Mr. Chairman, Ladies & Gentlemen!
Before I begin to speak about my subject proper let me say a few introductory words. I feel that I will have very great difficulties in communicating the thoughts which I want to communicate, to you & I want to mention some of these difficulties because I think that this may possibly diminish them. The first I will mention – but by no means the greatest – is that, as you¤ know, English is not my native language & my expression will therefore not be as clear & precise as it would be desirable when one has something very difficult to communicate. Please help me in my task of making myself understood by overlooking as much as possible the faults against the English grammar which will constantly occur in my speech. The second difficulty which I will mention seems to me to be by far more serious & to explain it I must tell you why I have chosen the subject which I have chosen. When your former secretary honoured me by asking me to read a paper to your society the first thought that came into my head was that I would certainly do it & the second was this: I said to myself that if I had the opportunity of talking to a room full of
people that I would use this opportunity to say something that comes from my heart & not to illuse || misuse the time that I was given to speak to you by either explaining some scientific matter to you which to be properly explained would need a course of lectures or an audience specially trained in one particular line of thought & that I would still less illuse || misuse this opportunity of speaking to you by giving you a popular lecture, say on logic, which would serve to make you believe that you understand a thing which as a matter of fact you don't understand (& which it is not a bit necessary that you should) & to gratify the very lowest of modern desires viz. the superficial curiosity about the latest discoveries of physicists, psychologists & logicians || scientists I decided – I say – that I should use this opportunity to speak to you not as a logician, still less as a cross between a scientist & a journalist but as a human being who tries to tell his fellow || other human beings something they || which some of them might possibly find useful, I say useful not interesting. The third and last difficulty I will mention is one that applies to || adheres to most philosophical subjects || explanations & it is this that it sometimes is almost impossible to explain a
matter in such a way that the hearer at once sees the ways || roads || road he is lead & the end || goal to which it leads. That is to say it so very often happens that the hearer thinks “I understand perfectly what he is saying || says but what on earth is he driving at” or else that he sees what one is driving at & thinks that's all very well but how is he going to get there”. This perhaps is the gravest difficulty & all I can do is to ask you to be patient & to hope that in the end we will see both the road & where it leads to. – Now let me begin. My subject is Ethics & I will adopt the definition or explanation which Prof. Moore has given in his Principia Ethica. He says there || which is: Ethics is the general enquiry into what is good. I will just modify this slightly & say: Ethics is the general enquiry into what is valuable. I do this because I want to include in my notion of Ethics also what is commonly understood to belong to the subject matter of Aesthetics. The reason for this will perhaps get clear later on. Now let me point out first of all that in our definition of Ethics I might have substituted many other words for the word valuable. And I will enumerate some of them which seem to me to be
synonyms so far at any rate as this || their meaning is important to us and by enumerating them I want to produce the same sort of effect that Galton produced when he copied a number of different faces on the same photographic plate in order to get the picture of the typical features they all have in common. And as by looking at || shewing to you such a photo you can || I could make you see what is the typical, say, Chinese face so if you look as it were through all the synonyms which I will place one behind the other before || in front of you, you will see which feature common to them all I want you to look at in each of them. Now there is the word valuable or value or the word good taken in a slightly wider sense perhaps. Now instead of saying Ethics is the enquiry into what is valuable I might have said it is the enquiry into what is of absolute importance or into what is the meaning of life or into what makes life worth living. And if you hold all these expressions together as value, good, great, right, sense of life, that what makes life worth living, worth etc. you will I believe see what it is I'm || I am concerned with. Now the first thing I want you to notice about all these expressions is that they can all be used in two
very different senses: I will call them the relative & the absolute or ethical meaning || use. The relative use of these words is their use relative to some predetermined end. When I say this is a good piano I mean it comes up to a certain standard of tone etc. which I have fixed & which I conceive as its purpose. It has only sense to say that a piano is good if you have previously fixed what sort of qualities a piano must have to deserve that name. And the same applies when I say that a man is a good piano player or a good golf player or that a road is good etc. In all such cases good simply means: coming up to a certain standard which I have previously fixed. The same applies to the word important in the relative sense. In this sense we say something is important for a certain purpose. The same applies to right. The right road is that which leads to the place I want to go to. It is right relative to the desired end. In this relative sense the words value, good, importance etc. are easily understood & present no great problems. Now in Ethics these same words are used apparently in an entirely different sense. Supposing I could play the piano & one of you
