A Philosopher’s Character

Gareth Evans

  • Moore by Paul Levy
    Weidenfeld, 335 pp, £12.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 297 77576 6

Moore was one of the outstanding British philosophers of this century. He lived a rather uneventful life, almost entirely in a university setting: as Paul Levy writes rather wistfully in the introduction to his book, ‘he slew no dragons and rescued no maidens; he did not even have the adventures life allotted to other philosophers like Russell, who went to jail, or Wittgenstein, who went to war.’ The main outlines of his public life are well-known, and Levy’s assiduous research reveals few surprises about his private life. Though Moore married rather late in life, and formed close friendships with men before that time, he was not a homosexual, and his marriage and family life seem to have been very happy. Nevertheless, he is not an unpromising subject for study. He was a remarkable man who impressed almost everyone he met with his honesty, his devotion to truth and clarity, and his innocence. He was right at the centre of the philosophical world for a long and exciting period and he knew a good many of the main participants – in particular, he had fairly close, if troubled, relations with both Russell and Wittgenstein. As a member of the Apostles, he came to know several people who were later to be famous in the Bloomsbury group and who regarded themselves as his disciples.

A study of Moore could help to throw light on his philosophical work and his attitude to philosophy. Moore claimed in an autobiographical essay to have been stimulated to philosophical reflection only by the remarks of other philosophers.[*] As Professor Geach has observed, this description of himself comes perilously close to Schopenhauer’s description of the bogus philosopher as one who gets his puzzles out of books and not out of the world, but an examination of Moore’s posthumously published Commonplace Books shows that it is not true. However, it is striking how little Moore’s philosophical work bears the marks of reading outside philosophy, and in this it contrasts very sharply with that of both Russell and Wittgenstein. What did Moore read? Was Moore unaware of the developments which were taking place in psychology and the natural sciences, or did he not see their philosophical implications? What did Moore take the subject of philosophy to be, and why was he attracted to it?

Moore’s work is notable for the way it bears the stamp of his personality – his guilelessness, his honesty and his lack of arrogance. There is room for reflection here, not only for those who are interested in Moore, but for those who are interested in the nature of philosophy. Although a great man of science may have many or all of Moore’s qualities, one would not expect them to be imprinted upon his work, and if one speaks of dishonesty in science, one has something very specific and very rare in mind – the falsification of results. Yet many philosophical works, even quite good ones, betray a lack of honesty or a lack of courage or an excess of guile. A good intellectual biography of Moore would have to come to grips with the question of how it is that the pursuit of philosophy so actively calls upon ordinary virtues, and in this way could cast light on the activity Moore spent his life engaged in.

It would be a mistake to think of Levy’s book as an attempt to write an intellectual biography of Moore – a mistake the author guards against by subtitling his book ‘G.E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles’. Although this is a disappointment, it is not the grounds of a fair criticism, since it emerges that such a work is not one which Levy could reasonably be expected to write. (No one who confuses Russell’s paradox with the Liar paradox, or who regards Principia Mathematica as the greatest contribution to Logic since Aristotle, would be well advised to attempt the task.) Levy’s story of Moore’s life ends in 1918, when Moore had at least half of his philosophical career ahead of him, while his account of the years before 1918 focuses upon the Apostles to an extent that would not be paralleled in a balanced account of his life, and includes a 50-page history of the society in the form of potted biographies of some of its key members. For all that, Levy does strive to present a view of Moore as a man, and among the accounts of the meetings, votes, dinners, elections, non-elections and squabbles chez the Apostles, a picture of Moore’s life up to the First World War does emerge. There is interesting material on Moore’s relations with Russell and Wittgenstein, and with his friends, on Moore’s attitudes to love and sex, and to the war. So it is an odd mixture of a book: part biography, part social history, part study of Moore’s ideas, part study of Bloomsbury. I left the book without a clear impression of the point behind its structure and focus: it seems to have been the result of several plans, imperfectly executed, rather than of any single grand design.

Levy does explain that he ends his study of Moore in 1918 because of a ‘large change’ which came about in Moore’s work: ‘Before the war only one or two articles from Moore’s pen could not be understood and appreciated by any well-educated person capable of following an argument, and the topics discussed were at least of some general interest. After the war, with one or two exceptions, Moore’s work ceased to be accessible to the reader without training in philosophy.’ Moore’s later writings on perception and epistemology seem to me to be as accessible as anything that he wrote before the war – one must remember the struggle Virginia Woolf (no slouch as a general reader) had to get through Principia Ethica. But the supposed contrast is anyway quite irrelevant since, with the exception of Principia Ethica, Levy makes no serious attempt to explain any of Moore’s philosophical work. He is content to repeat the received opinion that Moore ‘brought down the whole edifice of Neo-Hegelian philosophy’, surely not an unimportant achievement, but as to what that philosophy, or Moore’s attacks upon it, amounted to, Levy’s readers are left entirely in the dark.

The truth of the matter is that Moore’s main interest for Levy is his connection with Bloomsbury. It is the star quality which makes up for the fact that he slew no dragons and rescued no maidens. This is why such philosophical explanation as Levy provides is devoted almost exclusively to Principia Ethica, and why the Apostles play such a central role. For Principia Ethica was the ostensible instrument of Moore’s influence on Bloomsbury, while the society of the Apostles was the channel by which that influence was transmitted. Despite Levy’s considerable skills as a researcher, I doubt that anyone who does not share the slant of his interest will find the book a satisfying one.

