Moore, George Edward (1873–1958)

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George Edward Moore was born into moderately affluent circumstances in Upper Norwood (a suburb of London), the third son of D. Moore, M.D., and Henrietta Sturge Moore. The Sturges were prominent Quaker merchants and philanthropists. On his father's side there had been some tendency toward, and some prominence in, the practice of medicine.

Upon reaching eight, George Edward Moore commenced attendance at Dulwich College, a boarding and day school of excellent reputation located within walking distance of his home. In the ten years of his attendance there he acquired a thorough mastery of the classics. It was also at this time that he underwent a very painful experience. Having been converted around the age of twelve to "ultra-evangelism," he felt it his duty to preach the word of Jesus and to distribute religious tracts. He found these activities extremely repugnant and suffered much inward torment in carrying them out. This experience, which lasted two years or more, may account in some measure for his subsequent coolness to religious enthusiasms of any sort. Before leaving Dulwich College he was persuaded, through discussions with his eldest brother, the poet Thomas Sturge Moore, to adopt the view that was then known as "complete agnosticism." This seems to have been the view that there is no evidence in support of a belief in God's existence and almost as little in support of a belief in his nonexistence. So far as can be determined from his writings, Moore never departed from this view.

In 1892 Moore entered Trinity College, Cambridge, as a student in classics. At the beginning of his third year he changed his major concentration to philosophy and completed the moral science tripos in 1896. On the basis of a dissertation treating Immanuel Kant's ethics he was elected in 1898 a fellow for a term of six years. During the period 18981904 he carried on frequent and consequential discussions with Bertrand Russell, wrote Principia Ethica, presented several papers to the Aristotelian Society (to which he had been elected), and published a number of reviews and articles.

With the termination of his fellowship in 1904, Moore left Cambridge. Because of an inheritance he was still able to pursue his philosophical activities. He wrote articles, papers, and reviews, as well as the small volume Ethics, and gave a series of private lectures at Richmond. In 1911 he was invited to return to Cambridge as university lecturer. He lectured regularly at Cambridge from 1911 to 1925, first on philosophical psychology and later on metaphysics. In 1925 he succeeded James Ward as professor of mental philosophy and logic. His courses appear to have enjoyed a good deal of popularity among the more serious students of philosophy and had an immense influence upon the philosophizing going on in England at the time, as did his publications (notwithstanding that they consisted entirely of articles and papers).

In 1939, having reached the mandatory age of retirement, Moore gave up his professorship at Cambridge, though not his philosophical activities. These, with a few interruptions due to illness, he carried on to almost the very last years of his life, writing articles, editing his previous writings, working on problems, and holding discussions with friends and students. He died at Cambridge at eighty-five, survived by his wife, Dorothy Ely, whom he had married in 1916, and two sons, Nicholas, a poet, and Timothy.

Although Moore's life was extremely active in academic and philosophic spheres, it was almost without incident otherwise. Except for a brief sojourn in Germany in the summer of 1895, a somewhat longer stay in Scotland from around 1904 to 1908, and a couple of years spent during World War II lecturing in the United States, he resided entirely in England, mainly in or near Cambridge. His most noticeable personal trait appears to have been his intense and passionate absorption in philosophy. It is said, for example, that when discussing a question, whether with his professional peers or with a student, he gave himself wholly to the inquiry and viewed its progress with the constant fresh surprise of one considering a matter for the first time. Another trait that has been commented on was his lack of any intellectual pretensions (in spite of a formidable erudition) and an almost childlike naïveté concerning ordinary affairs.

Moore served as editor of the philosophical journal Mind from 1921 to 1947. The major honors that he received during his lifetime were the Litt.D. from Cambridge (1913), the honorary degree of LL.D. from the University of St. Andrews and election as a fellow of the British Academy (1918), and appointment to the Order of Merit (1951).

Formative Period of Moore's Philosophy

Moore's published philosophy falls into two distinct parts, divided by the year 1903. Although the writings published prior to 1903 are few and cover no more than five years, at least three different philosophical positions can be detected in them. In his first publication, a paper titled "In What Sense, if Any, Do Past and Future Time Exist?" (1897), Moore agreed wholly with F. H. Bradley. He argued that time does not exist, and he did so using Bradley's methods and premises, in particular the dogmas of internal relations and concrete universals and the principle that identifies reality with the absence of contradiction. When his conclusions, like the one that time does not exist, proved to outrage common sense, Moore was prepared to say that common sense is simply wrong, and he did so more than once.

One year later, in the essay "Freedom," Moore replaced Bradley with Kant as the philosopher with whom he was "in most agreement." What he agreed with most in Kant was the method of the transcendental exposition and the doctrine of synthetic necessary truths. He did not agree with the critical restrictions of Kant's philosophy or with what he took to be its psychological bias. He contended, for instance, that Kant was wrong in trying to conceive freedom in terms of the will (a psychological concept); freedom is rather to be understood and explained in terms of the idea of Transcendental Freedom, into which temporal relations do not enter. Thus, while accepting much of Kant's system and terminology, Moore continued to speculate in the critically unrestricted manner of the absolute idealists, maintaining that a reality transcending time and the senses is something that can be theoretically known and that must be theoretically known before the major problems of philosophy can be solved.

