49.0 A Hunk of Book...
Philosophy without Rhetoric at Cambridge at the Turn of the 20th Century:
G. E. Moore and the Tension between Language and Meaning
Moral Sciences (philosophy) was not the giant of disciplines that we have come to remember it as at the turn of the 20th century. The faculty were largely new, largely setting out on their own careers, and only beginning to attract students in any significant numbers. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that the scholarship completed in Cambridge by G. E. Moore, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein would change philosophy, rhetoric, and communication studies for more than 100 years.
This chapter sets out the influence of the first of those giants. G. E. Moore is largely studied for his ethical theories, published in Principia Ethica (19XX), but his theories of language also carry a legacy. Philosophers describe Moore’s legacy in philosophy of language primarily through Wittgenstein, but I want here to demonstrate the influence that Moore had on I. A. Richards. Through Richards, Moore would have an indirect effect on the understandings of rhetoric and communication that would dominate the 20th century,
Specifically, Moore would both immerse Richards in the importance of attention to the nuances of everyday language for piecing together the meaning of a text, while at the same time insisting that the meaning is not reducible to the text. The text is the vehicle for the proposition, but the proposition exists independently of the language that is used to express it. While Moore is insistent on this claim as part of a larger metaphysics, he was less interested in puzzling through its implications for actual communicative practice.
Richards is interested in actual communicative practice, and so it is fair to claim that Richards’ work (and the New Rhetoric) begins with G. E. Moore. Richards at first tries to defend Moore’s position in his early essays. Later, he transforms Moore’s position (in Practical Criticism, Principles of Literary Criticism and eventually his treatises on rhetoric). He continues to hold that the meaning of an utterance cannot be reduced to the words it contained, but believes, unlike Moore, that the meaning of the utterance is a product of human psychology, not of the external reality of propositions.
This chapter maps out Moore’s position, then begins to map its influence on Richards.
G. E. Moore and the Moral Sciences (Philosophy) at Cambridge
G. E. Moore (1873-1958) entered Trinity college at Cambridge as a student just before turning age 19, in 1892. He joined the Trinity Boat Club and the Cambridge University Musical society, participating in the full range of social activities that buttressed academic life. Moore completed the first part of the classics tripos and both the second classics tripos and the moral sciences tripos. (This was the 19th century Cambridge equivalent of double-majoring in classics and moral sciences.) He was a precocious mind, and he was eager to join the fellows at the university after graduation, winning the Prize Fellow of Trinity for 1898. It was in moral sciences that he would distinguish himself, becoming one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century.
G. E. Moore's early philosophical work was presented to the meetings of the Cambridge Apostles, the informal conversational group of Cambridge intellectuals discussed in the previous chapter. And after becoming a Prize Fellow, he set immediately to drafting encyclopedia entries for Baldwin's Dictionary of Psychology and Philosophy, as well as shorter pieces cementing his break from Hegelianism and idealism in philosophy. After his time as Prize Fellow ended, he spent some years away from Cambridge (in Edinburgh and other places) until 1911, when he became University Lecturer in Moral Science. In 1925, he ascended to replace James Ward as Professor of Philosophy. (In Cambridge, there is one Professor in any given subject area at a time. This is unlike the United States, where the title is bestowed on nearly all members of the faculty in a department. Hence, in Cambridge, the position is very prestigious and a recognition of the place of Moore’s work.) This was same year that Moore became a Fellow at Trinity college.
Within his time at Cambridge, Moore was famously regarded by students, including Richards. Moore’s careful attention to language sparked his students. One prominent student describes Moore’s teaching in this way (in Howarth):
He certainly expanded our notion of how much discussion a question can deserve. For example, he could take a single sentence from James Ward’s Encyclopedia Britannica article on psychology and stay with it for three weeks lecturing on: “What on earth could Ward possibly have meant by saying that ‘the standpoint of psychology is individual’” – underlining the key words perhaps seventy times, gown flying, chalkdust rising in clouds, his intonation coruscating with apostrophes. (125)
This careful attention to the nuances of meaning in language would not be lost on the generationof scholars at the center of the New Rhetoric. Howarth makes clear that Moore helped define philosophy at Cambridge, and his arguments for the nature of philosophy and of language would have far-reaching implications.
Moore on the Scope of Philosophy (and the Break from 19th Century Idealism)
Moore’s work defined philosophy in the decades before WWI at Cambridge, and it was a broad, sweeping definition. He would lecture later that
The purpose of philosophy is "to give a general description of the whole of the universe, mentioning all the most important kinds of things which we know to be in it, considering how far it is likely that there are in it important kinds of things which we do not absolutely know to be in it, and also considering the most important ways in which these various kinds of things are related to one another" (Some Main Problems of Philosophy, 1953, 1).
