Isn't that the same argument Russell was making?

They're... similar? I find Russell a lot clearer on this point:

We might state the argument by which they support their view in some such way as this: 'Whatever can be thought of is an idea in the mind of the person thinking of it; therefore nothing can be thought of except ideas in minds; therefore anything else is inconceivable, and what is inconceivable cannot exist.'
Such an argument, in my opinion, is fallacious; and of course those who advance it do not put it so shortly or so crudely. But whether valid or not, the argument has been very widely advanced in one form or another; and very many philosophers, perhaps a majority, have held that there is nothing real except minds and their ideas.

I find Moore's way of discussing the issue weirder. Moore is definitely making an argument from 'a thought's object is different from the thought itself' to 'idealism is false', but his argument seems to involve weird steps like 'our experiences don't have contents' (rather than the expected 'the content of our experience is different from its referent'):

What I wish to point out is (1) that we have no reason for supposing that there are such things as mental images at all -- for supposing that blue is part of the content of the sensation of blue, and (2) that even if there are mental images, no mental image and no sensation or idea is merely a thing of this kind; that 'blue', even if it is part of the content of the image or sensation or idea of blue, is always also related to it in quite another way, and that this other relation, omitted in the traditional analysis, is the only one which makes the sensation of blue a mental fact at all. [...]
To have in your mind 'knowledge' of blue, is not to have in your mind a 'thing' or 'image' of which blue is the content. To be aware of the sensation of blue is not to be aware of a mental image - of a 'thing', of which 'blue' and some other element are constituent parts in the same sense in which blue and glass are constituents of a blue bead. It is to be aware of an awareness of blue; awareness being used, in both cases, in exactly the same sense. This element, we have seen, is certainly neglected by the 'content' theory: that theory entirely fails to express the fact that there is, in the sensation of blue, this unique relation between blue and the other constituent.

Baldwin (2004) confirms that this line of reasoning, plus Moore's attempt to resist skeptical hypotheses, led Moore in a very confused direction:

But what is the relationship between sense-data [i.e., the thingies we're directly conscious of] and physical objects? Moore took it that there are three serious candidates to be considered: (i) an indirect realist position, according to which sense-data are non-physical but somehow produced by interactions between physical objects and our senses; (ii) the phenomenalist position, according to which our conception of physical objects is merely one which expresses observed and anticipated uniformities among the sense-data we apprehend; (iii) a direct realist position, according to which sense-data are parts of physical objects — so that, for example, visual sense-data are visible parts of the surfaces of physical objects.
The indirect realist position is that to which he was initially drawn; but he could see that it leaves our beliefs about the physical world exposed to skeptical doubt, since it implies that the observations which constitute evidence for these beliefs concern only the properties of non-physical sense-data, and there is no obvious way for us to obtain further evidence to support a hypothesis about the properties of the physical world and its relationship to our sense-data.
This argument is reminiscent of Berkeley's critique of Locke, and Moore therefore considered carefully Berkeley's phenomenalist alternative. Moore's initial response to this position was that the implied conception of the physical world was just too ‘pickwickian’ to be believable. This may be felt to be too intuitive, like Dr. Johnson's famous objection to Berkeley; but Moore could also see that there were substantive objections to the phenomenalist position, such as the fact that our normal ways of identifying and anticipating significant uniformities among our sense-data draw on our beliefs about our location in physical space and the state of our physical sense-organs, neither of which are available to the consistent phenomenalist.
So far Moore's dialectic is familiar. What is unfamiliar is his direct realist position, according to which sense-data are physical. This position avoids the problems so far encountered, but in order to accommodate false appearances Moore has to allow that sense-data may lack the properties which we apprehend them as having. It may be felt that in so far as sense-data are objects at all, this is inevitable; but Moore now needs to provide an account of the apparent properties of sense-data and it is not clear how he can do this without going back on the initial motivation for the sense-datum theory by construing these apparent properties as properties of our experiences. But what in fact turns Moore against this direct realist position is the difficulty he thinks it leads to concerning the treatment of hallucinations. In such cases, Moore holds, any sense-data we apprehend are not parts of a physical object; so direct realism cannot apply to them, and yet there is no reason to hold that they are intrinsically different from the sense-data which we apprehend in normal experience. This last point might well be disputed, and at one point Moore himself considers the possibility of a distinction between ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ sense-data; but once one has introduced sense-data in the first place as the primary objects of experience it is not going to be easy to make a distinction here without assuming more about experience than Moore at any rate would have wanted to concede.
Moore wrote more extensively about perception than about any other topic. In these writings he moves between the three alternatives set out here without coming to any firm conclusion.

A simple sketch of how realism became unpopular

by Rob Bensinger 3 min read11th Oct 201953 comments

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[Epistemic status: Sharing current impressions in a quick, simplified way in case others have details to add or have a more illuminating account. Medium-confidence that this is one of the most important parts of the story.]


