Biography and Introductory Comments on G.E. Moore

Selections from Henry D. Aiken, "Introduction" to Part One of Philosophy in the Twentieth Century, Volume Two: The Rise of the British Tradition and Contemporary Analytic Philosophy, edited by William Barrett and Henry D. Aiken (New York: Harper and Row, 1962).

G. E. Moore was born in a suburb of London in 1873, two years after the birth of Russell. As Moore himself has informed us, this is contrary to the common impression that Moore was the elder of the two. Also contrary to a widespread notion, Russell was already an accomplished student of philosophy when Moore entered Cambridge University in 1892. In the beginning, Moore's interests were primarily in classics, of which he modestly aspired to become a teacher "to the Sixth Form of some Public School," and "it was mainly owing to his [Russell's] advice and encouragement that I began to study philosophy." Moore is characteristically punctilious in acknowledging his continuing philosophical debts to Russell as well as self-deprecatory in regard to Russell's own professed debts to him. In his "An Autobiography," he has remarked that, "I do not know that Russell has ever owed to me anything except mistakes; whereas I have owed to his published works ideas which were not mistakes and which I think very important." This amusing Alphonse and Gaston act is perfectly sincere on both sides. It is probably true also that the influence of each upon the other was about equal, although of very different sorts. Their gifts and trainings were so unlike, and their destinies both as men and as thinkers so widely divergent, that one is bound to feel that neither could for very long remain teacher or pupil to the other and that they were joined by historical accident in an almost holy alliance against philo- sophical obscurity and bunkum. As we shall see, however, they did not in the end share the same views about the nature of obscurity or of bunkum. Russell was essentiauy a writer and (later) a publicist, whose immense influence upon other philosophers was owing mainly to the power of his incredibly facile and witty pen. Moore, on the other hand, was primarily a teacher, whose greatest impact was upon the students who came to Cambridge to study with him. The accomplished Russell was inventive, mercurial, almost too ready to change his mind when a better idea seemed to come in view. He moved with the greatest ease from immensely complicated inquiries into the logical foundations of mathematics to pacifistic propaganda that landed him in jail during the First World War, and from thence to a long and varied series of philosophical, historical, educational, and political writings whose impact upon the nonacademic intelligentsia, as well as upon professional philosophers, would be hard to overstate. Undoubtedly Russell has been the most widely read as well as the most discussed philosophical personage of the twentieth century. Moore considered himself "very deficient in moral courage," though he was always exceedingly tenacious in the defense of any "truth" to which he had committed himself. His mind was critical, cautious in reaching an opinion, but, once he reached it, . like a bulldog in his commitment to it. He was well content to stay at home and to stick to his own rather narrow philosophical last, never consciously aspiring to reach a large nonprofessional public or to influence the attitudes of other public men. In point of fact, Moore's reputation soon spread well beyond the university circles in which he moved. And in a country in which there has always been a rapid circulation of the intellectual elite, the extraordinary purity of Moore's intellectual passion and his intensely personal way of doing philosophy came to have a great fascination for many cultivated men of letters and affairs who did not in the least profess, in his sense of the term, to be "philosophers." No less a person than J. M. Keynes has remarked at length upon the "beauty of the literalness of Moore's mind, the pure and passionate intensity of his vision, unfanciful and undressed up." And other members of the famous Bloomsbury set, which included the biographer Lytton Strachey, and Leonard Woolf, the husband of Virginia Woolf, were deeply impressed by Moore's unworldly, unhurried, and dedicated effort to get a really clear idea of what is good, what is just, and what is true. In more senses than one, G. E. Moore was a philosopher's philosopher, but at least in his own country this proved to be no bar to his saying things that are of consequence to men who have little interest in the abstract technicalities of analytical philosophy.

    Moore's philosophical reputation has two main aspects which, although not unrelated, are not of equal significance. It is true that Moore led Russell in the English revolt against idealism, and it is also true that it is he, rather than Russell, with whom philosophers immediately associate that sturdy, imperturbable, common-sense realism which insists, unequivocally and in the teeth of all dialectical objections, upon the objective reality of ordinary middle-sized material objects. Yet it is not so much his realism as the manner of his defense of it, and still more the concealed implications of that defense, which made him a leading figure in the movement of analytical philosophy in England. By a still more curious paradox, it is not so much Moore's own controversial and inconclusive analyses of common-sense propositions that have proved most enduring; nor is it his own more characteristic analytical principles that have kept his memory green among more recent analytical philosophers. It is rather his dogged, unwavering certainty of the truth of common-sense ideas about reality and his refusal to be fazed by any sort of dialectical fireworks or by any attempts at sophisticated logical reconstruction of their meaning that ultimately made the profoundest and most enduring impression upon later philosophers, many of whom were professionally far less interested than he in defending the truth of the statement, say, that justice is good and more interested in correctly analyzing it. In short, although Moore is less memorable for his own positive, often highly conventional philosophical theories than for the dogmatic beliefs whose meanings those theories purported to explain, he is also less to be remembered for the beliefs themselves than for the fact that he considerd it outlandish and absurd -although perhaps not meaningless- to question their truth. It is here that the pressure of his thought exerted its greatest influence.

