C. D. Broad, Examination of McTaggart's Philosophy, 1933


    The present volume contains a detailed exposition and criticism of that part of McTaggart's system of philosophy which occupies Vol. I of his Nature of Existence. If I should have life and health and if the capitalist system, on the substantial integrity of which one's opportunities of pursuing philosophy and publishing the results depend, should continue to stagger on, a second volume should be ready in about two years' time. This will deal with the contents of Vol. II of the Nature of Existence. It is already, in a large measure, written in rough form; but it will need much rewriting, re-arrangement, and supplementation, which the pressure of other duties will prevent me from undertaking in the immediate future.

    I owe it to the kindness of the Faculty Board of Moral Science that I have been able to write at length on McTaggart's philosophy at this time. The history of the matter is as follows. Candidates taking Part II, Section A, of the Moral Sciences Tripos in any year have to make a detailed study of the works of one or more eminent modern philosophers chosen by the Board from a fixed list as the "Special Subject" for that year. It is usual for the same selection to be made for two successive years, and for the cycle to complete itself in a certain order in a period of ten years with the unhasting and unresting regularity of an astronomical process. It is one of my duties to prepare and deliver the lectures on the Special Subject for the time being. McTaggart was not included in this list, and, in the Long Vacation of 1931 I should, in the ordinary eourse of events, have been preparing a set of lectures on Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, to be delivered in the academic years 1931-2 and 1932-3. At my request the Faculty Board most kindly consented to interpolate the Philosophy of McTaggart as the Special Subject for these two years, thus enabling me to combine academic duty with personal inclination. I wish to record here my gratitude to the Chairman and the other members of the Board for their considerate action towards me.

    My choice of McTaagart's philosophy as the subject of a critical work of considerable bulk may well be censured by two different sets of persons for two different reasons. Some will say that, if a book in which McTaggart's system of philosophy is subjected to severe criticism had to be written and published at all, I am the last person who should undertake the task. "It is barely decent", they will remark in their epigrammatic way, "that the executor of the man should become the executioner of the system." Others will say: "You know perfectly well that any system of constructive metaphysics which claims to deduce important conclusions about the universe from self-evident premises must be moonshine. Surely you could find something better to do with such modest talents as you possess than to spend two years in breaking what must be a butterfly on what might have been a usefully resolving wheel".

    I am naturally more concerned to rebut the accusation of disloyalty than that of frivolity, but I intend to answer both in turn.

    In mitigation of the first charge there are several things to be said.

  1. I had already devoted considerable attention to Vol. I in order to review it for Mind; and it was my duty as McTaggart's literary executor to read the manuscript of Vol. II with special care, and to make a synopsis of it, in order to prepare it for the press. Thus the very circumstance which, it might be alleged, made it improper for me to appear as a critic, gave me rather special qualifications for that ungrateful office.
  2. I should think that almost any man who had devoted his life, as McTaggart had, to excogitating and trying to prove a system of philosophy, would rather have it carefully studied, expounded, and criticised by at least one reasonably competent professional colleague than see the product of all his efforts going by default.
  3. I have not the slightest doubt that this would have been McTaggart's own choice. He always sought criticism from his colleagues; welcomed it, however severe it might be; treated it very seriously; and strove to meet it. If he had lived to read the present work, he would certainly have refuted some of the criticisms, have produced amazingly ingenious and unexpected answers to others, and have started to rebuild those parts of the system which really had suffered in the bombardment. I cannot believe that there is any disloyalty in doing, after his lamented death, what he would never have dreamed of resenting in his life. If others think differently, I can only say with the deepest respect that I think them mistaken.

    In answer to the second, and less important, charge there are also several lines of defence which may reasonably be pursued.

    (i) Even if I admitted that all systems of speculative philosophy are necessarily futile, I would remark that much greater philosophers than I have devoted their time to much greater nonsense than this. For has not Bertrand Russell laboured in several volumes to make a coherent philosophical doctrine out of the thin crudities of Behaviourism? If McTaggart's philosophy were merely the expression of his personal reaction to life, and if the deductive form in which he clothed it were merely "the finding of bad reasons for what he believed on instinct", it would express the reaction of an extraordinarily original and sensitive personality endowed with a singularly acute and powerful intellect. As such, his system, and the arguments by which he claimed to demonstrate it, would justify the most careful and sympathetie consideration.

    (ii) I should certainly not be prepared to make such great concessions as these to a critic who might accuse me of wasting my time. It is plain that Absolutism is the philosophical expression of an aspect of reality which has profoundly impressed some of the greatest thinkers in all parts of the world and at all periods of human history. If the Vedantists, Plotinus, Spinoza, and Hegel (to mention no others) all talked what appears, when literally interpreted, to be nonsense, it is surely a most significant fact that men of such high intelligence and of such different races and traditions should independently have talked such very similar nonsense. Dr Tennant, in his Philosophical Theology, after quoting a characteristic passage from Jakob Boehme, as charaoteristically remarks that "the critic does well to call nonsense by its name". No doubt he does. But he does not do so well if he ignores the problem presented by the concurrence of so much similar nonsense from so many independent and intellectually respeetable sources. To me, for one, this fact strongly suggests that there is a genuine and important aspect of reality, which is either ineffable, or, if not, is extremely hard to express coherently in language which was, no doubt, constructed to deal with other aspects of the universe.

