J. M. E. McTaggart

region = Western Philosophy
era = 19th-century and 20th-century philosophy
color = #B0C4DE

image_caption =

name = John McTaggart Ellis (J.M.E.) McTaggart
birth = September 3, 1866
death = January 18, 1925
school_tradition = British Idealism
main_interests = Metaphysics, Ethics, Philosophy of Religion
influences = G.W.F. Hegel, T. H. Green.
influenced =
notable_ideas = The Unreality of Time

John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart (September 3, 1866January 18, 1925) was an Idealist metaphysicist. For most of his life McTaggart was a lecturer at Trinity College, Cambridge. He was considered one of England's leading Hegel scholars at the beginning of the 20th century and among the most notable of the British Idealists.

Personal life

McTaggart was born in 1866 in London to Francis and Ellen Ellis. His surname was later changed to McTaggart as a condition (set by his father) of his inheriting from his uncle, John McTaggart - this was despite having already been named for the same uncle. He attended Clifton College, Bristol, before going up to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1885. At Trinity he was taught for the Moral Sciences Tripos by Henry Sidgwick and James Ward, both distinguished philosophers. After obtaining First class honours (the only student of Moral Sciences to do so in 1888), he was, in 1891, elected to a prize fellowship at Trinity on the basis of a dissertation on Hegel's "Logic". McTaggart had in the meantime been President of the Union Society, a prestigious debating club, and the secretive Cambridge Apostles. In 1897 he was appointed to a college lectureship in Philosophy, a position he would hold until his retirement in 1923 (although he continued to lecture until his death).

McTaggart, although radical in his youth, became increasingly conservative (perhaps influenced by Hegel) and was influential in the expulsion of Bertrand Russell from Trinity for pacifism during World War I. But McTaggart was a man of contradictions: despite his conservatism he was an advocate of women's suffrage; and though an atheist from his youth was a firm believer in human immortality and a defender of the Church of England. He was personally charming and had interests ranging beyond philosophy, known for his encyclopaedic knowledge of English novels and eighteenth-century memoirs.

His honours included an honorary LLD from the University of St. Andrews and Fellowship of the British Academy.

He died in London in 1925. In 1899 he had married Margaret Elizabeth Bird in New Zealand whom he met while visiting his mother (then living in near New Plymouth, Taranaki) and was survived by her, the couple had no children.

Hegel Scholarship

McTaggart's earlier work was devoted to an exposition and critique of Hegel's metaphysical methods and conclusions and their application in other fields. His first published work "Studies in Hegelian Dialectic" (1896), an expanded version of his Trinity fellowship dissertation, focused on the dialectical method of Hegel's "Logic". His second work "Studies in Hegelian Cosmology" (1901) is directed more towards a critique of the applications of Hegelian ideas made, both by Hegel and earlier neo-Hegelians, to the fields of ethics, politics and religion. In this book a number of his distinctive doctrines already appear, for example, his belief in human immortality. His final book specifically on Hegel was "A Commentary on Hegel's "Logic"" (1910), in which he attempted to explain and, to an extent, defend the argument of the Logic.

Although he defended the dialectical method broadly construed and shared a similar outlook to Hegel, McTaggart's Hegelianism was not uncritical and he disagreed significantly both with Hegel himself and with earlier neo-Hegelians. He believed that many specific features of Hegel's argument were gravely flawed and was similarly disparaging of Hegel's application of his abstract thought. However, he by no means reached the same conclusions as the previous generations of British Idealists and in his later work came to hold strikingly different and original views. Nonetheless, in spite of his break from earlier forms of Hegelianism, McTaggart inherited from his predecessors a pivotal belief in the ability of "a priori" thought to grasp the nature of the ultimate reality, which for him like earlier Hegelians was the absolute idea. Indeed, his later work and mature system can be seen as largely an attempt to give substance to his new conception of the absolute.

"The Unreality of Time" (1908)

In "The Unreality of Time" (1908), the work for which he is best known today, McTaggart argued that our perception of time is an illusion, and that time itself is merely ideal. He introduced the notions of the "A series" and "B series" interpretations of time, representing two different ways that events in time can be arranged. The A series corresponds to our everyday notions of "past", "present", and "future". The A series is "the series of positions running from the far past through the near past to the present, and then from the present to the near future and the far future" (p. 458). This is contrasted with the B series, in which positions are ordered from earlier to later, i.e. the series running from earlier to later moments.

