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.