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Moore discussion

One thing worth mentioning is that Moore has a philosophical legacy in ethics as well as in the philosophy of mind, especially the philosophy of perception. As evidence of his legacy in these latter fields, one can point to the frequency with which Moore is still cited.

I know very little about Moore's ethical writings but I am broadly familiar with his work on perception and subsequent discussion of those writings. In contemporary philosophy of perception Moore is typically taken as the progenitor of the notorious sense-datum theory of perception. On the whole, this theory tends to be regarded as decidedly opposed to commonsense. Moore's legacy in this area would then seem to substantiate the proposal you put forward about (at least one explanation of) philosophical legacies generally.

But, interestingly and papering over quite a bit, Moore's own attitude to the sense-datum theory seemed to be that it *was* common-sense. Or, at least, that it followed from things that were obvious. Consider, for example, his characteristically plodding discussion of the sense-datum theory in section IV of 'A Defense of Common sense'.


I don't actually know the history well, but as a philosopher of perception (focused on current issues), my understanding always was that Russell and Price were the main progenitors of Sense-datum theory. While I'm sure there are places where Moore endorses it, there are also places where he rejects it in favour of commonsense naive realism (e.g., his 1918 paper "Some Judgments of Perception"). Maybe he did articulate it first, then rejected it later on? I suspect he never quite endorsed it, since he's often hesitant and writes as if he's just trying out ideas. (I don't even know who first coined the term "sense-data", so, take what I say with a grain of salt.)

I think a careful read of papers like this one, from Moore, shows a careful philosopher (if a bit plodding) with deep insights worth revisiting. That, if anything, seems to be his main legacy in phil perception: his observation of the transparency of experience, or, rather, the dual nature of experience that can be both at once transparent and open to introspection.

I actually found it a bit strange to say that Moore has disappeared from history, as he's cited quite a bit in phil perception just for the transparency stuff (which really is of serious consequence for current work).

This makes me want to print out a Moore paper and sit down and carefully read it over coffee.

Moore Moore discussion


Moore is often credited with the introduction of 'sense-datum' and its plural into the philosophical lexicon in his 1910-11 lectures, 'Some Main Problems of Philosophy'. In fact the terms were already in use by figures like Royce and Sidgwick. Even so, Moore's use has been the most influential, certainly relative to those older uses.

You're quite right that Moore's relationship to the sense-datum theory is somewhat complicated, hence my talk of papering things over. In fact, my reference to *the* sense-datum theory is misleading as there was considerable variation among sense-datum theorists, e.g., regarding whether sense-data are mental or non-physical. Moore himself held different versions of the sense-datum view from his initial writings on the topic at the beginning of the 20th until his last published paper on the topic, 'Visual Sense-Data', in the late 1950s (1957 I think it was?).

But what never changed about Moore's views, so far as I know, and what classifies him as a sense-datum theorist to my mind is his insistence that perception is to be analyzed as a relation of consciousness that obtains between a perceiver and what they perceive. That is what Moore took to be obvious/certain.

All of the variations in his views concerned the nature of what one stands in a relation to when one perceives, i.e. the nature of sense-data.

As to Price and Russell, Price was, if I am not mistaken, a student of Moore's. Moore's relationship to Russell is as described by Monk. Not sure whether Russell borrowed the terminology of 'sense-data' from Moore or vice versa as the publication date of Russell's 'Problems of Philosophy' is so close to Moore's 1910-11 lectures. I'm also not sure whether Russell first used those terms in his 'Problems of Philosophy' or whether they occurred earlier in his work. C.D. Broad should also be included in the sense-datum group. Very hard to say 'who got there first'. Certainly these ideas were circulating around Oxford well before any of them made it into print.

As to sitting down with a coffee to read Moore, a philosopher of perception can never read 'The Refutation of Idealism' too many times!


MMD: Thanks for the history! Perhaps I shouldn't put so much stock in that 1918 paper, but I think in there he says some stuff that's clearly against the grain of how "sense-data" are understood today. He definitely seriously considers that the objects of the perception relation are physical objects stimulating our sensory systems. Russell too, in Problems, introduces the term "sense-data" to be *whatever* it is we stand in the perception relation with, and then argues these are something like the entities we now associate with that term.

Anyway, I'm not really disagreeing or saying anything of real importance. Just thinking out loud.

Sam Duncan

I tend to agree with everything you say, but I'm also very worried about the phenomenon and what's behind it and I have been since reading Tony Judt's work years ago. In his wonderful history of Europe, "Postwar", and his work on French intellectuals Judt raises the question of how and why very clever people like Sartre could spend so much time and energy defending Soviet Marxism when European social democracy was so obviously superior. He concludes that part of the reason for this was because social democracy seemed so obviously superior it didn't take much cleverness to argue for that conclusion. It wasn't very fun or interesting to argue for a truth that pretty much everyone already accepted. On the other hand it took a lot of mental gymnastics to argue for the moral superiority of communism. Doing that was fun and interesting because it was so hard. I've thought about this a lot. Academics are drawn to what is interesting and get rewarded for making interesting claims. But the truth might not always be interesting in that sense. That's something we should worry about a lot more than we do.

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