a great connoisseur of piano playing heard me & said, Well you're playing pretty badly & suppose I answered¤ him: I know I'm playing badly but I don't want to play any better. All the connoisseur could say would be well then that's all right, & there would be an end to the discussion. The connoisseur would have judged me by certain standards which he could if necessary explain & I would agree that he had ranked me rightly. Now take another case suppose I had told one of you a preposterous lie & this man came to me & said look here you have behaved like a beast¤ & now I were to answer Yes I know I behaved badly but then I didn't want to behave any better. Could || Would he then say then that's all right? Obviously not. He would say well you ought to want to behave better. The difference was that this man was making an absolute || ethical judgment whereas the other connoisseur made a relative judgment. Now the essence of this difference seems to me to be obviously this: Every judgment of relative value, goodness, importance etc. can be || is a simple statement of facts & can be put in such a form that it loses all appearance of a judgment of value. Instead of saying this is the right
road I can say equally well this is the road that leads me to where I want to go. This is a good piano player simply means that he can play pieces of a certain degree of complicatedness in a certain definable way. To say the violin has a good voice means it has a tone agreeable to the ear & so on. Now what I wish to contend is this that although all relative judgments can be shown to be statements of facts no statement of fact can ever be or imply what we call an absolute that is ethical judgment. Let me explain this like this: Suppose that one of you or I was an omniscient person who therefore knew all the movements of all the bodies in the world, dead or alive who further knew & could describe all the states of minds of all human beings that ever were & suppose that this omniscient person wrote all he knew, that is everything that is to be known, in a big book. Then this book would contain the whole description of the world. And what I want to say is that this book would then not contain anything that we could || would call an absolute || ethical judgment of value or anything that would directly imply such a judgment. It would of course contain all relative judgments of value as for
instance that so & so is a good or a bad runner for it would contain the fact that he ran so many yards || the distance of 1 mile in so many seconds || minutes & seconds. The book would of course contain all possible true scientific propositions & in fact all ¤ significant & true propositions that can be made. Now what I wish to say is that all facts are as it were on the same level that there is no such thing as absolute importance or unimportance in them & that therefore in the same way all propositions are on the same level that there are no propositions which are in any absolute sense sublime, important or on the other hand trivial. Now perhaps some of you will agree to that & be reminded of Hamlet's words ‒ ‒ ‒. But this again could lead to misunderstanding. What Hamlet says seems to imply that good & bad are not qualities of the world outside us but attributes of our states of mind. But what I mean is that the state of mind so far as we mean by that a fact which we can describe is in no ethical sense good or bad.
If for instance in our world book an appalling murder is described || we read the description of an appalling murder in all the details physical & psychological || psychical that is with all the pains & anguish the victim had to endure with all the studied cruelty of the murderer the mere description of facts physical & psychical will contain nothing of
what || which we would || could say that this is an ethical proposition. The event || murder will be on exactly the same level as any other event for instance the falling of a stone. Certainly the reading of this description might cause us pain or rage or any other emotions or we might read about the pain or rage caused by this murder in other people when they got to know it but there will simply be facts facts & facts but no Ethics. – And now I must say that if I contemplate what Ethics really would have to be if there were such a science this¤ seems to me quite obvious. It seems to me quite obvious that nothing we could ever think or say should be the thing. That we can't write a scientific book the subject matter of which was || is intrinsically sublime, above all other subject matters. I can only describe my feeling by the metaphor that if a man could write a book about Ethics which really was a book on Ethics this would with an explosion destroy all the other books in the world. Our words used as we use them in science are vessels capable only to contain & convey meaning & sense, natural meaning & sense. Ethics if it is anything must be || is supernatural & our words
will only express facts as a teacup will only hold a teacup full of water & if I was to empty || pour out a gallon over it. I said that so far as facts & propositions are concerned there is only relative value & relative good, right etc. And let me, before I go on, illustrate this by a rather obvious example: The right road is the road which leads to an arbitrarily predetermined end & it is quite clear to us all that it has no sense in ordinary life to talk about the || a right road apart from such a predetermined end, that there is no such thing as the right road. Now let us see what we could possibly mean by such an || the expression the absolutely right road. I think it would be the road which everybody if he sees it would with logical necessity have to go or be ashamed for || of not going. Generally speaking, the absolute good, if it is a describable state of affairs, would be one that everybody irrespective || independent of his tastes and inclinations would necessarily bring about or feel guilty for not bringing about. And I want to say that such a state of affairs is a chimera. – No state of affairs contains || has the coercive power in itself. Then what do all of us who are, like myself, still tempted to use such phrases || expressions as
