editing through entanglements i keep noticing that its presiding spirit in some ways is g.e. moore. perhaps hoping to pitch a piece of literary journalism to someone, i've been reading moore's writings, the bios, and so on. in my opinion he compares extremely well with his associates russell and wittgenstein, but he has been fading in reputation for decades, i think. for one thing, in 1939 moore proved once and for all in a way that no one can possibly doubt, that the external world exists. quite the little accomplishment! the famous proof: "here is a hand, and here is another".
whatever our assessment of moore's proof, we ought to be astonished that someone feels the need to argue for the existence of 'a world outside the mind' or the existence of 'things to be met with in space' in 1939. here's one way of narrating 'modern thought' or the run-up to and then the enlightenment: the works of figures such descartes, locke, leibniz, hume, kant are connected with science or are attempting to give underpinnings for the new secular and and empirical approach that is at the center of western culture even now. but i think basically modern philosophy is pitted against modern science, and i think that by and large this history, and then nineteenth-century idealism - fichte, hegel, schelling, schopenhauer, etc - , and then the positivists, hermenauts, narrativists, deconstructionsits, phenomenologists, etc. is profoundly anti-scientific and also a miserable dead end.
seriously, descartes starts the thing off by doubting the existence of the world and moore polishes it off by proving the existence of the world. throughout, the existence of the world is a problem. hume proves that it cannot be proven, then kant spends thousands of pages of tortured deduction proving it after all, except that the world he proves isn't external to the mind at all, but constructed by it (i'll give kant this, though, if he proves anything, he does prove that there are things to be met with in space; sadly space is internal to the mind). and the whole tradition, more or less, is led down this dark alley to its doom by the notion that we only directly perceive our own images, representations, ideas, impressions, sense data, and so on. seriously, they staked hundreds of years of extreme ingenuity on this perfectly doubtable dogma, or rather this very obvious mistake. that is because they were actually fighting a rearguard action for mind and spirit and spiritual reality and against the material world.
if the idea that we only perceive our own ideas and the external world might not exist at all, or might be mind or something, ever helped anyone do any actual science, that would be very surprising. really, as galileo gazes through his telescope, he needs to report what he sees, not discharge the hypothesis that he might be dreaming. the planet jupiter is a representation in our consciousness, it is an idea, or a congeries of ideas, and so on: that has nothing to do with science and if scientists ever took it seriously as some sort of issue, science would never have happened at all. some mistakes persist for centuries, son, and some blunders are merely blunders.
moore was trained by idealists (mctaggart, e.g.) and he spent a career not merely refuting them, but ridiculing them, with real gentleness, but with brilliant wit. but so subtle was this wit often that people missed the jokes - some of which take many pages to unfold - entirely. here is an example: in principia ethica he spends a long time arguing as against kant, that it matters "just a bit" whether or not beautiful things exist in the world, or rather just in the mind (or 'sensible manifold' etc). he works at it paragraph after paragraph, admitting that of course this matter of whether anything beaiutiful exists in the world is a trivial matter compared to what's happening in immanuel kant's head, but still it does matter in a teensy way. he is very good-naturedly poking kant and us in the ribs. but 'here is a hand' encapsulates the whole thing beautifully: it is hilarious, and moore thinks it is really absurd and great that he has to prove the existence of the external world against his own professors and colleagues. it is both a perfectly rigorous and decisive proof and a perfect parody of the whole idea of a proof, in particular of something that no one ever doubted for a moment.