    About the philosophical truths in which Moore believed, what needs to be said here can be quickly told. As we have intimated, he was a "realist" who accepted without doubt the absolute reality both of the middle-sized objects of ordinary, common-sense discourse and of the conscious minds which apprehend them. Bertrand Russell has amusingly remarked that contemporary psychology has called into question the reality of mind and that contemporary physics has made us wonder whether there is such a thing as matter. Moore, at any rate, had no doubts about the existence of either; he professed only to be very puzzled about the proper analysis of statements about minds and physical objects. Like the early Russell, Moore was also committed to the highly "philosophical," un-common-sensical belief in the independent reality of the abstract "ideas," "meanings," or, as philosophers traditionally call them, "universals." Moore professed to see no better, reason for thinking that (the concept of) whiteness or goodness is merely a construction of the human mind than for supposing that the material objects men call white or good exist only when and insofar as they are perceived. One can distinguish logically between the statements "there is a white object" and "I perceive a white object"; one can also distinguish what is meant in saying that a white object exists from what is meant in saying that someone perceives or is conscious of a white object. Perception and the thing perceived are two things, not one, and the facts which would tend to confirm the fact that I perceive a white object are plainly not logically identical with those which would confirm the fact that a white object exists. Likewise, the meaning of a concept (or proposition) and my awareness of its meaning, my comprehension of whiteness and whiteness itself, are distinct realities. So far as Moore could see, the logical distinction between thought or consciousness and that which thought or consciousness is of applies just as well and just as conclusively to whiteness as to white things and to goodness as to the things that are good. Accordingly he was an unrepentant "realist" on both scores.

    It is plain, however, that Moore's belief in the independent reality of universals implied that, however much he might be committed to the gospel of common sense, and however much he might have disciplined himself to reject as plainly false metaphysical theories that are inconsistent with common sense, he was by no means opposed to metaphysics as such. Nor did he for a moment dream of denying the right of philosophers to affirm the reality of "facts" in which common sense happens to take no interest. In short, it was never a part of Moore's program to discredit traditional metaphysical and epistemological theories en bloc but only to oppose those which are flatly inconsistent with common sense or in which, independently of common sense, there seem to be no good grounds for belief. Nor did he in the least wish to limit other philosophers to the problems which most interested himself, problems, that is, about the meanings of certain philosophical statements and the validity of certain arguments made in their defense. Moore said, "I do not think that the world or the sciences would ever have suggested to me any philosophical problems. What has suggested philosophical problems is things which other philosophers have said about the world. or the sciences." But he did not suppose that other philosophers should confine themselves to so limited a regimen. On the contrary, as he tells us quite explicitly in Some Main Problems of Philosophy, "it seems to me that the most important and interesting thing which philosophers have tried to do is no less than this: namely: To give a general description of the whole of the Universe, mentioning all the most important kinds of things which we know to be in it. . . ." What he objected to were descriptions of reality which are incompatible with what plain men know to be the case about the world in which they live. Nor did Moore think for a moment that moral philosophers should restrict themselves to the study of the meaning of "right" and "good" and of the arguments of other philosophers for supposing that (for example) all goods are pleasures or that nothing is right unless it conduces to the greatest happiness of the greatest number. And in his Principia Ethica, he not only offered certain important views about the meaning of "good," but also professed, with not the least embarrassment as a philosopher, his belief in a good many ethical principles which, if true, must be of the greatest importance to the conduct of human life.

    Another feature of Moore's philosophy which distinguishes it from the commitments of the proverbial and unreconstructed man of "common sense," as distinct from his philosophical front runner, is his belief that all knowledge, of material objects in some way depends upon our perceptions of certain simple and basic perceptual entities called "sense-data." As Moore discovered, it is by no means easy to describe sense-data. But for him this much seems clearly true: they are to be distinguished both from universals, like whiteness, and from material objects such as white cows. Rather are they (to pursue the same exam- ple) like particular patches of white which, at least in veridical perception, form parts of the "surfaces" of the material objects to which they are ascribed. Moore was never satisfied with his own account of sense-data or of the means of their identification; he was also unclear about the way in which statements about material objects "depend" upon statements about sense-data. Are the former logically reducible to complex statements about the latter? If so how shall we know, in cases of disagreement, whether one proposed reduction or another is correct? Or are the latter merely to be regarded as evidence for the former? If so, then what are the logical rules whereby a statement about a white patch may be taken as evidence for the existence of a white cow? Most important of all, how could Moore maintain that such statements as "this is a hand" may be absolutely certain if they depend, in ways which are very unclear and uncertain, upon statements about sense-data? If we can be sure by inspection that this is a hand, it would seem that we don't need observations of sense-data to confirm the fact. But if, as the empiricists maintained, we are only certain of the sense-data themselves, then it would seem that "this is a hand" must be viewed as highly uncertain, since at most the sense-data of which we are immediately aware are not the whole hand.

