McTaggart, John McTaggart Ellis (1866–1925)

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John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart, a British metaphysician, was born in London, the son of Francis and Caroline Ellis. (His father later took the name McTaggart to fulfill a condition for inheriting a bequest.) He attended school at Clifton and went on to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he took first-class honors in the moral science tripos in 1888. He was made a fellow of Trinity in 1891. The next year he paid a visit to New Zealand, where his widowed mother lived, and there he met Margaret Elizabeth Bird, whom he married in 1899, during a second visit to New Zealand. Thereafter he resided at Cambridge. Active in the affairs of his college and the university, he was a busy and successful teacher from 1897 until he retired in 1923. He died suddenly in January 1925.

McTaggart's philosophy is a peculiar and quite personal variety of Hegelian idealism. Ultimate reality, he held, is spiritual: It consists entirely of individual minds and their contents. He understood this in a way that excludes space, time, and material objects from reality. What appear to us as being these things are really minds and parts of the contents of minds, but we "misperceive" these entities in a systematic way, and this misperception is the source of the whole apparent universe. Despite the unreality of time, McTaggart argued, there is an important sense in which it is true to say that individual persons are immortal, and that they are reincarnated in a succession of (apparent) bodies. He also held that in reality persons stand in relations either of direct perception, and consequently love, or of indirect perception, and consequently affection, to one another. Love is, indeed, the basically real emotional state. There is, however, no God in this heavenly city, for McTaggart did not think there is any reason to believe that there is or even can be an overarching mind that includes individual minds like ours but is still in some sense an individual mind itself. McTaggart was, in addition, a determinist, though he held that determinism is not incompatible with the existence of valid judgments of moral obligation.

On these basic points McTaggart never changed his mind. He argued in support of them both in his early writings on G. W. F. Hegel and in his great systematic work, The Nature of Existence. The main difference between his earlier and his later work is that in the former the arguments are dialectical in a Hegelian manner, whereas in the latter they are more straightforwardly deductive.

Writings on Hegel

McTaggart's commentaries on Hegel are all more or less critical of Hegel, and none is entirely reliable as pure exegesis. Two deal primarily with Hegelian methodology. The essays on the dialectic defend Hegel's method against what McTaggart took to be common misunderstandings and criticisms and offer an account of the way in which the Absolute Idea works to move thought from stage to stage. The Commentary on Hegel's Logic is a detailed and very careful examination of the validity of each step in the logical development of the categories. McTaggart frequently found Hegel to be mistaken or confused about his transitions and in some cases offered alternative modes of development.

The essays on cosmology are among McTaggart's most interesting work. He here discussed, more fully than anywhere else, a number of concrete topicssuch as the moral criterion, sin, the organic nature of society, and the relations between Christianity and Hegelianismin the light of his metaphysical position. He brought out his differences, not only with Hegel, but with many of the British Hegelians as well. And in the concluding chapter he presented with great clarity and power what is essentially his mature view of the relations between selves in ultimate reality.

Some Dogmas of Religion

In Some Dogmas of Religion McTaggart examined, in a careful but nontechnical manner, a number of dogmas that are especially relevant to Christianity. (By dogma he meant "proposition having metaphysical significance.") He argued that dogmas of some sort are essential to any religion and that we must have reasoned proof of a dogma before we can be justified in believing in it. Then, without claiming to give conclusive arguments (for these would involve a whole metaphysical system) he argued in favor of immortality, preexistence, and determinism, criticized the belief in a personal and omnipotent God, and attacked some of the arguments that have been alleged to support this belief. Finally, he tried to show that there is much less connection than is frequently held to be between the truth of theism and improved chances for personal happiness.

Nature of Existence

McTaggart's metaphysical system is presented in two parts. In the first, contained in Volume I of The Nature of Existence, he gave an extended argument to show that whatever exists must be of a certain nature and must, therefore, satisfy a certain requirement, to be explained below. In the second part, occupying Volume II, he examined various types of entities that our present experience shows us as existing to determine whether these entities can satisfy the requirement; he attempted to account for the apparent existence of those entities that do not really exist; and he evaluated the practical importance of the results he had thus reached.

The argument of Volume I is almost entirely a priori. McTaggart appealed to experience for only two propositions: that something exists, and that what exists has parts. His argument proceeds through the following stages: First, McTaggart offered a proof of the principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles. Second, he argued that every substance must have a "sufficient description," that is, a description that uniquely identifies the substance and contains no reference to substances that are only identified (as by pointing or by the use of purely referring expressions), not described.

He next moved to the assertion that every substance, without exception, must be divisible into parts that are themselves substances, and hence into parts within parts to infinity. The crucial argument is then presented. The principle that every substance must have a sufficient description together with the principle that every substance is infinitely divisible into further substances would entail a contradiction unless the substances in question were such that from the nature of any existing substance there follow sufficient descriptions of all of its parts within parts to infinity. This can occur, McTaggart showed, if the substance stands in a certain extremely complex relation to its parts, which he called the relation of "Determining Correspondence"; it can occur, he held, in no other way. Hence, whatever existsand we know that something does existmust satisfy the conditions necessary for it to stand in Determining Correspondence relations to its parts.

