticed, one can see philosophical problems arising. How does the one object, a sense-datum, relate to another object, a material object, a cow say? (Doesn't the one get in our way of seeing the other?) If what we strictly speaking see is a sense-datum, how can we say we see a material object at all? (Doesn't Moore have it both ways?) How long do sense-data exist? Can they exist unperceived? Can two people have the same sense-datum (i.e. are they private to the perceiver)? Those are the issues which were discussed continuously in the sense-data decades. They arise precisely because Moore, et. al. were captured by a picture of the sense-datum as entity, a classic case of entification.
Suppose, however, we refuse to be governed by the picture. What happens is that the genuine philosophical issues about perception do not vanish. Not everything of importance was generated by the guiding idea that sense-data are objects, by that misguided way of conceiving of the matter. At their most general, the real issues have to do with how perceptual appearances relate to reality. How can both Bert's and Sally's descriptions of how things visually appeared to them to them relate to the claim that they saw a cow, one and the same cow? Again, what is most fundamental: the language of how things look (appear) or the language of how things are (really)?
That introduction to the issues must suffice for here. The questions are interesting and important to pursue elsewhere. (For the first attempt to say something similar to what I've said, or more precisely, intimated here, see a famous paper from 1936, G.A. Paul, 'Is There a Problem About Sense-Data?', reprinted in A. Flew, ed., Logic and Language.)
11. Philosophy and Common Sense
One of Moore's major post moral-philosophy interests was the philosophy of philosophy: that is, thought about what philosophy is. His conception of philosophy became important as it established a minority tradition within analytic philosophy concerning the nature of philosophy. That minority tradition, although with major readjustments deriving from Wittgenstein, both early and late, and from the ordinary language philosophers, persists as a significant counter-point to the main-line analytic conception of philosophy.
The most important piece of writing on this topic by Moore is a famous essay entitled 'A Defense of Common Sense'. This paper, often reprinted, was originally published in 1925 in a book entitled Contemporary British Philosophy (second series, ed. J.H. Muirhead) Philosophers were to write on their conception of philosophy. Both Moore and Russell were invited, being thought of as representative of the younger generation, though both were over fifty and thus mature philosophers at the time.
Moore makes it clear that he is going to do what the instructions said: to talk about his philosophical position and how it differs from others.
Moore begins by setting out a "list" of what he calls "truisms" every one of which he says he "knows with certainty". He starts his list this way: "There exists at present a living human body, which is my body. This body was born at a certain time in the past, and has existed continuously ever since, though not without undergoing changes; it was, for instance, much smaller when it was born, and for some time afterwards, than it is now. Ever since it was born, it has been either in contact with or not far from the surface of the earth; and at every moment since it was born, there have also existed many other things...."
Some of the other items he mentions: "there have (very often, at all events) existed some other things of this kind with which it was in contact"; "there have, at every moment since its birth, been large numbers of other living human bodies"; "the earth had existed for many years before my body was born; and for many of these years, also, large numbers of human bodies had been alive upon it".
The list continues with "a different class of propositions": "I am a human being, and I have, at different times since my body was born, had many different experiences, of many different kinds: e.g. I have often perceived both my own body and others things which formed part of its environment, including other human bodies...."
Having set out those "truisms", all of which are about himself, he adds a second point: exactly the same things are true of (most of) those other humans and they also know them to be true with certainty. In other words, these are truths and we all know them to be true.
Moore, after several pieces of typical Moorean clarification, makes the crucial claim that lots of other philosophers have held views which are "incompatible" with his list of known truths. That is how his philosophical position differs from so many other philosophers.
It is important to notice that he then divides the philosophers who hold views incompatible with the announced truths into two groups. One group consists of philosophers who deny that any of the truths on his list are true. The second group denies that any of the propositions on the lists are known to be true though of course they may be true. In some writings on Moore, 'A Defense' is treated as if it were solely an anti-skeptical essay, as if his sole target were the second group of philosophers. Moore, however, was at least as much interested in putting forward his opposition to the first group as he was to skepticism.
Surely, you might say, no philosopher at all has ever denied that Moore was, say, born at some time - or denied that some particular person had not been in contact with the surface of the earth most of their lives. It is just here that the interesting questions arise.
Moore has carefully constructed his list so that the propositions composing it "imply, in a certain sense, the reality of material things, and the reality of Space" - they also imply, according to Moore, the reality of Time and of Selves.