    At all events, whether or not there are sense-data, and whatever their relations may be to ordinary statements of material fact, it seems plain that they form no part of the machinery of common-sense thought; nor is the concept of sense-datum a part of our fanifliar work-a-day conceptual apparatus. Unlike such ordinary words as "blue" or "horse," which (as both Moore and Russell later admitted) are constantly and correctly used by people who have no notion of how to define them, the phrase "sense-datum" has no established usage; it can be intelligibly employed, therefore, only after it has been defined. But this is precisely what Moore and other proponents of the sense-data theory were unable to do successfully. Nor have they since been able to agree with one another about the use of the concept in the structure of empirical knowledge.
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    There are a number of important conclusions to be drawn from these remarks. In the first place, unlike Hume and (later) the logical positivists, Moore does not believe that all non-analytic general truths are uncertain; nor does he believe that all non-analytic (or synthetic) truths are empirical hypotheses about observable matters of fact. There are, for him, some general synthetic truths, principally ethical, which are self-evident. In the second place, he also believes that through philosophical analysis and reflection, we may come to know that certain synthetic truths which have been alleged to be self-evident are not so, and that certain others are so. Thirdly, it follows that for Moore philosophical analysis has a dual function: (a) to clarify concepts and propositions, and (b) to establish certain general principles of knowledge, value, and metaphysics, the validity of which cannot be ascertained by either pure logic alone or by natural or empirical science alone. Thus, like the classical rationalists before him, Moore still assigns to philosophy a positive constructive role beyond its purely explicative function, a role which has as its proper end the knowledge of substantive truth about reality. And the fact that Moore himself did not get very far in his efforts as a constructive philosopher was owing, from his own point of view, merely to his intellectual limitations.

    These all too sketchy remarks markedly fail to account for the enormous influence of G. E. Moore upon the subsequent course of twentieth-century philosophy. As we shall see presently, the fact is that Moore's influence was, in certain respects, merely a by-product of his own philosophical investigations. He was interested more in questions of truth than in questions of meaning, or, better, be was, at least in the beginning, interested in questions of meaning only because in certain important cases, such as ethics, we cannot hope to know whether propositions are true unless we have a clear idea of what it is that they assert. (Later, Moore, like Russell, became, convinced that our knowledge of the truth of most, if not all, statements in no way depends upon our being able to begin with to state exactly what they mean.) Yet his influence has been to direct the energies of his successors, some of whom suffered not at all from his own acknowledged limitations of interest and ability, away from questions of truth to questions of meaning. And some of his spiritual heirs, certainly, have converted those limitations into a kind of philosophical manifesto or principle: philosophy, according to them, is to concern itself solely with problems of analysis, leaving to science the task of describing reality, and to ethics the task of prescribing what we ought to do. From their point of view, a philosophical problem, by definition, is a problem of meaning and logic, and those who attempt by philosophical argument to establish truths either about what exists or about what ought to exist are merely confused. Such, as we have seen, was by no means Moore's own view. Moreover, although Moore was passionately interested in the defense of the truths of common sense against philosophical skeptics and un-common-sensical metaphysicians, he never claimed that the ordinary language of common-sense discourse is the one and only correct language. He himself resorted unconsciously to philosophical jargon both in his epistemological discussions of sense-data and in his moral philosophy where he talks in a very extraordinary way about goodness as a non-natural quality. But, again, some of Moore's philosophical heirs have considered that the half-concealed philosophical pearl in his defense of common-sense truth is, rather, his implicit defense of the correctness of the familiar language in which those truths are expressed. And his prestige, which at present is higher in many quarters than that of Russell, is largely owing to this implication of his thought. Finally, although Moore himself held very conventional and highly questionable views about the nature of meaning and of analysis (in this respect he seems notably to have failed as a philosopher's philosopher), he was somehow a profound stimulus to others for whom these questions have become peremptory. And in fact it was in part owing to their efforts to overcome some of the difficulties in which Moore's working opinions about meaning and analysis landed him, both in ethics and in the theory of knowledge, that his successors were gradually led to a revolutionary philosophy of language and to a radically different conception of analysis which would in the end undercut a very large part of Moore's own results. But this story cannot be told until we have said something about the man whom Santayana called the "Francis Bacon" of twentieth-century philosophy, Bertrand Russell.