Contemporary Philosophy: Philosophical Analysis

By Dr. Garth Kemerling / 11.12.2011
Professor of Philosophy
Capella University

Philosophy Pages

G.E. Moore: Analysis of Common Sense

Life and Works

During his long career at Cambridge University and as Editor of the premier British philosophical journal, Mind, G. E. Moore made an enormous contribution to the development of twentieth-century Anglo-American thought. Although he had studied with Bradley and McTaggart at Cambridge, Moore was an early leader in the revolt against absolute idealism. Amazed by the peculiar character of philosophical controversy, Moore supposed that common-sense beliefs about the world are correct as they are. The purpose of philosophy is not to debate their truth, but rather to seek an appropriate analysis of their significance. Moore was a significant influence on RussellWittgensteinRyle.

Moore’s departure from idealistic philosophy began with a criticism of internal relations in the careful analysis of truth and falsity in “The Nature of Judgment” (1899). In “The Refutation of Idealism” (1903) he also drew a sharp distinction between consciousness and its objects and argued explicitly against the idealistic belief that esse est percipi.  Continuing to develop his realistic convictions, Moore argued in “A Defence of Common Sense” (1925) that we all certainly know the truth of many propositions about ourselves, bodies, and other people, even though we may be uncertain about the correct analysis of these propositions. Both idealists and skeptics, Moore argued, implausibly deny this simple, everyday knowledge. Moore’s preoccupation with these issues is evident even in Some Main Problems of Philosophy (1953).

Moore applied similar methods of analysis to moral philosophy in Principia Ethica (1903) and Ethics (1912). There he used the open question argument to reject the “naturalistic fallacy” of identifying good with anything else. On Moore’s view, good is a simple, non-natural, indefinable quality of certain things, including especially personal friendship and aesthetics appreciation. This conception of the possibilities for human life was a significant influence on John Maynard Keynes and other members of the Bloomsbury group.


Cambridge professor G. E. Moore was the single most influential British philosopher of the twentieth century. His critique of the idealism of his teachers helped to break its hold on Anglo-American thought. His ethical theories and the example of his own life contributed significantly to the development of contemporary life. Most of all, Moore’s profound caution and sincerity in argument became the model for application of analytic methods in philosophy.

Moore studied philosophy at Cambridge and Oxford with the idealistic philosophers McTaggart and Bradley, but soon declared his independence from their influence. In an early paper on “The Nature of Judgment” (1899), he insisted that propositions have a quasi-Platonic existence independently of the mental judgments or beliefs they express. Truth, Moore therefore argued, must be a simple, non-relational property that some of these propositions possess, again without respect for the minds that entertain them. The subjective explanation of false beliefs in particular raises significant doubts about the legitimacy of an idealistic account.

A few years later, in “The Refutation of Idealism” (1903), Moore rejected the core principle of idealism and offered a distinctly realistic alternative. Every form of idealism, he noted, relies on the principle expressed by Berkeley in the Latin phrase, esse est percipi, “to be is to be perceived.” This belief that everything is really just an object of experience in some mind, Moore pointed out, must be necessarily true in order to have its intended consequences for the idealist scheme. Yet it seems clear that the belief is not analytic, since there is at least a conceptual difference between being on the one hand and being perceived on the other.

Thus, Moore claimed, idealists simply assume without evidence the truth of their most important principle. Each object of experience is assumed to be nothing more than a part wholly contained within the organic whole that constitutes the subject or perceiver. The sensation of something blue is, on this view, merely the perceiver’s blue sensation, a mental entity with no external referent. Not only is this position unsupported, Moore argued, but it also tends to collapse into solipsism, since it leaves individual perceivers with no evidence of anything outside their own experience.

Moore maintained that the object of any experience must be clearly distinguished from the experience itself. Indeed, experience itself should be analyzed as an irreducible relation between an external object and the perceiver’s conscious awareness of that object. If we begin with this view of the perceptual situation, Moore supposed, the reality of the object is beyond question. Of course, this position is itself an assumption, for the truth of which he offered (here) no proof other than the untenability of the idealist alternative. Moreover, Moore’s analysis creates a new set of difficulties regarding the analysis of the relation between subject and object.

