G.E. Moore and the Nature of Commonplace Books

G.E. Moore

The other day, I came across a copy of The Commonplace Book of G. E. Moore 1919-1953 at a book sale. I’ve found that the easiest way to penetrate another’s soul is to find out what they read. Commonplace books allow us to sweep away the brush and learn not just what someone reads, but what they took away from it. So when I happened upon Moore’s Commonplace Book, I swept it up before some smelly “student” could beat me to it.

I know almost nothing of Moore’s philosophy. I have the flimsiest memory of reading a paper or two of his for a seminar on epistemology but I cannot claim to remember much. It seemed prudent to consult a review of his commonplace book to give me some context for Moore’s writings before diving in.

My inquires led me to an article in the journal, Mind, from 1968. The piece is written by G.T. Warnock, who later went on to become the Vice Chancellor of Oxford University. He praises The Commonplace Book as a “remarkable” work that is “in some ways unlike anything else in philosophy.” He says that Moore was a man of “great analytical and critical power” and goes so far as to compare him to Plato.

Having run out of things to say about the book, Warnock veers off into a discussion of Moore’s contribution to the problem of sense-data. He says that Moore’s entries are “persistently, and most disconcertingly, obtuse” on the subject, finding it odd that “a philosopher so acute and critically powerful” had gotten “nowhere” on the matter.

I have no interest in adjudicating the philosophical squabbles over the nature of sense-data. I would be lying if I said I even had an opinion on the matter, never mind an “answer.” I note Warnock’s criticism only because it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what a commonplace book is.

Now, it is difficult to define just what a commonplace book is. The definitions I’ve consulted are suitably vague. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a commonplace book succinctly, as “a book into which notable extracts from other works are copied for personal use.”

Peter Beal, in his Dictionary of English Manuscript Terminology 1450-2000, defines a “commonplace book” as:

[A] manuscript book in which quotations or passages from reading matter, precepts, proverbs and aphorisms, useful rhetorical figures or exemplary phrasing, words and ideas, or other notes and memoranda are entered for ready reference under general subject headings, these headings often having been systematically written in advance of the main entries.

He notes that not all commonplace books are so systematized and that the term can also be “applied to notebooks, miscellanies, and other types of manuscript compilation in general, whether their contents were formally arranged under headings or not.” These include such things as “disorganized memoirs, random observations, or miscellaneous anthologies.”

Moore’s Commonplace Book fits neatly under this definition. Throughout the work, we find quotations from various philosophers, like Russell and Wittgenstein, comments on various philosophical problems, and reflections on his published works. Each entry, save for five labeled “no title,” have headings like “language,” “external world,” and, of course, “sense-data.”

Casimir Lewy, who edited Moore’s Commonplace Book, provides several helpful insights in his preface. Before he died, Moore approached Lewy and asked him to go through his philosophical papers and notebooks to determine what was suitable for publication. When Lewy went about this task after Moore’s death, he determined that his Commonplace Book “[seems] to have been written entirely for Moore’s private use” as “an attempt to attack precisely those problems which he had always found especially difficult.” It is unclear, Lewy says, which of these entries Moore would have approved for publication had he overseen the project himself.

Lewy notes that one of the challenges he faced preparing the book for publication was Moore’s tendency to often write comments on the left-hand side that were “qualifying, questioning or contradicting” those on the right-hand side. To differentiate between the right and left side, Lewy placed the comments written later on the left side in pointed brackets (< >). In the six entries on sense-data, Moore employs this method once (See Figure I).

Figure I. An excerpt from Moore’s Commonplace Book with the comment from the left-hand side in pointed brackets.

If we accept Warnock’s assertion that Moore’s thoughts on sense-data were less than successful, this may be a tragedy for epistemologists, but it is not a flaw of the book. The use of the right-hand side for his initial thoughts and the left-hand side for follow-up notes and questions show us that Moore was using his commonplace book exactly the way it was meant to be used. A commonplace book, in and of itself, is not meant to solve anything or even lay one’s opinion down concretely. It is an educational aid, a staging area for further work. It is important that commonplace books be judged in this context and not in the same way we would an article or book meant for publication.

When discussing Moore’s entries on sense-data, Warnock argues that he was “led astray” by one of his strengths, that being his ability to look at things “very closely, attending very carefully, [and] scrutinizing most minutely what was before him.” Because Moore did not know what exactly laid before him when it came to sense-data, he was unable to make much progress with it.

Ironically, Warnock may have had the same problem. If we recall Warnock’s claim that Moore’s Commonplace Book is ““in some ways unlike anything else in philosophy,” we must wonder whether or not Warnock is even familiar with the idea of a commonplace book.