The next year, 1899, in the article "The Nature of Judgment," Moore adopted a third position. As part of his continuing attack upon psychologism in philosophy (an attack he shared at the time with Russell), he proposed the doctrine, adumbrated in Thomas Reid, that mental acts and their objects are entirely separate existences. Applying this doctrine to Bradley's analysis of judgment, Moore concluded that the entire worldeverything we can either think of or perceive with our sensesconsists in qualitative universals, or what he called "adjectival concepts." These universals compose propositions, material objects, minds, and all other "complex objects." Not only do some universals (for example, red) exist through time, but some propositions also exist through time and are even objects of perception (for instance, the proposition that this book is red). Such universals and propositions are designated "empirical universals and propositions," as opposed to those that do not exist through time, such as the concepts two and attribute, which are called "a priori." This bizarre metaphysics, which might be termed "absolute realism" because according to it universals not only exist but, in fact, comprise everything that does exist, obviously repudiates all the major philosophical tenets to which Moore subscribed in his first essay: the dogmas of the nonreality of time, internal relations, concrete universals, and the transcendent monism that springs from them. Just as obviously it cannot be harmonized with the two-story world of phenomena and noumena that is attributed to Kant or with Kant's critical conclusions. Moore did, however, attempt to show that his realistic principles were compatible with, and even substantiated, Kant's method of transcendental exposition and distinction between a priori and empirical propositions and the doctrine of synthetic necessity. This Moore did by attempting to show that the possibility of a priori and empirical propositions, along with synthetic necessary truths, can be accounted for in terms of the realistic distinction between temporally existing (empirical) universals and nontemporal (a priori) universals and by shaping some of the arguments supporting this demonstration along the lines of a transcendental exposition. On the whole, though, the argumentation of "The Nature of Judgment," as well as of the articles and reviews that immediately followed (18991902), proceeds in the legislative, dogmatic manner of Bradley.

With this unstable amalgam of Bradley, Kant, and absolute realism, the first period of Moore's philosophizing came to a close. Marked by abrupt changes of doctrine, by either derivativeness (as in the first two positions adopted) or bizarreness (as in the third), it is recognizably an effort to find, rather than to express, a philosophy. It is therefore with some justice that these writings have been generally ignored by succeeding generations of philosophers, as they were ignored by Moore himself in his subsequent summations and compilations of his work. On the other hand, a complete understanding of Moore's later philosophy is difficult to arrive at without some familiarity with these earlier works. It will then be understood, for instance, that the charge sometimes leveled against Moore that he criticized the metaphysical theses of philosophers like Bradley piecemeal, without attempting to comprehend them fairly and in their entirety, is groundless. It will be understood, for instance, that in attacking items of Bradley's metaphysics Moore was attacking not only a system of thought with which he was thoroughly conversant but one to which he had himself once been most strongly attracted.

Moore's Philosophy Proper

The system of philosophical thought and method that has come to be associated with Moore's name and that he was alone concerned to defend issued fully formed in the volume Principia Ethica and the essay "The Refutation of Idealism" in 1903. This is not to say that no alterations thenceforth took place in the body of Moore's philosophical doctrines and aims. They did. For example, with the passage of time Moore became increasingly concerned with eliminating from the world various entities, such as propositions, that his principles generate. The theory proposed in "The Refutation of Idealism," that we directly perceive material things, was replaced by a disjunction of theories respecting the relation between sense data and material things. And the note of philosophical optimism that expressed itself in Principia Ethica and "The Refutation of Idealism" in the view that solutions to the problems under discussion have either been completed in their pages or are on the brink of completion finally gave way to a note of philosophical pessimism and puzzlement. But in its main outlines what might be called Moore's philosophy proper was now permanently formed.

As will be seen in subsequent discussion, the tenets of this philosophy are largely based on the principle that sentences such as "I think of X " describe (a ) mental acts and (b ) objects related to but distinct from those acts. From 1903 until the late 1930s Moore almost invariably interpreted this principle realistically, and even after the late 1930s, when he was prepared to admit that the esse of sense data is percipi, this realist tendency continued to make itself felt in his philosophizing, especially with respect to universals. Moore's philosophy proper resembles, therefore, the absolute realism of "The Nature of Judgment." There exists, however, a fundamental metaphysical difference between the two positions. This difference lies in the fact that Moore's absolute realism of 1899 is reductionistic, being the view that everything can be resolved into qualitative universals, whereas the realism he enunciated in 1903 and afterward is, in intention at least, nonreductionistic. Thus, within the compass of things that are, Moore now included both particularsfor example, material thingsand universals, and though he was not perfectly clear about just what a universal or a particular is, he wanted to maintain neither that universals can be resolved into particulars nor that particulars can be resolved into universals. His new view was that each sort of thing is what it is and nothing else (or, in the words of Bishop Butler, quoted on the frontispiece of Principia Ethica, "Everything is what it is, and not another thing").

The most striking and significant difference between Moore's philosophizing prior to 1903 and his philosophy proper lies not, however, in doctrine or even in the mechanics of method (though differences here are pronounced) but in the attitude and style of his philosophizing. These now project the familiar picture of Moore: the picture of a cautious and probing observer, attempting by the patient dissection and scrutiny of minute and hardly distinguishable objects to set straight the confused descriptions by philosophers of what is the case. This posture of Moore's lends to his philosophizing the appearance of a completely empirical inquiry whose conclusions represent only what is found or not found to be the case, as opposed to what is merely thought to be or not to be the case. It is in the solvent of this empiricist posture that Moore's initial philosophical optimism, as one might predict, evaporated into pessimism and puzzlement. For the principle from which it originated, that sentences such as "I perceive X " describe acts of mind and distinct objects, is itself something no amount of observation would seem to confirm or lend substance to.

In the first of the lectures that he delivered in 19101911, some forty years later published under the title Some Main Problems of Philosophy, Moore listed the main topics of philosophy as three. The first and primary aim of philosophy, he said, is to provide a metaphysical inventory of the universe, that is, "a general description of the whole of this universe, mentioning all the most important kinds of things which we know to be in it, considering how far it is likely that there are in it important kinds of things which we do not absolutely know to be in it." The second aim is epistemological: to classify the ways in which we can know things. The third topic of philosophy is ethics.

In "A Reply to My Critics," published in 1942, Moore again divided his philosophical discussion into three parts: ethics, theory of perception, and method. Although this alteration in the classification of topics indicates certain real alterations in Moore's interests and views, it will be convenient to treat his philosophy proper under the five heads mentioned: method, metaphysics, general epistemology, theory of perception, and ethics.


By Moore's "method" will be understood the topics encompassed by the following: (1) The question: What did Moore believe he was doing in philosophizing, that is, what project did he think he was engaged in? (2) The question: How did he attempt to carry out this project? (3) Certain questions that are often raised in specific connection with Moore's method, such as: What is the role of common sense in his method? What is the role of analysis?

