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Moore's Defence of Common Sense: A Reappraisal After Fifty Years

  • R. E. Tully (a1)


G. E. Moore's ‘A Defence of Common Sense’ has generated the kind of interest and contrariety which often accompany what is new, provocative, and even important in philosophy. Moore himself reportedly agreed with Wittgenstein's estimate that this was his best article, while C. D. Broad has lamented its very great but (for him) largely unfortunate influence. Although the essay inspired Wittgenstein to explore the basis of Moore's claim to know many propositions of common sense to be true, A. J. Ayer judges its enduring value to lie in provoking a more sophisticated conception of the very type of metaphysics which disputes any such unqualified claim of certainty.



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1 First published in Contemporary British Philosophy (second series), ed. Muirhead, (London, 1925), pp. 193223, and later in Moore, G. E., Philosophical Papers (London, 1959), pp. 3259. All page references in both the text and the footnotes will be to the later reprint.

2 Cf. Wittgenstein, L., On Certainty, ed. Anscombe, G. E. M. and von Wright, G. H. (Oxford, 1969), p. vie; Broad, C. D., ‘Philosophy and “Common-Sense”’, in G. E. Moore: Essays in Retrospect, ed. Ambrose, A. and Lazerowitz, M. (London, 1970), p. 203; Ayer, A. J., Russell and Moore: The Analytical Heritage (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), p. 187.

3 Cf. Wittgenstein, L., On Certainty; Malcolm, N., ‘Moore and Ordinary Language’, in The Philosophy of G. E. Moore, ed. Schilpp, P. A. (La Salle, III., 1968), pp. 343368, and ‘Defending Common Sense’, in Studies in the Philosophy of G. E. Moore, ed. E. D. Klemke (Chicago, 1969), pp. 200–219; A. E. Murphy, ‘Moore's “Defence of Common Sense”’, in Schilpp, op. cit., pp. 299–317 (Murphy advances the charge of incompatibility on p. 317).

4 ‘A Defence of Common Sense’, p. 53.

5 Cf. ‘Is Existence a Predicate?’, in Philosophical Papers, pp. 115–126; ‘Visual Sense-Data’, in British Philosophy in the Mid-Century, ed. Mace, C. A. (London, 1966), pp. 205211; and entries III: 4, IV: 10, V: 4, 20, and VII: 11, in Commonplace Book 1919–1953, ed. C. Lewy (London, 1962).

6 p. 37 (Moore's italics).

7 Cf. pp. 37–43. Moore makes a sharp distinction between those who deny, and those who merely doubt, common sense truths, and he designs separate arguments against them. However, since the key premise of these arguments is the same, his division need not be stressed here. With the exception of Berkeley (whose views are referred to in section II), Moore never mentions the philosophers he had it in mind to criticize.

8 Cf. p. 44. Strictly, Moore says that ‘most of them’ fail to be known directly. He may have thought that assertions about bodily feelings, for example, are in fact directly known.

9 p. 44 (Moore's italics).

10 Philosophical Papers, p. 150.

11 Russell and Moore: The Analytical Heritage, p. 187.

12 So called to distinguish it from the ‘paradox of analysis’ about which C. H. Langford wrote in ‘Moore's Notion of Analysis’ (in Schilpp, op. cit., pp. 321–342). Langford's paradox, directed as it is to the question of how identity statements can be informative, is unrelated to the new paradox.

13 Cf. pp. 48–49.

14 P. 55 (Moore's italics).

15 Cf. p. 57. Throughout section IV Moore is thinking of visual sense-data.

16 The attribution is correct, though Moore's use of Mill's theory is restricted by his concern with what it has to say about sense-data and their relation to surfaces of material objects only, and not at all about their relation to material objects in general. Moore may have felt that the latter aspect of Mill's theory could be ruled out on the ground that it conflicted with common sense beliefs about the existence of matter.

17 Ayer, op. cit., p. 186.

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