Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Wittgenstein, Moorean Absurdity and its Disappearance from Speech


G. E. Moore famously observed that to say, “ I went to the pictures last Tuesday but I don’t believe that I did” would be “absurd”. Why should it be absurd of me to say something about myself that might be true of me? Moore suggested an answer to this, but as I will show, one that fails. Wittgenstein was greatly impressed by Moore’s discovery of a class of absurd but possibly true assertions because he saw that it illuminates “the logic of assertion”. Wittgenstein suggests a promising relation of assertion to belief in terms of the idea that one “expresses belief” that is consistent with the spirit of Moore’s failed attempt to explain the absurdity. Wittgenstein also observes that “under unusual circumstances”, the sentence, “It’s raining but I don’t believe it” could be given “a clear sense”. Why does the absurdity disappear from speech in such cases? Wittgenstein further suggests that analogous absurdity may be found in terms of desire, rather than belief. In what follows I develop an account of Moorean absurdity that, with the exception of Wittgenstein’s last suggestion, is broadly consistent with both Moore’s approach and Wittgenstein’s.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. J. Adler (1999) ArticleTitle‘The Ethics of Belief: Off the Wrong Track’ Midwest Studies in Philosophy 23 267–285 Occurrence Handle10.1111/1475-4975.00014

  2. T. Baldwin (1990) G. E. Moore Routledge London and New York

  3. T. Baldwin (1993) G. E. Moore: Selected Writings Routledge London

  4. M. Crimmins (1992) ArticleTitle‘I Falsely Believe that p’ Analysis 52 191

  5. C. Almeida ParticleDe (2001) ArticleTitle‘What Moore’s Paradox is About’ Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 62 33–58

  6. Green M. (forthcoming) Self-Expression, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

  7. A Hájek D. Stoljar (2001) ArticleTitle‘Crimmins, Gonzales, and Moore’ Analysis 61 208–213

  8. J. Heal (1977) ArticleTitle‘Insincerity and Commands’ Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 77 183–202

  9. J. Heal (1994) ArticleTitle‘Moore’s Paradox: A Wittgensteinian Approach’ Mind 103 5–24

  10. N. Malcolm (1984) Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir Oxford University Press Oxford

  11. G.E. Moore (1912) Ethics Holt London

  12. G.E. Moore (1942) ‘A Reply to My Critics’ P. Schlipp (Eds) The Philosophy of G. E. Moore Tudor Evanston 535–677

  13. G.E. Moore (1944) ‘Russell’s Theory of Descriptions’ P. Schlipp (Eds) The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell. Tudor Evanston 175–225

  14. D. Rosenthal (1995) ArticleTitle‘Self-knowledge and Moore’s Paradox’ Philosophical Studies 77 196–209 Occurrence Handle10.1007/BF00989569

  15. D. Rosenthal (2002) ArticleTitle‘Moore’s Paradox and Crimmins’ Case’ Analysis 62 167–171 Occurrence Handle10.1111/1467-8284.00351

  16. J. Searle (1983) Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind Cambridge University Press Cambridge

  17. S. Shoemaker (1995) ArticleTitle‘Moore’s Paradox and Self-Knowledge’ Philosophical Studies 77 211–228 Occurrence Handle10.1007/BF00989570

  18. R. Sorensen (1988) Blindspots Clarendon Press Oxford

  19. R. Stalnaker (1975) ArticleTitle‘Indicative Conditionals’ Philosophia 75 269–286

  20. R. Stalnaker (1984) Inquiry MIT Press Cambridge

  21. J.N. Williams (1979) ArticleTitle‘Moore’s Paradox- One or Two?’ Analysis 39 141–142

  22. J.N. Williams (1996) ArticleTitle‘Moorean Absurdities and the Nature of Assertion’ Australasian Journal of Philosophy 74 135–149 Occurrence Handle10.1080/00048409612347111

  23. J.N. Williams (1998) ArticleTitle‘Wittgensteinian Accounts of Moorean Absurdity’ Philosophical Studies 92 283–306 Occurrence Handle10.1023/A:1004260008644

  24. T. Williamson (1996) ArticleTitle‘Knowing and Asserting’ Philosophical Review 105 489–523

  25. L. Wittgenstein (1953) Philosophical Investigations Blackwell Oxford

  26. Wittgenstein L. (1974) Letters to Russell, Keynes and Moore. In: von Wright G.H. (ed). Blackwell, Oxford.

  27. Wittgenstein L. (1980a) Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology Volume 1, G. Anscombe and G. von Wright (eds.), University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

  28. Wittgenstein L. 1980b, Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology Volume 2, G.H. von Wright and H. Hyman (eds.), University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

  29. E. Wolgast (1977) Paradoxes of Knowledge Cornell University Press Ithaca

Download references

Author information

Correspondence to John N. Williams.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Williams, J.N. Wittgenstein, Moorean Absurdity and its Disappearance from Speech. Synthese 149, 225–254 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-004-6252-0

Download citation


  • Clear Sense
  • Failed Attempt
  • Unusual Circumstance
  • True Assertion
  • Promising Relation