George Edward Moore (1873–1958)

Recalling his first years at Cambridge as an undergraduate in his Autobiography, Moore tells the following anecdote:

Russell had invited me to tea in his rooms to meet McTaggart; and McTaggart, in the course of conversation had been led to express his well-known view that Time is unreal. This must have seemed to me (as it still does) a perfectly monstrous proposition […]. I think this example is […] typical of what […] has always been, with me, the main stimulus to philosophise. I do not think that the world or the sciences would ever have suggested to me any philosophical problems. What has suggested philosophical problems to me is things which other philosophers have said about the world or the sciences (1942, 13-14).

This well-known anecdote provides a fair representation of the nature of Moore’s philosophizing. A few lines later, Moore explains indeed that his philosophical reflections have centered around two main questions: “first, the problem of trying to get really clear as to what on earth a given philosopher meant by something which he said, and secondly, the problem of discovering what really satisfactory reasons there are for supposing that what he meant was true, or, alternatively, was false” (1942, 14). Rightly or wrongly, many philosophers came to believe that Moore’s approach was right and that more attention should be devoted to questions of meaning and logical consistency; together with Bertrand Russell and, later, with Ludwig Wittgenstein, Moore became one of the most influential thinkers of his time and one of the founders of British analytic philosophy.

Another reason makes the anecdote interesting. Moore explicitly denied that all philosophy could be reduced to analysis, and yet the story of his encounter with McTaggart clearly illustrates that sort of negative, and even derisory, attitude towards metaphysics which has been characteristic of much twentieth-century philosophy: McTaggart is portrayed as the paradigmatic example of the metaphysician who defends “a perfectly monstrous proposition,” while Moore is the clear-headed, honest thinker, who does his best to understand “what on earth” other philosophers may have meant.

1. Brief Vita

George Edward Moore was born in Upper Norwood, a suburb of London, on 4th November 1873. Having received the first rudiments of education (reading, writing, elementary arithmetic, geography and history) from his father, he was sent at the age of eight to Dulwich College, where he enjoyed a very thorough education in Greek and Latin. In 1892 he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, with the prospect of studying Classics and becoming a teacher in a public school. Yet something happened that changed the course of his life: “Among the young students with whom I began to make acquaintance at the end of my first year was Bertrand Russell; and it was mainly owing to his advice and encouragement that I began to study philosophy” (Moore 1942, 13). The love for philosophy having been aroused, it never left him; after the regular course of study, Moore won a fellowship at Cambridge, lasting from 1898 to 1904. In this particularly fertile period of his career, he criticized idealistic philosophies, then the dominant philosophies in Britain, in epoch-making articles such as “The Nature of Judgement” (1899) and “The Refutation of Idealism” (1903), while initiating a new approach to ethical investigations in Principia Ethica (1903)—a meta-ethical approach based upon a consideration of the use of the ethical vocabulary and of the nature of moral knowledge.

The following seven years were spent working on philosophy without any academic affiliation in Edinburgh and London. Moore’s parents had died, leaving him and the other members of his family sufficient economic means. “I was therefore in a position to go on working at philosophy, which was what I wanted to do, without a Fellowship and without needing to try to obtain any paid employment” (Moore 1942, 26). In 1911, Moore was eventually offered a position as a Lecturer in Cambridge and in 1925 he became Professor of Mental Philosophy and Logic, a position he kept until his retirement in 1939. While back at Cambridge, Moore published many seminal papers, among others “A Defence of Common Sense” (1925) and “Proof of An External World” (1939), which established his reputation as one of the leading British thinkers. Moore was editor of Mind in the years 1921-1947: a clear sign of the prominence that he had achieved in the course of his career.

2. Realism, Analysis and Common Sense

The first published record of Moore’s breakaway with idealism is the article “The Nature of Judgement.” Here Moore charges British empiricism with psychologism, the mistake of believing that the universal concepts we use in thinking are psychological occurrences. As against this, Moore argues that concepts are eternal entities, a species of Platonic idea with a mind-independent reality: “The concept is not a mental fact, nor any part of a mental fact […] concepts are possible objects of thought; but that is no definition of them […] [i]t is indifferent to their nature whether anybody thinks them or not.” That concepts are very much like Platonic ideas becomes wholly clear when he also writes that they are “incapable of change” (Moore 1899, 179).

