February 1, 2015

McTaggart Anecdotes

Filed under: Life,Philosophy — camcintosh @ 3:35 pm

The other day my wife confused McTaggart (the philosopher) with Mick Jagger (the singer). I thought that was too cute. In belated honor of the former’s death on January 18, 1925, here are some amusing anecdotes picked from the biographical sketch prefacing J. McT. Ellis McTaggart, Philosophical Studies (St. Augustine’s Press, 1934. Rep. 1996), including an ingenious way to protest the Super Bowl:

He was an avid reader of novels (good and bad) and poetry and is reputed to have read the whole of the Union Library collection by an early age (xii). By the age of seven he was well read, studying Kant closely (vi).

His head was unusually large; he suffered from a spinal curvature and walked crab-like, often with his back close against walls. He was very sensitive and cried easily, usually over poems or songs. He roamed the countryside, swinging a stick and carrying on philosophical conversation with himself. Because of his eccentricity children called him a ‘loonie’ (vi).

In January 1882, at the age of fifteen, he was sent to Clifton College in Bristol. His incompetence at games (he lay down on the games field refusing to take part), McTaggartuntidiness, absorption in philosophy and sensitivity, augured an unhappy life there. However, in his first year, he formed close loving relationships and won his victory over organized sport—he was allowed to walk on the Downs and philosophize instead (vii).

Eccentric as a child, now an adult he was a ‘character’ (xi). When lecturing, he spoke rapidly, illustrating his arguments with images of dragons and griffins (x). Often in his red gown, he rode a tricycle along Trumpington Street to Trinity at precisely the same time each day. He saluted cats whenever he met them and observed the conduct of College ceremonies in minute detail (xi). His own priorities became confused. He became upset by the selling of land and possessions at Trinity and with the same strength of feeling he mourned the death of a friend’s cat (xix).

He was fat, unfit, and disinclined to put his energy into argument and verbal combat. He was happier at home, writing letters, or in his rooms, reworking his manuscript of The Nature of Existence (xix). Throughout his last years he continued working strenuously on The Nature of Existence. His editorial practice was to complete five drafts before his work was ready for publication (xvii).

Because McTaggart is mostly known for his analytical work on the nature of time and existence, it is interesting to note that, despite being an atheist, McTaggart was a mystic of sorts committed to the belief that love is a fundamental binding relation and the necessity of immortality. He was fiercely loyal to his friends and loved ones throughout his life. The one exception seems to have been Bertrand Russell. McTaggart’s enthusiastic support for England’s war efforts against Germany couldn’t be reconciled with Bertie’s flat-footed pacifism.


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