Moore's intentions

It has been suggested by some of his commentators that what Moore was trying to do was to analyze ordinary language, to defend common sense, or to recommend ways of speaking. As an answer to the question What was Moore actually doing? it is possible that one or all of these suggestions may be true. But it is clear that none of them describes what Moore believed he was doing.

Moore's conception of what he was doing originated in the following two principles, to which he consistently subscribed: the principle that sentences like "I think that P " and "I perceive X " designate acts of consciousness, on the one hand, and objects related to but distinct from those acts, on the other; and the principle that every object of consciousness is either a simple, in which case it is unanalyzable, or a complex, in which case it always possesses a definable essence in terms of which it is the sort of thing it is and not some other sort of thing. The first principle makes it appear as if there should be discoverable as the objects of consciousness a great many more kinds of entities and properties than persons ordinarily envisage, and these entities and properties should comprise, at least in part, what is objectively in the universe. When applied to these entities, the second principle makes it appear as if every complex object should be unequivocally reducible to simples. But this picture of things raises a question: If the constitution of the universe is both so determinate and so open to consciousness, why is it that there has been so much disagreement and confusion in the attempts of philosophers to describe it? And to this question the most obvious answer seems to be that past errors and confusion in philosophy have arisen either from inattention on the part of philosophers to the objects of their consciousness or from a lack of clarity and preciseness in their statements and questions.

In fact, the two major concerns of Moore through the period 19031911 directly correspond to the above outline of subject matter. Primarily, Moore wished to determine what sorts of entities or properties fall within the province of his particular inquiry, for example, ethics, theory of perception; to classify these entities (where deemed necessary) as simples or complexes; and to analyze the essences of the complexes. Second, and always as a project subordinate to the first, he wished either to direct the reader's attention to the objects of consciousness that pertain to the inquiry at hand or to lay bare the ambiguities and unclarities of the terms customarily used by philosophers in conjunction with the inquiry at hand, and to supply "precising" definitions of the terms that he intended to use.

After the lectures of 19101911 an increasing concern with terminological questions was detectable in Moore's writing. This concern is traceable to an apparently growing conviction on his part (as well as on the part of his contemporaries) that the terminological sources of philosophical error and confusion are much more subtle, deeply rooted, and pervasive than he had originally thought and much more intimately connected with the logical grammar of ordinary language. In the last connection it is worth recalling that certain of Moore's contemporaries eventually decided that the root and cure of all philosophical problems lay in terminological confusion and clarification.

Moore never went so far as to assent to the last conclusion. He did, however, relinquish his earlier view that the primary concern of philosophy is to observe and delineate the entities objectively making up the universe. By 1940, when he composed his "Reply to My Critics," he described himself as engaged, not in the analysis of facts, but in the analysis of concepts. Although he was unclear about what the relation is between concepts, the entities objectively making up the universe, and verbal expressions, he appears to have thought that concepts are not only distinct from and (at least from their side) independent of their verbal expressions but also distinct from the entities objectively making up the universe (for otherwise, in analyzing concepts, he would be resolving philosophical doubts and questions in a way that he agreed that one cannot do and that he was not doing). But just what, then, are concepts according to Moore? In "A Reply to My Critics" he did not say. It is not improbable, however, that Moore had come full circle, back to something like Bradley's psychologically grounded view of concepts, which, ironically, served in "The Nature of Judgment" as the launching platform for Moore's philosophy of realism.

Moore's procedure

In much the same way that Moore's doctrine of mental acts and objects dictated his conception of what he was trying to do, it also dictated his conception of how to accomplish what he was trying to do. It is evident, for instance, that once sentences like "I think that P " and "I perceive X " are interpreted according to that doctrine, it must seem unjustified to argue in the legislative manner of Bradley, which Moore employed in "The Nature of Judgment" and the essays previous to it. If the objects of acts of judging, perceiving, and thinking are entities distinct from, and indeed independent of, those acts, then whatever we can learn about those objects must be by means of synthetic observations, not a priori thought. Moore throughout his philosophy proper adhered to this viewpoint. Where he conceived himself as primarily engaged in reporting, classifying, and analyzing the entities objectively constituting the universe, he assumed that he was basing his reports and analyses on observation. Where, as in "A Reply to My Critics," he conceived himself as engaged rather in analyzing concepts, it is evident that he thought of concepts as comprising some sort of object he was engaged in observing.

As was noted previously, this picture of philosophical inquiry suggests that philosophical questions have determinate and easy solutions that it might be expected all philosophers will agree on. Moore's explanation of this discrepancy between expectation and factthat the disagreements and failures of philosophers stem either from a lack of attention to what is present to their consciousness or from terminological unclaritiessuggests, in turn, that in order to be certain we are observing what we think we are we must make sure both that our attention is directed to the right objects and that we know the precise meanings of the terms we are employing in our thoughts.

It turns out, however, that even with this supplement observation fails to bring about the results that Moore anticipated or that his assumptions might have led him to anticipate. The answers to philosophical questions remain stubbornly shrouded in obscurity and disagreement. Moore was therefore compelled to add to his methods and procedures. In cases where he felt there was no conclusive answer to a question, he resorted to what might be termed the principle of weighted certainties. If, for instance, he felt that proposition A possessed more certainty than proposition B, or if he felt that he knew the truth of A with more certainty than that of B, he would refuse to deny the truth of A on account of some argument based on B. In short, a lesser certainty (according to this principle) cannot rationally overturn a greater certainty per se (though a number of lesser certainties, cohering together, may). Moore also employed, in the same connection, the scholastic method of citing all the plausible arguments that can be advanced for or against a thesis in order to indicate its degree of credibility. And finally, in order to discredit a thesis (usually a thesis of skepticism), he employed either a reductio ad absurdum argument or what might be called a paradigm argument. He pointed out, for example, that the skeptic who maintains that we cannot know there are other persons is already contradicting himself by supposition in referring to the plural, we. Or he argued that if such-and-such is not an instance of knowing, then no one has ever known anything and there cannot be such a thing as knowing.

