Bloomsbury's Prophet: G.E. Moore and the Development of His Moral Philosophy
G.E. Moore: The Early Essays
G. E. Moore was a dominant figure in British philosophy from 1903 until his death at eighty-five in 1958. In 1958 many British philosophers would have named Russell, Wittgenstein, and Moore as the three great English-speaking philosophers of the twentieth century. During the last twenty-five years Moore has slowly ceased to be at the center of interest in the way Russell and Wittgenstein are, except for the early chapters of his still famous book on moral philosophy, Principia Ethica, first published in 1903.
Tom Regan, a professor of philosophy at North Carolina State University, argues that the true significance of this book, and of Moore himself, have been largely misinterpreted by academic commentators. They have studied him as the founding father of that peculiar and productive movement in the recent history of thought, the philosophy of ordinary language. They have overlooked, Regan argues, the history of his early moral beliefs and metaphysical doubts and despairs, from which the argument of principia Ethica developed. Even more important, they have not accounted for the extraordinary effect which his moral philosophy had among the men and women of genius and of talent who were his admiring friends around 1900 and who later formed the Bloomsbury Group. Regan recalls again the sense of liberation and enlightenment, the anticipation of new beginnings in conduct and in social relations, that Principia Ethica suggested to Keynes, to Lytton Strachey, and to Leonard Woolf among others. In “My Early Beliefs” Keynes wrote:
[Principia Ethica] was not only overwhelming;…it was the extreme opposite of what Strachey used to call funeste; it was exciting, exhilarating, the beginning of a new renaissance, the opening of a new heaven on a new earth. We were the fore-runners of a new dispensation, we were not afraid of anything.
This has to be taken seriously, because Keynes was not easily deceived in philosophical matters; he was to write a classical treatise on the theory of probability himself and he was born and educated among Cambridge philosophers. Tom Regan intends his book to set the record straight, and to correct the emphasis on analytical philosophy which he thinks has largely concealed the real, historical Moore.
I think he has certainly succeeded in at least supplementing the conventional picture of Moore. He shows that around the turn of the century Moore was passing through a phase of moral despair, a fin de siècle sense of the vanity of vanities, because he could not find a rational basis for attributing objective value to anything, either in the natural order or in human experience. In 1901 he writes to his most intimate friend, the literary critic Desmond MacCarthy: “I seem to find it increasingly difficult to satisfy myself with anything, which sometimes makes me feel very desperate.”
The guarded and honest “seem” and “sometimes” are typical of Moore at all times, but this crisis was genuine and intense. A year earlier he had written a paper on moral conversion, a state of mind not connected…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.