John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart (1866–1925)

Whitehead tells us that the amount of philosophy that he has not read “passes all telling.” And a particular thinker that he claims not to have read a page of is Hegel (ESP 116).[1] Whitehead concludes that his lack of first-hand knowledge of Hegel was good reason for saying little about Hegel directly. However, one can make the case for Hegelian themes in Whitehead’s work. Where do these themes originate? Whitehead himself implies that any Hegelianism in his thought results from his conversations with Lord Haldane concerning McTaggart’s Hegelianism. Hence, one way to compare McTaggart and Whitehead would be to articulate their common Hegelianism. Nevertheless, I resist this approach, since to do it justice would require a book-length study of all three thinkers. Moreover, McTaggart’s allegiance to Hegel’s thought is often overstated.[2] And more importantly, the real historical figure that links Whitehead and McTaggart is not Hegel, but Leibniz, as both thinkers’ systems follow the Leibnizian monadological model of metaphysics. I shall chip away at this theme, although I cannot claim to mine this vein as deeply as it runs.

Still another link between McTaggart and Whitehead is their shared background in the culture of Edwardian England.[3] Often overshadowed in academic literature by Victorian studies, the Edwardian period of approximately 1895–1919 had its own distinctive culture, which in many respects represented a reaction against the Victorian period. Many of the finest Edwardian intellectuals—from composers, painters and novelists to philosophers, mathematicians and scientists—lamented the decline of religion in the latter half of the ninetheenth century. There was a general eagerness to bridge the chasm of the natural and spiritual by finding new and higher syntheses of faith and reason.

Coupled with this concern with the decline of religion was the impetus issuing from an unexpected domain—physics. The most scientifically orthodox laboratories produced the most unorthodox phenomena—radio waves in 1888, X-rays in 1895 and radioactivity in 1896. Solid discrete packages such as atoms, long the bulwark of physics, could not be used to account for “ghostly” phenomena. Even the atom was shown not to be indivisible when physicist J.J. Thompson discovered the electron in 1897: intelligible structure ran deeper into the microscopic than had hitherto been believed, and infinite divisibility, long a mathematical possibility, had suddenly become a serious physical possibility. The extraordinarily powerful tool known as natural science could not be contained by the concepts of simple materialism. If science could seriously examine non-spatio-temporally-localized, non-experiential entities like radio waves, it could certainly train its sights on more a mundane object that many claim to experience, namely, the human soul. Indeed, a scientific study of the soul had been underway since 1882 in the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). Although some thinkers of the time mocked the SPR, its membership included many major scientists (for instance, J.J. Thompson and H. R. Hertz), novelists, high-ranking politicians as well as philosophers (for instance, Henry Sidgewick and F.H. Bradley). It is not a stretch to claim that in many important ways McTaggart and Whitehead were both Edwardian thinkers. I shall consider them in light of two such themes, matter and the self, and with reference to their two most important works, Whitehead’s Process and Reality, and McTaggart’s The Nature of Existence.

Whitehead and McTaggart are as different as two philosophers could be. Whitehead is a scientifically-minded philosopher of becoming, of process; however one interprets his view of temporal flow and where it belongs in his metaphysics, it is indisputable that it plays a crucial role in his philosophy. McTaggart is a scholastically-minded philosopher of being, of permanence; however one interprets his arguments against temporal flow and what replaces it in his metaphysics, it is indisputable that it plays absolutely no role in McTaggart’s philosophy. Moreover, any serious interpretation of “God” within Whitehead’s philosophy must attribute a crucial role to it, whereas any serious interpretation of McTaggart’s thought must exclude it.[4]

The question of God’s existence according to McTaggart is intimately bound up with the question of the existence of time: no time, no God. It would seem that Whitehead would agree with this. Without time, Whitehead says, “there is no meaning for purpose, hope, fear, energy. If there be no historic process, then everything is what it is, a mere fact. Life and motion are lost” (MT 101-2). Moreover, Whitehead asserts that there is a vital link between time and God (MT 101). Still, Whitehead recognizes the importance of the atemporal; the universe’s essence, he says, is not limited to process. “The alternative metaphysical doctrine, of reality devoid of process, would never have held the belief of great men, unless it expressed some fundamental aspect of our experience” (MT 100). As we shall see, in many ways, Whitehead and McTaggart do locate the atemporal at the heart of human experience. I shall return to this topic later in the paper.

Now, Whitehead’s journey to philosophy followed years as a professional mathematician and much work in physics. McTaggart had some undergraduate training in the sciences, but was by no means at a professional level. Nonetheless, McTaggart shares some deep affinities with Whitehead concerning the influence of mathematical ways of thinking on philosophy. McTaggart was influenced, via Bertrand Russell, by developments in the set-theoretic mathematics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as well as the Russell-Frege philosophy of mathematics known as logicism.[5] His Nature of Existence relies heavily on arguments that turn on the behavior of infinite series.[6] Whitehead, with his imaginative generalization, is much more influenced by developments in projective geometry. Although it is true that McTaggart knew very little about science, it is not true that he dismissed science’s ramifications for metaphysics. [7] We shall see that McTaggart was concerned with the implications of science, although he did not construct his metaphysics on the basis of current science.

Moreover, to compare the thinkers is difficult because of their differing attitudes towards their own work. Although they are both metaphysicians in the grandiose sense of trying to frame a general theory of reality, Whitehead could be described as a “sprawling” type of metaphysician: often his arguments, when they actually occur, are more suggestive and intertwine very closely with his descriptions. McTaggart’s metaphysics is more “scholastic” in the sense that arguments (of varying strengths) dominate his writings, so that in general McTaggart’s work is much more tightly knit than Whitehead’s. And this should come as no surprise, for Whitehead had very little interest in revising his own work, often leaving that rather dreary task to others. McTaggart, on the other hand wrote and rewrote, and died while revising the third draft of Volume I of The Nature of Existence.

1. Brief Vita

John McTaggart Ellis was born in London on September 3, 1866, to Caroline and Francis Ellis.[8] The child was named after Francis’ uncle, Sir John McTaggart, who afterwards bequeathed his fortune to Francis on condition that Francis change his surname “Ellis” to “Ellis McTaggart.” Hence, the youngster was renamed, John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart. It is a startling name—even odd one might say.[9] Nonetheless, he bore it proudly on the title page of his books (but not on all of his published papers).

But the oddities of the man do not end with his name.[10] Several biographers point out his unusual gait and offer a variety of explanations. Geach even suggests that fear of being kicked, the sad product of long being bullied, caused McTaggart to adopt a backwards-looking and crab-like gait (1979, 10). More likely it was a genetically related problem; Francis and Caroline were first cousins, a common practice among McTaggart’s ancestors.[11] Another oddity is that as a boy he would often lie on the rugby pitch, stubbornly refusing to participant in the surrounding game. It is not difficult to imagine the reprisals he would have experienced, perhaps the least of which was his nickname “loonie.” McTaggart supposedly had a life-long, overwhelming, passion for sugar and an unusually intense devotion to his mother—to the point of attacking his own brother whom he believed hurt Caroline in a bout of childish teasing (Dickinson 1931, 6). Finally, later in life, while married, McTaggart continued to dine nightly, alone, at Trinity Hall. Oddities aside, there is an overall melancholy feel to this man’s life, which has to be factored into any account of the origins of his view that personal love is the ultimate metaphysical bond in the universe, and for his mystical streak.

When McTaggart was four, tragedy struck in the form of his father’s death. Fortunately, this did not engender financial difficulties as his parents were of a prosperous Wiltshire family. Cared for by his well-educated and attentive mother, the young McTaggart spent his early days in a comfortable, book-lined home where he had ample opportunity to read and think. To a large degree his mother Caroline fit the profile of the “Victorian agnostic.” These republican-style agnostics typically grew up in religious backgrounds (Caroline’s father was a clergyman); they often dethroned the “king”, i.e. God, but were loyal to the “republic” of love and personal immortality;[12] indeed, their ultimate ideal was a communion of persons united in love, itself perhaps a secular version of the Christian Trinity, that would later be reflected in the structure of Taggart’s metaphysics. Such conditions probably fostered McTaggart’s natural propensity towards philosophy. While attending a preparatory school in Weybridge, McTaggart openly began to argue against God’s existence (Dickinson 1931, 8).

