Philosophy against Misosophy



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

Review of J. M. E. McTaggart, The Nature of Existence. Volume II.  Edited by C. D. Broad. Cambridge University Press, 1927, xlvii+480.  From The Journal of Philosophy, 26:21 (October 10, 1929), 582-587.


Brand Blanshard

“‘Take an eighteenth-century English Whig.  Let him be a mystic.  Endow him with the logical subtlety of the great schoolmen and their belief in the powers of the human reason, with the business capacity of a successful lawyer, and with the lucidity of the best type of French mathematician.  Inspire him (Heaven knows how) in early youth with a passion for Hegel.  Then subject him to the teaching of Sidgwick and the continual influence of Moore and Russell.  Set him to expound Hegel.  What will be the result?’ Hegel himself could not have answered this question a priori, but the course of world-history has solved it ambulando by producing McTaggart.” 

This is the way in which Dr. Broad, in a recent paper for the British Academy,1 describes his former teacher and colleague.  And he goes on to an estimate of McTaggart’s place among philosophers that is not a little startling.  The Nature of Existence, he says, “may quite fairly be ranked with the Enneads of Plotinus, the Ethics of Spinoza, and the Encylopædia, of Hegel”; it is “equal in scope and originality to any of the great historical systems of European philosophy,” while in point of style its author “must plainly be ranked with Hobbes, Berkeley, and Hume among the masters of English philosophical prose.”  Of anyone who can be so described by a competent critic some further account seems called for.

McTaggart died in 1925 at the age of fifty-eight. For forty years he had been connected with Trinity College, Cambridge, first as student, then as prize fellow, and from 1897 as College Lecturer in the Moral Sciences. He was never made a professor; he seems to have had no disciples: but the place he filled in the Cambridge community was none the less a large one.  In early days he had been president of the Cambridge Union, and he displayed in its debates a gift for clear and orderly speech which led him later to carry an exceptional burden of lecturing with pleasure to himself and popularity among his auditors.  He had, too, a gift for business which made him a valued member of university committees.  He was not a distinguished scholar.  In classics, mathematics, and the sciences his knowledge was rather severely limited.  But he was a born metaphysician, with an inexhaustible capacity for sustained and subtle dialectic, and a willingness to follow the argument wherever it led, no matter how far from established ways of thinking. As a result of this independence, he combined beliefs that are seldom found together.  Thus he was at once an atheist, a strong believer in immortality and a strong supporter, for reasons of his own, of the Church of England.  He was so convinced an idealist as to hold that the existence of matter is nothing more than “a bare possibility to which it would be foolish to attach the slightest importance”; nevertheless, if placed in the school of British idealists, he would be an extraordinary misfit.  For he supplanted the Absolute with a colony of timeless selves; he held that the hedonistic calculus is an adequate guide to conduct; he held that the state is merely a means to individual welfare; and he was apt to exercise a sardonic wit on certain less “tough-minded” idealists as “wanting to believe that they ate a good dinner only in order to strengthen themselves to appreciate Dante.”  As for intimate characteristics, a remark or two must suffice.  He had, as just suggested, a lively sense of humor; he read novels and memoirs omnivorously and with a rare memory for their details; in politics he was inclined to conservatism and in university affairs to liberalism; he was fond of the historical usages of English university life, and was an expert in its complicated ceremonial; he was a lover of “good living,” with a strong aversion for teetotalers and Puritan dissenters; he was an ardent patriot during the war.  This last seems to have caused him much pain, since it lost him some very close friendships, and personal affection was something which, on metaphysical as well as on temperamental grounds, McTaggart held the most valuable thing in the world.

The Nature of Existence is by far his greatest book.  In the light of it, the commentaries on Hegel which came before it appear as a mere apprenticeship in the a priori method.  He first intended to employ the Hegelian method in the present work and to call it The Dialectic of Existence, but this plan he later abandoned for deduction of the commoner type.  Yet so complete is his reliance on an a priori procedure that throughout the first volume of the work he resorts only twice to perception, once to settle the question whether anything exists, and once to settle the question whether there are more substances than one.  His general purpose is two-fold, first to discover what can be said a priori about the structure of all that exists, and secondly to square his a priori conclusions with what is revealed to us in perception.