absolute good, absolute value etc. what have they in mind & what do we try to express? Now whenever I try to make this clear to me || myself it is natural that I should try to recall in which cases I would particularly || certainly use these expressions & I am then in the situation in which you would be if for instance I were to give you a lecture, say, on the psychology of pleasure. What you would do then would be to try and recall some typical situation in which you always felt pleasure, for, bearing this situation in mind, all which I would have to say to you about pleasure would become concrete &, as it were, controllable. One man would for instance choose as his stock example of pleasure the sensation which he has when taking a walk on a fine summer's morning & or any || some such occasion. Now in this situation I am if I want to fix my mind on what I mean by absolute or ethical value. And there in my case it always happens that the idea of one particular experience presents itself to me || my mind which therefore is for me in a sense the experience par excellence & this is the reason why in talking to you now I (will always) refer to this experience particularly || I am using this || it as my first & foremost example. (As I have said this
is really a personal matter & others would find other examples more striking.) I will describe this experience in order if possible to make you recall to your minds the same or similar experiences so that we may have a common ground for our investigation. Now the best way of describing this || my experience is to say that when I have it I wonder at the existence of the world. And I am then inclined to use such a phrase like || as “how extraordinary that anything should exist”, or “how extraordinary that the world should exist”. I will mention another experience straight away which I also know & which others of you might be acquainted with & this is what one might call the experience of feeling absolutely safe. I mean the state in which one says to oneself I am safe nothing can happen to || injure me whatever happens. Now let me consider these experiences because they exhibit I believe the very characteristics we want to get clear about. Now there the first thing I have to say is that the verbal expression which we give to these experiences is nonsense! If I say I wonder at the existence of the world I am misusing language. Let me explain this: It has a perfectly good and an intelligible sense to say
that I wonder at something being the case. I || We all understand what it means when I say that I wonder at a dog which is bigger than any dog I have ever seen before or at any other thing which in the common sense of the word is extraordinary”. In every such case I wonder at something being the case which I could conceive not to be the case. I wonder at the size of this dog because I could conceive of a dog of another namely the ordinary size at which I would not wonder. To say I wonder at such & such being the case has only sense if I can imagine it not to be the case. In this sense one can wonder at the existence of say a house when one sees it & hasn't seen || visited it for many years & has imagined that it had been pulled down in the meantime. But it is nonsense to say that I wonder at the existence of the world because I cannot imagine it not existing. I could of course wonder at the world round me being as it is. For instance if I had this || the experience of wonder while looking into the blue sky I could wonder at the sky being blue as opposed to the case where it's clouded. But that's not what I mean. I am wondering at the sky being whatever it is. One might be tempted to say that what I am wondering at is a tautology, namely at the sky being blue or not being blue. But then it's just
that it's nonsense to say that one wonders at a tautology. The verbal expression do with it what I may remains nonsense & I think it is essential that it should do so. Now the same applies to that other experience which I have mentioned the experience of being safe || absolute safety. We all know what it means in ordinary life to be safe. I am safe in my rooms when I cannot be run over by an omnibus. I am safe if I have had whooping cough once & cannot therefore have it again. That is to be safe essentially means that it is physically impossible || improbable that certain things should happen to me, & therefore it's nonsense to say that I am safe whatever happens. Again it is a misuse of the word safe as the other example was a misuse of the word existence. Now I want to impress on you that a certain characteristic misuse of language runs through all ethical & religious expressions. I can perhaps best describe it in this way: When it has become clear to one that there is amongst significant propositions no such thing as a judgment of absolute value the first thought I believe is that all ethical & religious propositions are really only similes & that's || that is what they really seem to be. It seems that when we are using the word right in an ethical sense although
what we mean is not what we mean by right when we say this is the right road to Grantchester it's something similar & when we say this is a good fellow we don't mean it in the same sense as when we say he is a good football player but there is some similarity. And when we say this || the life of this man was valuable we don't mean it in the same sense as when we say this piece of jewellery is valuable but there seems to be some sort of connection. Now all religious terms & notions seem in this sense to be used as similes or allegorically. For when we speak of God & that he sees & hears everything & when we kneel & pray to him it is || seems obvious that all our terms & actions are part of a big || great & elaborate allegory which represents him as a human being of great power whose grace we try to win etc. etc.. Now this simile also extends over the two experiences which I have described above in fact the first of them wondering at the existence of the world is I believe exactly what people were referring to when they said that God had created the world & the experience of absolute safety is described by saying that we are safe under God's protection. A third experience which belongs to this realm is the experience of feeling guilty & again that was described