Passion for learning drove the young McTaggart so that by his early teenage years he had already read several philosophical texts. This hunger drove him to devour novels, both good and bad (his favorite was Dickens), but poetry was also important. McTaggart’s insatiable love of order led him to keep a journal detailing the contents of his readings and his reflections. If we believe his testimony, he had read his way through the local library. In 1882, the sixteen-year old McTaggart entered Clifton College where he met Roger Fry, a tall, wild-haired lad, product of a pious upbringing. The two remained friends for life. At Clifton, McTaggart entered into the life of the school, making numerous friends and joining debating societies. His general love of order revealed itself in a particular and intense interest in organizational structure and management (Rochelle 1991, 31). This interest is no doubt also partially explained by McTaggart’s enduring love and respect for British institutions, and his dislike of the anti-establishment poet Shelley.[13] However, McTaggart was not an uncritical defender of all products of English history and culture. In debates McTaggart boldly defended political views that were shocking at the time, such as English Republicanism.[14] Indeed, it would seem that all of McTaggart’s political views had a republican tinge.

Heartfelt republicanism aside, whether he converted anyone to the Republican cause is doubtful. Still, he must have been a skillful debater to inspire Dr. Percival, President of Trinity College, Oxford to write to Caroline stating that he might have a scholarship for her son. McTaggart’s debating skills also attracted the attention of Clifton’s Headmaster Canon Wilson, but he wrote to Caroline warning her to steer her son away from studying metaphysics—that “playing to a small audience somewhere in the clouds” (Dickinson 1931, 18). McTaggart, of course, did pursue metaphysics. In the fall of 1885, five years after Whitehead, McTaggart began his studies at Trinity College, Cambridge.

McTaggart and Fry moved into the ugly Cambridge rooms supervised by an unpleasant landlord (Rochelle 1991, 44).[15] McTaggart settled in and followed the Moral Sciences program (psychology, logic, methodology, moral and political philosophy, political economy and metaphysics). At this time McTaggart was most likely an empiricist, much along the lines of J.S. Mill. Soon he would seriously modify his Millsian views after discovering Hegel, rejecting materialism in favor of a Hegelian style of idealism, and insisting that all reality is spirit. But McTaggart never abandoned empiricism and empirical considerations play an important role in his metaphysical program.

In May 1886, McTaggart’s first spring at Trinity, he was nominated and elected to a very special—and curious—group of thinkers known as the “The Apostles,”[16] an apt name, given that the group comprised exactly twelve members. Nominations were based not only on candidates’ presumed intelligence, but also on their “broad-mindedness,” general insight and creative spark. And it was none other than Whitehead who spotted that spark within McTaggart and nominated him. This does not imply that Whitehead agreed with McTaggart’s views of the time, just that Whitehead found something of merit in McTaggart’s views. Clearly Whitehead’s judgment was sound: McTaggart emerged as one of the most dominant Apostles since Henry Sidgewick. Moreover, McTaggart’s dominance grew all the while that Whitehead was sitting alongside him. Without doubt McTaggart in turn held Whitehead in great esteem, as many already did.

McTaggart joined several intellectual societies and soon established himself as a first-rate debater amongst his peers. He graduated in June 1888 placing in the First Class of the Mental and Moral Sciences Tripos with Distinction in Metaphysics.[17] Overall, his undergraduate days set the tone for much of his subsequent life. McTaggart enjoyed an upper class, privileged existence, mixing with the intellectual elite and indulging his metaphysical pursuits. Although he traveled overseas from time to time, McTaggart never left Trinity for long and always kept it close to his heart.

As the new graduate labored on his fellowship, his brother fell ill. McTaggart’s brother and mother packed up their belongings and in 1890 emigrated to New Zealand. Shortly afterwards, McTaggart finished and submitted his dissertation on the Hegelian dialectic.[18] Whitehead, some forty years later while lecturing at Harvard, frequently quoted Henry Sidgewick’s remark that McTaggart’s dissertation on Hegel was indeed nonsense, but wondered whether it was the right kind of nonsense (Lowe 1985, 130). In 1891 McTaggart was elected to a fellowship at Trinity College and resigned as an Apostle. Apostles resigned, but never became ex-Apostles—they took “wings” and became “angels.”

In 1892 McTaggart received his MA. Although winged, he still had to board a boat to reach his mother in New Plymouth, New Zealand where he settled down to some serious study. But he always made time to compose numerous letters to his Cambridge colleagues and friends. He also experienced a little country living by visiting and helping out on a local farm, owned by Mr. and “Queenie” Halcombe. The Halcombes had a very large family; one of their sons, Norman, referred to as “N,” became the object of McTaggart’s interest. He also mixed with the locals, whom he says “regarded him with awe” (Rochelle 1991, 64). But it was on this trip that he met his future wife, Margaret Bird (nicknamed “Daisy”). In February 1893, he returned, alone, to Cambridge and settled into his teaching and researching duties; however, he kept in touch with Daisy through copious correspondence.

In the mid 1890’s McTaggart, Fry and others founded the discussion group, “Eranos.” Not surprisingly, McTaggart was a dominant member, and arguably the leader. The mutual respect of McTaggart and Whitehead is borne out by the fact that Whitehead soon afterwards joined. By now, however, McTaggart was propounding a developed personal idealism and certainly would have run it by Whitehead. This would not have been Whitehead’s first exposure to this species of idealism.[19]

In 1898 McTaggart returned to New Zealand. This visit intensified the emotional attachments that began during the previous visit. His feelings for “N” deepened and in late 1898, Queenie’s best friend, Daisy Bird, came to New Plymouth. By the end of January 1899, McTaggart and Daisy were engaged.[20] These deepening “empirical loves” of McTaggart seem to coincide with the deepening of his metaphysical view that “personal love” is the ultimate metaphysical bond. This is especially evident in his diary entries of July 1899, where he discusses “the Saul feeling” (Dickinson 1931, 46). This is McTaggart’s term for a transformative feeling that would overwhelm him from time to time and reveal a new way of viewing reality. He concluded that it is through such fundamental feeling that we come into true contact with the world.

McTaggart and Daisy were married on August 5, 1899. In the following September they returned to England. By January 1900, they had moved into their Cambridge home where they were to live out the rest of their married life. McTaggart settled back into his life as a university Don. He taught a series of public lectures called “Introduction to the Study of Philosophy,” which ran on Friday evenings. He also taught four courses per week for specialized students. Finally, he had, like any academic, committee duties. It seems that he and Daisy had a quiet, perhaps Platonic marriage. [21] Again, McTaggart continued to dine alone nightly at Trinity Hall, even as a married man; and he often told his close friends that Daisy was simply “another friend.” In 1902 McTaggart received his Litt.D. from the University of Cambridge and in 1906 was elected a fellow of the British academy. The next eight years were of relative calm.

