Things Philosophers Say: Malcolm and Moore


In my intro classes we’ve been discussing the likes of Berkeley and Plato, Descartes and Hume, to broach those “big” questions like “What can I know?”; “Is knowledge possible?”; “What’s the nature of reality?” etc.  I wanted a quick discussion piece, for various reasons, and somehow I remembered Norman Malcolm’s well-known paper “Moore and Ordinary Language, ” from 1942.  How I pulled this up I’ll never know since I haven’t read any of this ordinary language stuff since graduate school, and even then, I poo-pooed it enough to make it, at least in my own mind,  irrelevant.  Anyway, the passage is worth quoting almost  in full, what follows is 9 of the 12 propositions (you can view the rest here):

(1) Philosopher: “There are no material things.”
Moore: “You are certainly wrong, for here’s one hand and here’s another; and so there are at least two material things.”
(2) Philosopher: “Time is unreal”
Moore: “If you mean that no event ever follows or precedes another event, you are certainly wrong; for after lunch I went for a walk, and after that I took a bath, and after that I had tea.”
(3) Philosopher: “Space is unreal”
Moore: “If you mean that nothing ever is to the right of, or to the left of, or behind, or above, anything else, then you are certainly wrong; for the inkwell is to the left of this pen and my head is above them both.”
(4) Philosopher: “No one ever perceives a material thing”
Moore: “If by ‘perceive’ you mean ‘hear’, ‘see’, ‘feel’, etc., then nothing could be more false; for I now both see and feel this piece of chalk.”
(5) Philosopher: “No material thing exists unperceived.”
Moore: “What you say is absurd, for no one perceived my bedroom while I slept last night and yet it certainly did not cease to exist.”
(6) Philosopher: “All that one ever sees when one looks at a thing is part of one’s own brain.”
Moore: “This desk which both of us now see is most certainly not part of my brain, and, in fact, I have never seen a part of my own brain.”
(7) Philosopher: “How would you prove that the statement that your own sensation, feelings, experiences are the only ones that exist is false?”
Moore: “In this way: I know that you now see me and hear me, and furthermore I know that my wife has a toothache, and therefore it follows that sensations, feelings, experiences other than my own exist.
(8) Philosopher: “You do not know for certain that there are any feelings or experiences other than your own.”
Moore: “On the contrary, I know it to be absolutely certain that you now see me and hear what I say, and it is absolutely certain that my wife has a toothache. Therefore, I do know it to be absolutely certain that there exist feelings and experiences other than my own.
(9) Philosopher: “We do not know for certain that the world was not created five minutes ago, complete with the fossils.”
Moore: “I know for certain that I and many other people have lived for many years, and that many other people lived many years before us; and it would be absurd to deny it.”

I think that a good many of the responses Malcolm has Moore say are virtually verbatim from papers from Moore.  Minimally, it’s safe to say Moore would have liked all of these responses.  And clearly, lots of the positions advocated by the “Philosopher” are positions held by philosophers Moore encountered throughout his career, others are thinly-veiled references to certain (or a certain) 20th century thinkers, while still others are positions held by various philospohers for quite some time, over the last few hundred years.  Regardless, this sparked some good conversation in class and almost caused me to rethink ordinary language philosophy, almost.

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