Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Age of Reason

One of the more likeable books I have read in recent months is Paul Levy's study of G. E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles, now unforgivably out of print. It is an attempt to explain Moore's anomalous influence outside philosophy, on the artistic and intellectual giants of his time: Lytton Strachey, Roger Fry, John Maynard Keynes, Virginia Woolf. The answer is meant to lie in the purity and innocence of his attachment to the truth – a force of character paradoxically combined with shyness and modesty, and reinforced with boyish good looks.

Moore does seem innocent in Levy's account, and quite appealing – but not especially impressive. In fact, Moore's early attempts at philosophy, in papers presented to the Apostles, are gratifyingly similar to the efforts of any beginning undergraduate.

In his debut, he argued that "we can know absolutely nothing", but boldly embraced his result: "this universal scepticism will no doubt produce the dissolution of society, which I should welcome." This is the sort of thing that make makes the teacher of freshmen roll her eyes.

In his first paper, of May 12, 1894, Moore defended – by equivocation and confusion – the truth of ethical and psychological hedonism. Levy's response is comically over-generous:
It is obvious that Moore was trying to reconcile the Epicurean hedonism he had absorbed from his reading of Lucretius, with McTaggart's reading of Hegel, which assimilated the egoistic principle of self-realization to 'being in harmony with the World Spirit'.
The defects of hedonism ought to have been apparent in the question with which the meeting closed: "Are all martyrs voluptuaries?"

Moore followed up these efforts with a paper endorsing Plato's apparent argument in the Protagoras that no-one errs willingly. Not until February 4, 1899 do we see in Moore the "great advance" of rejecting egoism.

Such humble origins give hope to us all: how the mighty have risen. Less than ten years later, Moore published Principia Ethica, and Lytton Strachey wrote these words:
I date from Oct. 1903 the beginning of the Age of Reason.
Even after reading Levy's book, it is hard to see how someone could have felt this way.

In truth, the anecdotes that give the greatest sense of Moore's adorable qualities do not concern his intellect, at all. They focus rather on moments of vulnerability, as in Keynes' priceless description of Moore, waking from "a nightmare […] in which he could not distinguish propositions from tables"; and in Moore's note to himself in a diary entry of December 7, 1915:
Feel very incapable of thinking, so read Mind.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The late, great Australian logician, Malcolm Rennie, began his professional academic life in the 1960s by reading carefully every article in every prior issue of Mind.

6:26 AM  
Anonymous Jimmy Doyle said...

"Moore's philosophy is marked by an affectation of modest caution, which clogged his prose with qualifications but rarely restrained him from wild error." (Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy)

2:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

According to Wittgenstein, Moore "shows you how far a man can go who has absolutely no intelligence whatever."

2:28 PM  

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