Moore’s argument to the effect that universals are realities per se takes the form of a refutation of Bradley’s theory of ideas. According to Bradley, our private individual representations function like signs, pointing towards the logical signification. “A sign,” Bradley had written, “is any fact that has a meaning, and meaning consists in part of the content […] cut off, fixed by the mind, and considered apart from the existence of the sign” (Bradley 1883, 4); as a way of illustration, Bradley had observed that “that connection of attributes we recognise as horse, is one part of the unique horse-image, and this fragmentary part of the psychical event is all that in logic we know of or care for” (Bradley 1883, 6). Now, since Bradley defines meaning as “part of the content” of the sign “cut off” by the mind, Moore argues that Bradley conceives the logical idea as an abstraction from a mental representation. As against this account, Moore objects that we cannot abstract the relevant portion of the psychological representation unless we already know what portion to abstract. Since there is no judgment without ideas, and since ideas are generated by way of abstraction, it follows that any one judgment presupposes a previous judgment. This leads to an infinite regress, eventually showing that, if Bradley’s theory were true—and, more generally, if ideas were the product of conscious abstraction—it would be impossible to judge. (For a careful discussion of this point and of Bradley’s reply, see Baldwin 1990, 13-15).

In “The Nature of Judgement” Moore does not merely advance what may be called a “conceptual” or “semantic” realism, the thesis according to which concepts have a mind-independent existence, but also a radical metaphysics according to which concepts are all there really is. “All that exists,” he writes, “is […] composed of concepts necessarily related to one another in specific manners, and likewise to the concept of existence” (Moore 1899, 182). Moore’s reasons for advancing such a highly counter-intuitive metaphysics become clearer in the light of a skeptical argument offered by Bradley in Appearance and Reality (1893), according to which thought can never entirely grasp the nature of reality but can at most achieve an imperfect understanding of what there is. Moore answers this form of skepticism by identifying reality with a plurality of related concepts: the universe is now wholly transparent to the mind. In this way, however, Moore also straightforwardly identifies thought with reality, and the question arises as to whether his realism does not turn out to be an even more extreme version of idealism than the one he meant to refute. In any case, as Moore’s adoption of a realistic stance with regard to universals testifies, the criticism of idealism does not imply a reversal to a materialistic conception of reality, of the sort that was current in the second half of the nineteenth century.

In “The Refutation of Idealism” Moore continues his revolt against idealism by criticizing what he takes to be a basic assumption underlying all idealistic systems. This assumption is the principle “to be is to be perceived,” i.e. the thesis that nothing exists which is not the object of a state of consciousness. Taking as his example our “sensation of blue,” Moore insists that a correct analysis shows that such a state is a complex constituted by two components, namely consciousness and blue, which are ontologically independent: it is therefore not true that nothing can exist except as an object of consciousness. For the purposes of his argument, Moore does not need to say much about the nature of either consciousness or its object: what needs to be clarified is the nature of their relation.

Moore makes two main claims, the first being that the relation between consciousness and its object cannot be the same sort of relation that holds between a thing and its property. Quite rightly, Moore emphasizes that, when we are aware of blue, our awareness may be blue; nevertheless, the relation of inherence is not identical with the relation that we are thinking of when we say that our consciousness is the consciousness of blue. Moore is addressing here the problem of intentionality, and all he is really saying is that intentionality cannot be explained in terms of inherence. Now, this may seem a quite obvious point to make, so why does Moore bring it up? The reason is that Moore believes that modern philosophy has not been careful enough in distinguishing between intentionality and inherence, as shown by the fact that mental contents, such as ideas and impressions, have been usually taken to be modifications, hence properties of, an underlying spiritual substance. As against this understanding, Moore interestingly observes that if we conceptualize the objects of our mental states as properties of the mind, then the traditional problems of skepticism and solipsism arise.

The second point emphasized by Moore is that a state of consciousness, conceived as a whole W whose components are the consciousness C and its object O, is not an organic whole, i.e. a whole such that its parts would not be what they are apart from the whole to which they belong. Now, three different theses are involved in this denial and it is worthwhile to make them explicit. (1) Moore argues that each part is externally related to the whole: it is not essential for C and O being what they are, that they be part of W; the parts C and O are ontologically independent of the whole to which they belong and can therefore be considered in abstraction from it. (2) Moore conceives the relation between the parts C and O as external, so that C is ontologically independent of O and vice versa. (3) It does not follow from the above propositions that the relation between the whole W and its parts C and O is also external. Since the whole W is constituted by C and O, W would no longer be what it is, if it were to lose C or O as one of its components; thus, the whole is internally related to each one of its parts.

In view of the fact that Moore is commonly interpreted as holding that absolutely all relations are external, (3) makes a point that needs to be emphasized. It is also important to emphasize that Moore’s position is not solely that states of consciousness are not organic, but much more radically that there are no organic wholes at all. In this way the method of analysis, in the sense of ontological decomposition, receives its philosophical justification: only if a whole is not organic is it possible to consider its parts in isolation and, once so isolated, to try to understand how they are related to the other parts of the whole. In other words, if all relations were internal, all wholes would be organic and analysis would not be a legitimate philosophical procedure.