In Volume II McTaggart denied the existence of material objects, space, judgments, inferences, sense data, and certain other mental contents, on the ground that entities of these types cannot satisfy the conditions required for them to stand in Determining Correspondence relations. His denial of the existence of time, however, rests on a quite different argument. This argument is McTaggart's most widely discussed contribution to philosophy. Briefly, it is as follows: Temporal positions and events may be ordered either as earlier-later or as past-present-future. Ordered the first way, they form what McTaggart called a B -series; ordered the second way they form an A -series. In the first stage of the argument McTaggart tried to show that the A -series characteristics "past," "present," and "future" are essential to the existence of time. He assumed it to be admitted that change is essential to time, and he argued that unless the A -series characteristics can change, nothing can change. The B -series characteristics cannot change, for if an event is ever earlier than another, it is always earlier; and neither can the other characteristics of events change, for if it is ever true that an event is, for instance, the death of a queen, then it is always true that this event is the death of a queen. Hence, without the A -series there cannot be time, and in the second stage of the argument McTaggart tried to show that a vicious infinite regress is involved in affirming the existence of a series ordered by A -series characteristics. Each member of such a series must have all the A -series characteristics, he said, but those characteristics are incompatible. If we try to remove the contradiction by saying that each member possesses all the characteristics at different times, we are presupposing the existence of different moments of time at which the A -series characteristics are possessed. But each of these moments, to be temporal, must itself possess all of the A -series characteristics, which, again, is impossible; the attempt to relieve this contradiction by appeal to yet another set of moments only gives rise to another set of contradictions, and so on.

McTaggart's complicated and difficult account of the relations between appearance and reality centers on the concept of a C -series, analogous to the B -series in having its members related by an asymmetrical and transitive relation, but timeless. The model for the C -series relationship is the concept of "inclusion," and the terms that are included in and inclusive of each other are perceptions, that is, parts of spirits. McTaggart argued that reality must be structured so as to form a set of related inclusion series that, however, are misperceived as temporal series. He drew the further conclusion that time had a first moment and will have a last moment.

McTaggart went on to discuss the question of the value of the universe, both in its prefinal stages and at the stage when the appearance of time has ceased. Taking both "good" and "evil" to stand for simple, unanalyzable characteristics, and arguing that only what is spiritual can have value, he found that in the prefinal stages the relative proportions of good and evil will fluctuate considerably, though we can be confident that on the whole the proportion of good will steadily increase. In the final stage we will exist in a "timeless and endless state of love" far more profound and powerful than anything we now have any inkling of. We shall, McTaggart said, "know nothing but our beloved, those they love, and ourselves as loving them," and this will be our ultimate and unshakable satisfaction. If McTaggart's metaphysics thus concludes with a vision that he himself was not unwilling to call mystical, it is at least a vision that springs from one of the most brilliantly conceived and carefully executed attempts any philosopher has ever produced to grasp the nature of reality in purely rational terms.

See also Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Time.


works by mctaggart

Studies in the Hegelian Dialectic. London: Cambridge University Press, 1896; 2nd ed., Cambridge, 1922.

Studies in Hegelian Cosmology. London: Cambridge University Press, 1901; 2nd ed., Cambridge, 1918.

Some Dogmas of Religion. London: Arnold, 1906; 2nd ed., London, 1930.

A Commentary on Hegel's Logic. London: Cambridge University Press, 1910.

The Nature of Existence. 2 vols. Vol. I, London: Cambridge University Press, 1921; Vol. II, edited by C. D. Broad. London: Cambridge University Press, 1927.

Essays in Philosophical Essays, edited by S. V. Keeling. London: Arnold, 1934.

Human Immortality and Pre-existence. New York: Kraus Reprint, 1970.

Philosophical Studies, edited by S. V. Keeling. South Bend, IN: St Augustine's Press, 2000.

works on mctaggart

C. D. Broad delivered an obituary address to the British Academy that contains an admirable summary of McTaggart's work. It was published in the society's Proceedings for 1927 and reprinted in the second edition of Some Dogmas of Religion, as well as in Broad's Ethics and the History of Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1952). John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart, by G. Lowes Dickinson (London: Cambridge University Press, 1931), contains more information about McTaggart's life, in addition to interesting reminiscences and a chapter by S. V. Keeling on McTaggart's metaphysics. The standard commentary is C. D. Broad's exhaustive Examination of McTaggart's Philosophy (Vol. I, London: Cambridge University Press, 1933; Vol. II, in two parts, London: Cambridge University Press, 1938). This work is discussed at length by R. L. Patterson in The Philosophy of C. D. Broad (New York: Tudor, 1959). (For discussion of McTaggart on time, see the bibliography for the Time entry.)

other recommended works

Airaksinen, Timo. The Ontological Criteria of Reality: A Study of Bradley and McTaggart. Turku, Finland: Turun Yliopisto, 1975.

Cesarz, Gary L. Substance and Relations in McTaggart's Philosophy: A Re-examination of His Basic Principles. PhD diss., University of New Mexico, 1988.

Farmer, David John. Being in Time: The Nature of Time in Light of McTaggart's Paradox. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1990.

Gale, Richard M. The Language of Time. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul; New York, Humanities Press, 1968.

Geach, P. T. Truth, Love, and Immortality: An Introduction to McTaggart's Philosophy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.

Mellor, D. H. Real time. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Rochelle, Gerald. Behind Time: The Incoherence of Time and McTaggart's Atemporal Replacement. Aldershot, Hants, U.K.; Brookfield, VT: Ashgate, 1998.

Rochelle, Gerald. The Life and Philosophy of J. McT. E. McTaggart, 18661925. Lewiston, NY: E. Mellen, 1991.

Schulz, James Allen. McTaggart's Theory of Substance. PhD diss., Northwestern University, 1974.

J. B. Schneewind (1967)

Bibliography updated by Michael J. Farmer (2005)

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McTaggart, John McTaggart Ellis (1866–1925)

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