Here's my current sense of how we ended up in this weird world where:

  • I still intermittently run into people who claim that there's no such thing as reality or truth;
  • a lot of 20th-century psychologists made a habit of saying things like 'minds don't exist, only behaviors';
  • a lot of 20th-century physicists made a habit of saying things like 'quarks don't exist, only minds';
  • there's a big academic split between continental thinkers saying (or being rounded off to saying) some variant of "everything is culture / perception / discourse / power" and Anglophone thinkers saying (or being rounded off to saying) "no".

Background context:

1. The ancient Greeks wrote down a whole lot of arguments. In many cases, we're missing enough textual fragments or context that we don't really know why they were arguing — what exact propositions were in dispute, or what the stakes were.

2. In any case, most of this is screened off by the fact that Europe's memetic winners were Christianity plus normal unphilosophical beliefs like "the sky is, in fact, blue".

3. Then, in 1521, the Protestant Reformation began.

4. In 1562, the Catholics found a giant list of arguments against everything by the minor Greek skeptic Sextus Empiricus, got very excited, and immediately weaponized them to show that the Protestant arguments fail (because all arguments fail).

5. These soon spread and became a sensation, and not just for being a useful superweapon. Plenty of intellectuals were earnest humanists used to taking arguments at face value, and found Sextus' arguments genuinely upsetting and fascinating.


I trace continental thinkers' "everything is subjective/relative" arguments back to a single 1710 error in George Berkeley:

[...] I am content to put the whole upon this Issue; if you can but conceive it possible for one extended moveable Substance, or in general, for any one Idea or any thing like an Idea, to exist otherwise than in a Mind perceiving it, I shall readily give up the Cause[....]
But say you, surely there is nothing easier than to imagine Trees, for instance, in a Park, or Books existing in a Closet, and no Body by to perceive them. I answer, you may so, there is no difficulty in it: But what is all this, I beseech you, more than framing in your Mind certain Ideas which you call Books and Trees, and the same time omitting to frame the Idea of any one that may perceive them? But do not you your self perceive or think of them all the while? This therefore is nothing to the purpose: It only shews you have the Power of imagining or forming Ideas in your Mind; but it doth not shew that you can conceive it possible, the Objects of your Thought may exist without the Mind: To make out this, it is necessary that you conceive them existing unconceived or unthought of, which is a manifest Repugnancy.

If I can imagine a tree that exists outside of any mind, then I can imagine a tree that is not being imagined. But "an imagined X that is not being imagined" is a contradiction. Therefore everything I can imagine or conceive of must be a mental object.

Berkeley ran with this argument to claim that there could be no unexperienced objects, therefore everything must exist in some mind — if nothing else, the mind of God.

The error here is mixing up what falls inside vs. outside of quotation marks. "I'm conceiving of a not-conceivable object" is a formal contradiction, but "I'm conceiving of the concept 'a not-conceivable object'" isn't, and human brains and natural language make it easy to mix up levels like those.

(I can immediately think of another major milestone in the history of European thought, Anselm's ontological argument for God, that shows the same brain bug.)

Berkeley's view was able to find fertile soil in an environment rife with non-naturalism, skeptical arguments, and competition between epistemic criteria and authorities. Via Kant and Kant's successors (Hegel chief among them), he successfully convinced the main current of 19th-century European philosophy to treat the idea of a "mind-independent world" as something ineffable or mysterious, and to treat experiences or perspectives as fundamental.

(Edit: G.E. Moore seems to think that everyone in the 19th century was making an error along these lines, but I now suspect Kant himself wasn't making this mistake; I think his main error was trying too hard to defeat skepticism.

I also don't think Berkeley's writing would have been sufficient to confuse Europe on its own; it's too lucid and well-articulated. The transition to Kantian and Hegelian versions of these arguments is important because they were much more elaborate and poorly expressed, requiring a lot of intellectual effort in order to spot the inconsistencies.)

My unscholarly surface impression of the turn of the 20th century is that these memes ("the territory is fundamentally mysterious" and "maps are sort of magical and cosmically important") allowed a lot of mysticism and weird metaphysics to creep into intellectual life, but that ideas like those are actually hard to justify in dry academic prose, such that the more memetically fit descendants of idealism in the 20th century ended up being quietist ("let's just run experiments and not talk about all this weird 'world' stuff") or instrumentalist / phenomenalist / skeptic / relativist ("you can't know 'world' stuff, so let's retreat to just discussing impressions; and maybe you can't even know those, so really what's left is power struggles").

Today, the pendulum has long since swung back again in most areas of intellectual life, perhaps because we've more solidly settled around our new central authority (science) and the threats to centralized epistemic authority (religious and philosophical controversy) are more distant memories. Metaphysics and weird arguments are fashionable again in analytic philosophy; behaviorism is long-dead in psychology; and quietism, non-realism, and non-naturalism at least no longer dominate the discussion in QM, though a lot of Copenhagen slogans remain popular.


The above is a very simple picture featuring uneven scholarship, and history tends to be messier than all that. (Ideas get independently rediscovered, movements go one step forward only to retreat two steps back, etc.) Also, I'm not claiming that everyone endorsed the master argument as stated, just that the master argument happened to shift intellectual fashions in this direction in a durable way.

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