J. M. McTaggart Essay - Critical Essays

McTaggart, J. M.


J. M. McTaggart 1866-1925

(Full name John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart) English philosopher.

McTaggart is known for his unique interpretation of Hegelian idealism, which held that ultimate reality is spiritual, consisting only of individual minds and not including time, space, and material objects, (none of which he believed had any place in reality). McTaggart's theories, particularly that of the unreality of time, continue to intrigue contemporary philosophers.

Biographical Information

McTaggart was born in London in 1866 to Francis and Caroline Ellis. His father later changed the family name to McTaggart to satisfy a requirement for an inheritance. McTaggart attended Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating with honors in 1888. On a trip to New Zealand in 1892 to visit his widowed mother, he met Margaret Elizabeth Bird, whom he married in 1899. The couple moved back to Cambridge, where McTaggart taught until his retirement in 1923. He died suddenly in 1925.

Major Works

McTaggart's first published work was Studies in the Hegelian Dialectic (1896), which focused on Hegel's methodology in developing his notion of idealism. He next published Studies in Hegelian Cosmology (1901), a collection of essays that covered such topics as the nature of sin, the moral criterion, and Christianity; it is in this volume McTaggart began to develop his own theory of the spiritual community being the essence of ultimate reality. In Some Dogmas of Religion (1906) McTaggart explained several metaphysical belief systems significant to Christianity and then questioned the existence of an omnipotent God, arguing instead for determinism and immortality based on his notion of the ultimate reality. In Commentary on Hegel's Logic (1910) McTaggart further expounded on Hegel's ideas, this time concentrating on his system of logic. The two-volume Nature of Existence (1921-1927) is McTaggart's magnum opus, containing his entire treatise on metaphysics as well as some of his most important theories, particularly his notion of the unreality of time, which depends on the categorization of temporal events into A-series (past-present-future) and B-series (earlier-later). McTaggart argued that change is essential to time, but it is impossible for B-series characteristics to change an event because they are either earlier or later than another event. Events in the A-series must possess all of the characteristics of being past, present, and future at once, which is also impossible. Therefore, time cannot exist in reality. Philosophical Studies (1934) is a posthumously published volume of McTaggart's previously uncollected essays. McTaggart's most important metaphysical notion is that, although there is no God, the self develops toward the absolute, which he termed a “timeless and endless state of love” through a series of incarnations. This emphasis on the individual self, or personhood, and love eventually played an important role in the development of the Cambridge school of Humanism, the Apostles, and later, the Bloomsbury group.

Critical Reception

McTaggart produced philosophical theories that many critics have considered engaging and provocative, even if they have disagreed with them. Two of McTaggart's best-known students at Cambridge, Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore, began as Idealists in the same mode as McTaggart but soon found empiricism more appealing. Others have pointed to flaws of incoherency in McTaggart's A-series; the Cambridge Realists, in particular, censured his notion of the unreality of time. Nonetheless, McTaggart retains a readership, and many critics have praised his originality.

Principal Works

Studies in the Hegelian Dialectic (philosophy) 1896

Studies in Hegelian Cosmology (philosophy) 1901

Some Dogmas of Religion (philosophy) 1906

Commentary on Hegel's Logic (philosophy) 1910

The Nature of Existence 2 vols. (philosophy) 1921-1927

Philosophical Studies [edited by S. V. Keeling] (philosophy) 1934


C. D. Broad (essay date 1921)

SOURCE: A review of The Nature of Existence, in The Hibbert Journal, Vol. XX, No. 1, October, 1921, pp. 172-75.

[In the following review of The Nature of Existence, Broad praises the first volume of the treatise despite reservations about several of McTaggart's conclusions, particularly his tendency to take certain propositions to be self-evident.]

