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CHAPTER XVI

ON G. E. MOORE'S DEFENCE OF
COMMON SENSE*

I. In this paper I shall critically discuss G. E. Moore's Defence


of Common Sense! with the purpose of showing that Moore's
idea of defending common sense was entirely mistaken. This
mistake is based, as I shall try to show, firstly on a mistaken
notion about the nature of common sense and, secondly, on a
mistaken notion about the relation between common sense
beliefs and philosophy. Nothing that I say in this paper regarding
the value and the validity of Moore's Defence of Common Sense
should be taken as reflecting my opinion about the other aspects
of Moore's philosophy.

Let me state at the outset that the word 'common sense' is


used by Moore in a somewhat unusual sense. Ryle has rightly
drawn attention to the fact that 'common sense' is ordinarily
used to stand for "a particular kind and degree of untutored
judiciousness in coping with slightly out of the way, practical
contingencies".2 To make common sense therefore a partisan in
philosophical dispute would appear monstrous to common sense
itself. For, 'common sense', in its ordinary unphilosophical use,
does not stand for a set of beliefs or a set of propositions like
those listed by Moore. Men who possess common sense of course
do believe in many or even all of these propositions; but so also
do men who, we say, lack common sense. Moore, therefore, when
he takes upon himself, as one of his philosophical jobs, the task
of defending common sense in the sense of defending a set of
2.

First published in the Indian Journal of Philosophy, II, 1960, NO.4, 1-10.
H. Muirhead (ed.), Contemporary British Philosophy (Second Series), London,
1925, pp. 193-223.
2 G. Ryle, Dilemmas, Cambridge, 1954, p. 3.
1

J.

J. N. Mohanty, Phenomenology and Ontology


Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, Netherlands 1970

ON G. E. MOORE'S DEFENCE OF COMMON SENSE

I7I

propositions in which he along with most of us believes, must be


using the word 'common sense' in a very uncommon way.
2.I. In reply to the above, one may quite well agree to dispense with the word 'common sense' while appealing instead to
the beliefs that are common to the plain men of Europe and
North America! This is in fact what Thomas Reid means when
in his Reflections on the Common Theory of Ideas, he says, referring to Berkeley's philosophy:
If a plain man, uninstructed in Philosophy, has faith to
receive these mysteries, how great must be his astonishment! ... After his mind is somewhat composed it will
be natural for him to ask his philosophical instructor:
Pray, Sir, are there then no substantial and permanent
beings called the sun and moon, which continue to exist
whether we think of them or not? ... 3
It is the beliefs of 'the plain man, uninstructed in Philosophy'
which, it might be suggested, Moore was defending. This however cannot be Moore's intention. For, firstly, Moore certainly
does not believe in all that the plain man, uninstructed in philosophy, believes to be true. And he seeks to defend the truth
only of some of the beliefs of the plain man. Secondly, the beliefs
of the plain man, depending largely upon his religious and cultural background, may - and, in fact, do - include a large number of beliefs which Moore, I presume, would not undertake to
defend. 4

3. Let me therefore pursue this point a little further with a


view to bringing out the nature of the beliefs Moore sought to
defend. It seems to me that Moore's interest consists as much in
defending his belief in certain propositions as in proving certain
beliefs of philosophers to be false. Many philosophers have believed in such propositions as 'Time is unreal', 'There are no
other selves', 'Matter is unreal', etc .. Moore's purpose is to show
that these propositions contradict the beliefs of common sense.
N ow the truth of the proposition 'Time is unreal' contradicts the
I am indebted to my friend Eberhard Bubser for pointing out this passage to me.
When the words 'common sense', 'commonsense beliefs' are used in the rest of
this paper, they are to be understood in the light of the remarks in para. 2.
3

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ON G. E. MOORE'S DEFENCE OF COMMON SENSE