    Now, if any weight be attached to this presumption, there is a strong additional reason for studying McTaggart's philosophy with the utmost care. He was perfectly well aware of the characteristic difficulties of Absolutism, he was an exceptionally clear thinker and lucid writer, and he made an heroic attempt to state and defend his position in a form which makes understanding easy and criticism possible. If we are to treat Absolutism seriously, it is an immense advantage to study it in a form in which definite premises are stated in plain language, and definite conclusions are drawn from them by arguments which we can all follow and accept or reject. The writings of too many eminent Absolutists seem to start from no discoverable premises; to proceed by means of puns, metaphors, and ambiguities; and to resemble in their literary style glue thickened with sawdust. To attempt to analyse or criticise them is as hopeful an undertaking as diving for pennies into pea-soup. We may say of McTaggart what L. T. Hobhouse said of Mill: "Like most philosophers, he made mistakes; but, unlike most philosophers, he wrote clearly enough to he found out".

    (iii) Even those enlightened thinkers who dismiss religion as "dope for the workers" and speculative philosophy as "sublimated sexual desire" might find something worth their attention in McTaggart's system. For such fundamental notions as Quality, Relation, Substance, Cause, Time, Infinite Divisibility, and Error are introduced and elaborately discussed; and the value of much of this discussion is independent of the philosophical structure which is erected upon it.

    In this connexion I must make a remark which will strike many readers as perverse, and perhaps particularly so as coming from me. I am inclined to think that McTaggart's complete lack of acquaintance with contemporary natural science was in certain respects a great advantage to him as a philosopher. The recent advances in physical theory have been so important and spectacular that they have only too obviously "gone to the heads" of some eminent physicists, and have encouraged them and the public to believe that their pronouncements on technical philosophical problems, for which they have no special training or aptitude, are deserving of serious attention. This is of course a profound mistake. The closest historical parallel to it with which I am acquainted is those physical and astronomical speculations by which Hegel and his followers made themselves ridiculous in the early years of last century, when the German public was indulging in ite bout of Absolute Idealism. The philosophic problems connected with Universals and Particulars, Occurrents and Continuants, Qualities and Relations, Causation and Indeterminism, Continuity and Discreteness, all remain exactly where they were, and merely find new applications as the theories of physics come and go. McTaggart neither understood nor pretended to understand the details of scientific theory, and was therefore under no temptation to accommodate his philosophy to the scientific fashions of the moment. In this his instinct was undoubtedly sound, for no systems of philosophy are so completely dead and damned as those which have fallen to this temptation in the past.

    If self-excuse be self-accusation, I have now accused myself as fully as my worst enemies could desire, and I can pass to the pleasanter task of acknowledging my obligations and my lack of obligations. I will begin with the latter. Several important articles on various points in McTaggart's philosophy have appeared in Mind and other journals in the last few years. Some of them deal mainly with doctrines which belong to Vol. II of the Nature of Existence; but one, by Mr Wisdom, is concerned with "Determining Correspondence", and thus covers a very important part of the ground which I cover in the present volume. From what I know of Mr Wisdom and his other work, I am quite sure that this article must be a first-class contribution to the subject. And I have no reason to doubt that the same may be true of other articles which I have not mentioned by name. But I may say at once that, in accordance with my general rule when writing on a subject, I have refrained from reading any of these articles. I find it more interesting to worry the truth out for myself, to the best of my ability. So, if I have plagiarised, I have done so unwittingly; and assertions which are made both by other writers on McTaggart's philosophy and by myself will at least have the support of undesigned coincidence.

    On the other hand, I have read with very great interest and benefit some of Mr Wisdom's difficult, but extremely able and careful, articles on "Logical Constructions"; and anyone else who has done so will easily see how much I am indebted to them in several places. I have also to thank Prof. G. E. Moore, for the immense trouble which he took on several occasions when I asked him questions or submitted parts of my work to his inspection. In this volume the obligation mainly concerns my attempts to get the "Principle of Determining Correspondence" clearly stated. In dealing with the notion of Entailment in Chapter XI I have been greatly helped by an article on "Intentional Relations" in Mind, Oct. 1930, by Prof. Everett J. Nelson.

    I am under very special obligations to Mr Ian Gallie, of Wadham College, Oxford. During the greater part of the year in which the lectures which form the basis of this volume were being written and delivered he was staying with me in Cambridge, and we were constantly in each other's company. He attended most of the lectures, he has read much of the manuscript, and many additions and modifications have been made at his suggestion. I have acted on the principle that anything that was not clear to him would be unintelligible to everyone else. We have conversed so much and so intimately, and have so greatly influenced each other, that it would be idle to select particular passages or to attempt a nice discrimination of meum and suum; it will suffice to say that he has left his mark even in places where the reader might least expect to find it. In addition, his presence has provided a constant stimulus which has kept me from flagging in the course of a long and exhausting bit of work; and the knowledge that he would read what I have written has encouraged me to do my best in spite of habitual laziness and occasional deep discouragement.

    I must heartily thank Mr A. A. Wynne Willson for the kindness and care with which he has performed the laborious and uninteresting, but indispensable, task of proof-reading. Should he ever, in the eourse of his professional duties, find the book of service to comfort the sick, to strengthen the tempted, to raise the fallen, or to waft the spirit of an expiring parishioner from earth to heaven, he will, no doubt, have his reward. But it is not for me to attempt to estimate the present value of this reversion.

    Finally, I must acknowledge with gratitude the courtesy and efficiency of all those who have been concerned at the University Press with the printing and publishing of the book.

    It remains to say a word about the arrangement of the contents of this volume. In the main the order is the same as that of Vol. I of the Nature of Existence, but I have often found it convenient to take together topics which McTaggart separated, and to separate topics which he took together. I do not think that I have omitted to expound or to criticize any part of McTaggart's first volume. At certain points, where it seemed to me that I had something of my own to say, I have unhesitatingly left the exposition and criticism of McTaggart in abeyance for a while, and have "stretched my legs and had my talk out". As all such parts of the book are carefully marked with asterisks, no one who does not want to do so need trouble to read them.


October 1932

Contents -- Book I