G. E. Moore

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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...

(This entire section contains 2744 words.)

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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 general. The notes from these lectures served as the basis for the elaboration of Moore’s own ideas about ethics, which he developed slowly and painstakingly over the six years of his fellowship and which were finally published in 1903 as Principia Ethica.

The importance of this work was immediately recognized by both philosophers and educated laymen. Biographer and critic (and fellow Apostle) Lytton Strachey hailed it as “the beginning of the Age of Reason,” and Russell called it a “triumph of lucidity.”

Again, turning against a long philosophical tradition, Moore argued that “good” is a simple and unanalyzable, nonnatural quality (a natural quality would be something such as a color or an emotion). Those who tried to say that good is identical with pleasure or with what one desires or approves of—or anything else in the world—were committing what Moore called “the naturalistic fallacy.” Thus, one of the tasks of ethics is to determine the most important “goods” for man. Moore maintained that “personal affection and aesthetic enjoyments include all the greatest, and by far the greatest goods with which we are acquainted.” Moral and ethical rules, as well as obligations and duties, are to be judged by whether they promote the greatest amount of good in the universe, a view called “Ideal Utilitarianism.” The views expressed in Principia Ethica influenced an entire generation of writers, artists, and intellectuals through their impact on the Bloomsbury Group, a literary coterie whose membership overlapped with that of the Apostles and included Strachey, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, E. M. Forster, Roger Fry, and Clive Bell.

The year 1903 also marked the publication of “The Refutation of Idealism,” a paper in which Moore’s opposition to Idealism reached its most confident formulation. He attacked what he considered to be the cornerstone of all Idealist systems, succinctly formulated by Bishop George Berkeley in the Latin phrase, “esse est percipi” (to be is to be perceived), from which it was concluded that all reality was inescapably mental. Moore argued that this formula failed to distinguish the act of awareness in perception and the object of awareness. Once this distinction is recognized, the problem of the continued existence of unobserved objects disappears. Moore later lost confidence in this argument, and he continued throughout the rest of his life to struggle with the problem of the relationship between perception and reality. He later confessed that he thought himself better at the precise formulation of philosophical questions than at answering them, and his work after 1903 became increasingly fragmented and inconclusive. With the publication of these works, Moore was at the height of his powers, his reputation established. Slender and handsome, he had achieved acceptance, even leadership, in one of the foremost intellectual debating societies in England.

Despite his achievements, however, when Moore’s fellowship came to an end in 1904, he was unable to obtain a research fellowship to continue at Cambridge. He had, however, recently inherited enough money on which to live comfortably. He did not stay at Cambridge, though he could have. Instead, Moore moved to Edinburgh, where he lived with his friend Alfred Ainsworth. For six years, at Edinburgh, and later at London, he continued to work at philosophy, studying Russell’s The Principles of Mathematics (1903) and writing reviews. During the period from 1903 to 1904, Moore and Russell had had frequent discussions on philosophy, and Russell in his introduction to that work credited Moore with a breakthrough that had cleared up many difficulties which had seemed insoluble. During that period away from Cambridge, Moore also wrote a small book titled Ethics (1912), which he personally preferred to Principia Ethica, primarily because he believed that it was clearer and had fewer invalid arguments.

In 1911, largely because of the lobbying of John Maynard Keynes, Moore was offered a lectureship at Cambridge, which he accepted gladly. He remained at Cambridge for the next twenty-eight years. He first lectured in psychology, partly because there were no positions in philosophy proper available, but also because psychology was then still closely connected with philosophy, having only recently emerged as a separate discipline, and Moore was well qualified to teach all but its experimental aspects. Later, as a result of retirements and gracious adjustments by other faculty members, Moore was able to replace psychology with metaphysics and a course called “Elements of Philosophy.” Moore was a popular lecturer who made a point of leaving time for open discussion. When he lectured, he felt compelled to think his subject through over again rather than rely on his lecture notes from the previous year. He believed this gave his lectures more life because the lecture then centered on problems that currently interested him.