truth of the proposition 'Time is real'. The belief that Matter is


unreal contradicts the belief that Matter is real. Since it often
happens that what a person is refuting throws light upon what
he is at the same time defending, we may presume that Moore
seeks to defend the beliefs 'Matter is real', 'Time is real', etc.
But of what kind are these latter beliefs? Can we attribute these
beliefs to the 'plain man, unschooled in Philosophy'? The plain
man, unless he is also an unschooled philosopher, does not
bother about such propositions as 'Time is real' or 'Matter is real'.
Defending the truth of these propositions may therefore be taken
as amounting to defending a certain philosophical theory and
not what a plain man believes in.
3.1. In reply to the above criticism, it may be suggested that
although the plain man does not say, or explicitly formulate his
belief by saying 'Matter is real' or 'Time is real', yet the other
propositions5 which he believes to be true certainly imply the
truth of the propositions 'Matter is real' and 'Time is real'. Some
examples of these other propositions which the plain man believes to be true are: 'Here is my right hand which I am raising up',
'There exists at present a human body which is my body', 'I was
born in the year I928'. Belief in the truth of these propositions
implies belief in the reality of matter, time and space and therefore contradicts the philosophers' beliefs in the unreality of matter, time and space. The contradiction, therefore, which Moore
detects subsists, not between the said philosophical beliefs and
certain beliefs of common sense, but between the said philosophical beliefs and certain other beliefs implied by the above-mentioned beliefs of common sense. That the said philosophical
beliefs are not necessarily incompatible with the truth of the
propositions in which common sense believes is admitted by
Moore; but he nevertheless reminds us that the philosophical
propositions may be understood in such a way that they contradict the common sense beliefs. In other words, although
the proposition 'Matter is unreal' is not incompatible with the
proposition 'There is a human hand here', the former proposition
may be so understood (or formulated, analysed, or interpreted)
that belief in it amounts to believing that the latter proposition
5

Contemporary British Philosophy (Second Series), p.

200.

ON G. E. MOORE'S DEFENCE OF COMMON SENSE

I73

is false. It seems to me that in stressing this latter possibility,


that is to say, the possibility that the said philosophical beliefs
may contradict the said beliefs of common sense, Moore is on the
wrong side.
For, first, as I have already emphasized, the said philosophical
beliefs do not directly contradict the commonsense beliefs; they
contradict only certain other beliefs which are implied by these
commonsense beliefs. On no interpretation of them, that is to
say, on no interpretation either of the philosophical beliefs or of
the commonsense beliefs would they come to a direct conflict.
But even as to this indirect conflict, two questions should be
raised: first, what is the nature of these other beliefs which are
implied by the commonsense beliefs? Secondly, can we at all
say that these other beliefs, whatever may be their nature, are
implied by the commonsense beliefs? I have already suggested
my answer to the first of these questions: these other beliefs are
themselves not beliefs of the plain man but are as much philosophical beliefs as the philosophical beliefs which they contradict.
So the conflict is between two sets of philosophical beliefs.
To the second question, my answer would be in the negative.
The said commonsense beliefs do not imply the philosophical
beliefs 'Matter is real', 'Time is real', 'Space is real', etc.

3.2. It may be suggested in reply to the above that the proposition 'Matter is real' could be understood in such a manner that
it would thereby become an implicate of the commonsense beliefs. With this I agree, but so far as I can see, the proposition
'Matter is real' if suitably interpreted so as to become an implicate of the commonsense beliefs would be, in effect, nothing
other than a restatement of these latter beliefs. In that case,
to believe in the proposition 'Matter is real' would be the same
thing as to believe in all propositions like This is a human hand',
etc., etc. If the proposition 'Matter is real' is thus nothing but
shorthand for a number of propositions in which commonsense
believes, then only it is not a philosophical proposition and is also
an implicate of commonsense beliefs; but in that case it would
not be the contradictory of the philosophical proposition
'Matter is not real'. To sum up : the philosophical proposition
'Matter is not real' contradicts the proposition 'Matter is real'

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ON G. E. MOORE'S DEFENCE OF COMMON SENSE

only when the latter proposition is a philosophical proposition,


but in that case the proposition 'Matter is real' is not an implicate of the commonsense beliefs and therefore no contradiction
could be shown to subsist between these beliefs and the philosophical proposition 'Matter is real'. On the other hand, if the
proposition 'Matter is real' is taken to be an implicate of commonsense beliefs, then it would not be a philosophical proposition but would be reduced to a mere shorthand for the innumerable propositions about physical objects in which we believe
ordinarily; but in that case it would cease to be the contradictory of the philosophical belief that matter is unreal. Again, no
contradiction could be shown to subsist between the philosophical belief that matter is unreal and the commonsense beliefs.
It follows that in no case does the philosophical proposition
'Matter is unreal' contradict the commonsense proposition like
'Here is a human hand'. Moore's defence is therefore not called for.
3.3. Nor would it help to insist that what Moore is doing is to
defend, not beliefs, but ordinary use of words. For neither of the
two propositions 'Matter is real' and 'Matter is unreal' makes an
ordinary use of the word 'real'. Both make philosophical uses.
Malcolm has drawn attention to the fact the doubt which Moore
aims at dispelling by asserting 'I know for certain this is a human
hand' is a philosophical doubt and that his use of 'know' in this
context is not an ordinary use. 6 What I want to insist on is that
in his zeal to defend common sense Moore has ended up by distorting it.
From what has been said before, it would follow that there is no
question of the same proposition being true from the commonsense point of view and false from the philosophical point of view.
3+ I cannot imagine common sense saying 'Time is real', for
the assertion 'Time is real' is uttered only when the doubt 'Is
time real?' is dispelled. And I wonder if common sense is ever
haunted with this last doubt. Common sense, on the other hand,
may be haunted, given suitable circumstances, by the doubt
'Is this a real tree?' and this doubt is dispelled by the assertion
'This is a real tree' or by the assertion 'This is only a painted one.'
6

In Philosophical Review, 1949.