Moore’s insights may be unique, but the medium is not. Commonplace books are quite popular in philosophy. John Locke, for example, even wrote A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books to advise readers on the best way to index information. It would be odd if Warnock was wholly unaware of the practice, though we cannot know for sure.

Regardless of what accounts for Warnock’s error, it seems that in his haste to condemn Moore’s views on sense-data, he failed to grasp the nature of commonplace books.


The Ineffable Perfect Sentence

Saki (H.H. Munro)
Saki (H.H. Munro)

Take this sentence from Saki’s short story, “The Background”:

There were stormy scenes in the Spanish Parliament, and the University of Copenhagen bestowed a gold medal on the German expert (afterwards sending a commission to examine his proofs on the spot), while two Polish schoolboys in Paris committed suicide to show what they thought of the matter.

This is a perfect sentence. One does not even need to know its context to appreciate it. It’s timeless, witty, and flows without resistance. But there’s also some ineffable quality to it that goes beyond relevance, wit or readability. I do not know what this is. Does anyone else notice this when they have come across something similar?

How To Read More Books In Five Easy Steps

You, after reading more books.

Thousands of people write to me each day asking how they can read more books. It seems that the sheer desire to read more is not enough for most people. These miserable souls require a little extra kick in the pants, so I have taken mercy on them. Here are five easy steps you can take right now to read more books:

  1. Learn to read. This may seem obvious but you’d be surprised how many forget this critical step. So if this sentence appears to you as incomprehensible markings, reading more books will prove rather difficult. You must get “back to basics,” as the late John Major once said.
  2. Divorce your husbands and wives, turf your boyfriends, girlfriends and “partners,” disown your children, and sever ties with all other family and friends. Yes, even the “barista” who winks at you each morning must go. Better yet, fake your death. The less time you spend around others, the more time you will have to read.
  3. Destroy your cellphone, or at least turn it off and hide it in the sock drawer. If you’ve followed step two successfully, you won’t miss anything important, anyway.
  4. Aquire some books. This is quite easy to do now that we can print books instead of relying on monks to copy them out for us. Books can be found in stores, on the internet, in libraries, and as decorative objects in people’s homes. Books can be bought with money or borrowed from the library if you have a special card. (I’m told they just hand these things out to anyone who asks. They are very discreet about it.) If worst comes to worst, you can always steal books.
  5. The subject of robbery brings me to the final step: go to prison. This is certainly a drastic step and, in most cases, is not necessary, but if you find yourself unable to renounce your loved ones or go to the library, going to prison may be the best option. While in prison, you will have lots of free time. When the alternative to boredom and insanity is reading, one will naturally gravitate to the latter. The trouble with prison is that, odds are, you will eventually be released. Lucky for you, the odds of recidivism are high, so if you do get out, you will not be away from your books for long.

So there we have it. Now, get off my website and into prison!

What Caused the Black Rains of Slains?

When Bob Lazar was at Area 51, he was led down a hallway and instructed to move quickly and keep his eyes fixed at the floor in front of him. Like anyone else with even a modicum of curiosity, Lazar took a peak into one of the rooms. There, he says he caught a glimpse of a small, grey alien before being shoved along by a guard.

Reading Charles Fort is much like being marched down the hallway where the aliens are kept. All sorts of tantalizing events are dropped before us, only to be swept up away before we can grasp them.

In The Book of the Damned, Fort offers us a passage on black rains. One such incident stood out from the rest: the Black Rains of Slains.

According to Rev. James Rust (Scottish Showers):

A black rain at Slains, Jan. 14, 1862–another at Carluke, 140 miles from Slains, May 1, 1862–at Slains, May 20, 1862–Slains, Oct. 28, 1863.

But after two of these showers, vast quantities of a substance described sometimes as “pumice stone,” but sometimes as “slag,” were washed upon the sea coast near Slains. A chemist’s opinion is given that this substance was slag: that it was not a volcanic product: slag from smelting works. We now have, for black rains, a concomitant that is irreconcilable with origin from factory chimneys. Whatever it may have been the quantity of this substance was so enormous that, in Mr. Rust’s opinion, to have produced so much of it would have required the united output of all the smelting works in the world. If slag it were, we accept that an artificial product has, in enormous quantities, fallen from the sky. If you don’t think that such occurrences are damned by Science, read Scottish Showers and see how impossible it was for the author to have this matter taken up by the scientific world.

The first and second rains corresponded, in time, with ordinary ebullitions of Vesuvius.

The third and fourth, according to Mr. Rust, corresponded with no known volcanic activities upon this earth.

