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Summary Article: McTaggart, John M. E. (1866-1925) from Encyclopedia of Time: Science, Philosophy, Theology, & Culture

John M. E. McTaggart, a British Hegelian philosopher and one of the most independent minds of his generation, produced, among other things, a logical and coherent argument for the essential unreality of time. He was the son of Francis and Caroline Ellis; the surname McTaggart was added by his father in order to fulfill a condition for an inheritance. The now prosperous family sent young McTaggart to the prestigious Clifton School and Trinity College, Cambridge. While visiting his widowed mother in New Zealand in 1892, he met Margaret Elizabeth Bird. The two married during his next visit to New Zealand, in 1899. His entire academic career, between 1897 and 1923, was at Cambridge, where he developed his brilliant, though idiosyncratic, blend of quasi-Hegelian idealism and atheism.

A genial man, McTaggart was a longtime friend of G. E. Moore (1873-1958), despite the latter's role as the most influential critic of British Hegelianism. And along with Moore and Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), McTaggart was a member of the irreverent Cambridge club known as the Apostles. But his friendship with Russell came to an end during the First World War, when McTaggart led a campaign to have Russell thrown out of Cambridge University for his vocal opposition to conscription. McTaggart died suddenly and unexpectedly in January 1925.

One of the many paradoxes of McTaggart's life is that he produced no disciples and yet generated some of the most exhaustive commentary of any British philosopher of his generation. His importance among philosophers was given graphic illustration in C. D. Broad's massive three-volume Examination of McTaggart's Philosophy (1933, 1938), which remains one of the most comprehensive expositions of a 20th-century philosopher's body of work. Broad succeeded McTaggart at Trinity College. McTaggart's views on time were defended as recently as 1960 by the British antirealist philosopher Michael Dummett. McTaggart was a philosopher's philosopher, and he devoted little time toward engaging the interest of nonspe-cialists. But among professional philosophers he is best remembered for his work in logic, which remains influential to this day. An important example of McTaggart's logical power is his theory of the unreality of time.

Aspects of McTaggart's Philosophy

McTaggart's earlier career was spent articulating a comprehensive though idiosyncratic interpretation of the philosophy of Hegel. Studies in Hegelian Dialectic (1896) reworked the notion of proceeding with successive stages of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Studies in Hegelian Cosmology (1901) was more radical in its reexamination of Hegel's concept of the absolute idea, and A Commentary on Hegel's Logic (1910) dissected Hegel's argument from pure being to the absolute idea.

The closest McTaggart ever came to writing a popular work was with Some Dogmas of Religion (1906, with a second edition in 1930). Once again, being an atheist with respect to questions of the existence of God or gods while also maintaining a highly individual conception of immortality, he came to conclusions that were characteristically idiosyncratic. His justification for religion was dauntingly rigorous. Any religious belief, he argued, required the prior belief that the universe is good. But there is no reliable method by which one can believe this other than dogmatically. And dogmas, in turn, require a metaphysical investigation, for which most people lack the time or inclination. Therefore, regardless of whether the religion is actually true, the vast majority of people accept their religion on false grounds. This in turn will lead to a larger number of people living without religion, but also without its consolations, and who are therefore unhappy. This said, McTaggart was no more convinced that there was a link between religious belief and happiness.

But as against this line of argument, McTaggart advocated a mitigated version of immortality. After criticizing most arguments against, as well as many of those for, personal immortality, he advocated a disembodied mind that linked with a universal spirit that was composed principally of love. His contribution to the development of 20th-century atheism is more substantial than he is given credit for, although the fault for this lies with McTaggart himself.

McTaggart on Time

Many of these arguments came to rest on McTaggart's core belief in the unreality of time, which were first given serious expression in Mind in 1908 and developed in the 33rd chapter of his main work, the two-volume The Nature of Existence (1921, 1927). Like much of his work, this book was broadly Hegelian in outlook rather than proceeding specifically from a particular argument of Hegel's. He worked along Cartesian lines, postulating the existence of any one thing to existence of pluralities of things, to the existence of “the Absolute,” which is the sum total of all the various substances without being anything more of itself than any of its constitutive parts.