Moore's opponents here are largely the Idealists of his philosophical youth (and who are the authors of most of the other essays in the collection.) They were given to arguing 'Time is Unreal', 'Space is unreal', 'Matter is unreal'. Of course Idealists did not say 'Selves are unreal' - so on this last point Moore is opposing Materialism.
Moore thus holds the following. While no philosopher has ever stepped forward to deny that Moore was born long before he wrote this essay, some philosophers have argued that Time is Unreal. Moore assumes that to assert that Time is Unreal "implies" that he was not born before he wrote 'A Defense...' Since the philosophical view entails the denial of one of the items on his list of truisms, the philosophical view is false. As it is beyond question that he was born at some particular time, Time is certainly Real.
And so for the other items in the group of philosophical theses: each of them, Moore holds, entails the falsity of one or more of the truisms he has set out at the beginning of the paper and so must be rejected.
A similar move is made against the skeptics, those who argue that knowledge is not possible. Moore holds that he knows that he was not six years old when he wrote 'A Defense of Common Sense'. Hence, since the impossibility of knowing anything would entail that he does not know that, and since he does know it, skepticism is mistaken.
It should be observed that Moore has extended his known truisms to cover all of us: we all know the same things about ourselves as he knows of himself. But the 'all of us' also includes the philosophers who assert those philosophical theses, whether idealist, materialist or skeptic: the truisms are true of them also and further they know them to be true. So they have ended up, in drawing their philosophical conclusions, denying what they know. Moore is thoroughly puzzled by that. "The strange thing is that philosophers should have been able to hold sincerely, as part of their philosophical creed, propositions inconsistent with what they themselves knew to be true; and yet, so far as I can make out, this has really frequently happened." ('A Defense', p. 41)
Moore labels his philosophical position Common Sense. "I am one of those philosophers who have held that 'the Common Sense view of the world' is, in certain fundamental features, wholly true. But it must be remembered that, according to me, all philosophers, without exception, have agreed with me in holding this: and that the real difference, which is commonly expressed in this way, is only a difference between those philosophers, who have also held views inconsistent with these features in 'the Common Sense view of the world,' and those who have not." (p. 44)
12. Philosophical Analysis
One of the consequences of the holding that the Common Sense view of the world is, in some basic respects, completely true, and known to be true, is that philosophy is not a kind of science. Philosophy does not aim at making discoveries about the nature of things.
What, then, are the aims of philosophy for Moore?
"I am not at all skeptical as to the truth of such propositions as 'The earth has existed for many years past'.... I hold that we all know with certainty, many such propositions to be true. But I am very skeptical as to what, in certain respects, the correct analysis of such propositions is. And this is a matter as to which I think I differ from many philosophers." ('A Defense', p. 52)
Here we meet in Moore the notion which lends its name to the type of twentieth century philosophy of which he was one of the founders: analysis. Analysis is introduced here to be contrasted with seeking the truth of various propositions. Philosophy, rather, has the aim of seeking the analysis of propositions.
Over the course of his writings Moore offered various different accounts of what analysis consisted in. On the range of those accounts, see Alan White, G.E. Moore, Chapters V and VI. The best story is that Moore never did have a specific program of analysis in mind. It was Russell who had a model of analysis and who thereby influenced the course of analytic philosophy with respect to what form an analysis would take. What Moore offered instead is simply the general idea that in analyzing one is not trying to discover truth but to articulate meaning, to provide understanding of, as he says in 'A Defense', that which we already understand and further know to be true. "Anyone who takes a contrary view must, I suppose, be confusing the question whether we understand its meaning (which we all certainly do) with the entirely different question whether we know what it means, in the sense that we are able to give a correct analysis of its meaning.... It is obvious that we cannot even raise the question how what we do understand by it is to be analyzed, unless we do understand it." ('Defense', p. 37)
It is those ideas which connect Moore with the later Wittgenstein and the non-scientistic version of analytic philosophy mentioned previously.
13. Is What Moore Defends 'Common Sense'?
Moore did not invent the Common Sense tradition in philosophy. In some respects it goes back to Aristotle who typically began his philosophical investigations with endoxa, with what is commonly believed on a topic, and who then proceeds to see whether modifications are needed in the starting place. But Moore's direct antecedent was the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid (1710-1796) who opposed Locke, Berkeley and, chiefly, Hume in the name of Common Sense. It seems likely that Moore came to know Reid's work and views in the years following 1904 when he was living in Edinburgh.