La Science Pour Tous, 11-26:

That, between October, 1863, and January, 1866, four more black rains fell at Slains, Scotland. The writer of this supplementary account tells us, with a better, or more unscrupulous, orthodoxy than Mr. Rust’s, that of the eight black rains, five coincided with eruptions of Vesuvius and three with eruptions of Etna.

The fate of all explanation is to close one door only to have another fly wide open. ….. four discharges from one far-distant volcano, passing over a great part of Europe, precipitating nowhere else, discharging precisely over one small northern parish?  But also of three other discharges, from another far-distant volcano, showing the same precise preference, if not marksmanship, for one small parish in Scotland.

I don’t know if it is because saying “the Black Rains of Slains” is so rhythmically pleasing or what, but the incident has become a minor obsession of mine. When in a room with a piece of chalk and a board, I find myself writing “What caused the Black Rains of Slains?” in much the same way people used to write “Kilroy Was Here” on boxcars. When I’m in a meeting and someone asks if there are any questions, I softly clear my throat and rise with the words “What caused the Black Rains of Slains?” tumbling from my mouth. I’m sure that if I were in a gang, my graffiti tag would be three black raindrops for “black,” “rains,” and “Slains.”

My life will be complete, if and only if, I find out what caused these black rains. This has proven quite difficult. I was able to find another reference to Rev. Rust’s Scottish Showers in Symons’s Monthly Meteorological Magazine, Volume 1, but not the book itself. It may well be that between Fort and Symon’s, I have all the pertinent facts. Still, I cannot see any harm in encountering Rust’s work directly. If anyone can direct me to a copy, either in physical or digital form, please email me. If you know what caused them, call your local emergency services and ask for me.

Until then, I am off to ascend the nearest mountain, and, like a Swiss horn blower, bellow, “What caused the Black Rains of Slains?”

“This is one of those strange apparitions I have often heard of. I will watch it as carefully as I can.”

The best ghost stories do not come from people who lurk about haunted houses with recording equipment they cannot afford, they come from people who least expect to see them. Take this tale from G.N.M. Tyrrell’s Apparitions (1953). It is one of the better ghost stories I’ve heard and is worth quoting in full:

The narrator and his niece were sitting in the drawing-room about 2 p.m. ‘I saw what I supposed at the first moment to be dirty soapy water running in at the door; and I was in the act of jumping up to scold the housemaid for upsetting the water, when I saw that the supposed water was the tail or train of a lady’s dress. The lady glided in backwards, as if she had been slid in on a slide, each part of her dress keeping its place without disturbance. She glided in till I could see the whole of her, except the tip of her nose, her lips and the tip of her chin, which were hidden by the edge of the door. Her head was slightly turned over her shoulder, and her eyes also turned, so that it appeared fixed upon me. She held her arm, which was a very fine one, in a peculiar way, as if she were proud of it. She was dressed in a pale blue evening dress, worked with white lace. I instantly recognized the figure as a lady whom I had known some 25 years or more before; and with whom I had frequently danced. She was a bright, dashing girl, a good dancer, and we were good friends, but nothing more. She had afterwards married, and I had occasionally heard of her, but do not think I had seen her for certainly more than 20 or 25 years. She looked much as I used to see her —with long curls and bright eyes, but perhaps something stouter and more matronly. I said to myself, “This is one of those strange apparitions I have often heard of. I will watch it as carefully as I can.” My niece, who did not see the figure, in the course of a minute or two exclaimed, “Uncle A., what is the matter with you? You look as if you saw a ghost!” I motioned her to be quiet, as I wished to observe the thing carefully; and an impression came upon me that if I moved, the thing would disappear. I tried to find out whether there was anything in the ornaments on the walls, or anything else which could suggest the figure: but I found all the lines close to her cut the outline of her figure at all sorts of angles, and none of these coincided with the outline of her figure, and the colour of everything around her strongly contrasted with her colour. In the course of a few minutes, I heard the door-bell ring, and I heard my brother’s voice in the hall. He came upstairs, and walked right through the figure into the room. The figure then began to fade rather quickly, at first losing the colours and then the form….’

Some years afterwards the percipient found that the lady had died, about seven months after the apparition, of cancer in the face. ‘She never showed me the front of her face,’ he says; ‘it was always concealed by the edge of the door.’

Apparitions is long out of print, but you can buy a used copy off AbeBooks for a reasonable price.

Who Am I? Why Am I Here?

A series of calamities have led me to this place. I was once on Tumblr as TheWiseZack and as WoesoftheWorld. These were fun while they lasted but it is time to move. Both pages still exist for posterity, but will now serve only to advertise what is on here.

Going forward, I hope this page will serve both as a hub for my writing and as a commonplace book for recording some of the oddities I find in the things I read.