This scope for philosophy includes the relationship between material objects and "acts of consciousness or mental acts” (Some Main Problems of Philosophy, 1953, 6). What advanced these claims in lectures delivered in the first two decades of the 20th century at Cambridge, and we need to assess these claims in that context.
At Cambridge, lectures were delivered in a public context. Instead of limiting lectures to enrolled students (as is done in the United States), at Cambridge, faculty lecture publicly. Moore’s definition for the scope of philosophical work begins with the broadest claims because of this broad audience. It was an effort to keep his audience interested and returning to future lectures, to involve them in the full sweep and potential of philosophical work, at a time when philosophy (moral sciences) at Cambridge was, at best, a marginal choice of field of study at Cambridge.
In depicting philosophy as a wide-ranging area of inquiry, Moore was both consonant with and breaking from the 19th century idealist philosophy that dominated at Cambridge. Those 19th century idealists would have argued that the goal of philosophy was "to give a general description of the whole of the universe," but they would have argued for a "whole" which was not divisible, not analyzable. The 19th century idealists like McTaggart and F. H. Bradley advanced a metaphysics which claimed that the best way to understand the universe was as a whole, a kind of organic unity.
Moore responded to the idealism of the 19th century, replacing it with a philosophy that countered idea that the universe is best understood as an organic whole. Moore proposed that “ideas held the same … immutable status as material objects.” In response to the idealists, Moore argued that ideas held an independent existence of their own and were analyzable independent of the larger, idealist metaphysics. Rather than ideas being part of the whole, and experienced as part of the whole in the universe, they were distinct. They were experienced by the mind with precisely the same immediacy as the eye experienced bright light. Ideas (or as Moore called them in some essays, propositions) held a reality all their own.
Propositions existed independent of our knowledge of them and independent of each other. Later commentators claimed that for Moore, “ideas held the same… immutable status as material objects” (Russo, “A Study in Influence” 690), possessing their own objective reality (Klemke 62). This leads, in John Paul Russo’s account in I. A. Richards: His Life and Work (54), of a nightmare in which Moore could not differentiate ideas from tables, both being equally real to him.
For Moore, then, the study of the philosophy is the “general description of the whole of the universe,” but very different from the way that McTaggart and others imagined that project to be. To the extent that Moore argued for philosophy’s project to “mention… all the most important kinds of things which we know to be,” he wanted all the important kinds of things (including propositions) to have an independence from the whole and from the mind that perceives them.
Moore’s Philosophy of Language
Moore was interested in the role of language in philosophy, though he was not, properly, a philosopher of language. (Language is, after all, absent from his definition of philosophy above.) His explorations of language were most often about sharpening tools with which other kinds of philosophical work could be done (on ethics, on metaphysics). Below, I discuss the ways that his philosophy of language extends naturally from his work in metaphysics. His understanding of the ways that language carries meaning stems from his theory of propositions, derived from his metaphysics.
Moore puzzled through a process of differentiating language from the ideas (or propositions) that language expresses. He offers a simple example to start, using a visual example from his lectures. He would chalk the letters “s-u-n” on the board twice, then claim that
“I have written up the word ‘sun’ twice upon the board. This is certainly true. But what is it that I’ve written twice? I’ve written this once & this once, neither of them twice. … I’ve written two words and not one word twice. But in another sense…” (Lectures 137).
Moore complicates his example by chalking up some words for “sun” in other languages, asking whether he has written the same word now multiple times. This very simple example makes clear what is an important basis for Moore’s philosophical work. Thinking and communicating may occur in everyday language, but propositions are not contained in those everyday words.
The complexity of Moore’s theory of propositions, as it cashes out in language, is hard to express. Propositions have a reality independent of the mind that uses language and independent of the language used. Propositions are communicated through utterances, through language. But the propositions are not reducible to the sentences. Language; it does not contain propositions. Sentences are the vehicle that carried a proposition, but the proposition has an objective status outside the sentence that carries it.
To advance his claim about the relative independence of propositions from the language that communicates them. Moore begins (in SMPP) with a discussion of sense-data and our perceptions of the world around us. Blue skies, herds of deer, and automobiles are things we apprehend directly; these sense data are not, in Moore’s model, propositions. Moore offers another example: “a cry expresses anger,” but neither the cry nor the anger is a proposition (Commonplace Book 44). For Moore, a proposition is elusive to articulate: "all the contents of the universe, absolutely everything that is at all, may be divided into two classes -- namely into proposition, on the one hand, and into things which are not propositions on the other hand” (SMPP 57). The word of sense data, apprehended directly, is in the class of non-propositional things.
Propositions are more complex than sense data and more complex than simple declaratives Their explication absorbs Moore for years. A proposition is not a collection of words; it is "the sort of thing which those collections express... what those words mean" (SMPP 57). A proposition is apprehended through some act of consciousness – “over and above the hearing of words, some act of consciousness which may be called the understanding of their meaning…what is apprehended in each case is what I mean by a proposition" (SMPP 57-58). We apprehend the proposition through the language that expresses it.