ON G. E. MOORE'S DEFENCE OF COMMON SENSE

I75

4. This brings us to a certain paradox which belongs to what I


should like to call the existential situation of the philosopher - a
paradox out of which Moore develops a set of arguments against
the philosopher who denies the reality of matter and of time. No
philosopher, Moore seems to be insisting, has ever been able to
hold such views consistently. "One way in which they have betrayed this inconsistency is by alluding to the existence of other
philosophers. Another way is by alluding to the existence of the
human race, and in particular by using "we" in the sense in which
any philosopher who asserts "we sometimes believe propositions
that are not true" is asserting ... that very many other human
beings. .. have had bodies and lived upon the earth ... "7
The philosopher in the course of his philosophical activity assumes the reality of those very objects that his philosophy regards as
unreal. This is indeed a paradox. But what does it point to? Does
it show that a philosophical transcendence is not possible? I
would rather say that the paradox would not exist if philosophical transcendence of common sense were not possible. Just because there is this paradox, philosophical transcendence is a fact.
I am aware that there are philosophers who would deny the paradox and a paradox is denied the moment you resolve it, - either
following Moore or following the Absolutist! I for one do not
believe that resolution of such paradoxes is either necessary or
possible. They are there; they have to be recognized as such. In
fact, they provide the tragic ethos that characterizes the existence of the philosopher. They neither call for a rejection of the
philosophic pursuit in favour of the certainty of common sense
nor do they call for a denial of the common sense beliefs in
favour of the philosophic truths.
4.I. Imaybetold that though common sense has its limitations
yet the limitations themselves belong to common sense so that
the philosopher could love common sense as Cowper loved England in spite of all her faults. 8 The point that concerns us here
is whether it is possible to transcend common sense. Making use
of the analogy of the poet's England, let me suggest that al7

Contemporary British Philosophy (Second Series), p.

203.

I am indebted to my friend and colleague Prof. K. K. Banerjee of Jadavpur


University for suggesting this metaphor.
8

176

ON G. E. MOORE'S DEFENCE OF COMMON SENSE

though one loves one's homeland in spite of all her faults, one
can transcend that love to reach a wider love of humanity. What
however is more important is that one understands one's love
only when one can contemplate it from a distance. What I
wish to suggest ;s this: the true character of common sense belief
as a belief cannot be revealed to me unless I can look at it from
outside, as a neutral spectator - that is to say, unless in so far as
I philosophize, I suspend my beliefs, neutralize them as it were,
do not live in them, do not let myself to be merged in them, and
so on. It is true that I have thereby to experience an existential
paradox to which I have just now referred.
There are certain limitations that fall within that whose limitations they are: they fall within it in the sense that you can
grasp them while confining yourself to the same level of experience. But there are certain other limitations - which are really
fundamental - which you can grasp only when there is a radical
transcendence of the level of experience concerned. The inaccuracies, inadequacies, hesitations, ambiguities and the vagueness of common sense belong to the first group of limitations. I
would even say that when science corrects common sense, it
improves upon limitations of the first kind. Science does not
therefore bring about a radical reformulation of the notions of
common sense. A radical transcendence, and therefore a fundamental understanding, of common sense requires what has been
characterized as a neutralization of common sense beliefs or
what Husserl would have called a 'phenomenological bracketing'
of them. Moore - should I say even at the risk of appearing
audacious? - has not given us a genuine philosophy of common
sense, for he has not gone into the roots of common sense beliefs. He has not exhibited these beliefs as beliefs. He has not
been able to do this, for he wanted to defend common sense.
Thereby he played the role of a partisan and not of an enquirer.
5. In the light of the above remarks on Moore's defence of
common sense, it will be now of interest to pay some attention
to the very puzzling proof of an external world which Moore has
advanced in his British Academy Lecture. After going through
Moore's proof, one is left wondering what precisely could have
led Moore to advance such a proof. Which philosophers he could

