J. M. McTaggart Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.