He was the most revered philosopher of his era. So why did GE Moore disappear from history?

The strange story of how a man who Bertrand Russell and the Bloomsbury Group looked on as a god ended up almost completely forgotten
April 3, 2020
I almost worship him as if he were a god. I have never felt such an extravagant admiration for anybody.” So the 22-year-old Bertrand Russell wrote to his fiancée Alys Pearsall Smith in November 1894. The object of his “extravagant admiration” was George Edward Moore (always known as “GE Moore” because he hated both his given names), who was 18 months younger than Russell and at that time just an undergraduate.  

Russell was reporting to Alys on a meeting of the Apostles, the self-selecting and self-consciously elite discussion group (founded in 1820, and still in existence today) which only the students and fellows considered to be the brightest and best were invited to join. At their meetings, a member presented a case in a short paper—usually on a philosophical, cultural or political subject, designed to display both erudition and wit—which was then put to the vote. Russell had been enlisted in his second year at Cambridge, and Moore, likewise, two years later. 

To be revered within the Apostles was to be a superstar of the British intellectual elite. In the 1890s it was a society with an exceptional reach into the worlds of culture and politics, as well as ideas. At the time of Russell’s letter to Alys, active members of the society included the philosophers James Ward and JME McTaggart, the political scientist Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, the polymath Edward Marsh and the art critic Roger Fry. 

It wasn’t only in Cambridge quadrangles but soon also the squares of London in which Moore’s star shone. There was plenty of cross-over between the two sets. Several of the Bloomsbury luminaries were elected to the Apostles: John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, Saxon Sydney-Turner, Desmond MacCarthy, Leonard Woolf and EM Forster. Bloomsbury would develop a veneration of Moore as great as, if not greater than, that expressed by Russell. Beatrice Webb told Leonard Woolf that, although she had known most of the distinguished men of her time, she had never met a great man. “I suppose you don’t know GE Moore,” Woolf replied. In his autobiography, he reflected that Moore was “the only great man whom I have ever met or known in the world of ordinary, real life.”  

Today, this veneration seems a little hard to understand. It is still customary (just about) to lump Moore in with Russell and Wittgenstein, as a trio exemplifying the analytic tradition of philosophy that flourished in England during the 20th century, but the reputations of Russell and Wittgenstein today are far greater. To give one small indicator, nobody has ever suggested to me that I follow my biographies of Russell and Wittgenstein with one of Moore.  

So who was GE Moore and why is there such a gap between his reputation now and his reputation in the first decades of the 20th century? And what does his fall from such exalted heights tell us about the sorts of intellects that do—and do not—shine brightly for posterity? 


George Edward Moore was born and brought up in the south London suburb of Upper Norwood, within walking distance of his school, Dulwich College, which he and his three brothers attended as day boys. One of his brothers was the famous poet, playwright and wood-engraver, Thomas Sturge Moore. The Moore family was religious and attended services every week at the local Baptist church. For a few years, beginning at the age of 11 or 12, Moore was converted by members of a “Children’s Special Service Mission” and became what he described as an “ultra-evangelical.” In a short autobiography contributed to a collection of essays about his work in 1942, Moore writes: “I tried to think very constantly of Jesus and to feel a great love for him.” He also, whenever he had a decision to make, would ask “What would Jesus do?”  

By the time he got to Cambridge, Moore had shaken off his religious faith, but it is possible, I think, to see traces of it in the personality that enraptured so many of his contemporaries. It is also possible to see in Moore’s philosophical writing the legacy of both the strengths and weaknesses of the education he received at Dulwich. In Greek and Latin, Moore was educated to an extraordinarily high level, so much so that the first year of the classics course at Cambridge had little to teach him. And when philosophical argument required, as it often does, linguistic precision and subtlety, Moore was in his element. However, by his own admission, Dulwich had taught Moore very little mathematics and almost no science. This left him ill-equipped to deal with the formal logic that Frege and Russell were incorporating into philosophy, which perhaps prevented him from engaging fully with the cutting edge of the discipline.  