It was while he was lecturing on psychology that Moore met Ludwig Wittgenstein, the famous Austrian philosopher. Wittgenstein told Moore bluntly that his lectures were very bad because Moore did not express his own views. Like his relationship with Russell, Moore’s relationship with Wittgenstein was a peculiar mixture of professional admiration and conflict. They experienced periods of frequent and fruitful discussions. Unfortunately, they also had a series of petty quarrels followed by long periods during which they would not even speak to each other. Despite their difficulties, however, Moore maintained that both Russell and Wittgenstein were more profound thinkers and had made more important contributions to philosophy than he. The people who knew Moore remarked on his total lack of professional vanity and on a kind of innocence or childlikeness in his personality. Wittgenstein, in a letter to Norman Malcolm, admitted this about Moore, but then went on to eviscerate the compliment by adding

As to its being to his ‘credit’ to be childlike—I can’t understand that: unless it’s also to a child’s credit. For you aren’t talking of the innocence a man has fought for, but of an innocence which comes from a natural absence of a temptation. . . .

In 1916, at the age of forty-three, Moore was married to Dorothy M. Ely, a woman who had attended his lectures that year. They had two sons, Nicholas, who became a well-known poet, and Timothy. Moore continued to work in philosophy throughout his life, though he never again produced a full-length work such as Principia Ethica. His many papers were published in a series of anthologies under the titles Philosophical Studies (1922), Some Main Problems of Philosophy (1953), and the posthumously published Philosophical Papers (1959) and Commonplace Book, 1919-1953 (1962). In these works Moore continued to support common sense over the extravagantly metaphysical view of the world and insisted that the solution to philosophical problems required proper framing of the question and careful analysis of the meaning of the words and concepts involved.

From 1921 to 1947, he was the editor of the philosophical journal Mind, in which his own essay “The Nature of Judgment” had appeared. During his life, he received numerous honors, including the Litt.D. from Cambridge (1913), the honorary degree of LL.D. from the University of St. Andrews (1918), election as a Fellow of the British Academy (1918), and appointment to the Order of Merit (1951).

In 1939, Moore reached the mandatory retirement age for professors at Cambridge. He continued, however, to lecture and hold discussions with students at Oxford and later at universities in the United States. Until the end of his life, he continued writing and revising his earlier work. Moore died in Cambridge in 1958, shortly before his eighty-fifth birthday.

Summary

G. E. Moore was not a man of action in the conventional sense. His life was without significant outward conflict or change. He never suffered from financial worries or came up against serious obstacles to his goals, and he spent the major portion of his life doing exactly what he wanted to do, working in philosophy at Cambridge.

He has been called a “philosopher’s philosopher,” a characterization that is accurate both with respect to the esteem in which he is held by other philosophers and with respect to the difficulty that his writings present to the lay reader, based as they often are on the minute and critical examination of the positions of other philosophers. Yet Moore’s writings account for only a part of his influence. His impact on his many students and contemporaries, his personal force in conversation both in and out of the classroom, and his pure and intense pursuit of the truth have caused him to be compared to Socrates. Moore’s commitment to clear thinking affected not only the narrow technical confines of academia but also, through their influence on members of the Apostles and the Bloomsbury Group, such diverse fields as economics, politics, literature, and art criticism.

Bibliography

Levy, Paul. Moore: G. E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1980. A detailed account of Moore’s life and connection with the Apostles through World War I. An excellent reference based on primary sources.

Moore, G. E. Ethics. London: Williams and Norgate, 1912. Moore’s own choice as the best presentation of his ethical views.

Moore, G. E. Philosophical Studies. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1922. A selection of Moore’s papers written between 1903 and 1920, including “The Refutation of Idealism.”

Moore, G. E. Principia Ethica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903. Probably Moore’s most influential work. The last chapter should be of particular interest to those interested in Moore’s influence in art and literary circles.

Nelson, John. “George Edward Moore.” In The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Paul Edwards. Vols. 5-6. New York: Macmillan, 1967. A helpful starting point before attempting to read Moore’s actual writings, which can be quite daunting.

Schlipp, Paul Arthur, ed. The Philosophy of G. E. Moore. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1942. Reprint. New York: Tudor Publishing Co., 1952. A book of critical essays on Moore to which Moore himself contributes a reply. Especially notable because it contains Moore’s only autobiography.

Urmson, J. O. Philosophical Analysis, Its Development Between the Two World Wars. New York: Oxford University Press, 1956. Provides background in the Analytic philosophy movement to which Moore belonged.