G. E. Moore and his young godson

There’s a story that I heard from my father many years ago,
which I’m tempted to share with PEA Soupers. G. E. Moore was a Cambridge
friend and contemporary of my great-grandfather Ralph L. Wedgwood (1874-1956),
and so when my grandfather John H. Wedgwood (1907-1989) was born, Moore agreed
to be his godfather.

According to the story, my grandfather, then a small boy, had the following conversation with Moore, while Moore was visiting my great-grandparents’ house for a couple of
days.

Small boy: What are you doing, Mr Moore?

Moore (earnestly): I’m writing a book, about the meaning of the word ‘good’.

Small boy: You mean, like when we say that something’s “gone for good”?

Moore (taken aback): Oh! I hadn’t thought of that!

The trouble with this story is that I really
doubt that it’s true.

The story is too neat. It has too obvious a philosophical point:
that Moore’s account of the word ‘good’, as standing for a simple unanalysable non-natural
property of goodness, fails miserably to explain many perfectly ordinary uses
of the term. Moreover, when my grandfather was around the age that the story
makes him sound (roughly, 1914-1918), Moore had already written both Principia Ethica (1903) and Ethics (1912), and was not planning a
third book on the meaning of ‘good’.

If the story is not true, who invented it? Not Moore,
because he had absolutely no sense of humour. Not my grandfather, because he
knew absolutely nothing about philosophy. It is most likely to have been my
great-grandfather, who had been a brilliant philosophy undergraduate at
Cambridge, knew Moore’s philosophy well, and had by all accounts a markedly mischievous sense of humour.

My father says that he cannot now remember which family
member told him this story. We’ll probably never know the truth about where
this story comes from.

10 Replies to “G. E. Moore and his young godson

  1. It’s been a while since I read it but I thought that there were a few good, if quite dry, jokes in _Principia Ethica_, so I’m not quite sure Moore had _no_ sense of humour. (I seem to recall one of them involving cows.)

  2. I like the story! It’s of course possible that the story originated with another small child, or small child/philosopher pair, and was later told about your grandfather and Moore. If that was a result of an honest mistake or confusion, the story wouldn’t be true, but wouldn’t exactly be an invention either.
    It’s a pity we’re unlikely to ever know the real origin!

  3. Matt,
    Principia is public domain and now online here.
    Searching for ‘cow’ I could find only this:

    § 28. But there is another slightly different sense in which the word “natural” is used with an implication that it denotes something good. This is when we speak of natural affections, or unnatural crimes and vices. Here the meaning seems to be, not so much that the action or feeling in question is normal or abnormal, as that it is necessary. It is in this connection that we are advised to imitate savages and beasts. Curious advice, certainly; but, of course, there may be something in it. I am not here concerned to enquire under what circumstances some of us might with advantage take a lesson from the cow. I have really no doubt that such exist. What I am concerned with is a certain kind of reason, which I think is sometimes used to support this doctrine—a naturalistic reason.

    Disappointing. But good site, isn’t it?

  4. I think that might be what I was thinking of Jamie- thanks. I do admit it’s not very much of a joke, but if you imagine Moore saying “I am not here concerned to enquire under what circumstances some of us might with advantage take a lesson from the cow” out loud I do admit that it brings a smile to my face.

  5. Yes – great story, regardless of whether it’s true. BTW, I’ve heard a story about A.J. Ayer confronting Mike Tyson sometime in the 80’s, but it seems much too good to be true. Does anyone know anything about it?
    The confrontation supposedly went something like this:
    Tyson: “Do you know who I am? I’m the #@%@ heavyweight champion of the world!”
    Ayer: “And I’m the Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford University. We are both at the top of our professions, so let’s discuss this like gentlemen…”
    (I’m not sure how things were supposed to have turned out.)

  6. Allen, that story is recounted in Ben Rogers’ brilliant biography of Ayer. Unfortunately I don’t have the book on me at the moment so I can’t look up Rogers’ source. But you can see the story printed
    here.

  7. Allen, in the version of the story that I’ve heard, the young woman whom Tyson was bothering and whom Ayer was rescuing was at least able to take advantage of the distraction and flee. And she was someone famous or destined to be famous herself… I want to say Naomi Campbell, but maybe that isn’t right.

  8. Thanks, Dale. According to Simon’s link, it was Naomi Campbell, which of course makes the story even better. And the fact that she was able to get away makes it better still.

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