Attempts had been made before McTaggart to construct arguments along these lines, though none with anything like his attention to logical detail. For instance, it has been claimed that a series of paradoxes by Hui Shi (c. 380-c. 305 BCE) was an argument for the unreality of time as part of a general program of problematizing the distinctions between space and time. And arguments for the unreality of time were advanced by the Sarvastivadin school of Buddhism about 500 CE. Only with McTaggart, however, was a concerted and deliberate aim made to argue for the unreality of time. His argument began with the observation of two types of temporality. There are events (which he called the A series) that figure either as past, present, or future, while others (the B series) operate either as earlier or later. Only the A series of events are essential to the idea of time, because only those sorts of events require a distinction between past, present, and future. Consequently, any difficulty in regarding the A series as real means an equal difficulty in regarding time as real. Past, present, and future can, more or less, be described, McTaggart admitted, but they cannot be defined.

The next step in the argument is crucial. McTaggart then argues that past, present, and future are clearly incompatible, and yet the A series needs each one at every event. To the objection that past, present, and future happen successively rather than simultaneously, he replied that any one moment still has its past and future and, as such, remain incompatible, and insofar as time depends on this series, time cannot be real.

He then infers that if a B series without an A series can constitute time, then change must be possible without an A series. A change of this sort means that an event (a position in time in McTaggart's usage) ceases to be an event while another one begins to be an event. But this cannot be, as nothing can cease to be an event or begin as an event. So without the A series there can be no change, because the B series is not sufficient in itself for change. And as events in the B series are time-determinations, it follows that there can be no B series where there is no A series, because where there is no A series, there is no time.

Now McTaggart does allow for events having an order—this he calls the C series—and events in order may become relations of earlier and later, in which they would become a B series. But this order does not necessarily imply that they must change, because change must be in a particular direction.

Having demonstrated that there can be no time without an A series, McTaggart then goes on to prove that the A series cannot exist. The characteristics of A series—the supposed sequence of past, present, and future—are either a relation or a quality. Either way, a fatal contradiction exists. Each event is the same, whether in the past, present, or the future, and its relation to each event's past and future must also always be same. McTaggart also argues that past, present, and future are incompatible. Each event has a past and future, and is in this way predictable, and yet events are also incompatible with each other. It presupposes the existence of time to erase the incompatibility, and yet the existence of time is what this argument sets out to demonstrate.

McTaggart conceded that it may well be possible that the realities we perceive as events in time are part of some nontemporal series in the manner of the C series. This seemed compatible with Hegel, who argued for a timeless reality, of which the time-series is but a distorted reflection we have of it. But this did not affect the core argument that the A series is “as essential” as the B series in that the distinctions of past, present, and future are essential to time, and that, if these distinctions are never true of reality, then one cannot include time as part of reality.

As mentioned above, McTaggart's theory of the unreality of time has not found general acceptance. It is not coincidental that his most loyal defender after Broad was Michael Dummett (1925-) the British exponent of antirealism. Others, like Roy Bhaskar (1944-), have found value in McTaggart's distinction between the A and B series without endorsing his conclusions about time's unreality. Opponents of the theory claim it amounts to little more than a play on tenses. J. J. C. Smart (1920-), for instance, argues that the idea of change can be expressed in the language of the B series by speaking of points in time differing from each other, which does not require us to say that events change. In effect, McTaggart's nonuse of tensed verbs with respect to the B series and use of them with respect to the A series is what sustains the apparent contradiction his argument rests upon. A simple reversal in the distribution of tenses, and the problem disappears.

McTaggart's denial of the existence of time is the best known of his arguments, although he did not stop there. The Nature of Existence also featured arguments that denied the existence of material objects, space, and a range of mental processes. These claims rested on a quite different argument, however. These entities could not exist by virtue of not meeting the requirements of a relation he called determining correspondence, a complex relation of any substance to the almost infinite range of divisible parts it could possibly be divided into.


Notwithstanding the solid support of Broad and Dummett, McTaggart's arguments have not found wider favor. The very strength of the argument— its logical power—was also its weakness, because the argument rested on logical grounds alone. Even if we overlook Smart's powerful objection to those logical grounds, McTaggart's argument for the unreality of time is fatally undermined by virtue of having taken too little account of the facts of science. At much the same time McTaggart was working out his theory of the unreality of time, developments in physics were establishing that time was very real indeed. The second law of thermodynamics and its corollary in entropy makes it clear that time is a fundamental part of the universe and that it is unidirectional. The fate of McTaggart's theory of the unreality of time is an object lesson in the need of scientific understanding, or at least of a multidisciplinary approach, when doing serious philosophy. Though not a contender as an explanation of the universe, McTaggart's argument for the unreality of time is an impressive intellectual achievement.

See also

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, Humanism, Idealism, Nietzsche, Friedrich, Russell, Bertrand, Time, Nonexistence of

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  • Cooke, Bill
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