Wednesday, February 23, 2005

On the Ground with G. E. Moore

‘On the ground’ is getting a bit too much use for my taste. What the hell does it mean? "Coming up, a live report from Geraldo Rivera, on the ground in Fallujah." Where else would he be if not on the ground? Hovering in mid-air? Burrowing underground? Why not just say that he is in Fallujah? Or does it mean that he is literally on the ground?

Of course, very few civilized mortals spend any appreciable time literally on the ground, i.e., in direct contact with the surface of the earth. I don’t reckon that Geraldo, tough guy that he is, has ever walked barefoot over the Iraqi sand. I am now sitting with my pants and underpants on in a chair which rests on a rug and a pad beneath which is a concrete slab. Thus my gluteal contact with the earth is subject to a six-fold mediation. And when I go backpacking and sleep in the wild, my contact with the ground is subject to a similar manifold mediation: clothes, sleeping bag, self-inflating ThermaRest mattress, tent floor, groundcloth. And yet that could be called sleeping on the ground as opposed to sleeping in a warm bed.

Thoughts such as these may have been at the back of G. E. Moore’s mind when he penned a passage in "A Defence of Common Sense" (1925) that some have found puzzling. Speaking of his body, he writes,

Ever since it was born, it has either been in contact with or not far from the surface of the earth . . .

What did Moore have in mind with "not far from the surface of the earth"? Did he do much jumping? Go up in planes or balloons? Or was he thinking that while sitting in his study, he was not in contact with the surface of the earth but also not far from it either?