Are G.E. Moore, etc., a bit naive at times? (see here-is-one-hand argument).

Does such trivial thing really need "formalization"? Why isn't Moore accused of idealism, when he could be interpreted as having an overly unpractical viewpoint? The world isn't a theory.

Additionally, "there are at least two external objects in the world" is not very rigid in any way. There are many more objects and properties, so this kind of viewpoint just seems overly, overly simplistic and arbitrary.

  • 1
    It is fantastically naive. I was amazed when I first heard about it. If Idealism could be falsified in this way it would never have had a single adherent. Yet a recent article in Philosophy Now makes the same argument. I expect someone will be making it a thousand years from now. It assumes that on average Idealists are total idiots.
    – user20253
    Apr 16 '18 at 18:06
  • 1
    Maybe you have to read the British idealists of that time: see e.g. Bradley and e.g. P.Hylton, Russell, Idealism, and the Emergence of Analytic Philosophy (1990). Apr 16 '18 at 18:34
  • How would you interpret Moore's argument as being overly unpractical?
    – Canyon
    Apr 16 '18 at 20:27
  • This sentence is interesting - "Additionally, "there are at least two external objects in the world" is not very rigid in any way." It is rigidly opposed to the nondual worldview of the mystics, one name for which is 'advaita' (not-two). I rather doubt that Moore takes the trouble to explain how the Perennial philosophy survives if it can be falsified by simply waiving.our hands around as he suggests. The suggestion is laughable and I cannot grasp how he didn't see this. .
    – user20253
    Apr 17 '18 at 10:55
  • @Canyon Because as animals people ought to naturally realize about more things than having mere two hands. One could use any sort of other "real thing" in place of "two hands". And it doesn't contain any speculation. Say for example "here's food, so food exists" and I would not think many would speculate about it, but rather eat it.
    – mavavilj
    Apr 17 '18 at 12:16

Euclid was mocked for demonstrating existence of triangles, and Peano for proving that 1 is a number (by Poincaré, no less), but both contributed to clarifying foundations of mathematics. Considering that skeptics dispute Moore's conclusion "the thing" may not be as trivial as it seems (as is often the case in mathematics and philosophy). Even some non-skeptics assert either that there are no objects in the world (objectless ontologies), or only One (Parmenides).

It makes sense to formalize even the "trivial" arguments to highlight what presumptions or stereotypes they rely on, and whether those are worth holding on to and when. Moore (together with Russell) is known as a defender of direct realism (that we are directly aware of objects as they really are), which one may consider naive today, or even during his time. But reminding us and clarifying where such naive beliefs come from and what makes them worth defending seems to be the opposite of being naive. Wittgenstein, for example, credited Moore's Proof of the External World with clarifying the nature of our everyday certainties, what scholars call hinge propositions. Indeed, Wittgenstein's last major work, On Certainty, starts with reflections on the here-is-one-hand argument

  • Where does Peano prove 1 is a natural number? What I consider naive is the viewpoint that the world is a theory, when it's not (we are animals). I think it makes little difference, whether one takes direct realism or whatever ism. Unless one works in circumstances where such logic can actually evolve to repeatable science, rather than mere hypotheses.
    – mavavilj
    Apr 17 '18 at 5:19
  • It's naive to propose that "hey, humans sense things directly", when it should be obvious or irrelevant for humans to even survive.
    – mavavilj
    Apr 17 '18 at 5:25
  • @mavavilj The discussion is in Poincare's Science and Method, I do not follow the rest, I am afraid.
    – Conifold
    Apr 17 '18 at 17:50
  • But it isn't Moore who reminds and clarifies (or suggests the need for clarification), and so escapes the charge of naivety; it's the Questioner. Moore was charged with naivety; the Questioner should take the credit for reminding us of Moore's position and provoking your illuminating reply.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Apr 17 '18 at 22:41
  • Just a follow on. I think there is an unresolved rift in Moore's views on perception. On the one hand he assures us that perceiving a table entails that the table exists. This is his common sense or direct realism. But he also holds it to be 'fundamentally certain' that all our perceptual judgements are really judgements about sense-data. (Contemporary British Philosophy, Second Series, pp. 198, 217; Philosophical Studies, pp. 229, 235.) Unless sense-data are identical with the surfaces of physical objects such as tables, it is hard to see how the two views can be reconciled.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Apr 17 '18 at 23:52