Defending Common-Sense

Later in his career, Moore expressed more explicitly the methodological basis for his philosophical work. The ordinary beliefs human beings hold are to be accepted at face value: they mean what they say and are true, standing in no need of philosophical correction or proof. The purpose of philosophical analysis, according to Moore, is merely to explicate the precise implications of the truth of such beliefs, and that is the procedure he followed in “A Defence of Common Sense” (1925).

Moore began with a simple list of “common-sense” beliefs that each of us holds about many things, including my own body, other human bodies, my own experiences, and the experiences of other human beings. He then declared further that we all know that each of these simple beliefs is wholly true in just the (unanalyzed) sense in which they are commonly meant. Philosophers who hold opposing views Moore divided into two groups:

  • Some of them deny the truth of the beliefs (as, for example, do idealists who reject the reality of time, space, or self). But this Moore took to be indefensible, self-defeating, and never consistently held as a basis for ordinary life.
  • Others deny only that we know the beliefs (as, for example, do skeptics about the external world). This position, Moore argued, is not only self-defeating and impractical but also logically inconsistent.

Thus, Moore concluded that in fact we do really know all of these common-sense beliefs to be true.On the other hand, of course, the correct analysis of these beliefs still remains open to debate. In a parting shot against his idealist teachers, Moore pointed out that “mental facts” about conscious experience are particularly troubling, since they don’t typically have the kind of timeless identity they are supposed to possess. “Physical facts” may be explicable—both logically and causally—without any direct reference to their mental representation. Moore’s own analysis, however, is clearly a version of representational realism, with its attendant difficulties about the status of sense-data and their independence of individual acts of sensation.

In the later essay, “Proof of an External World” (1939), Moore’s methodology (perhaps influenced by his conversations with Wittgenstein) relied even more heavily on the analysis of ordinary language. Much of his point there seems to rest on an extraordinarily cautious explanation of such phrases as “to be met with in space” and “external to the mind.” Many who have been sincerely troubled by skeptical doubts will find Moore’s “proof” of the existence of physical objects less than satisfying. Perhaps Moore’s extremely careful procedures leave too many legitimate philosophical questions unanswered.

Ethical Life

From the beginning, Moore anticipated that his methods could be applied fruitfully to significant issues in moral philosophy. The first chapter of his Principia Ethica (1903) famously sought to analyze the concept of “good” as the basis for all moral valuation. Such an investigation is meta-ethical in nature; its goal is clarity and precision, not substantive normative content.

Although the question, “What is good?” might be answered in any of several ways, Moore dismissed most of the likely answers as irrelevant to his task. What we need is neither a list of specific things in life that happen to be good nor even a set of principles by means of which to identify such things. The proper answer must be a correct general explanation of the concept (not merely the word) “good,” applicable in every possible instance. Moore’s central contention was that good is a simple, non-natural quality that certain things in the world happen to exhibit.

Although many philosophers of the Western tradition had claimed to define good in terms of some other feature of the world, but Moore argued that such attempts typically confuse part with whole or cause with effect. That every attempt to define good by reference to something else fails is evident from the open question that invariably remains: “Is this really good?” (When a hedonism proposes that “Good is pleasure,” for example, we naturally ask, “But is pleasure always good?”) The open question shows that each effort to identify good with something else is mistaken, Moore held, and since most of these attempts equate good with a natural property, he labelled their erroneous procedure the “naturalistic fallacy.”

Although indefinable, the concept of good is not meaningless, since we use it to distinguish good from bad every day. Hence, Moore concluded that “good” must be a simple, non-natural, indefinable quality that good things have. We recognize it in our experience, even though there is no explaining it; this is a version of ethical intuitionism. In later chapters of the book, Moore himself proposed that good is most evident in our appreciation of physical objects with aesthetic value and in the uniquely worthwhile experience of human friendships. Even many whose notions about morality differ from Moore’s would seem to share his basic conviction that they can only be intuited, not defined or explained.