On the basis of the above thesis (1), according to which the part-whole relation is external, Moore goes on to argue that the object of consciousness O is real, independently of its occurrence within any conscious state. To be aware of something is therefore to be aware of an independent existing reality, to be conscious of an external world: in one stroke, both idealism and skepticism are refuted.

Simple as it is, Moore’s conception of states of consciousness as wholes formed by two components—consciousness and its object, connected by an external relation—faces some serious objections. On the one hand, it is difficult to see how Moore could deal satisfactorily with illusory perceptions; apparently, his analysis of states of consciousness commits him to the position that the objects of illusory perceptions are as real and mind-independent as the objects of non-illusory ones. The only solution open to Moore would therefore be the unlikely one of drawing a distinction between existent and subsistent objects. On the other hand, the claim that the relation between consciousness and its object is external is supposed to be valid for both components of a state of consciousness. Thus, it should be possible for consciousness to exist without there being any object at all, which amounts to the absurd contention that there could be consciousness without intentionality (Ayer 1971, 167).

Despite these limitations, Moore’s “Refutation” was to be very influential. In the same year, Russell’s Principles of Mathematics appeared, as well as another important book by Moore, Principia Ethica. The year 1903 made it clear that new philosophical forces were emerging in Britain, forces which would eventually lead to a radical change in philosophers’ understanding of their own discipline.

In line with his conception of analysis as one of the main tasks of philosophy, Moore’s views tend to be scattered in a large number of relatively brief but very technical essays. As a result, it is impossible to provide a summary of his mature philosophy. At least one of his later writings needs to be mentioned, however, partly because it illustrates the sort of philosophical activity practised by Moore, partly because of its historical significance. In “A Defence of Common Sense” Moore lists a series of propositions, which he takes to be certainly true, propositions as simple as “There exists at present a living human body, which is my body” or “The earth has existed for many years past.” Such propositions, Moore argues, are such that we all know them to be certainly true, and cannot be cast into doubt either by philosophy or by science: any theory inconsistent with them, be it a philosophical or a scientific theory, must be rejected. Moore also argues, however, that the fact that we are certain of their truth does not imply that we are capable of providing a correct analysis of their meaning.

In order to understand Moore’s position, consider a statement such as “This is a hand.” According to Moore, the proposition involves a reference to a sense datum, but it is also a proposition about a material object. To provide a correct analysis of “This is a hand” would require having a theory as to the relation between material objects and sense data, a theory that Moore was never capable of formulating. Whereas in the “Refutation” he was quite confident that the perceived datum was part of the external object, in many of his later writings Moore carefully examines the various arguments which can be offered either against or in support of alternative solutions, such as (a) direct realism (the sense-datum is part of the material object), (b) indirect realism (the sense-datum represents the material object) or (c) phenomenalism (material objects can be wholly defined in terms of actual or possible sense-data), yet without reaching any definitive conclusion. All solutions have for Moore advantages and shortcomings—no one is really convincing or really unconvincing.

One further interesting point of Moore’s essay is the claim that there are propositions like “The earth has existed for many years past” which are both synthetic (not tautological) and certain, and which must function as touchstones of truth. This position raises a question as to the epistemic status of such propositions and, more generally, as to what it is that makes a proposition certain, if it is not the fact that it is a tautology. By making these questions emerge, Moore’s paper became an important source of inspiration for later philosophers, and especially for Wittgenstein’s reflections in On Certainty (Stroll 1994).

3. Realism and the Revolution in Philosophy

The philosophies of Moore and Whitehead are as different as one could possibly imagine. Whitehead’s approach is systematic and his philosophy is an attempt at developing a framework of ontological categories capable of providing a unified solution to a wide range of traditional problems (for example, the unity of reality, the interaction between the mind and the body, the existence and nature of God). On the contrary, Moore analytically tackles isolated philosophical puzzles, most of which are of his own invention. Moreover, Whitehead’s philosophy takes notice of the latest developments in the sciences, especially quantum physics and relativity theory, while Moore ignores the world of scientific investigation altogether. Nevertheless, in the preface to Process and Reality Whitehead writes: “among the contemporary schools of thought, my obligations to the English and American Realists are obvious” (PR xii). The denomination “English and American Realists” is vague enough, for it refers to British philosophers such as Bertrand Russell, Samuel Alexander and Thomas Percy Nunn, as well as to Americans such as Edwin Holt, Ralph Barton Perry and William Pepperell Montague. In view of the fact that the new realistic currents that flourished in the first two decades of the twentieth century found inspiration in Moore’s “Refutation,” however, the passage clearly suggests that Moore’s early realism may have had an influence upon Whitehead’s philosophy. (An account of the new realism is provided by Passmore 1957, 203-241, 259-280; see also Kuklick 2001, 201-224.)

