Review: The Refutation of Idealism

The Refutation of Idealism. G. E. Moore. Mind, October 1903, pp. 433-453.

Mr. G. E. Moore is among those who believe that there is too much dogmatic slumbering in the camp of the idealists. The latter are accustomed to use their spiritual interpretation of the world is supported cumulatively by many arguments, whereas their whole case rests upon one crucial argument. This argument, which Mr. Moore proposes to refute to the total discomfiture of idealism, is summed up in the proposition, esse est percipi. The refutation of the argument is stated (1) dialectically and (2) analytically. (¶ 1)

  1. The above proposition is a tautology unless percipi adds something to esse. The important question, then, is that of the inseperability of percipi of x, or that in esse which exceeds percipi. But there is no self-evidence attaching to such a proposition, nor any ground for it, save in such a psychological interpretation of experience as permits the distinction of x from percipi to lapse again. (¶ 2)

  2. Such is the case with the idealist who deliberately reduces object of experience to content of experience. His contention is briefly as follows: One finds blue, e. g., as a subject of discourse, in one’s sensation of blue. But it is impossible to differentiate blue from the content of the sensation of blue. Hence blue as other than the quality or attribute of my sensation of blue has no meaning. The idealist regards the object of awareness as a part of the awareness, since he can not differentiate it therefrom. Mr. Moore contends that this confusion contradicts the meaning of awareness. To be aware is to be aware of something; that is, the awareness and the something are two distinct factors of the situation. Every consciousness, if this term is to mean anything, must be regarded as superadded to its object. It can never, therefore, itself give evidence of its indispensableness to that object. Consciousness is a specific term and can not be regarded as coextensive in its connotation with the term being. (¶ 3)

Apart from its prolixity and obscurity this article suffers from a more serious defect. The idealistic fallacy, the author remarks, is due to the fact that though philosophers have recognized that something distinct is meant by consciousness, they have never yet had a clear conception of what that something is.[Moore, ¶ 31] My main object in this paragraph, he adds, has been to try to make the reader see it; but I fear I shall have succeeded very ill.[Moore, ¶ 31] And this estimate of his success is not too modest. The paragraph in question demonstrates that the sensation factor common to sensation of blue and sensation of yellow is separable from these objects, and that it signifies some unique relation in which each stands. And there we are left. (¶ 4)

But this deficiency does not invalidate the main contention of the article. It is difficult to see how the refutation of the definition of being in terms of consciousness can be regarded as other than successful. Subjective, though not Platonic, idealism rests upon this principle and can not survive it. There remains the realist’s more serious task, the reinterpretation of that category of subjectivity whose ontological use he discredits. (¶ 5)

Ralph Barton Perry.
Harvard University.