Bertrand Russell: Philosophy as Logical Analysis

Life and Works

Orphaned at the age of four, Bertrand Russell studied both mathematics and philosophy (with McTaggart) at Cambridge University, where he later taught. As the grandson of a British prime minister, Russell devoted much of his public effort to matters of general social concern. He was jailed for writing a pacifist pamphlet during the First World War and attacked Bolshevism and Stalin in 1920, after visiting the Soviet Union. Russell supported the battle against Fascism during World War II but continued to protest Western colonialization and publicly deplored the development of weapons of mass destruction, as is evident in “The Bomb and Civilization” (1945), New Hopes for a Changing World (1951), and his untitled last essay.

Throughout his life, Russell was an outspoken critic of organized religion as both unfounded and deceptive; he detailed its harmful social consequences in “Why I Am Not a Christian” (1927) and defended an agnostic alternative in “A Free Man’s Worship” (1903). His Marriage and Morals (1929), an attack upon the repressive character of conventional sexual morality, was a central focus in the legal action that prevented him from accepting a teaching post at the City College of New York in 1940. Russell’s Autobiography (1967-69) is an excellent source of information, analysis, and self-congratulation regarding his interesting life. Its pages include his eloquent statements of “What I Have Lived For” and “A Liberal Decalogue.” Russell was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1950.

Through an early appreciation of the philosophical work of Leibniz, published in A Critical Exposition of the Philosophy of Leibniz(1900), Russell came to regard logical analysis as the crucial method for philosophy.

In Principia Mathematica (1910-13), written jointly with Alfred North Whitehead, he showed that all of arithmetic could be deduced from a restricted set of logical axioms, a thesis presented and defended in less technical terms in Russell’s Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy (1919). Applying simlarly analytical methods to philosophical problems, Russell believed, could resolve disputes and provide an adequate account of human experience. Indeed, his A History of Western Philosophy (1946) tried to demonstrate that the philosophical tradition, properly understood, had moved slowly but steadily toward just such a culmination.

The attempt to account clearly for every constituent of ordinary assertions soon proved problematic, however. Russell proposed a ramified theory of types in order to avoid the self-referential paradoxes that might otherwise emerge from such abstract notions as “the barber who shaves all but only those who do not shave themselves” or “the class of all classes that are not members of themselves.” In the theory of descriptions put forward in On Denoting (1905), Russell argued that proper analysis of denoting phrases enables us to represent all thought symbolically while avoiding philosophical difficulties about non-existent objects. As his essay

on “Vagueness” (1923) shows, Russell long persisted in the belief that adequate explanations could provide a sound basis for human speech and thought.

In similar fashion, the analysis of statements attributing a common predicate to different subjects in “On the Relations of Universals and Particulars” (1911) convinced Russell that both particulars and universals must really exist. He developed this realistic view further in The Problems of Philosophy (1912). Our Knowledge of the External World (1914) continues this project by showing how Russell’s philosophy of logical atomism can construct a world of public physical objects using private individual experiences as the atomic facts from which one could develop a complete description of the world. Although Russell’s philosophical positions were soon eclipsed by those of Wittgenstein and the logical positivists, his model of the possibilities for analytic thought remains influential.


Analytic philosophy in the twentieth century aims to resolve philosophical disputes by clarifying the significance of ordinary assertions. One of the earliest practicioners of this method was Bertrand Russell, an English peer who proposed reliance upon logic as the basis for dealing with every other branch of the discipline. Careful re-statement of philosophical problems in precise logical terminology, Russell believed, makes evident their likely solutions.

Such optimism naturally depended upon a vigorous sense of the value of logic itself. Neither the simplistic treatment of predicates in the Aristotelian logic of the scholastics nor the crypto-metaphysical account of internal relations in the Hegelian dialectic of the Absolute idealists provides an adequate foundation for philosophy, Russell supposed, and the inductive reasoning of Bacon, Hume, and Mill offers grounds only for tentative empirical generalizations. Russell’s hopes rested instead on a modern notion of the logical enterprise, in which inferential relations depend solely upon the logical form of individual propositions that can be shown to be tautologous.