World War I shattered this tranquility. McTaggart was too old to fight, although he shared the zeal that was widespread (but not unanimous) after hostilities were announced. One of McTaggart’s academic duties during this time was to sit on the College Council, which eventually decided to dismiss Bertrand Russell from Trinity. Much has been said of McTaggart’s role in all this; it was, indeed, a prime example of wartime hysteria at its worst—perhaps a case of an old conservative angered by a younger pacifist. Nonetheless, McTaggart was hardly the sole cause of Russell’s dismissal since other council members partook in the decision. No doubt Russell’s legendary stature in twentieth-century philosophy and personal conviction that McTaggart was the principle cause has contributed much to the vilification of McTaggart on this point. Such vilification of McTaggart the person would somewhat explain, but certainly not justify, the fact that many later philosophers dismiss McTaggart’s thought. History is typically more complex than received views. After all, Russell’s behavior—as Geach points out—was at the time hardly a paragon of virtue. It should also be considered that McTaggart’s personal correspondence indicates that it was not Russell’s opposition to the war that was the basis for his dismissal, but that Russell had been convicted of a crime.[22]

By July of 1920, McTaggart was ready to submit Volume I of The Nature of Existence for publication; it appeared the following year. As mentioned, McTaggart was extremely conscientious in evaluating his own work. Now he wanted to put aside more time to work on the next volume of The Nature of Existence. Again, his personal decisions are somewhat philosophically informative. In 1922 McTaggart had resigned from all of his professional duties, except for the Friday public lectures. Abandoning the academic and retaining the popular lectures is consistent with his view that philosophy was ultimately a product of deep conviction and a practical discipline concerning human existence.[23] He expressed this conviction in an Eranos meeting in late 1924. “The longer I live, the more I am convinced of the reality of three things: truth, love and immortality.”[24] Similar sentiments are contained in McTaggart’s selections from Spinoza’s writings: “The free man thinks of death least of all things, and his wisdom is a meditation, not of death, but of life.”[25] This citation from Spinoza is important both biographically and philosophically. McTaggart left instructions to have it read aloud at his funeral and engraved on a memorial brass plate in Trinity College’s ante-chapel. It was a critical expression of truth according to McTaggart since he himself quotes it at the end of his discussion concerning the limits of our knowledge of the existent.[26]

By now McTaggart was fifty-five, tired and very concerned with completing and revising Volume II of The Nature of Existence. Sadly, his time was cut short as he fell seriously ill while visiting London during the Christmas break of 1924. He was not to live much longer and died on January 18, 1925. His former student and then colleague and friend, C.D. Broad, edited and published the second volume in 1927.

The final biographical connection that I shall mention between McTaggart and Whitehead occurs in the preface to Volume I of The Nature of Existence. After remarking that he is “deeply indebted” to Moore for having read the entire manuscript, McTaggart then states that he is “much indebted” to Whitehead for having read and critiqued “several chapters.”[27] Unfortunately, to the best of my current knowledge, it is not certain which chapters Whitehead actually read and what his criticisms actually were.

2. Approaches to Metaphysics

To use P.F. Strawson’s still useful distinction, McTaggart and Whitehead are revisionary rather than descriptive metaphysicians (Strawson 1959, 9). Nonetheless, a critical difference emerges almost immediately. Consider Whitehead’s often quoted remark: “Speculative philosophy is the endeavour to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted” (PR 3). In general, speculative philosophy for Whitehead is a process of constructing a series of provisional systems, the set of which forms a necessarily asymptotic chain of systems that approach the true system. The chain is necessarily asymptotic because philosophers cannot ever definitively formulate the set of metaphysical principles (PR 4). McTaggart, by contrast, states that he shall

aim at absolute demonstration. Our results will either be fallacious through some error in the argument, or they will be certain. We may have occasion, at various points, to speak of probabilities, but this will be only incidental. The assertion of these probabilities will not form steps in the main line of the argument, and they will not affect the claim that the stages in that line have been absolutely demonstrated.[28]

This was quite striking to McTaggart’s contemporaries.[29] Whitehead may have been responding to McTaggart when he wrote that if any set of metaphysical principles had to be labeled either “truth” or “false,” they should always be labeled “false” (PR 8). Were a metaphysical system to entail a contradiction, Whitehead would begin by scrutinizing the system for the guilty proposition(s).[30]

McTaggart faces an entailment problem after constructing a preliminary theory of substances (PTS) using a priori and empirical propositions. [31] PTS entails a contradiction. He insists that there is but one solution: add another proposition, namely that “Determining Correspondence” (DC) holds. (I will discuss the content of DC later.) The conjunction (PTS and DC) does not entail a contradiction. Although McTaggart’s logical rescue of PTS does not strictly violate his own methodology of logically analyzing the concept of existence, as Broad charges, it does seem to violate Whitehead’s demand that first principles be coherent. McTaggart appears to have been aware of a coherency violation, an awareness that haunts his comments concerning the legitimacy of introducing DC.[32] He openly wonders whether DC has truly been proven, truly integrated into the philosophical system, since it remains possible that a different proposition, say R, could be conjoined to PTS and avoid the contradiction. If so, McTaggart worries, then the situation might explode into a set of alternative propositions {R, S, T, …} whose members could equally well rescue PTS. McTaggart’s response is that he cannot imagine another way of avoiding the contradiction.[33] Since McTaggart elsewhere denounces “unimaginability arguments,” it is unlikely that he felt entirely comfortable using one to bolster the key inference in his metaphysical system. Nonetheless, he does use it.

But even after accepting that DC has been proven and integrated into the system, McTaggart continues to express his concerns about it. DC is broader than the propositions of PTS (which solely concern substances) because DC concerns both the ontological embedding structure of substances and their internal structure. Moreover, McTaggart tells us that DC is not simply the assertion of a single structure but a set of structures, {DC1, DC2, DC3, …}. Again, McTaggart poses important questions concerning DC. Which DCi of {DC1, DC2, DC3, …} actually holds in our universe? Does only one DCi hold or do several? McTaggart asserts that these questions cannot be answered a priori; they can only be answered on empirical grounds.[34] Since McTaggart holds that empirical grounds only provide knowledge with a high level of certainty, the net result is that the ultimate structure into which substances are embedded can only be known with certainty up to the level of the family of structures. An attempt to press further meets with only a high level of certainty.

Now let us re-consider Whitehead and McTaggart on certainty and metaphysical systems. As Whitehead said, the correct set of principles forever eludes us, although we approach it via a necessarily asymptotic chain. For McTaggart, we certainly can achieve absolute certainty concerning the truth status of propositions belonging to the PTS. But, we cannot achieve absolute certainty concerning the truth status of propositions belonging to the set of structures in DC. Whitehead does not seem to have this distinction. As to individual propositions, Whitehead writes: “There is no first principle which is in itself unknowable, not to be captured by a flash of insight” (PR 4). This should caution us against issuing blanket assertions concerning each thinker’s view of certainty within metaphysics. So, I tentatively suggest that McTaggart’s thinking on metaphysics and certainty is generally a hierarchical approach, perhaps more so than Whitehead’s. McTaggart distinguishes between the metaphysical and the empirical, saying that the former is known with certainty and the other not. Nonetheless, we have just seen that he holds that reason only articulates metaphysical structure up to the level of a family of structures and then empirical experience is the (provisional) basis upon which a particular structure is selected and labeled “true.”

The view that reason, governed solely by consistency, articulates the abstract set of possible structures of reality, and then hands that set over to empirical investigation to select one structure as true of the world, closely resembles the thought of Felix Klein, to whose work McTaggart would have been introduced via Russell’s treatise on projective geometry. Whitehead, too, has a hierarchy. The structure of his metaphysics is that the universe is an expression of the ultimate, “creativity;” governed by particular arrangements of eternal objects, this structure is the fixed framework upon which everything else hangs. But much of the structure that is fixed in McTaggart becomes open to process in Whitehead.