An important point of connection with Moore’s early philosophy is that Whitehead holds a version of epistemological realism, i.e. the belief that the object of experience is independent of the experiencing subject: “If experience be not based upon an objective content,” he writes, “there can be no escape from a solipsist subjectivism” (PR 152). And even more clearly, he emphasizes that “we perceive other things which are in the world of actualities in the same sense as we are” (PR 158). It must be noted that for Whitehead perception is grounded upon a series of acts of feeling directed towards past events: each growing occasion prehends occasions which have achieved self-completion in the immediate past. There is therefore a quite straightforward sense in which Whitehead holds that the objects of experience, in the sense of the past occasions, are independent from their being experienced, that is, from their being prehended. As realized in the immediate past, the felt actuality does not have to be felt in order to be fully itself, and its existence can be regarded as being independent from that of the subject that feels it. Although Whitehead can be seen as holding a version of epistemological realism, however, it needs to be emphasized that he also holds a two-levels theory of perception that has no real counterpart in Moore’s philosophy. In particular, Whitehead distinguishes between ordinary perception and prehensive activity: the data gathered by an occasion of experience by means of prehensions are projected upon a contemporary region, thus giving rise to the world of ordinary sense-objects. (For a concise but detailed reconstruction of Whitehead’s theory of perception, see Kraus 1998, 75-85.)

Interestingly, Moore’s discussion of consciousness and intentionality in the “Refutation” may have played a role in shaping Whitehead’s criticism of the traditional categories of substance and quality. According to Whitehead, the inadequacy of these categories becomes evident as soon as they are applied to the self, for they lead to a view of the self as a static substance and of our experiences as the qualities of a substratum. In Process and Reality, Whitehead criticizes this conception on two accounts. On the one hand, he observes that the identification of the self with an underlying immutable substance does not do justice to the way we experience ourselves, namely, as sources of spontaneous activity: “The doctrine of the enduring soul […] is exactly the irrelevant answer to the problem which life presents. That problem is, How can there be originality? And the answer explains how the soul need be no more original than a stone” (PR 104). On the other hand, he points out that if perceptions are viewed as properties, they are immediately thought of as private possessions, as if they belonged exclusively to a particular self, thus giving rise to the traditional problems of skepticism and solipsism. Accordingly, Whitehead concludes that we must “reject the notion of individual substances, each with its private world of qualities and sensations” (PR 160). Now, the latter point is precisely the one Moore had made in his “Refutation.” Moore had advanced it with the purpose of reducing ad absurdum the idea that intentionality could be explained in terms of inherence: in Process and Reality, it reappears as an integral part of a wider criticism of the substance-quality mode of thought. Different as their mature philosophies turned out to be, Moore’s early realism contains an idea which will be of crucial importance for Whitehead’s metaphysics.

Before bringing this discussion to an end, the question needs to be raised as to why Moore’s philosophy was to become so influential, whereas Whitehead’s metaphysics was to remain relatively isolated from mainstream philosophical speculation in the course of the twentieth century. It is not possible to provide an adequate answer to this question within the limited compass of the present article, but there is no doubt that a satisfactory explanation would have to take account of extra-philosophical factors. In the introduction to a volume significantly entitled The Revolution in Philosophy (1956), Gilbert Ryle has provided the following account of the changes of intellectual climate which were occurring in Britain around the turn of the nineteenth and the twentieth century: “between the time when Bradley was an undergraduate and the time when I was an undergraduate, the population of intellectuals, and particularly of academic intellectuals […] had changed from being a predominantly clerical to an almost lay population.” Moreover, philosophers “became to be challenged by their new academic colleagues, especially the natural scientists, to state unequivocally what sort of an enquiry philosophy is and what are the canons of its special methods, if it possessed any such method” (Ayer et al. 1956, 2). Ryle’s remarks suggest that, with his stress on clarity and logical rigor, his uncompromising rejection of the idealistic tradition, and the unquestionable ability to advance provocative theses as well as to suggest novel philosophical questions, Moore was in a position to satisfy the need for a new academic image that was felt by younger generations of philosophers. On the contrary, the presence in Whitehead’s thought of themes from the theological and metaphysical tradition, together with the obscurity of his language and the complexity of some of his doctrines, may have prevented many from appreciating the elements of novelty that his philosophy undoubtedly contains.