When these norms for evaluating philosophical conclusions are arranged in order of their indefeasibility, it would seem that where observation unequivocally reveals just what a thesis represents to be the case, according to Moore the thesis is indefeasible. Thus, Moore maintained that when we look at an inkwell we directly perceive a sense datum and that this claim is indefeasible in that observation unequivocally presents us with a sense datum. Where a thesis can be shown to contain an evident contradiction, according to Moore it is conclusively disproved. Thus, one can affirm with certainty that the skeptic who maintains that we cannot know other persons exist is wrong. Where the principle of weighted certainties or the method of citing plausible arguments has to be invoked, Moore would generally grant that answers are not conclusive or indefeasible, although there may be more to be said in favor of one answer than another. In certain cases, however, it would appear that the certainties or feelings of certainty (Moore rarely distinguished between the two) attaching themselves to a thesis are so absolute or overpowering that no denial of the thesis is either psychologically or rationally (in view of the principle of weighted certainties) possible.

Common sense

It is tempting, but wrong, to suppose that because Moore defended common sense, common sense constitutes a court of last appeal in his philosophy. Indeed, the very fact that he described himself as defending common sense indicates that it cannot.

In his works Moore used the term common sense to refer to two different, but related, things. He sometimes meant by it, he said, simply those beliefs that men universally or almost universally subscribe to at some particular epoch. At other times he meant either those beliefs that we are naturally inclined to hold or the propensity that issues in such beliefs.

Although there may exist a very intimate causal connection between these two forms of common sense, they are not one and the same thing. As the "universal" belief of men at a particular epoch, common sense can change, and Moore in fact argued that it can. As a natural tendency to believe something, common sense would not seem susceptible of change. It must be remarked, however, that Moore never explicitly drew the above distinction or attempted to "analyze" the notion of common sense beyond saying that it consists in the universal belief of men at a particular time. In practice, however, he would seem to have maintained that although both forms of common sense possess a certain amount of presumptive credibility, it is essentially as a natural tendency that common sense provides a foundation for philosophical conclusions. It does this in two ways. When we try to deny the latter form of common sense we find it virtually impossible to do so because what we naturally tend to believe keeps slipping into our assertions. We thus find ourselves contradicting ourselves by supposition, like the skeptic who says that we cannot know persons exist. On the other hand, what we naturally tend to believe will have attached to it some degree of certainty. This degree varies, it seems, from an absolute quantity, which makes dissent really impossible, to a quantity that only inhibits dissent. For example, Moore said he was naturally disposed to think that what he always saw directly when viewing a material thing was the surface, or part of the surface, of the material thing, but he finally decided it would be nonsense to maintain that he did.

Moore, then, defended common sense by showing that certain beliefs that we are naturally inclined to hold, and consequently that most men do hold, are supported by the principle of weighted certainties or by showing that the traditional counterclaims of skeptics are self-contradictory. He did not argue conversely that because a certain belief is a belief of common sense it is ipso facto indisputably true or need not be subjected to assessment.


When Moore described himself as "analyzing," he conceived of himself as picking out and naming the essential constituents of complex objects. In his earlier works he viewed himself, when analyzing, as picking out and naming the essential constituents of various objective entities and facts; in his later works, as picking out and naming essential constituents of various complex concepts. In his reply to C. H. Langford in "A Reply to My Critics," he explicitly denied that he ever engaged in the analysis of verbal expressions.

This last denial may not be disingenuous, but it is misleading. Moore maintained that the only proper meaning of the term analyzing verbal expressions is merely counting the letters in a sentence, noting the order of the letters, and so on. If this is true, then obviously Moore never engaged in analyzing verbal expressions, and just as obviously his denial that he did is trivial.

It may therefore be more significant to ask whether Moore engaged in linguistic analysis, where "linguistic analysis" is used as a technical term designating the following practices or inquiries: the determination of the meaning of a word or expression (not excepting the determination of its dictionary meaning); the determination of the various senses of a word or expression; the determination of the ordinary use of a word or expression; and the determination of discrepancies between the philosophical and ordinary uses of a word or expression. In all these senses of the technical term linguistic analysis, Moore, it is clear, engaged frequently in linguistic analysis. However, as was pointed out previously, he engaged in linguistic analysis never as an end in itself but always as an inquiry subordinate to the ascertainment of facts or the determination of the essential constituents of things or concepts.


By the term metaphysical Moore sometimes meant to refer to nonnatural objects or qualities, that is, objects or qualities that are constituents of the universe but not of temporal events (or nature); sometimes he meant to refer to the sort of philosophical inquiry that concerns itself with the overall constitution of the universe. It is in the latter sense that the term metaphysics is being used here.

Although not without expressing some doubts on the matter, Moore inclined to the view that the things to be found in the universe are broadly of two sorts: those things that exist and those that simply are but do not exist. A third class of things consists of those that neither exist nor are; they simply are not. As Moore conceived of these categories, the main ontological division is between the things that are and those that are not. For the former, whether they exist or simply are, comprise the objective constituents of the universe and have equal claim to philosophical investigation. The latter are merely "chimeras" or "imaginary objects."

Moore suggested at least three ways of distinguishing between things that are and things that are not. First, the former possess the property of being; the latter do not. Second, borrowing from Russell's theory of descriptions, Moore claimed that whereas an object that is or possesses being can be the bearer of a name, imaginary objects can be described only by incomplete symbols. Thus, for example, "centaur" is not the name of anything (for there is nothing to bear the name), whereas "chair" is a name. Third, if a thing's esse is percipi, then it is an imaginary object and actually is not. There are only thoughts of centaurs, for example; there are not centaurs independent of our thoughts. Hence, centaurs are imaginary objects. Moore, however, discovered difficulties with the last description in that he thought it likely that the esse of acts of consciousness and sense data is percipi, and at the same time he did not want to say that acts of consciousness and sense data are not.

Where he did distinguish between mere being and existence (and in places he did not), Moore generally cited two grounds as the basis for the distinction. Sometimes he argued that whatever endures through parts of time exists; what does not endure through parts of time does not exist. He also sometimes argued that whatever can be an object of sensory perception exists. Although he never discussed the connection between these two criteria for existence, it seems from what he said on other matters that the temporal criterion states both a necessary and a sufficient condition for existence, whereas the sensory criterion states but a sufficient condition. For in Moore's system it is possible that material things are never the contents of sensory perception, but they are, par excellence, things that exist.