Let us consider Whitehead, McTaggart and the entailment problem in metaphysics from a more historical perspective. First, the Whiteheadian approach could be labeled as nothing more than an application of the Occamist view to the question of principles. One should not solve an inconsistency among principles by adding another, more controversial principle. But another perspective on this sheds more light on McTaggart, Whitehead and their times. Not surprisingly, the Whiteheadian move is close to what a scientifically minded philosopher of the times would in fact make. For instance, the highly influential philosopher of space and time, Hans Reichenbach, articulates a structurally similar entailment problem that involves a set of a priori epistemological principles. He solves it by calling for the eradication of the traditional philosophy of the a priori.[35] McTaggart, though, arguably more steeped in the philosophical tradition than Whitehead, moves as a more traditional metaphysician would. Two traditional metaphysicians loom large in McTaggart’s thought, Spinoza and Leibniz; and they also made a similar methodological move when confronted with a similar problem. For instance, Leibniz, after constructing his system based on self-evident propositions, came to the conclusion that there could be no plurality of inter-acting substances. Experience, however, tells us the opposite. Basically, he then introduced the notion of pre-established harmony in order to save his metaphysical system.[36]

Overall, we should read McTaggart’s either/or statement concerning his system as an overstatement. The previous biography has shown that he did not shy aware from bold positions and I have tried to make the case that he does doubt his own inferences at key junctures. Finally, consider McTaggart’s remarks after he has completed his categorial analysis, remarks that sound much like Whitehead’s concerning metaphysics: “This concludes the first part of our investigation—the endeavour to determine, as far as possible, the characteristics which belong to all that exists, or which belong to existence as a whole” (My italics).[37]

Hence, McTaggart does not think that this derived structure is either perfect or false. Moreover, this derived structure is not that far removed from ordinary experience. In fact, the structure should be thought of as a subset of ordinary experience. Several sections later, after considering just what subset of ordinary experience this structure is, McTaggart writes:

Different as is the nature of absolute reality from that of present experience […] it is not impossible to form a fairly adequate picture of it by means of the materials given to us in our present experience.[38]

This is possible because the metaphysical picture that McTaggart presents is, to a great degree, abstracted from present experience. And what I hope to suggest here is that the vast amount of what passes as “McTaggart’s metaphysics” is in fact an abstraction from experience. And so in this sense there is a closer tie to Whitehead concerning methodology than at first appears. I would like to complete this section, then, with a few remarks on their respective methodologies.

Both thinkers, for similar reasons, declare induction to be inadequate for articulating metaphysical categories. Essentially, induction begins by dividing experiential objects into two classes—those that possess some property, W, and those that do not. This may be appropriate in certain fields of study, but since metaphysics, both philosophers agree, must seek the most general ideas that apply to experience, a property that is predicated on the introduction of a contrast is necessarily limited to some aspects of experience and so cannot be characteristic of the whole.

Now the two thinkers begin to diverge, although there are some similarities to their views. This can best be seen by considering a traditional axiom in western metaphysics, which Whitehead challenges. Philosophy, Whitehead insists, has been unduly influenced by the view that it must begin with clear and distinct premises and then construct a logical deduction upon them in order to fabricate its metaphysical scheme (PR 8). Whitehead rejects this because he thinks that it is backwards. Philosophy must begin with vague generalities and then refine them.[39] True metaphysical generalities are deep, vague and are not the uppermost objects in experience. Clarity and distinctness is proportional to triviality according to Whitehead. McTaggart does not accept this outright. Under the influence of Russell’s logicism, McTaggart held to the equivalency of logical and mathematical propositions: that they were true of the world, and that they were “clear and distinct.” However, McTaggart agrees with Whitehead, admitting that some critical metaphysical propositions are expressed in experience and are vague. Unfortunately, this partial agreement with Whitehead is not to be found in McTaggart’s discussion of his methodology.[40] Instead, it emerges in his articulation of the nature of substance. I will offer the textual evidence of this in the next section, but for now the key point is that McTaggart distinguishes between metaphysical generalities—as expressed in, say, a logical law—and metaphysical generalities as expressed in a synthetic a priori proposition concerning the infinite divisibility of substance. Nonetheless, both thinkers are similar in that mathematics influenced their methodology. The difference is that logicism and its associated Russellian epistemology influenced McTaggart while Whitehead was more influenced by the projective geometry school and its associated epistemological method of free variation. This school ultimately forms the roots of Whitehead’s methodological principle of “imaginative generalization.”

I would now like to turn to the remaining two themes of my discussion. In western philosophy two elements of experience have been examined in depth: the experience of time and that of the self. Let us now look at their respective roles in McTaggart’s and Whitehead’s thought.

3. The Roads to Selves and to Actual Entities

The first step to injecting subjectivity into the basis of metaphysics is to exclude the notion of “matter.” Indeed, both Whitehead and McTaggart argue against the existence of matter. By “matter” is meant that which possesses the traditional primary qualities of size, shape, mobility and impenetrability.[41] Another way to think of “matter” is that it is

continuous stuff with permanent attributes, enduring without differentiation, and retaining its self-identity through any stretch of time however small or large […]. The stuff undergoes change with respect to accidental qualities and relations; but it is numerically self-identical over time in its character of one actual entity throughout its accidental adventures (PR 78).[42]

McTaggart and Whitehead reject matter for similar reasons. But one difference to be noted immediately is that Whitehead, unlike McTaggart, was familiar with the results of quantum mechanics and its rejection of the traditional nature of matter (PR 77-79). This does not mean that McTaggart was unfamiliar with all results of science. How much he truly knew is difficult to say, although, as we have seen, C.D. Broad assures us that it was very little, if anything. Nonetheless, McTaggart was concerned as to whether or not science conflicted with his metaphysical views.

We see this deep concern with science when McTaggart analyzes his most important metaphysical category on the road to selves, namely, “substance.”[43] McTaggart wants to motivate belief in proposition P, “substance is infinitely divisible.”[44] He holds that P is “self-evident” and “ultimate.” McTaggart is well aware that without P his system collapses and that this proposition will not strike many as either self-evident or ultimate.[45] McTaggart handles this situation by distinguishing between “the obvious self-evident” and “the hidden self-evident.” Propositions of pure logic, like the law of excluded middle, belong to the category of “obvious self-evident.” McTaggart then writes:

But there are others whose self-evidence and ultimate truth, though just as real, does not suggest itself till after long and careful examination and analysis of the facts of experience. Our assertion, therefore, need not be mistaken because it is new. But, on the other hand, the rash acceptance of propositions as self-evident and ultimate has been a fruitful source of error. And undoubtedly we take a very heavy intellectual responsibility when, without the universal concurrence of mankind, we assert of any proposition that, though it cannot be proven, it ought not to be doubted.

Prior to this passage, McTaggart has remarked that close scrutiny of perception reveals that, “all we perceive is divisible in time.”[46] This fact of perception holds even if time itself has simple parts—for we do not perceive such simples. This fact of perception holds even if time does not exist—for although ultimate reality may not be temporally structured, it would possess some kind of internal structure and could not be indivisible per se.

McTaggart certainly brushes aside possible doubt concerning the “obviousness” of the self-evidence and ultimate truth of the law of excluded middle. But he hesitates to do this with respect to his synthetic proposition concerning the non-simplicity of substance. He admits that this proposition concerning substance is by no means beyond doubt. What might make us doubt this proposition is none other than the results of physical science. McTaggart writes:

Supposing that views which were generally accepted in science did involve the existence of simple substances, we should have to enquire into the precise metaphysical significance of those views, and to consider whether, in rejecting simple substances, we should really come into conflict with science, or only with the uncritical metaphysics of scientists.[47]

Unfortunately, McTaggart does not address this question since he simply asserts that the clash with science does not exist. But he secretly breathes a sigh of relief in a footnote concerning science and divisibility. McTaggart writes: “On this subject Dr. Whitehead speaks with a competence and a knowledge which I am far from possessing. That my conclusions should agree with his has much strengthened my confidence in them.”[48]

Ultimately then, it is by carefully scrutinizing the facts of experience that we arrive at the view that one never finds simples within experience. Now McTaggart’s notion of “no simples” in experience bears a strong resemblance to Whitehead’s analysis of experience that led him to formulate the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”[49] But let us consider this from a strictly metaphysical, systematic perspective. For McTaggart, to exist is to be extended in some sense; he clearly says that he does not insist that to exist means to be spatio-temporally extended. Whitehead says very much the same thing. However, because of his presupposition of the reality of the extensive continuum and that time is real, he differs from McTaggart. Whitehead, one could say, has a more restricted notion of the relation between extension and existence. To exist according to Whitehead’s metaphysics is to actualize a region of the extensive continuum.

Whitehead and McTaggart both reject the traditional notion of time, namely, that time is a unique seriality, an idea that philosophy borrowed from common sense.[50] They differ dramatically on the notion of time since Whitehead’s acceptance of time is far more complex than McTaggart’s outright rejection of it. Nonetheless, both philosophers hold that there is a deep contradiction in the everyday view of time.