Let's get Moore's text up on screen :

I can prove now, for instance, that two human hands exist. How? By holding up my two hands, and saying, as I make a certain gesture with the right hand, 'Here is one hand, and adding, as I make a certain gesture with the left, 'and here is another'. And if, by doing this, I have proved ipso facto the existence of external things, you will all see that I can also do it now in numbers of other ways: there is no need to multiply examples. (G.E. Moore, 'Proof of an External World', Philosophical Papers (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1959), 144.)

The two hands are (assumed to be) examples of 'external things', hence of an external world in which they exist.

The shape of the argument is :

(1) Here are two hands.

(2) If hands exist, then there is an external world.

(3) So there is an external world.

There does appear to be (no, I'll say there is) a problem here. It can be spelt out as follows :

(1) already assumes the truth of (3). (1) lends no credibility to (3) since if (3) were not true, (1) would be false. Moore may have some epistemic justification for asserting (1) but no more justification than he has for asserting (3). So (1) makes (3) no more, or less, credible than if (3) were asserted on its own.


G.E. Moore, 'Proof of an External World', Philosophical Papers (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1959), 126-48.

Annalisa Coliva, 'The Paradox of Moore's Proof of an External World', The Philosophical Quarterly (1950-), Vol. 58, No. 231 (Apr., 2008), 234-243

James Pryor, 'What's Wrong with Moore's Argument?', Philosophical Issues, Vol. 14, Epistemology (2004), 349-378.

  • You haven't yet discussed "holding up" and "making certain gestures" which might be important for his reasoning because it broaches active correlation (between mind and reality), or control. He might be saying something like, "I exist, and since there is a power over my hands so that they move according to my plan but with a time lag determined also by me, my hands exist as separate/external things".
    – ttnphns
    Apr 17 '18 at 9:13
  • I mean this is like having binocular vision: having two eyes help locating an object precisely at a distance from myself; here, double control by plan and start is like two eyes. Maybe?
    – ttnphns
    Apr 17 '18 at 9:16
  • Thank you for your omment. I have set out the logic of Moore's argument from his text. That logic leads me to conclude that his argument is weak at the point indicated. You disagree; this is not uncommon in philosophy ! I'll leave it to readers to decide between us. Best : GT
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Apr 17 '18 at 9:37
  • @GeoffreyThomas - This reader thinks your answer is spot-on and much more useful than my snarky comments. . .
    – user20253
    Apr 17 '18 at 10:59
  • @PeterJ. I think my view is the same as yours; the argument since I first encountered it as an undergraduate has struck me as totally unconvincing and question-begging. All I did here was to spell out what in my view is wrong with it. We're on the same side !
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Apr 17 '18 at 12:09

Thanks to Conifold for providing a great answer. I would like to emphasize that "here is one hand" is an important defeater to a number of sentences which you may hear uttered from time to time by folks who don't see a problem with denying reality.

I think that "here is one hand" is probably more rhetorically powerful than the approach I have considered, but never employed, when a person tries to convince me that nothing actually exists: "If I punch you in the face, then will I exist? What if I punch you again?"

  • Ah, if only metaphysics was so easy. The idea that nothing really exists is not the idea that nothing seems to exist. The world would appear just as it does. It is not the case that if you go blind your hands will cease to exist. A study of metaphysics would soon sort this confusion out. It is not possible to prove that anything really (metaphysically) exists and this is just the way it is. .
    – user20253
    Apr 18 '18 at 12:26

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