McTaggart argued that the A series was a necessary component of any full theory of time, but that it was also self-contradictory and that our perception of time was, therefore, ultimately an incoherent illusion.

The Necessity of the A series

The first, and longer, part of McTaggart's argument is his affirmative answer to the question "whether it is essential to the reality of time that its events should form an A series as well as a B series" (p. 458). Broadly, McTaggart argues that if events are not ordered by an A as well as a B series then there cannot be said to be change. At the centre of his argument is the example of the death of Queen Anne. This event is a death, it has certain causes and certain effects, it is later than the death of Queen Elizabeth etc., but none of these properties change over time. Only in one respect does the event change:

"It began by being a future event. It became every moment an event in the nearer future. At last it was a present event. Then it became past, and will always remain so, though every moment it becomes further and further past.Thus we seem forced to the conclusion that all change is only a change in the characteristics imparted at to events by their presence in the A series" (p. 460).
Despite its power and originality this half of McTaggart's argument has, historically, received less attention than the second half.

The Incoherence of the A series

What is most often presented as McTaggart's attempted proof of the incoherence of the A series (the argument of pages 468-9) appears in the original paper only as a single part of a broader argument for this conclusion, but it can be extended to have general application. According to the argument, the contradiction in our perception of time is that all events exemplify all three of the properties of the A-series, viz. being past, present and future. The obvious response is that while exemplifying all three properties at some time, no event exemplifies all three "at once", no event "is" past, present, and future. A single event "is" present, "has been" future, "will be" past, and here there is, it seems, no contradiction.

McTaggart's great insight is that this ascent will apparently give rise to a 'vicious circle' or 'infinite regress'. On the one hand, the response depends upon the A-series to make sense. To distinguish the properties of "being present", "having been future" and "going to be past" requires a conception of time divided into past, present and future, and hence of the A-series.

"Accordingly the A series has to be pre-supposed in order to account for the A series. And this is clearly a vicious circle" (p. 468).
The same difficulty can be represented as a 'vicious infinite series' (infinite regress). One can construe the response above as "constructing a second A series, within which the first falls, in the same way in which events fall within the first" (p. 469). But even if the idea of a second A series within which the first falls makes sense (and McTaggart doubts it does, p. 469), it will face the same contradiction. And so, we must construct a third A series within which the second falls. And this will require the construction of a fourth A series and so on "ad infinitum". At any given stage the contradiction will appear; however far we go in constructing A series, each A series will be, without reference to a further A series containing it, contradictory. One ought to conclude, therefore, that the A series is indeed contradictory and, therefore, does not exist.

"See also:
*The Unreality of Time
*McTaggart, John,

Mature System: "The Nature of Existence"

In his later work, particularly his two-volume "The Nature of Existence", McTaggart developed his own, highly original, metaphysical system. The most famous element is his defence of the unreality of time, but McTaggart's system was much broader. In "The Nature of Existence" McTaggart defended a similar Hegelian view of the universe to that of his earlier work on the basis not of Hegel's dialetic but rather in the mode of more modern metaphysics.

McTaggart concluded the world was composed of nothing but souls, each soul related to one or more of the others by love. While he argued against belief in a personal God and denied the absolute (for McTaggart, the community of souls) any single personality (thereby justifying his atheism), McTaggart's philosophy was fundamentally optimistic. McTaggart believed each of the souls (which are identified with human beings) to be immortal and defended the idea of reincarnation. "The Nature of Existence" also seeks to synthesise McTaggart's denial of the existence of time, matter etc. with their apparent existence.

Despite the mystical tone of its conclusions, the philosophical method of "The Nature of Existence" is far from mystical. McTaggart arrived at his conclusions by a careful analysis of the essential requirements of any successful metaphysical system (Volume I) followed by a purported proof that only his system satisfies these requirements (Volume II). The logical rigour of his system is in evidence, for example, in McTaggart's famous attempted proof of the unreality of time.


McTaggart was a friend and teacher of Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore, and, according to Martin Gardner, the three were known as "The Mad Tea-Party of Trinity" (with McTaggart as the Dormouse). Along with Russell and Moore McTaggart was a member of the elite Cambridge Apostles through which he would have a personal influence on an entire generation of writers and politicians (his involvement with the Apostles presumably overlapped with that of, among others, the members of the Bloomsbury group) .