These a priori conclusions are too numerous to review here.  But two of them, at least, must be presented for they form the keys to McTaggart’s system as a whole.  These conclusions are that whatever is real must be organized in a system which he calls “determining correspondence,” and secondly, that time does not exist.

The idea of determining correspondence he reaches in the following way.  He first shows that whatever exists must have qualities and stand in relations; but then the question arises, Can the world be made up of qualities and relations alone?  This he thinks impossible; there must in addition be substances, a substance being “that which has qualities and stands in relations without itself being a substance or a relation.”  Such substances must be many, and further, they can not be simple, since every substance must have content in the form of qualities.  Are these substances infinitely divisible?  If they are not simple, they apparently must be, and yet infinite divisibility involves a contradiction.  For every substance must have a determinate character, and this character depends upon the character of its parts.  But these parts depend for their character upon their own parts, and these again upon theirs, and so on without end.  Substances, then, have some character, and yet they can not have, since this depends on the completion of an endless series.  Is there any way to avoid this contradiction consistently with the infinite divisibility of substance?  Yes, says McTaggart, there is one only.  Suppose that a substance is divided into parts, A and B.  And suppose that each of these parts, again, is divided into parts, AA’, AB’ and BA’, BB’, which possess a one-to-one correspondence with the set of primary parts.  This subdivision can be continued endlessly, but the endless process is no longer vicious.  Since the same character is exhibited in the whole and in each of its parts, that character need not wait upon the completion of an endless series, and indeed is no longer affected by any extension of this series.  This is the only way in which the two propositions about substance, first, that it has a character, and second, that it is not simple, can be brought to consistency.  And since these are both self-evident, the scheme is necessary.  It is to this scheme that he gives the name of determining correspondence.

Whatever exists, then, must be a whole of parts, each one of which is similarly divisible to infinity.  The question now is, What things do we experience which fulfill this condition?  Prima facie, there are three kinds of things that come within our experience, matter, sensa, and spirit.  But matter can not be real, partly because it fails to comply with the above general condition, partly because it is reached by an erroneous inference which assumes that sensa must have causes which are like them.  And sensa must also be rejected; such qualities as redness and sweetness are simple and hence not infinitely divisible.  Selves alone remain; and McTaggart devotes one of the most interesting chapters in the book to an argument, as against Hume and Bradley, that each of us is directly aware of a substantial self.  But do selves fulfill the condition of reality?  They certainly have parts, for presentation, volition, and feeling may be distinguished within them.  But do these parts themselves fulfill the condition?  Each is examined in successive chapters.  Of presentation he distinguishes five forms, awareness, perception, “imaging,” “assumption,” and judgment, and maintains that perception alone can meet the requirement.  He then proceeds to show that much so-called volition and emotion is really perception and hence, so far, passes the test.  And the emotion which passes it most clearly is love.  The chapter in which this is argued contains a remarkable analysis of the emotion of love, in which it is held that “love is for the person, and not for his qualities, nor is it for him in respect of his qualities. It is for him.”  The argument here rises to a genuine eloquence that is the more effective for its extreme restraint.

The conclusion so far is that only selves are real, and that selves are made up exclusively of perceptions.  But if this is what the world is really like, how is one to account for its seeming so very different?

