G.E. Moore (1873-1958) was a British philosopher, who alongside Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein at Trinity College, Cambridge, was a key protagonist in the formation of the analytic tradition during the twentieth century.
One of seven children, Moore grew up in South London and was educated initially by his parents. He was taught French by his mother, and reading, writing, and music by his father. Aged eight he enrolled at Dulwich College studying a mix of classic and romance languages, alongside mathematics, and at eighteen commenced study at Cambridge University reading classics. It was at Cambridge that Moore met Bertrand Russell (two years his senior) and Philosophy Fellow of Trinity College, J.M.E. McTaggart who together, encouraged Moore to study philosophy. Moore graduated in 1896. A fellowship kept him at Cambridge for the next six years.
During his time at Cambridge, Moore formed a number of long-lasting friendships with figures of the soon to be Bloomsbury Group. These friendships allowed Moore a channel of indirect influence on twentieth-century culture, leading in part to the encouragement of his reputation of having a Socratic personality; his written work did not necessarily capture his full thought. Moore would remain at Cambridge almost without leave – but for a short spell away and later a handful of years spent in the US – becoming first lecturer in 1911, then professor in 1925 before retiring in 1939. During this time, Moore was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1918, President of the Aristotelian Society from 1918 to 1919, and in 1921 became editor of the highly-influential journal Mind.
Moore’s work was not confined by field or by niche, and it is often remarked that Moore was as concerned with puzzling out philosophical ideas, developing arguments, or exploring challenges, as he was devolving a framework as in the tradition of systematic philosophers. His influence extends deeply and widely, but he is perhaps best known for his opposition to the prevailing British idealism, his criticism of ethical naturalism in his most well-known work Principia Ethica, his contributions to ethics, epistemology and metaphysics and Moore’s Paradox. Moore wrote a number of other books including: Ethics (1912), Philosophical Studies (1922), Some Main Problems of Philosophy (1953), and the posthumous collection Philosophical Papers (1959).
Leading the charge alongside Russell, Moore firmly rejected the then dominant philosophy of idealism (though he had initially been a follower under McTaggart). Instead of upholding the theory established by G. W. F. Hegel, that everything common-sense believes is realm, is mere appearance, Moore argued the opposite; that everything common-sense believes is real, is real. Two key papers expound upon this and deserve close attention: “A Defence of Common Sense” (1923) and “A Proof of an External World” (1939).
In 1903, Moore published Principia Ethica in which he laid out his criticism of ethical naturalism, arguing that it involves the naturalistic fallacy that goodness can be defined in naturalistic terms. He argued that goodness is in actuality indefinable, unanalysable, and non-natural property. Principa Ethica was hugely influential, sending ripples through non-philosophical circles – including the literary world of the Bloomsbury Group where members including Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, and Leonard Woolf had come into contact with him as fellow members of the Cambridge University secret debating society the Cambridge Apostles – as well within philosophy. The 1903 work has been frequently cited as one of the most influential works of its type and time, though in recent times this claim is somewhat down-played.
“It is raining but I do not believe it is raining,” is the sentence often used to express Moore’s Paradox. It is a fitting example of his love for puzzling out an idea. In the sentence it seems impossible for anyone to consistently assert the sentence, though there doesn’t appear to be a logical contradiction. The paradox illustrates that though the sentence is apparently absurd, it can nevertheless be true, consistent, and not logically a contradiction. The paradox was to have a strong influence on Wittgenstein (who has been attributed with naming it thus), though Moore himself never developed the idea more fully.
Perhaps then this approach to the paradox gives us a clue to Moore’s life more broadly and offers a lens on his legacy. A key figure among British philosophers in the early twentieth century, he is arguably the lesser known name, by degree. Yet his work was of such influence and significance that its effects were felt so widely and fully.
Moore married Dorothy Ely in 1916 and together had two sons: the poet Nicholas Moore, and composer Timothy Moore. G.E. Moore died in Cambridge, 1958.
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