To see this, let us begin by sketching the relevant arguments, starting with McTaggart’s “industry-generating” argument against the existence of time. Like the ontological argument, it can be simply stated but not easily dismissed. We often speak of events as “past,” “present” or “future” as well as “happening soon” or “having occurred ten years ago.” McTaggart deems these “A characteristics.” They are united in referring to a “now” in time. Sometimes we speak of events as related to one another; we say “Q is earlier than Z,” or “T lasted an hour.” McTaggart deems these “B characteristics.” We can now state the argument:

1. Time requires change.[51]

2. Change requires (real) “A characteristics.”[52] (B characteristics are insufficient.)

3. Real “A characteristics” entail a contradiction.[53]

Conclusion: No “A characteristics,” hence no change and therefore, no time.

McTaggart offers various arguments of varying plausibility for each of the three premises. I shall briefly consider only the structure of one argument for premise 3. He states that each event must have the three A characteristics, “past/ present/ future.” But it is contradictory for an event, Q, to be “past/present/future.” Suppose we say that Q “will be past/is present/has been future.” McTaggart argues that the same contradiction will be generated among the italicized terms.[54] If we use “bold terms” to eliminate the contradiction among the italicized terms the contradiction with then appear among the bold terms. So, we have a contradiction or an infinite regression. The problem stems from the very nature of the temporal terms themselves. Ultimately, the A-characteristics and the B-characteristics must be abandoned.

McTaggart is well aware how counter-intuitive this is. But he clarifies the abandonment of time, insisting that it does “not give us any reason to suppose that all the elements in our experience of time are illusory.”[55] It remains possible that the experience of temporal time-series is ultimately an experience of a non-temporal series. McTaggart writes: “Such a series as this—a series which is not a time-series, but under certain conditions appears to us to be one—may be called a C-series.”[56]

The C-series and the DC-series form the metaphysical backbone of McTaggart’s philosophical system.[57] Nonetheless, their epistemological status differs. McTaggart is, as I have argued, not claiming absolute certainty regarding the specific internal structure of the DC-series, only an extremely high level of certainty. The C-series, McTaggart admits, is of a much lower level of certainty. I will discuss the C-series in the next section. The first point here is that something that appears as ordered and temporal is, in itself, merely ordered. Now, the term “ordered” covers a variety of possibilities, but that, too, will be discussed later. The second point is that McTaggart offers us an explanation of the fact that something can be merely ordered and appear as temporally ordered: we simply misperceive it.

Whitehead also holds that there is a contradiction buried in the everyday notion of time; however, he locates this contradiction in the everyday notion of a “continuous process.” Ultimately, the analysis of “continuous process” leads to an infinite regress and can only be solved by introducing a metaphysical proposition concerning time, what Whitehead calls “the epochal nature of time.” Prior to sketching this argument, I would like to stress that it is ultimately an a priori argument. Whitehead unequivocally states, and he is certainly correct on this, that the epochal nature of time does not follow from Relativity Theory. The epochal theory of time is not a scientific result at all. It follows from “the doctrine of events and of the nature of enduring objects” (SMW 126). And, once again, the theory allows us to avoid a contradiction concerning becoming. How it dodges the contradiction can be stated simply. But unlike McTaggart’s argument, which revolved about the regress inherent in talk of a real A-series, Whitehead’s discussion is in terms of the regress inherent in talk of a real B series.

Every act of becoming is divisible into “earlier/later.”

Some X is coming into existence. Call this H, the act of X’s becoming.

H is divisible into “earlier H” and “later H.”

“Later H” depends on “earlier H.”

“Early H” can be divided into “early-early H” and “late-early H.”

Late-early H” depends on “early-early H.”

Therefore, nothing can “become.”

Whitehead writes that, “There is a becoming of continuity, but no continuity of becoming” (PR 35). This, ultimately, is to say that becoming occurs in drops or sections-all-at-once. There is no growth in continuity. This is not quite the sledge-hammer of McTaggart, for two reasons. First, in Science and the Modern World,the epochal theory of time resulted from a philosophical analysis concerning the nature of an event. Later, in Process and Reality, Whitehead follows William James and claims that our everyday experience comes to us in drops or what could be called “units of perception” (PR 68). So, Whitehead does offer some experiential basis for the epochal theory of time. Second, and more importantly, Whitehead freely admits that this becoming of continuity may only be an accidental aspect of reality as a whole. Whitehead writes:

In the present cosmic epoch there is a creation of continuity. Perhaps such creation is an ultimate metaphysical truth holding of all cosmic epochs; but this does not seem to be a necessary conclusion. The more likely opinion is that extensive continuity is a special condition arising from the society of creatures that constitute our immediate epoch (PR 35-36).

These buds of extension are the atoms of Whitehead’s system. They have a very complex internal structure. The development of this structure is what Whitehead calls “concrescence” or “genetic division.”[58] Whitehead writes: “In a process of concrescence, there is a succession of phases in which new prehensions arise by integration of prehensions in antecedent phases” (PR 27). Whitehead insists that this process of concrescence is not in “physical time” (PR 283). He immediately qualifies this further saying that the “genetic process is not the temporal succession.” To embrace the epochal theory of time is to deny that the genetic process is temporal. Finally, Whitehead writes: “Each phase in the genetic process presupposes the entire quantum, and so does each feeling in each phase.” I submit then, that within the heart of his metaphysics, Whitehead—at least provisionally—excludes time. Again, so does McTaggart. But the most interesting commonality between them is how they both seek to find a replacement for time.

As we have seen, both systems are atomistic and devoid of matter. McTaggart’s atoms are “selves” and are all ontologically equal. Selves differ solely in terms of content, namely, their perceptions. Chapter Two of the Nature of Existence is McTaggart’s attempt to collapse the distinction between reality and existence. So, when we articulate the nature of existence we are in fact articulating the nature of reality itself. Given that McTaggart’s definition of substance entails that the universe itself is a substance, one could say that he embraces a trivial form of Whitehead’s ontological principle. But there is more to it than that since McTaggart explicitly argues against any kind of existence outside that of substance and as we have seen, substance is, except for the universe itself, composed of spirit, which in turn can only be composed of perceptions. Where McTaggart does run into difficulties is his acceptance of logic and mathematics as some kind of laws about the universe. Simply put, in what sense, for McTaggart does a number exist?[59] Whitehead’s atoms are “actual entities” and are all ontologically equal, i.e., we cannot find something “more real” underpinning them. Whitehead writes that, “God is an actual entity and so is the most trivial puff of existence in far off empty space” (PR 18). Although one set of metaphysical principles govern God, trivial puffs of existence and all entities in between, there remain “gradations of importance” and “diversities of function” among actual entities.

McTaggart’s selves are eternal whereas Whitehead’s actual entities are not. From the epochal theory of time, actual entities have a specific appearance in time and, Whitehead adds, these atoms do in fact die. In Whitehead’s metaphysics, a person, a human being, is an extended collection of these actual entities. Clearly each actual entity in this collection undergoes birth and death and so does the entire collection. However, these brief pulses of experience are not lost; a human subjective life is not lost either. All is preserved in the memory of God (e.g. PR 350).

What I shall look at here is the similarity of structure between the order of a self and that of an actual entity. The main idea is that both Whitehead and McTaggart place intensive orders in the heart of their metaphysical systems. (I assume that the heart of Whitehead’s system is the concrescence of actual entities.)

I mentioned that McTaggart has two key structural elements in a self: the DC-series and the C-series. Again, a self is entirely composed of perceptions since only perceptions can satisfy the structural demands imposed by DC. My immediate task is to sketch the structure of the DC- and C-series.

To sketch a DC-structure, let us consider a simplified McTaggartean universe, two selves, A and B. Moreover, consider A’s DC-perceptions and A’s C-series.[60] Let “A!X” be read as “A’s DC-perception of some X.” If a self has a DC-perception of X, by definition that perception is perfectly accurate and ultimately infinitely differentiable.[61] Clearly our everyday perceptions contain errors and do not represent their objects as infinitely differentiable; however, as we have seen, McTaggart argues that there are no “minima sensibilia” in ordinary perceptions either. But the point is that our regular perceptions, call them fragmentary perceptions (f-perceptions) are not complete like DC-perceptions. Regular experience, then, consists of f-perceptions whereas “ultimate experience” exists of DC-perceptions.