In this respect, Susan Stebbing’s review of Process and Reality, which appeared in Mind in 1930, is not just an expression of a particular philosopher’s point of view, but is symptomatic of the new Zeitgeist. Having observed that “the difficulty [of Whitehead’s metaphysics] is […] increased by the obscurity of Prof. Whitehead’s style, by his queer choice of words, and by his failure to provide examples elucidating his main conceptions” (Stebbing 1930, 465), she goes on to say that “those who believe that the proper work of philosophy consists in the detailed, critical investigation of particular problems will but waste their time if they attempt to read this book” (467). As exemplified in these passages, Stebbing’s negative attitude towards speculative thinking is not so much different from the one displayed by Moore in his recollection of his first encounter with McTaggart.

Works Cited and Further Readings

Books by G.E. Moore

1903. Principia Ethica (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

1912. Ethics (London, William and Norgate).

1922. Philosophical Studies (London, Trubner and Co.)

1953. Some Main Problems of Philosophy (London, George Allen and Unwin).

1959. Philosophical Papers (London, George Allen and Unwin and New York, Macmillan).

1963. Commonplace Book (1919-1935), edited by C. Lewy (London, Allen and Unwin).

1967. Lectures on Philosophy, edited by C. Lewy (London, Allen and Unwin).

Selected Articles and Chapters by G.E. Moore

1899. “The Nature of Judgement,” Mind, 8, 176-193.

1903. “The Refutation of Idealism,” Mind, 12, 433-453.

1905. “The Nature and Reality of Objects of Perception,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 6, 68-127.

1914. “The Status of Sense-Data,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 14, 355-406.

1919. “External and Internal Relations,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 20, 40-62.

1925. “A Defence of Common Sense,” in Contemporary British Philosophy. Personal Statements, second series, edited by J. J. Muirhead (London, Allen and Unwin; New York, Macmillan), 193-223.

1936. “Is Existence a Predicate?” Aristotelian Society Supplementary, 15, 175-188.

1939. “Proof of An External World,” Proceeding of the British Academy, 25, 273-300.

1942. “An Autobiography,” in The Philosophy of G. E. Moore, edited by P. A. Schilpp (Evanston and Chicago, Northwestern University Press).

1942. “Reply to My Critics,” The Philosophy of G. E. Moore, edited by P. A. Schilpp (Evanston and Chicago, Northwestern University Press).

Other Authors

Ambrose, A. and Lazerowitz, M. (eds.). 1970. G. E. Moore: Essays in Retrospect (London, George Allen and Unwin).

Ayer, Alfred Jules et al. 1956. The Revolution in Philosophy (London, Macmillan).

Ayer, Alfred Jules. 1971. Russell and Moore: The Analytical Heritage (London, Macmillan).

Baldwin, Thomas. 1990. G. E. Moore (London, Routledge).

Bergmann, Gustav. 1964. “Inclusion, Exemplification, and Inherence in G. E. Moore,” in Logic and Reality (Madison, University of Wisconsin Press), 158-70.

Bradley, Francis Herbert. 1883. Principles of Logic (Oxford, Clarendon Press).

Black, Max. 1944. “The Paradox of Analysis,” Mind, 263-67.

Dummett, Michael. 1994. Origins of Analytic Philosophy (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

Hylton, Peter. 1990. Russell, Idealism and the Emergence of Analytic Philosophy (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

Klemke, E. D. 1969. The Epistemology of G. E. Moore (Evanston, Northwestern University Press).

Kuklick, Bruce. 2001. A History of Philosophy in America. 1720-2000 (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

Levy, Paul. 1979. G.E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles (New York, Holt Rinehart and Winston).

Lewy, C. “Mind under G.E. Moore (1921-1947),” Mind, 85, 337, 37-46.

Passmore, John. 1957. A Hundred Years of Philosophy (London, Duckworth).

Schilpp, Paul Arthur (ed.). 1942. The Philosophy of G. E. Moore (Evanston and Chicago, Northwestern University Press).

Stebbing, Susan. 1930. “Review of Process and Reality,” Mind, 39, 156.

Stroll, Avrum. 1994. Moore and Wittgenstein (Oxford, Oxford University).

White, Alan. 1958. G. E. Moore. A Critical Exposition (Oxford, Basil Blackwell).

Author Information

Pierfrancesco Basile
Institut für Philosophie
Universität Bern
Länggassstrasse, 3000 Bern 9

How to Cite this Article

Basile, Pierfrancesco, “George Edward Moore (1873–1958)”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.