One advantage of this notion is that it promised to establish formally the essential unity of logic and mathematics. As Russell and Cambridge mathematician Alfred North Whitehead demonstrated in Principia Mathematica (1910-13), it is possible to begin with a restricted set of logical symbols and, using only simple inferential techniques, prove the truth of the Peano axioms for basic arithmetic. Although its ultimate success was significantly undermined by Gödel’s proof that some propositions necessarily remained undecidable, the construction of this formal system was an intellectual achievment of the first order.

Moreover, the logicization of arithmetic required attention to significant philosophical issues. Russell and Whitehead used the principle of abstraction to eliminate properties from their logical system entirely, instead using classes of objects, defined entirely by their extension. (Thus, for example, the number “5” is nothing other than the class of all classes that have quintuple membership.) But this technique gave rise to a significant paradox. Since there can be classes of classes, it must be possible to offer extensional definitions of classes that have themselves as members. But then consider “the class of all classes that are not members of themselves.” If this class is included within its own extension, then by definition, it should not be; but if it is not included, then it should be. This appears to establish the formal inconsistency of the entire system.Russell’s solution to the difficulty was a theory of types, according to which classes are arrayed hierarchically: although each class may have as members classes of lower orders, no class can contain any class of its own order (including itself). Even if this solution worked for the technical apparatus of logic, we may still be faced with similar, less formal difficulties with self-referential statements.

The Theory of Descriptions

From his work on the logical foundations of mathematics, Russell derived an enormous confidence in the possibility of resolving philosophical problems by offering careful analyses of the logical structure (rather than the grammatical form) of what we say. The most clearly successful application of this technique is the “theory of descriptions” Russell expounded in On Denoting(1905).

We certainly make frequent use of “denoting phrases” in ordinary language, but if we uncritically accept their substantive use in grammar, we’ll be inclined to suppose that they represent objects in the same way that proper names do. This gives rise to difficulties of three sorts:

1. Excluded middle
The traditional principle seems violated by subject-less assertions such as “Either the present king of France is bald or the present king of France is not bald.”
2. Assertions of non-existence
If denoting phrases invariably have referents, then (as Meinong pointed out) “The golden mountain does not exist” says of something that there is no such thing.
3. Opaque contexts
The substitution of equivalent expressions seems not to preserve truth in such statements as, “Alan believes that Sarah’s father is Joy’s son.”

Russell attacked these problems by emphasizing that descriptions signify differently than do logically proper names. A name denotes its referent directly, carrying its own existential import; but a description denotes only indirectly and must be regarded in a different way. In fact, Russell held that denoting phrases cannot be correctly understood in isolation (since that invariably makes names of them). In order to see how a denoting phrase refers, we must analyze the whoe proposition of which it is a part. A statement that incorporates an indefinite description, such as “John met a person,” should be analyzed as, “There is something that is a person and John met it.” In symbolic notation,
     (∃x)(Px • Mjx)
An assertion that includes a definite description, such as “The author of Waverly was Scotch,” should be analyzed as, “At least one person wrote Waverly; at most one person wrote Waverly; and whoever wrote Waverly was Scotch.” In symbolic notation,
     (∃x){[Wx • (y)(Wy ⊃ y=x)] • Sx}
Notice that what seem to be simple statements in ordinary language turn out, on logical analysis, to involve two or three distinct assertions, all of which must be true if the statement as a whole is true. This, Russell maintained, resolves problems of all three sorts:

1. Excluded middle
On proper analysis “Either the present king of France is bald or the present king of France is not bald” asserts that either there is a present king of France who is bald or there is a present king of France who is not bald. When, in fact, there is no king of France, both disjuncts are clearly false.
2. Assertions of non-existence
Similarly, “The golden mountain does not exist” simply points out that it is not the case that there is something that is both golden and a mountain.
3. Opaque contexts
Finally “Alan believes that Sarah’s father is Joy’s son” attributes to Alan belief in a complex proposition, the falsity of any component of which will render Alan’s belief incorrect.