Now, consider A’s set of DC-perceptions. It would be composed of two main branches: A!A (A’s complete perception of itself) and A!B (A’s complete perception of B). But this is only the beginning, since each branch ramifies to infinity. A partial diagram of this ramification would look like the following:

A’s f-perceptions (except for one) cannot be terms of A’s DC-series. Hence, A’s f-perceptions must be terms of a “fresh” series in a “fresh” dimension.[62] However, the set of DC-perceptions, as the diagram above illustrates, exhausts the entire content of the self. The fresh dimension in the above diagram would be orthogonal to the page. To get a feel for this, imagine looking at the page on edge. The C-series runs “up” towards the DC-series and intersects with it. This intersection is the one perception that belongs to both the C- and DC-series. McTaggart indexes the C-series and fixes it to the DC-series. For example, A’s f-perception of A at some time t would be written as cxA!A and another time, t+1, it would be written cyA!A. Before articulating the internal structure of this C-series consider the following diagram.

A’s f-perceptions are not erroneous simply because they are incomplete. If incompleteness were the sole cause of error, then summing f-perceptions would result in a complete—i.e. accurate—perception. Our experience, McTaggart says, simply does not bear this out. Adding observations together does not necessarily solve problems concerning error. Does such adding, in the long run,ultimatelysolve problems concerning error? McTaggart admits that there is no way to answer such a question with certainty. Nonetheless, to claim that as one goes through life, experiencing one erroneous self-perception after another, that one monotonically approaches “truth” (or “error” for that matter) is wildly improbable. [63]

However, McTaggart now has an interesting problem to solve. The DC-perceptions cannot contain content external to the C-series’ f-perceptions. But, the summation of the terms of the C-series cannot be a DC-perception. (If it were, then summing a series of errors results in truth.) After posing this problem, McTaggart asks us to consider a length of twelve inches. This can be divided into either an exclusion series or inclusion series. An exclusion series could consist of twelve equal segments, all one inch. The sum of this series will contain all the content of the original and be an accurate picture of the original length. An inclusion series could consist of twelve unequal, overlapping segments of increasing lengths, one inch, two inch, three inch, and so on to a twelve-inch length. The sum of these terms, while not including any more content than the original, certainly would not offer us an accurate picture of the original.[64] So, a summation of errors can cover the content but not provide truth.

There is one important note here with the inclusion series, namely, that the last term of it is in fact not a misrepresentation of the original length since it is the original length. So, this is where the C-series intersects with the DC-series. McTaggart argues that the terms of the C-series must form an inclusion series. If they form an exclusion series, then they will violate the principle: “perceptual errors cannot sum to a perceptual truth.”[65] McTaggart insists real error exists and demands explanation.[66]

To condense much of McTaggart’s discussion, our perception of time as a dynamic, temporal flow of one discrete state S1 to another discrete state S2 is a misperception of a static inclusion relation, where S2 includes S1. The order of the flow, then, is preserved in the order of inclusion. McTaggart clearly follows Leibniz by using misperception as a fundamental metaphysical principle. McTaggart presents a provisional taxonomy of mental states that could be found in Descartes’ Meditations:


Cognitions—Awarenesses (Perceptions and Awarenesses of



Assumptions and Imaginings

Connations Volitions and Emotions

However, because of McTaggart’s insistence that perceptions are the only mental states that can be in a determining correspondence system, all other mental states in this taxonomy must ultimately reduce to perceptions. McTaggart offers an interesting and surprisingly sophisticated philosophy of mind as he works his way through this taxonomy arguing for his particular perceptual reductionism.[67] The final result of all this is something quite shocking, especially to those of us who make a living from discursive thought. McTaggart’s view bottoms out by insisting that there is no such thing as “discursive thought.”

In a nutshell, a McTaggartean self is a “block self,” that is, an eternal, inclusive series of erroneous perceptions except for the last perception—which is ultimately a DC-perception and is completely accurate. Now, let us consider Whitehead’s views in light of this.

As a C-series is ordered, but not temporal, it is much the same as Whitehead’s phases of concrescence. They too, are ordered but not temporally ordered. Second, as McTaggart’s non-temporal inclusion series, the C-series, manifests itself to us as a temporal series, so too does Whitehead’s phases of concrescence as explained in the epochal theory of time. Concrescence in itself is not temporal—or extended in any sense—but upon appearance, after achieving satisfaction, a particular region of the extensive continuum has been actualized (in our epoch) into a space-time volume. This, of course, appears as spatio-temporally extended in the non-inclusive sense.

So, the ultimate connection between McTaggart and Whitehead is that both regard the fundamental, underlying reality to be a non-temporal inclusion series of perceptions (or prehensions).[68] However, within appearances, this inclusion series is seen as an exclusion series, the experience of ordinary life. The ultimate disconnect between McTaggart and Whitehead is that McTaggart holds that our ordinary perception of the inclusion series as an exclusion series is a misperception. So, McTaggart’s shift from inclusion to exclusion is epistemologically grounded. For Whitehead, the ordinary perception of the inclusion series as an exclusion series is not an error at all. That exclusion structure is the structure of an actualized region of the extensive continuum. So, Whitehead’s shift from inclusion to exclusion is ontologically grounded.

My discussion, though, has been limited, perhaps unfairly with regard to Whitehead. I have compared and contrasted a McTaggartean self to a Whiteheadian actual entity. A McTaggartean self includes a series of perceptions; it is much “larger” than an actual entity. What corresponds to a McTaggartean self in Whitehead’s system would be a chain of actual entities. However, the “chain metaphor” cannot be understood too strictly or we will misinterpret Whitehead’s views. Nonetheless, according to Whitehead, a solid object, like a chair, or even an object that we would, in the every day sense call a “person,” is ultimately a “chain” or a trail of actual entities linked by a special set of properties. This too, is an inclusion series. It is an inaccurate view of them to see them as “beads on a string.”

So, what strikes me as perhaps one of the deepest connections between Whitehead and McTaggart is that they use inclusion series to explain time. Admittedly, this view of time was quite common during the early twentieth century. So what I find of interest is that neither uses it in a completely satisfactory way. I stress that I do not mean to disparage anyone by my previous remark. On the contrary—I meant it as a point of praise. That is, both of them via their philosophical investigations reached such a depth that the disconnect between their philosophical systems and ordinary experience hit a brick wall.

But there is another remark that needs to be made. McTaggart has no room in his system for discursive thought. Everything is just perception. But there is no room in Whitehead’s system for discursive thought either. First, there is no such thing as a “mental substance” that could remain identical over time as it takes on varying thoughts. Second, if there were anything resembling discursive thought in this system it would be within the phases of concrescence. And here Whitehead often speaks of the consciousness of a higher-order actual entity. But, given that the various integrations of feelings that comprise concrescence are not ordered within time, this would hardly qualify as discursive thought any more than would the complex of perceptions in McTaggart’s theory.

4. Conclusions

I reiterate my earlier claim that it is Leibniz who serves as the link between McTaggart and Whitehead. McTaggart, with his strong emphasis that substances truly are selves of a high order, reflects his lack of sympathy for the external world of non-human objects. Simply put, when McTaggart said that matter does not exist, he meant it in an extremely strong sense. Whitehead, too, of course, rejected matter but was too much of a scientist not to offer a replacement for it in the form of the lowest-grade actual entities. Moreover, Whitehead’s scientific motivations also moved him to try to incorporate the results of William James’ psychological analyses of time into his own metaphysical system. In sum, McTaggart sought a happy coexistence between contemporary science and his own metaphysics, whereas Whitehead wanted to incorporate science into his metaphysics.

But within the McTaggart-Whitehead story there lurks another significant historical figure, Descartes. Descartes’ influence on both thinkers is subtle and complex but here I can only suggest, in a general way, that the two thinkers drew on quite different aspects of Cartesianism. The epistemological side of Cartesian thought—radical doubt and the drive for certainly, the strict distinctions, the fundamental moment of the cogito—was key for McTaggart’s appropriation of Leibniz’ monadology. On the other hand, Cartesian ontology, with its doctrine of continuous creation, of divine oversight and of the various levels of reality in ideas—was key to Whitehead’s appropriation of Leibniz’s monadology. These are preliminary suggestions but it is clear that much more work needs to be done to explain more fully the similarities, as well as the mutual influences of the systems of McTaggart and Whitehead.