It is here that one must introduce the second key to McTaggart’s position.  He holds that time does not exist, and that our seeing things as in time is the chief fountain-head of error.  The argument is elaborate and subtle, but in broad outline it is as follows.  We can distinguish positions in time in two different ways, one as past, present, and future, the other as earlier and later.  The first series of positions McTaggart describes as the A series, the second as the B series.  Now if we take the B series by itself, we find that it leaves out change.  If the battle of Waterloo was ever earlier than the death of Napoleon, that relation is fixed and changeless.  But if we are to have time, change is necessary, and change involves what is future becoming present, and what is present past. The A series is therefore essential to time.  But unfortunately this A series involves a contradiction.  For it implies that any moment or event is at once past, present, and future.  This contradiction is usually veiled by supposing that there is no difficulty when the terms are taken successively and it is said that an event M is present, has been future, and will be past.  But McTaggart acutely points out that this will not serve. “What is meant,” he asks, “by ‘has been’ and ‘will be’? . . . When we say that X has been Y, we are asserting X to be Y at a moment of past time.  When we say that X will be Y, we are asserting X to be Y at a moment of future time.”  Now this past and this future in which we assert Y to hold of X are not simply non-entities, or the judgments would be meaningless.  They must therefore be real.  Hence past and future must exist, and exist together.  But that is a contradiction.  To sum up, since time requires change, and change requires the A series, and the A series is contradictory, time itself must be unreal.

This is, of course, no novel conclusion.  But whereas in most idealist systems, we are left with an aching gap between the timeless reality and the irrational appearance, McTaggart sets himself to the task of finding what it is in reality that serves as the base of the illusion.  Behind the time series, he concludes, there must be another order, and it is through misperceiving this order that the time series arises.  This underlying order he describes as the C series, and holds that its terms are related in an order of inclusion.  The problem then becomes how a misperception of this order in terms of time and in other ways could give rise to the long train of illusions which distinguishes the world of present experience from the world which he considers the real one.  The explanatory devices he adopts, which are too various to describe here, are always ingenious, though at times they impress the reader as somewhat strained.

The world that emerges from McTaggart’s speculation is as different from that of common sense as was the world of Leibniz.  Time, space, matter, sensa, are all alike done away.  What alone exists is selves.  These selves are composed of perceptions, but the perceptions are not, as they now seem to be, engaged with sensible appearances.  They are engaged with the only other realities in the universe, namely, other selves; and they perceive those selves as directly as we are now aware of our own selves. Now “all such perception of selves will be love.  For then the consciousness of unity will be more intense than it is ever in present experience, in which no self perceives another.”  Hence, among selves as they really are, there obtains the completest harmony.  Again, there can be no unsatisfied desires, since if desires can exist only as perceptions, they can not be for the absent; the only form of volition will be acquiescence in what is perceived.  Each self, again, is immortal, or, more accurately, eternal; it will appear to endure through all time, and is in reality timeless.  McTaggart does not draw back from the conclusion that one self will lead many lives, and, startlingly enough, would explain some congenital gifts and even some love at first sight as due to experiences of a past whose present total oblivion is no bar to continued identity.  Since no self has created another and none can be part of another, there is no God.  And though in knowledge, in the amount and intensity of consciousness, in pleasure and in goodness, no self in this real world (or, as McTaggart would put it, “at the final stage of the C series”) can be perfect, it is yet in all these respects unimaginably nearer perfection than it appears.

A theory at once so extraordinary, so original, and so elaborately defended can not be appraised in passing.  The difficulty is not at all, as is the case so often, that the reader must struggle with obscure meaning or loose expression.  McTaggart was a master of lucid statement, and besides, it was his custom to prepare five drafts of everything he published.  And Dr. Broad’s work as editor, which includes an analytical table of contents of some forty pages, is admirable.  But with all these aids, it must be said that there is perhaps no first-rate work in English on metaphysics that presents an equal difficulty.  Some of the minor positions, like the existence of a substantial self and the doctrine of immortality, are familiar and much discussed.  But a conception as novel as that of determining correspondence, and indeed as various other of McTaggart’s central conceptions, the philosophical public will need much time to assimilate and appraise.  To the present writer, the two views here selected as central both seem to have been made out.  But of the book as a whole one can only be sure, with Professor Laird, that if it is not a work of genius, it is at least extraordinarily like one.



1 “John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart,” British Academy Proc., Vol. XIII.  I owe to this paper most of the facts in the following paragraph.


Posted February 27, 2007

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