In each case, Russell’s solution to potential philosophical difficulties derives from a clear recognition that the logical form of an assertion may be significantly different from its grammatical structure. That’s the whole point of analysis.Decades later, Strawson criticized Russell’s treatment of descriptions by insisting that ordinary language be taken more seriously as it is. On the other hand, relying upon Russell’s suggestion that even proper names can be treated as definite descriptions, Quine eliminated the presumed ontological implications of their use. Despite these later developments, Russell’s treatment of descriptions stands as a notable example of the potential benefits of philosophical analysis.

Logical Atomism

Russell himself went on to apply analytic methods to discussion of basic epistemological and metaphysical issues. In “On the Relations of Universals and Particulars” (1911), for example, Russell used logical arguments to resolve the ancient problem of universals. Ordinary language certainly permits the attribution of a common predicate to more than one subject: “ a is P ” and “ b is P ” may both be true. If only particular things exist, then a and b would be distinct, featureless beings whose likeness with respect to P could only be understood as a shared—and hence universal—property. If only universal things exist, then P would exist in two places at once, which would fail to account for the distinctness of a and b. Thus, Russell argued, both universals and bare particulars exist; only a robust realism can explain both the sameness and the diversity that we observe in ordinary experience.

More generally, Russell’s lectures on Our Knowledge of the External World (1914) and Logical Atomism (1918) offered a comprehensive view of reality and our knowledge of it. As an empiricist, Russell assumed that all human knowledge must begin with sensory experience. Sense-data provide the primitive content of our experience, and for Russell (unlike the phenomenalists) these sense-data are not merely mental events, but rather the physical effects caused in us by external objects. Although each occurs immediately within the private space of an individual perceiver, he argued, classes of similar sense-data in various perceivers constitute a public space from which even unperceived (though in principle perceivable) sensibilia may be said to occur. Thus, the contents of sensory experience are both public and objective.

From this beginning, according to Russell, all else follows by logical analysis. Simple observations involving sense-data, such as “This patch is now green,” are the atomic facts upon which all human knowledge is grounded. What we ordinarily call physical objects are definite descriptions constructed logically out of just such epistemic atoms. As Russell claimed in the fifth chapter of The Problems of Philosophy (1912),

Every proposition which we can understand must be composed wholly of constituents with which we are acquainted.

Careful application of this principle, together with the techniques of logical analysis, accounts for everything we can know either by acquaintance or by description.Some cases do call for special treatment. Russell feared that some “negative facts” might require lengthy analysis in order to establish their ground without presuming acquaintance with non-existence objects. “General facts” certainly do presume something more than a collection of atomic facts. The truth of “All dogs are mammals,” for example, depends not only on the truth of many propositions—”Houston is a mammal,” “Chloë is a mammal,” etc.—about individual dogs, but also on the further assertion that these individuals constitute the entire extension of the term “dog.” Suitably analyzed, however, all of human knowledge can be seen to rest solely upon the collective content of human experience.

Social Concerns

Abstract philosophical matters were not all that Russell cared about. As he noted in the prologue to his Autobiography (1967), pity for human suffering (along with love and knowledge) was among his deepest concerns. At the height of his career, Russell spent years in jail as a conscientious objector to British involvement in the First World War, and this vocal pacifism resulted in the termination of his professorship at Cambridge. Although he came to regard the threat of Fascism as great enough to warrant the Second World War, Russell was profoundly concerned about the invention of atomic weapons with the capacity to destroy human civilization on an unprecedented scale. The warnings contained in his “The Bomb and Civilization” (1945) were expressed repeatedly throughout his life.

Russell’s efforts to secure an academic career in the United States were thwarted by conservative opponents who drew attention to his unconventional opinions regarding sexual morality and organized religion. In the notorious lecture entitled “Why I Am Not a Christian” (1927) Russell pointed out the inadequacy of traditional efforts to demonstrate existence of god, offered a balanced evaluation of the teachings of Jesus, and decried the harmful moral and social consequences of adherence to Christian religion. Agnosticism was no more popular in America than divorce, and Russell’s uncompromising honesty about these issues contributed greatly to his public reputation.