[1] Whitehead makes the same remark concerning Hegel in his “Autobiographical Notes” in The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, The Library of Living Philosophers (New York, Tudor Publishing Company, 1951), 7.

[2] I follow Peter Geach’s in minimizing McTaggart’s allegiance to Hegel’s thought. Geach notes that McTaggart often rejected precisely those texts of Hegel’s that the Hegelians embraced and that in McTaggart’s view the Hegelians (indeed, Hegel himself) were poor logicians (1979, 17). Without doubt McTaggart grounds his metaphysics in a logical analysis of categories. Nonetheless, if this acceptance is “Hegelian,” then every major thinker, from Aristotle to Aquinas and to Quine, is a “Hegelian.” Like Geach, Alasdair MacIntyre (1981, 668), J.N. Findlay (1980, 365) and Victor Lowe (1985, 132) all point to McTaggart’s important differences from Hegel.

[3] For an informative global study of this period see Jonathan Rose (1986).

[4] Although McTaggart uses the Hegelian terms “the Absolute,” and “the Absolute Idea,” McTaggart’s Absolute is not to be thought of as any kind of god, since his notion of love as that which is “ultimately real” cannot accommodate any “love of God” (1934, 268-69). McTaggart insists that the “[…] Absolute realizes itself in a community of individuals like ourselves—in what has been termed the Civitas Dei” (1934, 215).

[5] By “set-theory” I primarily mean the work by Georg Cantor. Here there may be a Hegelian background to McTaggart’s orientation: Hegel seeks to generate mathematical concepts like “number” in his logic, and thus anticipates Russell’s view of numbers as classes of classes (see Pinkard 1980). McTaggart’s studies in Hegel’s thought on mathematics may have led eventually to his admiration for Russell’s mathematical writings. But that is a story for another time.

[6] C.D. Broad reviewed The Nature of Existence right after its publication and remarked that since so many of McTaggart’s arguments rely on infinite series, a chapter devoted to them would have been helpful (1921, 323). Bertrand Russell dedicated his An Essay on the Foundations of Geometry to McTaggart, not for any mathematical mentorship (Russell thanks others for that, especially the great German Göttingen mathematician, Felix Klein) but for his “discourse and friendship.” Geach rightly remarks that McTaggart’s discussions of substance groups bears a strong resemblance to Russell’s classes (1979, 63). All of this suggests that McTaggart was familiar with the philosophy of mathematics, despite Lowe’s claims to the contrary (1985, 226).

[7] C.D. Broad, who knew McTaggart personally, says that McTaggart was completely ignorant of science and was “[…] under no temptation to accommodate his philosophy to the scientific fashions of the moment” (1976, liii).

[8] Supposedly, McTaggart happily referred to this as “Cromwell’s lucky day.” McTaggart was no monarchist but it is very doubtful that he would have endorsed the policies of England’s dictatorial “Lord Protectorate for Life.”

[9] Geach amusingly remarks that a library in Poland files McTaggart’s works as a “collaboration” between John McTaggart and Ellis McTaggart.

[10] E. M. Forester refers to McTaggart as “[…] a remarkable figure, possibly a great man, certainly a very strange man” (1934, 66).

[11] McTaggart died at 58 from thrombosis in the legs (a painful blood clotting disorder). This disease is thought to have many different causes, only one of which is genetic. The fact that his parents and many ancestors were cousins does not necessitate a genetic origin, although it raises the probability by several percent.

[12] For more on ‘Victorian agnostics’ see Rose, 1986, Chapter 1, “Secular Religion.” Relevant here is Whitehead’s remark that he was himself a “typical Victorian Englishman” (ESP, 124) who never strayed far from the general views of his countrymen (at least not for long).

[13] All this must be taken with some caution since McTaggart befriended Roger Fry, who had an intense dislike of school rules and so was an anti-establishment figure.

[14] On the other hand, McTaggart also defended the rights of the Church of England in spite of his own strident atheism. In addition, he was a fervent supporter of England’s entry into the First World War.

[15] Fry attended King’s College, not McTaggart’s Trinity.

[16] The Apostles were also known as “The Society” and “The Cambridge Conversazione Society.” This group included some illustrious thinkers of the nineteenth century. For an excellent discussion of the history of this group, see Levy 1981.

[17] McTaggart also won the Marshall Prize for Political Economy and The Members Prize (Rochelle 1991, 57).

[18] This dissertation becomes the first four chapters of Studies in the Hegelian Dialectic.

[19] W.R. Sorley, five years Whitehead’s senior and most likely his first philosophical mentor, coupled a background in mathematics and physics with an interest in evolution. Sorley was also an advocate of personal idealism. Lowe speculates, correctly I think, that Whitehead’s conversations with Sorley in the early 1880’s would have given Whitehead his first taste of personal idealism (Lowe 1985, 82).

[20] It is difficult to say exactly how McTaggart felt about Daisy; sometimes he even says that she is clever, but not very pretty, although she will be a great friend (Rochelle 1991, 73). Biographers often refer to particular loves for male friends, but in my opinion it is not clear whether McTaggart had homosexual relations, or even homosexual tendencies. What is clear, however, is that personal relations of all sorts played a large role in McTaggart’s intellectual development and eventually in his metaphysics.

[21] For an overview of McTaggart the married man, see Rochelle 1991, Chapter 6.

[22] Geach 1979, 13. For more on McTaggart’s correspondence regarding the Russell affair, see Rochelle 1991, Chapter 12.

[23] See McTaggart’s syllabus (Friday lectures) for such views. This syllabus has been published as Chapter IX, “Introduction to the Study of Philosophy,” in Philosophical Studies. Of course there were non-philosophical reasons for McTaggart’s resignation, one of which being the desire to enable his friend, C.D. Broad, to obtain a teaching position.

[24] Basil Williams in Lowes Dickinson, McTaggart, 77. Basil Williams was another dear friend of McTaggart’s. McTaggart wrote the following at the end of his manuscript for The Nature of Existence: “Heart of My Heart, Have I Done Well?” Commentators interpret this as directed to Daisy and indicative of McTaggart’s feeling that his life’s work was accomplished. Perhaps—but it is interesting to note that I found a copy of The Nature of Existence in the rare books section of the Saint Paul University library (Ottawa, Canada). McTaggart signs the book to Basil Williams, writing the exact same line as above. It might simply have been a way that McTaggart addressed those dear to him.

[25] Ethics IV, 67.

[26] McTaggart, The Nature of Existence, II, 187.

[27] McTaggart, The Nature of Existence, I, “Preface,” iv. McTaggart also thanks C.D. Broad in the exact same manner as he thanks Whitehead. Lowe simply says that Whitehead read the manuscript form of Volume I of The Nature of Existence, which implies that he read the entire first volume. (Alfred North Whitehead, The Man and His Work, 132). I am currently unaware of any support for this claim.

[28] McTaggart, The Nature of Existence, I, 52. After articulating his categories, McTaggart repeats this passage in the second volume of The Nature of Existence, 4-5.

[29] R.F. Alfred Hoernle remarked, “In these days, this is an uncommonly bold position to take up.” (“Review of The Nature of Existence,” The Philosophical Review, Vol.32, No.1, January 1923, 79-89, 81.)

[30] This is supported by Whitehead’s insistence that he is rejecting a traditional habit of thought, namely, “the belief that logical inconsistencies can indicate anything else than some antecedent errors” (Process and Reality, xiii). Whitehead had no doubt aimed this as well at Bradley, although in the context of this comment he admits that even though he opposes Bradley throughout much of Process and Reality, in the end his system highly resembles that of Bradley’s.

[31] Here I (somewhat) follow C.D. Broad’s discussion in his Examination of McTaggart’s Metaphysics, Vol. I, 6-7.

