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...
(The entire section is 1859 words.)