In addition to existence, being, and nonbeing, Moore treated at length and in detail the category of reality. Although painstakingly carried out, his thoughts on this subject possessed little overall coherence. In Principia Ethica he equated reality with existence; in the lectures of 19101911 he equated it simply with being. In the same lectures he referred to reality as a property; on the other hand, in Philosophical Studies, in the essay "The Conception of Reality" (1917), he denied that reality is a property. What he consistently maintained is expressed in his rejection of Bradley's view that reality possesses degrees and that the highest degree of reality is at an extreme remove from material things. Moore denied that reality possesses degrees. But if it does, he said, then he wanted to maintain, in opposition to Bradley, that material things possess the highest degree of it.

Within the category of being Moore distinguished between three kinds of objects: particulars, truths or facts, and universals. He generally, though not always, argued as if particulars may be divided into five sorts: material things, sense data (for instance, patches of yellow), acts of consciousness, volumes of space, and intervals of time. He did not appear to think that the term mind refers to a particular substance in which acts of consciousness inhere. The theory he seemed to favor is that acts of consciousness are located in material bodies and are properties of material bodies and that the word mind stands for something like a logical construction from acts of consciousness. Truths or facts are the objects of true beliefs and comprise such things as mathematical equationsfor example, 2 + 2 = 4and the references of indicative sentences, such as "Tom stood to the left of Henry." Universals are again divisible into three sorts: relations, relational properties, and a third sort of universal that is neither a relation nor a relational property. Moore never provided an essential description of this third sort of universal, but he cited as clear-cut examples of it numbers and nonnatural qualities or objects, such as good, and as possible examples of it shades of color.

Of the three sorts of being that is, particulars, facts, and universalsparticulars alone exist; facts and universals merely are : This, at least, was Moore's view when he was prepared to grant that a significant distinction holds between existence and mere being. It was also his view that the only substantial things we are acquainted with are material bodies and acts of consciousness.

It should be remarked that the above inventory of the universe was not considered by Moore to be exhaustive. There may be things in the universe that we are in fact ignorant of or must even necessarily remain ignorant of. For example, Moore thought it is not impossible that God exists but found no evidence for maintaining that he does. Moore described himself as being certain, though, that all the things that have been mentioned as being or existing do constitute at least some of the constituents of the universe.

general epistemology

Although a number of the topics that have been treated under the heading of Moore's methodology might as reasonably be considered under the heading of his general epistemology, and vice versa, under his methodology it was asked what Moore in his philosophizing was attempting to do and how he was attempting to achieve his aims, whereas under his epistemology these quite different questions are being asked: (1) What, according to Moore's philosophic account, does knowledge consist in? (2) Does knowledge, as so conceived, exist, and if it does, what is it knowledge of?

(1) What does knowledge consist in? Moore's basic metaphysical and methodological principles dictate that in order to discover what knowledge is, it is necessary to distinguish between the different senses (if there are different senses) of the verb "to know" and then to pick out and analyze the particular objects denoted by these senses of "to know" and the relations (if any) that hold between them.

Throughout his earlier writings and the lectures of 19101911, Moore was convinced that careful observation of facts and careful differentiation of terms provide us with the following results. First, every instance of cognition ultimately consists in an act of consciousness and, distinct from the latter, in an object. Second, an act of consciousness can exist only as long as the corresponding instance of cognition exists. Thus, when I cease to see a sense datum, my seeing of it ceases to exist. The object of cognition, however, may or may not exist after the act of consciousness to which it is related ceases. This is a matter to be decided by empirical considerations. Third, it is conceivable that an act of consciousness and its related objectfor example, a sense datumexist in two different locations. "It seems to me conceivable," wrote Moore in Some Main Problems of Philosophy, "that this whitish colour is really on the surface of the material envelope. My seeing of it is in another placesomewhere within my body."

Reflecting this analysis of cognition and its objects, Moore thought that he could pick out four different ways of knowing and, corresponding to them, four different senses of the verb "to know." First and basic to an understanding of any other sense of "to know" is the sense in which "to know" stands for cases in which the relation between the object cognized and its correspondent act of consciousness is similar to or identical with the relation that a patch of color has to the consciousness of a person seeing that patch of color. This is knowledge by direct apprehension or knowledge by acquaintance. A second sense of "to know" represents cases in which the relation between the object cognized and the correspondent act of consciousness is similar to or identical with the relation that, for example, a hat on a table has to the act of consciousness of a person who is remembering that his hat was on the table. Thus, he knows that his hat was on the table, but neither the hat and table nor any sense data that were connected with the hat and table are directly present to his consciousness. This is knowledge by indirect apprehension. At least until 1911, Moore described himself as uncertain whether knowledge by indirect apprehension always necessitates direct apprehension of a proposition, by means of which, following Russell's theory of knowledge by description, one is made aware of the object indirectly apprehended, but he was inclined to think it does. Third, there is a sense of "to know" that represents cases in which the following complex relation between acts of consciousness and objects holds: there is an act of consciousness; there is a proposition directly apprehended; this proposition is in fact true; we believe that it is true; and we believe that it is true because of some further relation or condition that it satisfies. What this further condition is Moore left undecided, though one might plausibly suppose that it had to do with conclusive evidence. In any event, Moore termed this way of knowing "knowledge proper." Last, and involving the previous senses of "to know," is that sense of "to know" in which we describe a person as knowing something, such as the multiplication table, even though he may not at the time be conscious of anything. We imply, in such cases, that the person in question has at some time known, in one of the other three senses of "to know," the multiplication table.

Moore also distinguished between what he termed "immediate knowledge" and "knowledge by direct apprehension." Immediate knowledge is a species of "knowledge proper." Thus, immediate knowledge is distinguished from knowledge by direct apprehension in that the latter does not require the presence of a proposition (for instance, I can directly apprehend sense data), whereas the former does. It is specifically the "kind of way in which you know a proposition to be truereally know it, not directly apprehend itwhen you do not know any other proposition from which it follows" (Some Main Problems of Philosophy ).