[32] McTaggart, The Nature of Existence, I, 218.

[33] McTaggart, The Nature of Existence, I, 218.

[34] McTaggart, The Nature of Existence, I, 239-241. For a detailed and exhaustive discussion of McTaggart’s inferences regarding DC see Broad’s commentary, Vol. 1, Chapter 21, “The Principle of Determining Correspondence, pp. 375-400. For an interesting but less technical attempt to develop some of McTaggart’s principles in a different direction, see N.M. Nathan, “McTaggart’s Immaterialism,” The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 165, 1991, 442-56. Finally, for an early and excellent critical study of DC, see John Wisdom, “McTaggart’s Determining Correspondence of Substance: A Refutation,” Mind, 37, 1928, 414-38.

[35] Hans Reichenbach, The Philosophy of Space and Time (New York, Dover Publications, 1958), 62-7. Reichenbach called for a revamped notion of the a priori. For more on this, see J. Alberto Coffa, The Semantic Tradition from Kant to Carnap: To the Vienna Station (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991), 189-206.

[36] See C.D. Broad, Examination of McTaggart’s Philosophy, 7. Interestingly enough, Reichenbach also mentions that one could, in order to avoid his clash of a priori principles, avoid them by an appeal to Pre-Established Harmony. For more on this see my “Metaphysics, Mathematics and Pre-established Harmony,” in Approaches to Metaphysics, edited by W. Sweet (Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic Publishers), 75-93.

[37] McTaggart, The Nature of Existence I, 309.

[38] McTaggart, The Nature of Existence II, 189.

[39] It is interesting to note that this “refinement view” is crucial to the epistemology of the Göttingen mathematicians Felix Klein and David Hilbert as well as the founder of transfinite mathematics, Georg Cantor. For more on this, see Richard Feist, “Husserl as Part of the Göttingen Scientific Tradition,” Science et Esprit, 52, 2000, 193-213.

[40] McTaggart, The Nature of Existence I, 39-53.

[41] This is McTaggart’s adoption of the traditional view. See The Nature of Existence II, 32-33.

[42] Cf. SMW, Chapter 3 and PR 78-79.

[43] “The conception of substance will be of cardinal importance throughout the rest of our enquiries, and it will be essential to keep closely in view the definition which we have adopted” (The Nature of Existence I, 73).

[44] McTaggart claims that the infinite divisibility of substance, i.e., that there is no such entity as a “simple substance,” has two classes of consequences: theoretical and practical. He writes that, “[…] the rest of this work will consist to a large extent of a deduction of these consequences” (Nature of Existence I, 179).

[45] McTaggart confesses that the infinite divisibility of substance entails “very desirable results,” which tempts him to believe it. But he assures us that he has guarded himself against this temptation (The Nature of Existence I, 180). C. D. Broad once found the infinite divisibility of substance utterly perplexing. “I simply cannot make up my mind as to the self-evidence of this principle” (Broad 1921, 327).

[46] McTaggart, The Nature of Existence I, 178.

[47] McTaggart, The Nature of Existence I, 185.

[48] McTaggart, The Nature of Existence I, 187.

[49] For one of Whitehead’s discussions of this fallacy, see SMW 51-55.

[50] For Whitehead, see PR 52.

[51] McTaggart, The Nature of Existence II, 11.

[52] McTaggart, The Nature of Existence II, 13.

[53] McTaggart, The Nature of Existence II, 22.

[54] For McTaggart’s discussion, see The Nature of Existence II, 21-2.

[55] McTaggart, The Nature of Existence II, 29-30.

[56] McTaggart, The Nature of Existence II, 30.

[57] There is another series, the D-series, but I shall have to omit that from this discussion.

[58] This is a large debate that cannot be unpacked here. For an overview of the nature of the order within Whitehead’s concrescence, see John W. Lango, “The Time of Whitehead’s Concrescence,” Process Studies, 30, 1, 2001.

[59] Geach also draws attention to mathematics as problematic for McTaggart (1979, 40).

[60] Each self has its own C-series. See McTaggart, The Nature of Existence II, 213.

[61] I am skipping McTaggart’s arguments for this.

[62] McTaggart, The Nature of Existence II, 226-227.

[63] McTaggart, The Nature of Existence II, 233.

[64] I have simplified McTaggart’s discussion by omitting his technical definition of “set of parts.”

[65] Again, for space purposes, I have simplified McTaggart’s discussion. For the details, see The Nature of Existence II, 234-241.

[66] McTaggart, The Nature of Existence II, 236.

[67] For the reduction of cogitations to perceptions see The Nature of Existence II, Chapter XXXVII, “Cogitation.” For connations, see The Nature of Existence II, Chapter XL, “Volition” and Chapter XLI, “Emotion.” I have simplifed things somewhat, since volition is identical to desire and desire, McTaggart says, is not identical to perception—although it is intimately connected to it. Nonetheless, the perceptual reductionism holds.

[68] Broad uses “prehension” to describe McTaggart’s extended notion of perception and thus brings it even closer to Whitehead’s view. However, Geach argues that Broad is making a serious error by doing this. I hold that Broad’s move is correct in many ways, although I cannot enter into such a discussion here.

Works Cited and Further Readings

Works by McTaggart

1901. Studies in the Hegelian Cosmology (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

1906. Some dogmas of religion (London, Edward Arnold).

1908. “The Unreality of Time,” Mind 17, 456-73.

1910. A Commentary on Hegel’s Logic (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

1915. Human immortality and pre-existence (New York, Longmans, Green & Co.).

1921, 1927. The Nature of Existence, Vols. I & II (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press). Volume I appeared in 1921. Volume II appeared in 1927 and was edited by C.D. Broad.

1896. Studies in the Hegelian Dialectic, 1st ed. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press). The 2nd edition appeared in 1922.

1934. Philosophical Studies (New York, Books for Libraries Press).

Works on McTaggart’s Philosophy

Broad, C.D. 1921. “Review of The Nature of Existence,” Mind, New Series, 30, 119, 317-32.

_____. 1976. Examination of McTaggart’s Philosophy, 2 Vols. (New York, Octagon Books).

Geach, Peter. 1979. Truth, Love and Immortality: An Introduction to McTaggart’s Philosophy (Berkeley, University of California Press,).

Wisdom, John. 1928. “McTaggart’s Determining Correspondence of Substance: A Refutation,” Mind, 37, 414-38.

Biographies of McTaggart or related to McTaggart

Dickinson, Goldsworthy Lowes. 1931. McTaggart (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

Forester, E.M. 1934. Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson (London, E. Arnold & Co).

Rochelle, Gerald. 1991. The Life and Philosophy of J. McT. E. McTaggart, 1866-1925 (Lewiston, Edwin Mellen Press).

Related Texts of Interest

Feist, Richard. 2000. “Husserl as Part of the Göttingen Scientific Tradition,” Science et Esprit, 52, 193-213.

_____. 2002. “Whitehead and the Limits of Science,” Maritain Studies, 27, 101-15.

_____. 2004. “Metaphysics, Mathematics and Pre-Established Harmony,” in Approaches to Metaphysics, edited by W. Sweet (Dordrecht, Kluwer).

Findlay, J.N. 1980. “Review of Geach’s Truth, Love and Immortality,” The Philosophical Quarterly, 30, 121, 361-65.

Lango, John. 2001. “The Time of Whitehead’s Concrescence,” Process Studies, 30, 1.

Levy, Paul. 1981. Moore: G.E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

MacIntyre, A. 1981. “Review of Geach’s Truth Love and Immortality,” Ethics, 91, 4, 667-68.

Pinkard, Terry. 1980. “Hegel’s Philosophy of Mathematics,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 41, 452-64.

Rose, Jonathan. 1986. The Edwardian Temperament, 1895—1915 (Athens Ohio, Ohio University Press).

Strawson, P.F. 1959. Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics (London, Metheun).

Author Information

Richard Feist
Faculty of Philosophy
Saint Paul University, 223 Main Street, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, K1S 1C4

How to Cite this Article

Feist, Richard, “John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart (1866–1925)”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.