G. E. Moore Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: With his meticulous and uncompromising analytic technique, Moore helped lead the movement away from the dominance of Idealism, establishing Analytic philosophy as a major methodology in modern philosophical thought.

Early Life

George Edward Moore was born November 4, 1873, the fifth of eight children, in Upper Norwood, a suburb of London. His father, Daniel Moore, was a medical doctor; his mother, the former Henrietta Sturge, a member of a prominent Quaker family. The Moore home was situated down the hill from the Crystal Cathedral, that landmark of protomodern architecture and symbol of nineteenth century faith in progress through science, technology, and trade—an optimism characteristic of the nonaristrocratic educated professional class to which Moore belonged and which was by then an important political and intellectual force in England.

The family had moved to Norwood so that Moore and his two older brothers could attend Dulwich College, a highly respected boy’s school. When he was eight years old, Moore entered Dulwich and soon showed an aptitude and preference for the study of classics, excelling in both Greek and Latin. He also studied piano and voice. At that time the study of classics was considered a primary avenue to literacy which, of itself, constituted a complete education for a gentleman, and consequently Moore studied very little mathematics or science. It is, therefore, remarkable that Moore’s later work had the influence that it did on the development of philosophical movements which owed much of their inspiration and subject matter to science and mathematics.

A lonely boy, Moore seems to have been content to spend his time doing the prescribed translating of English verse into Latin and Greek, and, though he was exposed to some Greek philosophy, he showed no inkling of his later passion for philosophy or of his characteristic style of philosophical analysis with its demand for a rigorous accounting of the basis for one’s beliefs.

Indeed, when Moore was twelve years old, he was converted by an evangelical sect which believed that an individual faced with a moral dilemma should ask what Jesus would do in that situation. For a time, the young Moore forced himself to act in a manner consistent with this view, and though it caused him great internal conflict and embarrassment, he stood on the promenade at a seaside resort and handed out pamphlets to passersby, among whom were some of his fellow schoolmates. Before he left Dulwich, however, he had become, and remained for the rest of his life, an agnostic.

In 1892, Moore entered Trinity College, Cambridge, modestly expecting to put the finishing touches on his already thorough classical education, obtain a position at a boys’ school as a master in his own right, and spend a comfortable life preparing other boys for the rigors of translating English verse into Latin and Greek. This was not to be: In his first year as an undergraduate, he was invited by an upperclassman named Bertrand Russell to a discussion given by a man who said that time was unreal.

The man was John McTaggert Ellis, a proponent of the then-fashionable Idealist philosophy of George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel which held that the picture of the world given by science and common sense of a multiplicity of objects which have an existence independent of the mind is false, and that, in fact, nothing has independent reality except the whole, or “Absolute.” Moore considered the idea that time is unreal monstrous and argued strenuously against it, earning the respect of Russell, who later encouraged him to pursue philosophy. McTaggert, too, was impressed enough to recommend Moore for membership in the Apostles, a kind of undergraduate debating society with a long and distinguished history of membership by some of the leading intellectuals in England.

Moore’s debut as an Apostle was said to have been electrifying. Unlike most newly elected members, he spoke without nervousness and with the greatest earnestness and enthusiasm. All were impressed with the passion and purity of his character, a feeling which did not fade—and, if anything, grew to the point where Moore’s friendship with his contemporary Apostles became an important avenue, independent of his published work, for the wide dissemination of his ideas.

Taking Russell’s advice, Moore began a formal study of philosophy at Cambridge, attending lectures given by Henry Sidgwick, James Ward, G. F. Stout, and McTaggert. For a time, Moore himself fell under the spell of Idealism. Yet even then his independence showed itself in his choice of the ethics of Immanuel Kant for his dissertation topic. While Kant was honored by the Idealists, who considered him the starting point for any study of their hero Hegel, Kant was not himself an Idealist. Though he believed that the individual’s experience of the phenomenal world was a construction of the mind and that one could never know the “thing-in-itself,” he rejected the view that reality was therefore mental.

Moore’s dissertation was rejected, and it was only after he had worked another year and added a second part that it was accepted and he was elected to a six-year fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Life’s Work

Moore’s fellowship was unconditional, which meant that for a period of six years he would receive two hundred pounds per year no matter what he did or where he lived. Moore chose to live at Cambridge, where he would receive free room and board, and work at philosophy. He had already reached the turning point in his philosophical thinking in his dissertation. The natural restraints on critical independence of the undergraduate were gone, and he had soon published the second half of his dissertation as a separate paper in the journal Mind under the title “The Nature of Judgment.” The Idealists had held that there are no facts independent of one’s experience of them. Moore argued against this view, holding that the objects of mental acts and perception have an existence wholly independent of a person’s mind; thus, as Russell acknowledged, he took the lead in developing a new direction for philosophy which Russell himself soon followed.

As a new fellow Moore became involved in a number of projects. He contributed to James Mark Baldwin’s Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology (1901-1905), and he joined the Aristotelian Society of London, which, because of its frequent requests for papers, led to the production of many of Moore’s published works. He also undertook to give a series of lectures on Kant’s ethics, and on ethics in...

(The entire section is 2744 words.)