(2) Does knowledge exist? and of what things? Since Moore, purportedly on the basis of observation, resolved knowledge into a certain complex of objects, it is evident that knowledge, or "acts of knowing," exists in his view. The question of its existence becomes, indeed, a psychological or introspective question (it would seem) rather than an epistemological one.

In dealing with the question of what sorts of things are known, Moore generally, however, treated it as a de jure or epistemological, rather than a de facto or psychological, question. Thus, in defense of asserting that such-and-such a sort of thing can be known, he would sometimes appeal to the principle of weighted certainties (for example, he would ask, "Which is more certainthat I know that I am holding a pencil in my hand or that the principles of the skeptic are true?") and sometimes to paradigm arguments of the sort "If I do not know that P, then I can know nothing." In this connection, it is worth noting that Moore sometimes argued de jure that we know such-and-such a sort of thing exists although he was unable to discover by introspection the way in which we know it. For instance, he insisted that we know the existence of material things, such as the earth and our own body and other bodies like it, but he was unable to determine with any certainty in just what way we know their existence.

Moore claimed that in addition to the existence of material things, we know the existence of our own acts of consciousness and our own sense data, past events in our lives, the being of universals and nonnatural qualities or entities (such as good), the existence of other minds, synthetic necessary truths, and practically all matters of fact that are commonly thought to be knownfor instance, that Caesar crossed the Rubicon, that Earth goes around the sun, and so on. Thus, in contrast to the skeptic, who traditionally maintains that the circumference of knowledge is much smaller than people ordinarily think, Moore appears to have maintained that it is much larger than people ordinarily think. For it is doubtful that people ordinarily think they know the existence of some things called sense data and acts of consciousness or the being of some things called nonnatural qualities or universals.

theory of perception

It is apparent that Moore's general epistemological principles and the premises that he operated with in his methodology enforce an empiricist approach to knowledge. They imply that all knowledge must finally be based on the observation of objects presented in experience. In three respects, however, Moore consistently parted company with traditional empiricists. He refused to limit the term experience to mean simply sensory experience. That is, he wanted to maintain that many sorts of objects other than those discovered by the senses are the objects of acts of consciousnessfor example, timeless facts, relational universals, and nonnatural qualities. He also wanted to maintain (following Kant) that there are necessary synthetic truths and that we can apprehend these truths. And finally, he was never willing to reject what seemed to him a certain truthfor instance, that he was holding a pencilbecause some less certainly true analyses or philosophical principles were incompatible with it. Thus, he consistently refused to acquiesce in the skeptical conclusions that traditional empiricism and indeed, it seems, his own empiricist principles tend to establish.

At the same time, these principles seem to have had two distinct effects on Moore's overall philosophizing. First, as time passed his interests converged on theory of perception and questions concerning our knowledge of an external, material world. Second, the skeptical conclusions that empiricism appears to foster produced a constantly widening cleavage in his philosophy between what he wanted to assert preanalytically to be certainly true and what his analyses permitted him to assert to be certainly true. This ever-growing cleavage is nowhere more apparent than in his theory of perception.

In his essay of 1903, "The Refutation of Idealism," Moore maintained that material things can be directly apprehended and therefore can be known to exist with as much certainty as one's own acts of consciousness. Soon afterward, however, Moore was led to change his mind on this crucial point, apparently by what has sometimes been referred to as the argument from synthetic incompatibility. This argument assumes that the looks of things are the objects a person directly perceives, and then, because the looks of things change when the thing itself is not presumed to be changing, the argument concludes that what a person directly perceives is not the material thing or a part of its surface but some other kind of object that possibly exists only when he is perceiving it. This "other kind of object" is called by Moore a sense datum.

Moore had trouble in deciding just what a sense datum is: whether it is a particular or a universal, whether it is something like a color (in the case of visual sense data) or some other sort of thing. His final position on this question would seem to be that a visual sense datum is a patch of some color: The patch, which is a particular, is related to the color, which is a universal of the third sort (that is, it is neither a relation nor a relational property) in the way something is related to that which, in part, is spread over it.

The main problem concerning Moore in his theory of perception was not this, however, but the question of the relation between sense data and the material things to which they "belong." Although Moore concerned himself with this question in a series of remarkably closely reasoned essays, commencing with "The Status of Sense-Data" (1914) and concluding with his last published article, "Visual Sense-Data" (1958), he was never able to arrive at a definite or even a very plausible answer. Throughout most of these essays he presented three alternative theories as possibly true: phenomenalism, or what he termed the Mill-Russell theorythat is, the view that a material thing is simply a "logical construction" of sense data; some form of representational theory (varying from the theory that the relation between sense data and material things is an unanalyzable relation of "appearing" to causal theories resembling John Locke's); and the theory that visual sense data are identical with parts of the surfaces of material things. With all these alternatives he found grave difficulties and, indeed, was led in the end to dismiss the last as constituting, at least in most cases of perception, nonsense. But if we do not directly perceive material things or their surfaces (and Moore was willing to grant that perhaps we never do), and if by "material things" is meant nothing so Pickwickian as a logical construction of sense data (and Moore would have tended to agree that nothing so Pickwickian is meant), how can we possibly know that material things exist? Moore, in one of his last lectures, "Four Forms of Scepticism," suggested none too plausibly that we know their existence by analogical or inductive arguments.


As in the other branches of his philosophy, Moore was confident in his earlier works on ethics of the correctness and finality of the results he set forth; this confidence diminished constantly in the solvent of his empiricist methods of inquiry and was replaced in his later works by no more than tentative agreement with his earlier views. Also, as in the other branches of his philosophy proper, Moore's viewpoint toward both the proper method of ethical inquiry and the nature of the findings to be anticipated stemmed directly from his originally realist presuppositions.