But that was certainly not evident back then. After two years, Russell encouraged Moore to switch from classics to philosophy (“Moral Sciences,” as it was then called at Cambridge). People are drawn to philosophy for a variety of reasons. Russell wanted to find in it a firm foundation for all his beliefs, as Descartes had done in his Meditations with his cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”). In Wittgenstein’s case, it was that he was tormented by logical contradictions and puzzles and wanted to dispel the “mental fog.” Moore was not looking either for certainty or for clarity. What drew him into philosophy was simply puzzlement about the sort of things philosophers said. In his autobiography, he says: “I do not think the world or the sciences would ever have suggested to me any philosophical problems. What has suggested philosophical problems to me are things which other philosophers have said about the world or the sciences.”  

The first time Moore’s interest was aroused by the sort of thing philosophers say was when Russell introduced him to McTaggart, who, in the course of the conversation, expressed the view for which he is best known: that time is unreal. Moore later recalled: “This must have seemed to me then (as it does now) a perfectly monstrous proposition, and I did my best to argue against it.” Thus began Moore’s career as a “common sense philosopher.” 

In time, Russell was to disparage both common sense itself (which he famously described as “the metaphysics of savages”) and Moore’s defence of it. “The trouble with Moore,” he much later remarked to AJ Ayer, “is that he believes everything his nurse told him.” However, in the 1890s, Moore’s arguments against the idealism espoused by McTaggart played a key role in the development of Russell’s own beliefs. What made the biggest impression on Russell, however, was not any particular philosophical view that Moore argued for but rather his sheer tenacity in argument. When Moore attended his first meeting of the Apostles in February 1894, Russell wrote to Alys that he “looked like Newton and Satan rolled into one… We all felt electrified by him, as if we had slumbered hitherto and never realised what fearless intellect pure and unadulterated really means.”  

Russell’s unfettered admiration for Moore was not reciprocated. In fact, Moore quickly found it first uncomfortable and then unbearable to be with Russell. Alan Wood, Russell’s first biographer, relays a discussion he presumably heard about from Russell himself. Russell said to Moore: “You don’t like me, Moore, do you?” To which Moore, after giving the matter careful thought, replied: “No.” After which, according to Wood, “they went on chatting about other things.” 

Things came to a head at Easter in 1903, when Russell tried to invite himself to a reading party that Moore had organised in Cornwall. “About the reading party,” Moore wrote to him, “since you ask me to say if your coming would make any difficulty, I think I had better tell you that it would.” To his close friend Desmond MacCarthy, Moore explained, “I can’t be at my ease while he is there.” 

Before the break with Russell, though, Moore had exerted an influence on his philosophy, helping him to switch from his early idealism to the realism of his mature work. In My Philosophical Development, Russell writes: “It was towards the end of 1898 that Moore and I rebelled against Kant and Hegel. Moore led the way, but I followed closely in his footsteps.” The paper of Moore’s that Russell singles out as “the first published account of the new philosophy” is “The Nature of Judgment,” stressing in particular the importance of its insistence that “fact is in general independent of experience.” What we believe is distinct from our belief in it. If I believe that the proposition “Scotland lies to the north of England” is true, then I believe it to be stating a fact, but what makes it true (or false) has nothing to do with anything going on in my mind.  

If this sounds like common sense, then that is because it is. But if it sounds like something scarcely worth saying, then one should remember that the philosophy that dominated in late 19th-century England was neo-Hegelianism—a form of idealism that Russell had embraced in his first few years as a professional philosopher, and from which Moore helped to liberate him. Significantly, Moore’s role was not so much coming up with brilliant new ideas as breaking the spell of old ones. Nonetheless, it was, Russell later said, “an intense excitement, after having supposed the sensible world unreal, to be able to believe again that there really were such things as tables and chairs.” 


If Russell regarded “The Nature of Judgment” as Moore’s greatest work, the Bloomsbury Group was in no doubt that Moore’s masterpiece was Principia Ethica, published in 1903. Only a decade or so separates the generation of Russell and Moore from that of Keynes, Strachey and Woolf, but, as Russell writes in his Autobiography, “It is surprising how great a change in mental climate those 10 years had brought. We were Victorian; they were Edwardian. We believed in ordered progress by means of politics and free discussion. The more self-confident among us may have hoped to be leaders of the multitude, but none of us wished to be divorced from it. The generation of Keynes and Lytton did not seek to preserve any kinship with the Philistine. They aimed rather at a life of retirement among fine shades and nice feelings, and conceived of the good as consisting in the passionate mutual admiration of a clique of the elite. This -doctrine, quite unfairly, they fathered upon GE Moore, whose disciples they professed to be.” These Moorean “disciples,” Russell alleged, “degraded his ethics into advocacy of a stuffy girls-school sentimentalising.”  