That process of apprehension is divisible into two forms of apprehension. We can apprehend them directly and indirectly (SMPP 67-68). When we understand a statement like “All men are mortal,” we are apprehending the proposition that that statement expresses directly. When, in understanding that proposition, we extend our knowledge (for example, of a particular man), we apprehend indirectly. (Basically, when a proposition becomes grounds for an inference license, we reach that apprehension indirectly; SMPP 68).
While it is hard to nail down what a proposition is, we can discuss propositions. We do, in fact, on a regular basis. Moore notes in the Commonplace Book, while it is true that “you can only hear a sentence,” when you discuss that sentence with someone else, you are typically discussing its meaning, the proposition behind it (362) – not the sentence itself. You are not discussing the sentence, as a grammatical construction of words; you are discussing the proposition apprehended through the sentence.
Before we can close the door on Moore’s claims for the relationship between language and propositions, we need at least a cursory glance at how Moore would describe the operations of mind as it apprehends a proposition through language. Here, we must stumble slightly: Moore left behind few explicit writings on the philosophy of mind, fewer still that would be considered arguments useful for the problem at hand. But we should make the attempt.
Though he published comparatively little on the topic, Moore’s lectures engaged the philosophical exploration of psychology. These lectures complemented the work of his colleagues (for example, Alfred North Whitehead’s Principles of Natural Knowledge in 1919 and Russell’s The Analysis of Mind in 1921). Logician W. E. Johnson, lectured on philosophical psychology, including reference to William James. Cambridge philosopher James Ward was author of the first ever independent entry on psychology for the Encyclopedia Britannica for its 9th edition in 1885. But Moore generated no philosophy of mind or theory of psychology of his own that usefully explicates his theory of propositions.
The project of connecting a working model for the human mind to this theory of propositions would fall to Moore’s student, I. A. Richards.
The Rhetorical Transformation
Richards was a loyal student of Moore, singing his praises for decades And Richards’ early essays (in the prewar and WWI period) were framed within Moore’s intellectual project. That much has been excavated by other scholars (Russo and Constable), and will be summarized here. What is less clear is the transformation in Moore’s project that is visible in Richards’later work. Specifically, Richards holds onto Moore’s belief that the meaning of a sentence is not reducible to the linguistic content of the sentence, but transforms where the meaning might actually be said to reside.
By the 1920s, for both figures, he meaning of an utterance is not to be found in the words for either Moore or Richards. But Richards’ explorations in psychology lead him down a different path than Moore took. Rather than grounding that belief in a metaphysics of the proposition, Richards grounds it in psychology – in the operations of the human mind that Moore left unexplored. This view inflects Richards work through his major treatises on literary theory (Principles of Literary Criticism and Practical Criticism) and on rhetorical theory: the Philosophy of Rhetoric and Interpretation in Teaching.
Richards’ clearest debt to Moore is visible in the early essay “Art and Science.” Like many of the moderns, Richards was interested in the intellectual relationship between aesthetic and scientific truth. He uses this opportunity to debate with art critic Roger Fry about the nature of truth in these different domains. For purposes of arguing with Fry, Richards defines science as the systematic connection of propositions. In contrast, Richards claims that art is interested in propositions without concern for systematicity and logical relations. When we speak of differentiating truth claims in art and science, the difference is not in the nature of propositions, but in the relationships between propositions.
Because Moore’s work is potentially unfamiliar grounds for debate about aesthetic truth, Richards must define them for his audience. He moves first to define a proposition negatively: a proposition is not a fact, a psychological state, or a physical object. Defined positively, it is, exactly, what Moore calls a proposition: the “total meaning” of a sentence which is not reducible to its grammatical components, nor to some empirical reality (“When a proposition is true, there is, of course, a fact which corresponds, but still the proposition is other than the fact”) . Richards here is assuming, unquestioning, the claims that Moore makes for the reality of propositions.
Richards still wants to privilege the study of language, however, and so Richards claims that “we need vehicles by which to approach and gain access to propositions. This is so of all propositions, those with which science as well as those with which art is most concerned.” Here, Richards is making a an argument for his own interests in the study of language.
Within the span of a few years, however, Richards would abandon Moore’s claims for the external reality of propositions. But he would continue to embrace the claims that the meaning of an utterance could not be reduced to the words it contained. The triadic semiotics outlined in Meaning of Meaning would demonstrate that the referent of a symbol is contained neither by the sign nor the signified, but in the minds of the participants in communication. The explorations of the psychology of interpretation in Principles of Literary Criticism and Practical Criticism would demonstrate that the mind constructs meaning, rather than apprehending it. By the time Richards arrives at the interactionist theory of metaphor in The Philosophy of Rhetoric, it becomes clear that meaning is derived from our use of language, rather than contained within it. But details of those innovations and extensions will come in later chapters of this work.