Levy announces his main thesis to be the ‘radical view’ that Moore exerted an influence on Bloomsbury, not as a result of the specific content of his ethical doctrines, but by the force of his personality: ‘in professing a belief in Moore’s philosophy his Bloomsbury disciples were, for the most part, gesturing in order to demonstrate their loyalty.’ Fortunately, not too much time is devoted to this pillowy thesis in the body of the book, though Levy does present a detailed account of the impact which Principia Ethica had on the younger Apostles and others. The thesis does not seem very plausible, just because one can think of many reasons why Keynes, Strachey and Co might have been attracted by those parts of Moore’s works which they took up, and Levy makes no serious attempt to show that no such reasons were operative. (Oddly enough, Levy cites the fact that Moore’s Bloomsbury disciples were selective in espousing his ideas as evidence in favour of his ‘radical view’, but the exact opposite is the case.)

Moore’s membership of the Apostles was certainly important to him and would figure in any account of the early years of his life. The society provided him with a great many of his friends as well as with a forum for his ideas, and its tradition of frankness may even have had an influence on his mode of philosophising. Moore’s remarkable innocence, and his propensity to be perfectly exact about his feelings, comes out well from some of the papers he read to the society, while others enable one to trace the development of the ideas of Principia Ethica. Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling that Levy has overestimated the importance of a good deal of this material: even if he was the first to have access to them, Moore’s early papers to the Apostles are not the gold-mine Levy takes them to be. Though better than most of the other efforts Levy describes, many of these papers belong in the category of juvenilia, and it seems to me to represent a considerable perversion of interest to give three lines to Moore’s seminal paper ‘The Refutation of Idealism’, delivered to the Aristotelian Society in 1903, while devoting seven pages of rather shaky exegesis to an immature defence of Idealism of 1895 which happens to have been delivered to the Apostles. Levy’s treatment of the Apostles suffers from an excess of reverence which can be gauged from a remark he makes in another context: ‘The entire episode would be merely a diverting footnote to the intellectual history of the early years of this century, were it not for the distinction of most of the men …’ Some episodes involving distinguished men belong in footnotes, while a good deal of this Apostolic trivia does not even belong there.

Levy skilfully reconstructs many incidents in Moore’s life on the basis of fragmentary evidence in diaries and letters, and presents them in a readable narrative; many will find the book valuable for these stretches alone. His comments on the events are not always very helpful, and occasionally are rather hysterical. Moore did not like the Fabian, Graham Wallas, and said so in a letter to Wedgwood (‘Graham Wallas is a beastly fool’). On the basis of this epistolary outburst, Levy writes of Moore’s ‘titanic wrath – the anger of a giant’, ‘a quality of hatred that can only be felt by the pure in spirit’. The same aspect of his character is supposed to be revealed by his dislike of Russell, whom Levy condemns for having tried to ‘tamper with’ Moore’s innocence while on a walking tour by encouraging a man they met in his telling of dirty stories. According to Levy, Moore came to suspect Russell of a lack of intellectual honesty, and Moore certainly did not like him very well. But Levy muddles personal and professional considerations in a way which Moore himself did not. In ‘An Autobiography’, Moore acknowledged Russell’s influence in handsome and unequivocal terms: ‘I do not know that Russell has ever owed to me anything positive except mistakes; whereas I have owed to his published work ideas which were certainly not mistakes and which I think very important.’ Levy presumes to say that this entire passage is a kindly sham, and that the whole truth is better conveyed by a diary entry of 1909 in which Moore expresses his irritation with Russell’s conduct of a discussion. I cannot imagine how a diary entry of 1909, which says not a word about indebtedness, can be thought to annul an acknowledgment of 1942 which covers Moore’s entire philosophical life. Anyone who knows the corpus of Moore’s works, including his Commonplace Books and Lectures in Philosophy, will know that the influence Moore so handsomely acknowledged is a fact. Levy forgets how limited is his perspective on Moore’s philosophical work.

Right at the end of his book, Levy mentions some comments of Wittgenstein’s on Moore’s character: ‘You aren’t talking of the innocence a man has fought for, but of an innocence which comes from a natural absence of temptation … I like and greatly respect Moore; but that’s all. He doesn’t warm my heart (or very little) because what warms my heart most is human kindness and Moore – just like a child – is not kind …’ Wittgenstein also remarks that Moore has conscience but lacks heart, and that his heart was like a bud which had not withered but had never opened fully. Coming where they do, these comments of Wittgenstein’s are disturbing, because they make us realise that, at the end of a book so devoted to Moore’s personality, we have not begun to think about him in a sophisticated way. Wittgenstein’s view of Moore neither agrees nor disagrees with Levy’s, for there is nothing of that level of sophistication to be found in the book. By dealing in categories like ‘lovable’, ‘pure in spirit’, and not seeking to go behind them, by never raising a critical or sceptical view, even if only to rebut it, by identifying so unquestioningly with Moore’s likes and dislikes, Levy produces a portrait without subtlety.

[*] ‘An Autobiography’ published in The Philosophy of G.E. Moore, edited by T.A. Schilpp.