Was Russell being unfair? Well, whether or not one thinks that the Bloomsbury Group distorted or “degraded” Moore’s views, it is certainly true that few philosophers have seen any real importance in those elements of the book which those eminent Edwardians lapped up. To the Bloomsbury Group, Principia Ethica was a book about how best to live and what was most important in life. Virginia Woolf, I think, was only partly joking when she described it as “the book that made us all so wise and good.” In a paper that he gave to Bloomsbury’s Memoir Club in 1938 called “My Early Beliefs,” Keynes recalls the book’s electrifying impact. “Its effect on us,” he says, “and the talk which preceded and followed it, dominated, and perhaps still dominates, everything else.” At the time of its publication, Keynes wrote, “it is a stupendous and entrancing work, the greatest on the subject.” Within a few days of its appearance, Strachey wrote to Moore saying, “I have read your book, and want to say how much I am excited and impressed.” It had, he told him, “wrecked and shattered all writers on Ethics from Aristotle and Christ to Herbert Spencer and Mr Bradley.”  

What thrilled the Bloomsbury Group was the final chapter of the book, “The Ideal.” There, Moore asks what things are intrinsically good: good as ends rather than as means, good in themselves. He answers: “By far the most valuable things, which we can know or imagine, are certain states of consciousness. Which may be roughly described as the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects.” The idea that the best things in life are beautiful objects and friendship fits so closely with the values of Bloomsbury that one is forced to wonder whether they acquired it from Moore or rather simply took delight in seeing their own views expressed and rationalised by an eminent philosopher. 

But most of the book is not taken up with an expression of this view. The five chapters before “The Ideal” are very different in tone and content, and are devoted to a minute examination of ethics. Moore distinguishes ethics from what he calls “practical ethics.” The latter is concerned with what we ought to do, what our duties and responsibilities are; the former is to do with understanding the notion of “the good.” This, says Moore, is an indefinable property that cannot be attributed on the basis of an argument. Rather, it has to be directly intuited. Tellingly, the man who so thrived in face-to-face debate was arguing for limits on how far it was possible to get on the basis of abstract reasoning and critical thinking. To think that “the good” can be defined in terms of a natural property such as “pleasure,” Moore maintained, is to commit what he called the “naturalistic fallacy.” 

These ideas received a lot of detailed attention from academic philosophers for a long time, but through the second half of the 20th century interest went into serious decline. Debating whether the concept “good” could or could not be defined began to seem something of a dead end, and moral philosophers shifted their attention to what looked like more fruitful areas, such as substantive ethical questions (like “Is war ever justified?”) and understanding “thick” moral concepts (such as “courageous,” “tactful,” “cruel,”) rather than “thin” general ones such as “the good.” Intellectual fashions go in cycles, and recently some analytic philosophers have begun discussing Moore anew. But among contemporary novelists, artists and poets, and indeed among pretty well anyone outside the academy, there is now little interest in Principia Ethica. Whatever role Moore had in the world of ideas, it would seem, was not one that principally rested on the production of a book of enduring power.  


One person who was never very impressed with the book was Ludwig Wittgenstein. In his very first letter to Russell, written in the summer of 1912, after his first two terms of studying with him, Wittgenstein said he had been reading Moore’s book: “(now please don’t be shocked) I do not like it at all. (Mind you, quite apart from disagreeing with most of it.) I don’t believe—or rather I am sure—that it cannot dream of comparing with Frege’s or your own works.” He went on: “Moore repeats himself dozens of times, what he says in three pages could—I believe—easily be expressed in half a page. Unclear statements don’t get a bit clearer by being repeated!”  

“Moore?” Wittgenstein said many years later, “he shows you how far a man can go who has absolutely no intelligence whatever.” It sounds a bitchy remark, but, when considered in the light of Wittgenstein’s close friendship with Moore, it takes on a different complexion. And when we factor in Wittgenstein’s view that integrity and strength of will, rather than intelligence, are what is important in philosophy, we begin to catch a glimpse of the special role Moore played in his intellectual circle. Honesty, the quality that, above all, distinguished Moore from others, was, for Wittgenstein, far more important than intelligence, not just morally, but also philosophically. 