Ethics, as Moore conceived of the discipline, takes the form of a partly definitional, partly descriptive science, resting on observation and induction. His theory is not, however, naturalistic. The fundamental object of observation for ethics, goodness, is a nonnatural quality or entity, according to Moore, and thus is one that neither exists through parts of time nor presents itself through sensory experience. On the other hand, his theory is not "metaphysical": it does not purport to define this fundamental entity or quality of ethics in terms of some other nonnatural entity or quality. Indeed, a main point of Moore's theory is that the fundamental entity of ethics cannot be defined at all and that any attempt to define it must commit what he termed "the naturalistic fallacy." This is essentially the fallacy that results from construing the "is" of attribution as an "is" of identity, and thus supposing, for example, that because pleasure is (attributive "is") good, good is identical with pleasure.

The fundamental object of ethics is the simple quality or entity good; being simple, good is unanalyzable and indefinable. One can only say that good = good. This is the outcome of the first and most basic inquiry any science of ethics must engage in, the answer to the question What is good?, where this ambiguous question is understood to ask for a definition.

A second important inquiry that the science of ethics undertakes is to determine what are the preeminent goods obtainable by men. Since the term good is here being used substantively (and not adjectively) to refer to complex wholes to which the quality or entity good attaches, definitions or analyses of such goods are possible, in the sense that the parts making up the wholes in question can be set forth. On the other hand, because the quality "good" is indefinable, it is not possible to determine which things are and which are not good analytically. This can be determined only by perceiving which wholes possess good, and to what degree or amount. Since they do not rest on any external evidence, such perceptions were termed by Moore "intuitions," and it is for this reason that his theory of ethics is sometimes called "intuitionistic." A further character of these perceptions is that when we perceive that a certain whole possesses in itself a certain amount of good, we perceive at the same time that any similar whole must possess in itself an equal amount of good. Thus propositions of the sort "Such-and-such possesses in itself such-and-such amount of good" or "Such-and-such is intrinsically good" express truths that are both synthetic and necessary.

The determination of what things are preeminently good is complicated by two factors. First, substantive goods are organic unities or wholes; that is, the good of a whole is not simply equal to the sum of the goods of its parts. This makes it impossible to determine what things are good and in what amount merely by determining previously the amount of good attaching itself to basic units of experience and adding up these units. Second, it is in fact difficult to separate, in our perceptions or intuitions, organic wholes from their consequences; hence, in assessing goods-in-themselves we are likely to include the good accruing to causal consequences of those wholes. In order to avoid the last sort of error, Moore proposed that we isolate the organic unity we are concerned with by imagining it as alone existing in the universe and then asking whether it is better that it exists or does not.

Applying this method to the question What are the preeminent goods obtainable by men? Moore maintained that "it is obvious that personal affection and aesthetic enjoyments include by far the greatest goods with which we are acquainted."

The third major inquiry of ethical science encompasses the questions of traditional casuistry: What are our duties? What is their order of precedence? What actions as a rule are right?, and so forth. The answers to all these questions are predicated, in Moore's system, on the assumption that unlike the term good, the terms right, duty, virtue, and so on are definable. They are all, in fact, definable in terms of good. When we say that a certain sort of action is right or our duty we mean that it is productive of the greatest amount of good in comparison with any possible alternative action. Thus, in determining duties and right actions we must not only determine what things are good in themselves but what causal effects actions will have, and this is an almost impossible task, except when conceived in rather short-term measures. As so conceived, Moore generally argued that the rights and duties enjoined and sanctioned in conventional morality are indeed just what the science of ethics shows to be our rights and duties.

Criticism of Moore's Philosophy Proper

Moore, in his last writings, confessed that he had not been a good answerer of questions, and if by a "good answerer to a philosophical question" is meant one who leaves the question settled or seemingly close to being settled, it is hard not to agree. In his ethics Moore provided simple, clear-cut answers to the problems and questions of traditional ethics, but their very simplicity (like saying the world is made of water) produces its own disbelief, and this disbelief is borne out by subsequent reflection. For example, if good is a simple objective quality of some sort, why should persons be concerned with maximizing it? In the other branch of inquiry with which he was primarily concerned, theory of perception, Moore failed even to provide clear-cut answers or decisions.

Again, if by "good philosophical answers" are meant answers that can be formed into a consistent system, it must be agreed that Moore is not a good answerer. In his philosophy there are a great many loose ends that he never tied together or attempted to tie together. For instance, he made no attempt to tie together his discussions of the two questions What is the relation of sense data (i.e., patches) to universals? and What is their relation to material things? In the same connection, Moore sometimes admitted that he was inclined to hold at one and the same time two incompatible views (as on the question whether the surfaces of material things are directly seen) and was unable to choose between them.

On the other hand, if a good philosophical answer is conceived as one that is closely reasoned and demands and instills close reasoning on the part of its auditor or reader, then Moore was a good answerer. Studying Moore, it can be fairly said, is like holding one's mind to a whetstone: A mind composed of good stuff is bound to be sharpened (and one of poor stuff to be dulled).

Further, if philosophy is conceived as an inquiry rather than a closed system, Moore was a good answerer. It is the essence of inquiry that every problem considered be freshly considered, that pat answers be abjured, that truth be placed ahead of remaining consistent or reaching conclusions, and that alternatives be given a hearing and their merits weighed. These are precisely the virtues of Moore's philosophizing.

A more serious objection that can be urged against Moore is that there are a certain number of philosophical prejudices that he adopted without question, but that he ought to have questioned. It is arguable, for instance, that he adopted without question the principle that there is something called an act of consciousness and something called an object of that act. Applied to the various topics of philosophy, this principle produces all sorts of obvious nonsense: a ridiculous proliferation of entities, and so on. Why, it may be asked, did Moore not seriously question this presupposition and remove it? And if he had, might he not have arrived at sound conclusions instead of the perplexity that he does in fact arrive at?

There is unquestionably a good deal of justice in this last objection. Yet, with some justice too, one may retort on Moore's behalf: "What other principle seems as certainly true as the above principle? Has some alternative assumption permitted philosophers to arrive at indisputably true conclusions? And if not, why should Moore not explore the resources of this principle, which seems true to him, just as other philosophers explore the resources of the principles they have accepted, which seem equally true to them?"

