Philosophy John McTaggart
by
Emily Thomas
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0187

Introduction

The Cambridge philosopher J. M. E. McTaggart (1866–1925) was a British idealist, best known to contemporary philosophy for his “proof” of the unreality of time. This proof introduced a distinction between ways of ordering events—known as the A and B series of time—that is still widely used. However, in the early 20th century, McTaggart was also highly regarded for his systematic metaphysics: He argued for a form of personal idealism in which the universe is composed of a plurality of minds and their perceptions. This idealism has its roots in Hegel, and McTaggart produced lengthy critiques of Hegel’s work, but the final system is uniquely McTaggart’s. McTaggart also wrote on the philosophy of religion, love, and ethics. McTaggart’s philosophy arguably bears traces of Spinoza and Leibniz, in addition to Hegel. Although McTaggart belongs to the British idealist school alongside the likes of T. H. Green and F. H. Bradley, he enjoyed close relationships with several of the major “new realists” at Cambridge, and his pupils included Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore, and C. D. Broad. Most of the scholarship on McTaggart concerns his views on time, but a significant number of studies also exist on his idealism and other aspects of his thought.

General Overviews

For concise, historically contextualized introductions to McTaggart’s philosophy as a whole, see Passmore 1957 and Mander 2011. More substantial studies of McTaggart include Broad 1933, which is an early and comprehensive critique; Geach 1979 is more recent and more sympathetic.

  • Broad, C. D. An Examination of McTaggart’s Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1933.

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    Broad edited and published the second volume of McTaggart’s The Nature of Existence after McTaggart’s death, and Broad’s familiarity with McTaggart’s system is reflected in his precise, step-by-step construction of McTaggart’s argument for idealism. Broad particularly critiques the notions of substance, determining correspondence, and unity. Some of the issues Broad is concerned with here are a product of the period, but others are still very relevant today.

  • Geach, Peter Thomas. Truth, Love, and Immortality: An Introduction to McTaggart’s Philosophy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.

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    Geach provides an extremely clear and sympathetic study of McTaggart’s system. Although it is titled an “introduction,” the book is too advanced for this description to be accurate. Geach focuses on McTaggart’s metaphysics, particularly considering McTaggart’s understanding of substance, selves, matter, and time. Geach’s discussion of McTaggart’s argument against the reality of matter is particularly illuminating; he also notes the Leibnizian flavor of McTaggart’s idealism.

  • Mander, W. J. British Idealism: A History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199559299.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    This mammoth, comprehensive history of British idealism places McTaggart in his context as a personal idealist, showing how his views differed from his contemporaries and summarizing his philosophy as a whole. See pp. 357–375.

  • Passmore, John. A Hundred Years of Philosophy. London: Gerald Duckworth, 1957.

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    This classic history of the period places McTaggart in the context of British idealism. Passmore argues that McTaggart’s personal idealism is of a wholly different type than that of other personal idealists, such as Seth Pringle-Pattison. He summarizes McTaggart’s arguments on time and idealism. See pp. 75–81.

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