Russell was intelligent. Nobody could doubt that. He was quick-witted, sharp and devastatingly articulate. Leonard Woolf has described how listening to an argument between Moore and Russell “was like watching a race between the hare and the tortoise.” But, “Quite often the tortoise won—and that, of course, was why Russell’s thought had been so deeply influenced by Moore and why he still came to Moore’s rooms to discuss difficult problems.” 

Similarly, Wittgenstein, though he thought little of Moore as an original philosopher, valued him greatly as a discussion partner. He also shared with Russell and the Bloomsbury Group a great respect for what he described to his friend and student Norman Malcolm as Moore’s “great love for truth.” In the 1940s, when Moore was an old man and recovering from a stroke, Wittgenstein was dismayed to discover that his visits to Moore were restricted by Moore’s wife Dorothy to one and a half hours. (What Wittgenstein did not know was that Moore would say to Dorothy beforehand, “Don’t let him stay too long.”)  

Interestingly, Wittgenstein’s last writings were concerned with some of Moore’s work. In particular two papers Moore published in the 1920s and 1930s, “Defence of Common Sense” and “Proof of the External World,” which were brought to his attention by Malcolm. In these papers, Moore attempts to defend common sense against scepticism. His famous “proof” of the external world takes the form of holding up his 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.’” In this way, he claims, he has provided a “perfectly rigorous proof” of external things.  

Wittgenstein was not concerned to argue for or against Moore’s “proof.” His view of scepticism was that it was not false, but rather meaningless. It could therefore be neither proved nor disproved. What interested him about Moore’s statement “Here is one hand” was that it gives an example of a case where doubt is nonsensical, or at least difficult to understand. If anyone were to doubt that that was a hand, we would start to wonder what they meant by “hand,” or whether their senses were deceiving them, or whether they were subject to a psychological disorder. 

Whatever view one takes of that, one very striking thing about Moore’s argument is its childlike simplicity. Almost everyone who knew Moore remarked on this quality in him. Wittgenstein didn’t disagree, but disputed that this innocence was something that Moore deserved credit for, since the issue was not “the innocence a man has fought for, but… an innocence that comes from a natural absence of temptation.” 

In person, that childlike innocence could be extraordinarily impressive; on paper, it can look a bit silly. Similarly, the dogged determination to get at the truth and to resist outlandish philosophical claims that so impressed Russell and the Bloomsbury Group can appear in print as repetitive and tedious. Moore, like Socrates, is a philosopher whose influence rested largely on face-to-face encounters; but unlike Socrates he didn’t have a Plato around to preserve him as a “god” for posterity. He provoked, challenged, asked searching questions and unrelentingly told the truth. Those are all crucial roles in intellectual life but not, it seems, roles that ensure you are remembered. Like the two hands he famously held up to see off the sceptics, he really had to be right there—in front of you—in order to make a serious impression. Those of us who never saw him in action will never experience the “extravagant admiration” he aroused at Cambridge in the early 20th century. And those among today’s intellectuals whose most crucial contribution is to be interlocutors, provocateurs and testers of ideas, rather than the authors of great works, might likewise have to accept that it is their lot to live in the moment, rather than be immortalised in the history of ideas.  

Frances Partridge, who was invariably described as “the last surviving member of the Bloomsbury Group” until her death in 2004, once gave me a pointer about the gulf between the dazzling Moore in person and the faded Moore on paper. I sought out the 85 year old in the 1980s, when I was writing my life of Wittgenstein—she had been close to Lettice Ramsey, wife of Frank Ramsey, a friend of Wittgenstein’s. When we met in her elegant flat in Bayswater—with Dora Carrington’s famous portrait of Strachey on the wall—she soon exhausted the memories that were relevant to my book. But I went back several times, because she was such a delight and seemed to be interested  in everything. One day the conversation got onto the Bloomsbury Group’s veneration of GE Moore and I confessed that I had never understood why Moore was regarded as a great philosopher. In response, she leaned across the table, placed her hand gently on mine and said, “Well, you see, my dear, he sang so beautifully!”