ON G. E. MOORE'S DEFENCE OF COMMON SENSE

I77

have had in mind, that is to say, to which philosophers was he


attributing the view that there is no external world? 'Berkeley!'
of course, is the first choice. But as we know, Berkeley certainly
did not mean to deny the existence of the external world in the
sense in which Moore proves it. Nor was Moore, in trying to give
a proof, refuting what Kant called 'problematic idealism', that
is to say, the position that we never know for certain that there
is an external world. Moore, of course, has something to say
against 'problematic idealism'; it is in this context perhaps that
he draws the distinction between knowing something and proving something. His main proof however is concerned with
showing not that we know for certain but that there is an external world. Presumably, he thought that Berkeley had denied the
external world. Whatever that may be, let us go into his proof.
By 'external things', he means 'things outside of our minds'.
Things to be met with in space are of course things outside of our
minds, though not all things outside of our minds (e.g., pains or
visual images of animals) are to be met with in space. Now if Moore
can prove that there are two things to be met with in space, it
would follow that there are two things outside of our minds.
"By holding up my two hands, and saying, as I make a certain
gesture with the right hand, "Here is one hand", and adding, as
I make a certain gesture with the left, "and here is another",
Moore claims to have given a most rigorous demonstrative
proof of the existence of the external world.
Moore himself has given expression to his apprehension that
what he proves may be accepted as true but may at the same
time be declared as unimportant. But quite apart from that,
does the proof succeed?
I am aware that in questioning Moore's premiss I am in company with many of Moore's critics. Malcolm 9 has, for example,
questioned if Moore is justified in saying 'I know here is a human
hand'. I, however, wish to urge a quite different point. I would
say that Moore cannot, on the basis of his theory of perception,
say with certainty 'this is a human hand'.
Just consider some features of his own analysis. The proposition 'I am now perceiving a human hand' is analysed into (Moore
9

In Philosophical Review, 1949.

178

ON G. E. MOORE'S DEFENCE OF COMMON SENSE

says: is a deduction from 10) two further propositions: 'I am


perceiving this' and 'This is a human hand'. He is sure about 'I
am perceiving this', but what exactly is known thereby he is
not sure of. The analysis which is accepted is that the principal
subject of the proposition 'I am now perceiving this' is a sensedatum. And he is besides sure that this sense-datum is not a
hand. He finds reasons to doubt - although he himself does not
doubt - that this (i.e., to say, the sense-datum) is a part of the
surface of the hand,11 How can he under such circumstances be
sure of the proposition 'This is a human hand?' The distinction
between 'knowing a proposition to be true' and 'not knowing the
correct analysis of the proposition' does not help us here.
5.1. In his essay on Hume's philosophy, written much earlier,
Moore admits that it is quite impossible for anyone to prove, as
against the sceptic, that one knows any external fact. 'I can
only prove that 1 do by assuming that in some particular instance,
I actually do one',12 On this, Stebbing remarks: 'The notion that
we may have a reason, though not a logically conclusive reason
for certain statements concerning direct observation, is, I bebelieve, one of Moore's important contributions to philosophy.'13
Hume showed that demonstrative knowledge of matters of fact
is not possible; Moore, I would suppose Stebbing to mean, shows
that even our non-demonstrative knowledge of the external
world has its own certainty which should not be underestimated
just because it is other than demonstrative certainty. This, if it
were Moore's contention, would have been ranked as one of his
valuable insights. When we turn however to Moore's reply, we
are disappointed: Moore rejects this suggestion,14 1 can appreciate why Moore should object to the use of the word 'probable'
in connexion with our knowledge of the external world. Stebbing in fact is aware of the misleading associations of this word.
Let me call the type of knowledge Stebbing had in mind 'nondemonstrable certainty.'
Instead of emphasizing this 'non-demonstrable certainty' of
10
11
12
13

14

Contemporary British Philosophy (second series), p. 217.


Ibid., p. 218.
Philosophical Studies, p. 160.
In P. A. Schilpp (ed.), The Philosophy of G. E. Moore, p. 524.
Ibid., p. 677.

ON G. E. MOORE'S DEFENCE OF COMMON SENSE

I79

the external world and instead of exhibiting the phenomenological nature and roots of that certainty, Moore proceeds to offer
a rigorous demonstrative proof. And no wonder that he should
fail. The external world is neither in need of nor is capable of a
logical proof. That such a proof is necessary is what the sceptics
persuade us to believe though knowing fully well that we would
not succeed. Moore has succumbed to their persuasion and has
offered a proof that hopelessly fails.
6. To sum Up: Moore is wrong in presenting common sense as a
party in philosophical disputes. He was misled into thinking that
philosophical statements could come in conflict with common
sense beliefs. A philosophical understanding of common sense
requires a measure of transcendence of the level of common
sense; it must be added that even Moore in his distinction between the common sense beliefs and their correct analysis makes
room for transcendence. As in his defence of common sense, so
also in his proof of an external world, Moore's task is ill-conceived.
What is important for us is to realize that there is a common
source of the two errors: in his eagerness to combat the speculative philosophers, he misses the proper task of a truly phenomenological philosophy both of common sense beliefs and of our
belief in the external world.