Tuesday, 8 December 2009

G. E. Moore and Commonsense



The noted Cambridge academic philosopher George Edward Moore (1873-1958) is strongly associated with the advocacy of "realist" commonsense. Together with his acquaintance Bertrand Russell, he became recognised as an originator of the analytical philosophy that took strong root in Britain. There was a difference in the outreach of those two entities, in that Russell became an international figure, whereas the influence of Moore was largely confined to Britain.

Both Moore and Russell started their academic career at Cambridge as neo-Hegelians. These inhabitants of Trinity College were inheritors of the nineteenth century overspill from German idealism, in the format found in British philosophy by the end of that century. Moore went to study at Trinity in 1892, adding philosophy to classics. There he met Russell and J.M.E. McTaggart (1866-1925), the latter a critical Hegelian and a lecturer at Trinity. Moore subsequently broke away from the influence of McTaggart (who eventually reaped a strong degree of oblivion for many years). This development prompted Russell’s similar revolt against the idealism of McTaggart. Yet unlike Russell, Moore nurtured a continuing aversion for empiricism, a trait which he acquired from the neo-Hegelians.

In his dissertation of 1898, Moore turned against Kantian idealism, confirming his new angle in realism. He became a Fellow of Trinity, and eventually a lecturer. His intellectual development is not straightforward, and has been subject to some generalisations. It was really only his friend Russell who identified fully with the empiricist tradition stemming from Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. However, Moore did share in the “realist” reliance on sense data, which now became the operative mode of analysis, disdaining metaphysical elements, and even the rationalist version of analysis which stressed the use of reason above unreliable sensory experiences.

While Russell moved into the rather cerebral world of mathematical logic, Moore established an analytical approach to ethical problems in Principia Ethica (1903), which transpired to be his most famous work. He has been credited with a “Platonistic” view of good as an objective but indefinable property. In this work he argued that ethical disputes cannot be resolved by criteria of the natural or social sciences, and that ethical values should be acknowledged in their own right.

From 1925 to 1939, Moore was Professor of Philosophy and Logic at Cambridge. By that time he had developed his “commonsense” realist position, first explicitly expressed in lectures of 1910-11, where he remarked that “what is most amazing and most interesting about the views of many philosophers, is the way in which they go beyond or positively contradict the views of Common Sense.” (Moore, Some Main Problems of Philosophy, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1953, p. 2.)

This attitude of preference for commonsense was consolidated in his subsequent paper A Defence of Commonsense (1925). He was not a systematic philosopher, and “Moore’s legacy is primarily a collection of arguments, puzzles and challenges.” That quote comes from Tom Baldwin, “George Edward Moore” (2004), Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.


Moore was a friend of Wittgenstein, though possessing a different temperament. They were not always in agreement. In other directions, Moore rejected the logical positivism that gained strong ground at Oxford in such entities as Alfred Ayer.

“Although Moore always denied that philosophy is just analysis, there is no denying that it [analysis] plays a central role in his philosophy” (Baldwin, art.cit.). See further P.A. Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of G. E. Moore (1942); T. Baldwin, G. E. Moore (London, 1990); Baldwin, ed., G.E. Moore: Selected Writings (London, 1993).

Moore felt that the commonsense boundaries of experience were sufficient to explain existence. He exercised a strong influence on the Oxford academic philosophers, firstly the logical positivist wave, and afterwards the linguistic analysts like J. L. Austin.

Accusations have been made that philosophy became “talk about talk,” a phrase associated with the analysis of concepts and speech. That disposition has frequently been critical of anything idealist or rationalist, or even scientific. Moore was content to analyse statements in ordinary language, without relying on science or any form of technical logic. This commonsense outlook was favoured by the Oxford philosopher J. L. Austin, who furthered the resistant attitude to logical positivism (and criteria of scientific standards dominating speech). The new trend viewed “philosophical problems” as confusions caused by the inappropriate use of language; the unravelling of the confusion via linguistic analysis was now believed by Austin and others to dissolve the problems.

The mergence of commonsense and linguistic analysis has been criticised in other directions as not being any path to deliverance from problems. The nature of commonsense analysis has come under attack for being a simplistic mode, not the ultimate recourse. For instance, “modern science has shown that behind our moment-to-moment experience of the everyday world teem truths and realities that commonsense is totally unaware of, that are frequently astounding and often counter-intuitive, and sometimes deeply difficult to grasp even when we know them to be true” (Bryan Magee, Confessions of a Philosopher, London: Phoenix, 1998, p. 52).

The attack on commonsense advocacy in British philosophy alighted upon Bertrand Russell’s denial of commonsense in his well known book The Problems of Philosophy (1912). Russell here emphatically stated that “commonsense leaves us completely in the dark as to the true intrinsic nature of physical objects.”

Professor Bryan Magee adds in supplement: “The greatest tragedy of academic philosophy in the twentieth century in the English-speaking world is that it was developed as a profession largely by people to whom these things were not obvious, people who did not themselves have philosophical problems and who – perhaps for that reason – operated with a commonsense view of the world, and equated philosophical activity with conceptual analysis” (Magee, op. cit., p. 53).

A further observation is that the alternatives in philosophy seemed to be contradicted by religious elements, the absolute idealism of Hegel, and the oracular writings of Nietzsche (ibid.). Therefore everything else was eschewed as inferior or confusing.

The analysis of conceptual analysis thus leaves rather large areas of questioning in matters that should not be taken for granted. For instance, the Magee formulation prompts a query as to the identity of the people who do experience “philosophical problems.” Perhaps Magee is one of them, though that contingent may include more obscure persons possessing a valid angle on the resolution of problems.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
December 8th 2009

ENTRY no. 4

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