For the last twenty years or so the labours of philosophers have been devoted rather to the investigation of the nature and certainty of alleged scientific knowledge than to the attempt to determine the nature of Reality as a whole by abstract reasoning. This limitation has been mainly the result of bitter experience of the futility of previous attempts at speculative metaphysics. A distrust of elaborate philosophical systems has always characterised England in general, and of late years has been specially characteristic of Cambridge in particular. To all these rules Dr M‘Taggart is probably the most eminent living exception. He has always held that interesting and important facts can be proved of Reality as a whole by processes of deductive reasoning. Until lately he thought that this could be done by a method akin to the Hegelian dialectic. In the last work that he published before the present one [The Nature of Existence] his position was that the dialectic method is logically sound, and that it is applicable to the actual world, but that in the argument used by Hegel there are certain mistakes of detail, although the final result is substantially correct.

In the present work he has departed considerably further from Hegel. He still thinks that the dialectical method of reasoning, when properly understood, is logically sound. He still thinks, so far as I can gather from this volume, which is only the first of two, that Reality is of much the same nature as Hegel, on M‘Taggart's interpretation of the Absolute Idea, asserted it to be. But he no longer thinks that Reality is such that the dialectical method applies to it. His present argument is a perfectly straight-forward deductive one. At various stages new premises are introduced, but these are supposed either to be a priori self-evident propositions, or to be empirical propositions which everyone will in fact grant. There are only two of the latter used in this book, viz. (i.) that something exists, and (ii.) what exists has parts. Even the latter can be dispensed with if a certain important proposition, which M‘Taggart introduces later on, and which he holds to be self-evident, be granted. And, unless it be granted, the most exciting things in the book cannot be proved.

I think it must be admitted that no general objection can be taken to such a method, however sceptical we may personally feel as to whether anything really important can be proved about Reality as a whole in this way. Each transition must, of course, be scrutinised to see if it is logically sound; but this is equally necessary with any deductive argument on any subject. It may be said at once that M‘Taggart is most unlikely to be caught in a purely logical fallacy. The other place where careful scrutiny is needed is at the introduction of each new premise. There are two great dangers about propositions that are alleged to be self-evident. One is that they may prove to be merely verbal. Another is that you may accept them simply because you can see no alternative; and your failure to see an alternative may arise, either through lack of the necessary experience or imagination, or through an unconscious desire not to see it.

M‘Taggart is fully awake to the second danger. This first volume is mainly a general discussion of categories, but in the next its results are to be applied to concrete problems, like human survival. M‘Taggart sees quite clearly that here one is liable to be biassed by one's wishes, and that, in any case, the fact that we can think of only one sort of thing that fulfils the conditions laid down for existents in general does not prove conclusively that Reality can only consist of existents of that kind.

The first danger, I think, hardly gets the attention that it deserves. It seems to me that in a long chain of reasoning a word is liable to have one meaning in the self-evident premise in which it is first introduced, and another in some of the remote consequences that are deduced from this premise. Probably, if you give it this second meaning, the premise will no...

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W. R. Matthews (essay date 1925)

SOURCE: “Three Philosophers on Religion,” in The Church Quarterly Review, Vol. 100, No. CXCIX, April, 1925, pp. 122-38.

[In the following essay, Matthews includes three works by McTaggart in a discussion on religion and philosophy.]

An ancient Indian legend describes the creation of woman. It is said that Brahma, thinking it not good for man to be alone, created woman. After a time, however, the man came to Brahma with the request that the woman might be removed as she appeared to be incurably loquacious. The petition was granted by the complacent deity; but it was not long before the man returned with the prayer that the woman might be restored to him, saying...

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R. M. Blake (essay date 1928)

SOURCE: “On McTaggart's Criticism of Propositions,” in Mind, Vol. XXXVI, No. 148, October, 1928, pp. 439-53.

[In the following essay, Blake presents several arguments against McTaggart's theories on propositions.]

The second chapter of The Nature of Existence contains an elaborate argument against the reality of something which McTaggart calls “propositions”. In what follows I wish first to point out that despite his polemic McTaggart does explicitly admit that there are propositions, in a certain sense of the term; but that he nevertheless betrays a very strong reluctance to state his theory of truth and falsity in terms of this admission—a reluctance...

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D. W. Gotshalk (essay date 1930)

SOURCE: “McTaggart on Time,” in Mind, Vol. XXXIX, No. 153, January, 1930, pp. 26-42.