In particular, McTaggart was an early influence on Bertrand Russell. It was through McTaggart that the young Russell was converted to the prevalent Hegelianism of the day, and it was Russell's reaction against this Hegelianism that began the arc of his later work.

McTaggart was the most influential advocate of neo-Hegelian idealism in Cambridge at the time of Russell and Moore's reaction against it, as well as being a teacher and personal acquaintance of both men. With F.H. Bradley of Oxford he was, as the most prominent of the surviving British Idealists, the primary target of the new realists' assault. McTaggart's indirect influence was, therefore, very great. Given that modern analytic philosophy can arguably be traced to the work of Russell and Moore in this period, McTaggart's work retains interest to the historian of analytic philosophy despite being, in a very real sense, the product of an earlier age.

"The Nature of Existence", with Green's "Prolegomena to Ethics" and Bradley's "Appearance and Reality", marks the greatest achievement of British Idealism, and McTaggart was the last major British Idealists of the classic period (for the later development of British Idealism, see T.L.S. Sprigge).


"McTaggart, John McTaggart Ellis (1866–1925)", by C. D. Broad (revised C. A. Creffield) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Further reading

elected Bibliography


*1896, "Studies in Hegelian Dialectic". Cambridge: At the University Press.
*1901, "Studies in Hegelian Cosmology". Cambridge: At the University Press.
*1906, "Some Dogmas of Religion". London : Edward Arnold.
*1910, "Commentary on Hegel's 'Logic"'. Cambridge: At the University Press.
*1921, & 1927, "The Nature of Existence" (Volumes 1 & 2). Cambridge: At the University Press.
*1934, "Philosophical studies", edited with an introduction by S.V. Keeling. London: Arnold.


*1892, "The Changes of Method in Hegel's", "Mind" 1, pp. 56-71 & 188-205.
*1895, "The Necessity of Dogma", "International Journal of Ethics" 5, pp. 147-16.
*1896, "Hegel's Theory of Punishment", "International Journal of Ethics" 6, pp. 479-502.
*1897, "Hegel's Treatment of the Categories of the Subjective Notion", "Mind" 7, pp. 164-181 & 342-358.
*1897, "The Conception of Society as an Organism", "International Journal of Ethics" 7, pp. 414-434.
*1900, "Hegel's Treatment of the Categories of the Idea", "Mind" 9, pp. 145-183.
*1904, "Human Pre-Existence", "International Journal of Ethics", pp. 83-95.
*1902, "Hegel's Treatment of the Categories of Quality", "Mind" 11, pp. 503-526.
*1903, "Some Considerations Relating to Human Immortality", "International Journal of Ethics" 13, pp. 152-171
*1904, "Hegel's Treatment of the Categories of Quality", "Mind" 13, pp. 180-203.
*1908, "The Unreality of Time", "Mind" 17, pp. 457-474.
*1908, "The Individualism of Value", "International Journal of Ethics" 18, pp. 433-445.
*1909, "The Relation of Time and Eternity", "Mind" 18, pp. 343-362.
*1915, "The Meaning of Causality", "Mind" 24, pp. 326-344.
*1923, "Propositions Applicable to Themselves", "Mind" 32, pp. 462-464.

econdary Literature

*"John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart", by G. Lowes Dickinson, with chapters by Basil Williams & S.V. Keeling. Cambridge: At the University Press (1931).
*"Examination of McTaggart's Philosophy", 2 volumes, by C. D. Broad. Cambridge : At the University Press (1933-1938).
*"Truth, love and immortality : an introduction to McTaggart’s philosophy", by P. T. Geach. London: Hutchinson (1979).
*Gerald Rochelle (http://www.practicalphilosophy.org.uk/index), "The Life and Philosophy of J.McT.E. McTaggart 1866-1925" (Lewiston, New York, Edwin Mellen Press, 1991.
*Gerald Rochelle, "Behind Time: The incoherence of time and McTaggart’s atemporal replacement" (Aldershot, Ashgate, 1998.
*Gerald Rochelle, ‘Killing time without injuring eternity — McTaggart’s C series’, "Idealistic Studies", Vol. 28, No. 3, Fall 1998, 159-69.
*"McTaggart, John McTaggart Ellis (1866–1925)", in "Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy", ed. E. Craig (1998)

See also

*The Unreality of Time
*British Idealism

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