by the phrase that God disapproves of our conduct. I have said that whenever we describe ethical or religious experiences we seem to use language only to make up similes. But a simile must be the simile for something & if I can express a fact by means of a simile I must also be able to drop the simile and to explain the facts without it. Now what happens to us in this case is that as soon as we try to drop the simile & try to state simply the facts that stand behind them we find that there are no such facts. And so what at first appeared to be similes now seems to be mere nonsense. Now the three experiences which I mentioned before (and I could have added many || some more) seem to those who have experienced them for instance to me to have in some sense an intrinsic an absolute value. But when I say they are experiences surely they are facts, they have taken place then & there, lasted a certain definite time & consequently are describable. And so, from what I said some minutes ago I must admit it is nonsense to say that they have absolute value. And here I am at || have arrived at the main point of this paper & it is the paradox for I know not how to call it that an experience ||
a fact
should have an absolute value. And I will make the point still more acute by saying, that an experience || a fact should have a supernatural value. Now the way I would be tempted at first to meet this paradox is this: Let me consider again the experience of wondering at existence & let me describe it in a slightly different way: We all know what in ordinary life would be called a miracle: It obviously is simply an event the like of which we have never yet seen. Now suppose such an event happened. Take the case that one of you suddenly grew a lion's head & began roaring || to roar; certainly that's as extraordinary a thing as I can imagine. Now whenever we would have recovered from our surprise what I would suggest is to fetch a physiologist & have the case scientifically investigated & if it were not for being afraid of hurting him I'd have him vivisected. And where would the miracle have gone to, for it is clear that looking at it in this way everything miraculous has disappeared unless what we mean by miraculous is merely that a fact has not yet been explained by science which again means merely that
we have hitherto failed to group this fact with others in a scientific system. But This means that it has no sense to say science has proved that there are no miracles”. No: the scientific way of looking at a fact is not the way to look at it as a miracle. For imagine whatever fact you may, it is not in itself a miracle in the absolute sense & there are || one is in itself not more or less miraculous than the other. I heard once || I once heard a preacher in a Cambridge church say that of course there were still miracles happening only look at the tiny little seed from which a tree grows. But this is wrong for is this more miraculous than that a stone falls or in fact any thing which happens whatever happens! Again we see that we have used the term miracle in a relative & an absolute sense. In the relative sense it simply meant a hitherto unknown kind of event. Well that's a trivial meaning. But when we are tempted to use it in what I would like to call a deep meaning || sense then it means || we want it to mean that we wonder at it not because of the rarity of what has happened || the event but because what has happened has happened whatever has happened. And here we have the misuse of the word to wonder” which we talked about previously. – In fact
what I then called to wonder at the existence of the world I might have equally well described by saying to regard to look at existence as a miracle || as the experience of looking at existence as a miracle. Now I am tempted to say that the right expression in language for the miracle of the existence of the world is the miracle of the existence of language but what does it mean to notice this miracle some times & not at other times? For all I have said by shifting the expression of the miraculous from an expression by means of language to the expression by the existence of language, all I have said is again that we can not express what we want to express & that all we say about it is || remains nonsense. Now the answer to all this will seem perfectly clear to many of you. You will say: Well if certain experiences constantly tempt us to attribute a quality to them which we call absolute or ethical value & importance this simply shows that by these words we do not mean nonsense that after all what we mean by saying that an experience has absolute value is just a fact like other facts
& that is to say that my contention in the beginning of this paper when I said that no describable fact could ever be or imply an absolute judgment was wrong. Now when this is urged against me I (immediately) see perfectly || clearly as it were in a flash of light, not only that no description that I can think of would do to describe significantly these experiences, but that I would reject every explanation that anybody could possibly suggest ab initio on the ground of its significance. That is to say: I see now that these nonsensical expressions were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the significant explanation || expression but that their nonsensicality was their very essence for all I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world & that is to say beyond language. But this is just impossible. My whole tendency & as I believe the tendency of all those who ever tried to talk or write about Ethics & religion was to run against the boundary || boundaries of language. This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely, hopeless. & still I feel respect for it & ◇◇◇ would not for my life ridicule it. I will sum up. I therefore believe that so far as Ethics springs from the desire to express || say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute important it can be no
science, that is to say what it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply & I would not for my life ridicule it.