[In the following essay, Gotshalk attempts to refute McTaggart's notion against the reality of time as presented in his The Nature of Existence.]

The topic of this article is McTaggart's argument against the reality of time. This important argument, first stated in this journal in 1908, and re-stated two years ago in The Nature of Existence,1 remains, so far as I know, unrefuted. And it is considered by many to be irrefutable. The aim of this article is to examine McTaggart's argument and to sketch out, as I think I can, a refutation.


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Hilda D. Oakeley (essay date 1930)

SOURCE: “Time and the Self in McTaggart's System,” in Mind, Vol. XXXIX, No. 154, April, 1930, pp. 175-93.

[In the following essay, Oakeley questions McTaggart's proposition in the second volume of The Nature of Existence that the self can exist in reality simultaneously with the unreality of time.]

It is proposed in this article to examine the problem which confronts us throughout the second volume of The Nature of Existence. Is it possible consistently to combine a doctrine of the reality of selves with rejection of the reality of time? It might be supposed that the history of philosophy had shown that these two positions can be consistently held...

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C. D. Broad (essay date 1935)

SOURCE: A review of Philosophical Studies, in Mind, Vol. XLIV, No. 175, July, 1935, pp. 531-32.

[In the following review, Broad praises the previously uncollected essays in the posthumously published Philosophical Studies.]

Dr. Keeling has collected eleven papers of McTaggart's, which were either unpublished or scattered in back-numbers of Mind and other periodicals. He has prefaced them with an introduction and has provided them with notes referring the reader to relevant passages in McTaggart's published books.

The essays [in Philosophical Studies] cover a period of thirty years, from 1893, when McTaggart was twenty-seven years old, to...

(The entire section is 593 words.)

Robert Leet Patterson (essay date 1950)

SOURCE: “McTaggart's Conception of the Beatific Vision,” in The Review of Religion, Vol. XV, Nos. 1-2, November, 1950, pp. 29-46.

[In the following essay, Patterson examines McTaggart's opinions regarding the notion of “man's last end,” attempting to reconcile McTaggart's Hegelian cosmology with Christian orthodoxy.]

In the concluding paragraphs of the chapter on Hegelianism and Christianity in his Studies in Hegelian Cosmology, McTaggart makes the following pregnant observation:

Christian apologists have not infrequently met the attacks of their opponents with Hegelian arguments. And as long as there are external...

(The entire section is 7486 words.)

Richard M. Gale (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: “McTaggart's Analysis of Time,” in American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 2, April, 1966, pp. 145-52.

[In the following essay, Gale discusses McTaggart's theory of the unreality of time and examines the philosophical refutations of the theory, which fall into two separate and competing analyses.]

McTaggart's famed argument for the unreality of time, first presented by him in 1908 in Mind, comprises both a positive and a negative thesis. The positive thesis, which is presented in the first part of the argument, contains an analysis of the concept of time, which McTaggart claims to be the only correct one. The negative thesis which is presented...

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E. J. Lowe (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “The Indexical Fallacy in McTaggart's Proof of the Unreality of Time,” in Mind, Vol. 96, No. 381, January, 1987, pp. 62-70.

[In the following essay, Lowe argues against McTaggart's theory in which he purports that time cannot be real because of contradictions in “A-series expressions.”]

Events, as McTaggart pointed out, may not only be described as being earlier and later than one another (and as such constituting the ‘B series’) but also as being past, present and future (and as such constituting the ‘A series’).1 B-series sentences do not alter in truth value with time: if ‘e1 is...

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Further Reading


Broad, C. D. A review of The Nature of Existence. Mind, No. 119 (July 1921): 317- 32.

Extensive review of the first volume of The Nature of Existence, which describes McTaggart's methodology in detail and praises the book highly.

———. Examination of McTaggart's Philosophy. 2 vols. New York: Cambridge at the University Press, 1933 and 1938, 460 p. and 796 p.

Comprehensive exposition and criticism of The Nature of Existence.

Farmer, David J. Being in Time: The Nature of Time in Light of McTaggart's Paradox. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1990, 221...

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