See also Being; Bradley, Francis Herbert; Common Sense; Consciousness; Definition Empiricism; Epistemology, History of; Error; Ethics, History of; Existence; Experience; Good, The; Idealism; Kant, Immanuel; Locke, John; Metaphysics; Paradigm-Case Argument; Pessimism and Optimism; Presupposing; Propositions, Judgments, Sentences, and Statements; Realism; Russell, Bertrand Arthur William; Sensa; Universals, A Historical Survey; Ward, James.


works by moore

Except in ethics, Moore's major published philosophical writings consist almost entirely of articles, papers (to be delivered), reviews, and compilations of articles and lectures. Exceptions would be his autobiography (a minor masterpiece in its genre) and "A Reply to My Critics," included in the collection of critical essays concerning Moore's philosophy titled The Philosophy of G. E. Moore. In this bibliography, the more important or influential articles of Moore's are noted in the compilations in which they occur.

Principia Ethica. London: Cambridge University Press, 1903.

Ethics. London: Williams and Norgate, 1912.

Philosophical Studies. London: Routledge, 1922. Collection of papers, including "The Refutation of Idealism" (1903), "The Status of Sense-Data" (1914), "The Conception of Reality" (1917), "Some Judgements of Perception" (1918), and "External and Internal Relations" (1919). It is in the last paper that the term entailment is first used and defined philosophically.

The Philosophy of G. E. Moore. Edited by P. A. Schilpp. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1942; 2nd ed., New York, 1952. Contains "An Autobiography" and "A Reply to My Critics." In the second edition is the "Addendum to My 'Reply.'"

Some Main Problems of Philosophy. London: Allen and Unwin, 1953. Contains Moore's lectures of 1910 and 1911.

Philosophical Papers. London: Allen and Unwin, 1959. With an obituary notice by C. D. Broad. Includes "A Defense of Common Sense" (1923), "Is Existence a Predicate?" (1936), and "Proof of an External World" (1939).

The Commonplace Book, 19191953. Edited by Casimir Lewy. New York: Macmillan, 1962.

works on moore

Bridge, Ursula, ed. W. B. Yeats and T. Sturge Moore, Their Correspondence, 19011937. London, 1953. In this correspondence the two well-known poets (one of them Moore's brother) refer at some length to Moore's philosophy and some of Moore's comments on their interpretations of his philosophy. Although of little philosophical interest, their references provide an amusing picture of nonphilosophers trying desperately to understand Moore. Typical is Yeats's remark "I find your brother extraordinarily obscure."

Keynes, John Maynard. Two Memoirs. London: Hart-Davis, 1949. In the second memoir, "My Early Beliefs" (pp. 78103), Keynes describes the members and discussions of the "Bloomsbury Club," c. 19031914. This is a fascinating, witty, and informative account of the tremendous influence Moore's Principia Ethica had on some of the finer and younger intellects of the early twentieth century in England; of their attempts, largely verbal, to put Moore's ethical theories into some sort of practice; and of Moore's role in the group, his method of verbal argument, and the "pure and passionate intensity" of his realistic "vision."

Malcolm, Norman. Knowledge and Certainty. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1963. "George Edward Moore," pp. 163ff. In the first part of this important essay Malcolm presents a penetrating and intimate description of Moore's character as a man and as a philosopher, based in large part on personal recollections and impressions. In the remaining parts he discusses the relationship of certain of Moore's "common-sense propositions" to the concept of common sense, to traditional philosophy, and to Wittgenstein's views on the proper role of philosophy with respect to ordinary language. Included is a philosophic evaluation of Moore's purported defense of common sense. This essay is notable not only for the light it sheds on some central aspects of Moore's philosophizing but for the original philosophizing that it contains on the topics of ordinary language, the concept of common sense, and traditional skepticism concerning perception.

Passmore, John. "Moore and Russell." In A Hundred Years of Philosophy. London: Duckworth, 1957. Passmore presents a very searching account of Moore's earlier philosophy (especially as set forth in the 1899 essay "The Nature of Judgment") and his later views on the "analysis of meaning." Passmore also discusses, in an interesting and illuminating way, Moore's theory of sense data and his essays "The Refutation of Idealism" and "Proof of an External World."

Schilpp, P. A., ed. The Philosophy of G. E. Moore (see above). Contains critical essays on Moore's ethics by C. D. Broad, Charles L. Stevenson, William K. Frankena, H. J. Paton, Abraham Edel, and A. Campbell Garnett; on his theory of perception by O. K. Bouwsma, C. J. Ducasse, Paul Marhenke, and C. A. Mace; on what might broadly be called his method by Arthur E. Murphy, C. H. Langford, Norman Malcolm, Morris Lazerowitz, Alice Ambrose, John Wisdom, Richard McKeon, and V. J. McGill; and on his influence by L. Susan Stebbing. A number of the essays referred to, such as Bouwsma's "Moore's Theory of Sense-Data," are in their own right important contributions to the topics under discussion. But even when not intrinsically important, these essays constitute a particularly valuable commentary on Moore's philosophy in that Moore, in his "Reply," entered into several detailed discussions of their contents in an attempt to clarify his views. See especially his replies to the essays by Broad, Stevenson, Frankena, Bouwsma, Ducasse, and Langford.

Urmson, J. O. Philosophical Analysis, Its Development between the Two World Wars. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956. A penetrating work on the "analytic movement" that helps one place Moore in his later philosophical setting. Although only fragmentary references are made to Moore's philosophy, many of the points of view and many of the topics that Moore was concerned with and that influenced his own philosophizing (from 1910 on) are brought into the open and clarified.

Warnock, G. J. "G. E. Moore." In English Philosophy since 1900. London, 1958. This thin commentary propagates the thesis that Moore's philosophy can best be understood and appreciated through an understanding and appreciation of his temperament and character. The claim is made that Moore was a "man with no metaphysical quirks of temperament."

White, A. R. G. E. Moore, a Critical Exposition. Oxford, 1958. This workthe only English work of book length devoted exclusively to commentary on the philosophy of Moorecollects and collates most of the things Moore had to say on method, theory of ethics, and theory of perception.

John O. Nelson (1967)

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Moore, George Edward (1873–1958)

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