Moore can be, and has been, criticized for characterizing his position as a defense of Common Sense. I think perhaps the best way to say what he is up to is to contrast him with David Hume. Hume famously argued that we have absolutely no reason to expect that an event will have the same consequences as a previous one the next time such a thing occurs: it is not rational to believe that a fire will burn us the next time we stick our finger in it simply because it has always happened in the past. However, Hume, after a hard day's philosophy, would go out to shoot pool with his friends and found himself, quite contrary to his philosophical conclusions, expecting that when the cue hit the ball that the ball would behave as it had in the past. His conclusion: the rational capacities of we humans are weak and not capable of being put into practice. That is, when faced with a conflict between his philosophical conclusions and his natural behavior, he accepted the philosophical reasoning and thought negatively of our ability to live by it. Moore went the opposite direction: when faced with a conflict between a piece of philosophical thinking ('Time is unreal') and our everyday thought and talk ('I had breakfast before I lectured'), Moore called for the rejection of the philosophical thesis and the truth of our ordinary ways. Even if we can't see the mistake now, it will turn out that it is the philosophical reasoning that is misguided. That is what his defense of Common Sense comes to.
Under the influence of the later Wittgenstein, students of Moore's (chiefly Norman Malcolm) who gravitated to Wittgenstein came to hold that what Moore was really defending was not Common Sense but Ordinary Language. That involves a claim not of the truth of, say, 'I had breakfast before coming to school', but of its intelligibility in the face of a philosophical thesis that such a thing cannot be. Moore, in his response to Malcolm in the Schilpp volume, was inclined to deny that defending ordinary language was his aim. (For the most extensive investigation of this issue, see the first three chapters of Alan White's book on Moore.)
Whatever the correct account of what Moore was doing, the similarity between what Moore called defending common sense and what Wittgenstein thought of as the philosophers' misunderstanding of the "logic of our language" (as he had put it in the Tractatus) helped carry forward what I have been calling the minority tradition within analytic philosophy, analytic philosophers who do not make science and logic the final word on philosophical rectitude.
14. Proof of an External World
A second major paper of Moore's in which the same sorts of issues as found in 'A Defense of Common Sense' are played out is the 1939 'Proof of An External World'. There, rather than trying to set out his view of philosophy, he is applying it to a specific issue: the Problem of the External World.
To the long-standing question 'Does there exist a world of objects independent of the human perception, objects external to the mind?', Moore, after a great deal of Moorean preparation, gives a positive answer, gives in fact what he calls a proof that there are such things. "I can now prove, for instance, that two human hands exist. How? By holding up my two hands, and saying as I make a certain gesture with the right hand, 'Here is one hand', and adding as I make a certain gesture with the left, 'and here is another'."
Nothing that Moore wrote created such an uproar as that 'proof'. And of course it isn't a proof. But for all that, it is a very instructive piece of philosophizing: an insistence that philosophers think whether they really want to say that those are not hands which Moore is holding up. Those who have followed in his footsteps have helped make sense of Moore's outlook and techniques by trying to figure out why it fails as a proof (roughly because he does not have in his philosophical arsensal how to diagnose why a philosopher makes the mistake that she/he does: the aim is not to offer proofs of a contrary position but to work out why philosophers hold to their odd views.)
15. Moore and Analytic Philosophy
I have argued that it is best to begin a detailed examination of analytic philosophy with Moore. And I have also said that analytic philosophy is best seen as comprising two major sub-traditions, one of which has a Moorean cast to it, the other deriving from Russell. We have yet to examine Russell, so it is not appropriate here to set out some of the characteristic differences between the two versions of analytic philosophy. But it is worth saying something in conclusion about some features of the transition from Moore to the later Wittgenstein. I first have in mind that students of Moore (Malcolm, Alice Ambrose, Morris Lazerowitz) came to see in Wittgenstein's thought when he had returned to Cambridge a more powerful development of some ideas similar to Moore's, similarities which enabled them to switch intellectual allegiance from Moore to Wittgenstein. More importantly, Moore himself came to think that Wittgenstein's ideas and techniques were both admirable yet beyond what he was capable of.
Moore: "When he came back to Cambridge in 1929 I attended his lectures for several years in succession, always with admiration.... He has made me think that what is required for the solution of philosophical problems whch baffle me, is a method quite different from any which I have ever used - a method which he himself uses successfully, but which I have never been able to understand clearly enough to use it myself. I am glad to think that he is my successor in the Professorship at Cambridge." (Moore's 'Autobiography' in G.E. Moore, ed. P.A. Schilpp)