web analytics
30 Jan

Words of Wisdom: the life and work of J. O. Wisdom


OTHERWISE, adj. Knowing the difference between two philosophers with identical interests and the same name, hence otherwisdom, n.

(Indy obit J. O. WISDOM: ‘To the confusion of some he shared both interests and apposite surname

with cousin Cambridge prof J. A. T. D. Wisdom’)

David Papineau, Twitter.

It can be difficult to distinguish Wisdom. John Oulton Wisdom who was born in Dublin on the 29 December 1908 is often confused with his cousin, also John Wisdom (Arthur John Terence Dibben Wisdom), also a philosopher and who also brought together psychoanalysis and philosophy.

J.O.Wisdom was educated in Earlfort House School and at Trinity College Dublin<(1) Thomas Duddy (2004) “Wisdom, J. O.” in Thomas Duddy (ed) Dictionary of Irish Philosophers,  Thoemmes, pp. 375-377.> While he was a excellent student, eventually receiving a doctoral degree for a thesis on Hegel, he was rather better known as a golfer, appearing in the Irish Times sports pages many times. He continued to play university golf when he continued his studies in Cambridge (where he was exposed to the teaching of GE Moore and Wittgenstein). When Isaiah Berlin was asked to read over an early version of Wisdom’s The Metamorphosis of Philosophy, he remarked that the book (though not strikingly original) was “a magnificent achievement for one whose previous reputation was made as a Golf-blue” <(2) Isaiah Berlin (2004) Isaiah Berlin: Letters, 1928-1946, Volume 1 Cambridge University Press, p. 649. The Editors (1993a) ” JOHN OULTON WISDOM In Memoriam” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Vol. 23 No. 3, pp 279-280. Quote on p. 280. >

The Metamorphosis shows the influence of G. E. Moore. As well as acknowledging Moore in the preface to the work, Wisdom also thanked Ernest Jones, the President of the International Psycho-Analytical Association for the insight that unconscious mental activity was of key importance. These two forms of analysis both played their parts in his later career. “[T]he originality of his own thought consists in his attempt to provide a constructive psychoanalytical response to the central claims of…logical positivism”<(3) Duddy (2004), p. 375.>

For example, logical positivism claims all statements or theories that cannot be verified by experience are meaningless, for example metaphysical claims about realities beyond the reach of experience. Yet, Wisdom notes, people are capable of discussing such matters intelligibly, which is strange if the claims are meaningless. Such speculative philosophy, Wisdom argues, arises out of deep emotional needs not always apparent at the level of conscious thought, just as myth, art, literature and dreams do. Just as dreams are nonsense from a rational point of view, but to a psychoanalyst are meaningful as expressions of unconscious impulses or conflicts. From this comes the idea that “the history of philosophy consists of important biographies”<(4) J. O. Wisdom (1947) The Metamorphosis of Philosophy,
Cairo:Al-Maaref Press, p. 166>. Speculative philosophy is about its authors: satisfaction from reading philosophy comes from attunement with the philosopher’s frame of mind <(5) Duddy (2004), p. 375-6.> .

Wisdom’s first teaching post was in Cairo (1943-47) where The Metamorphosis of Philosophy was published. In 1948 he became a lecturer at the London School of Economics while Karl Popper was on the staff. In this time period he focused on philosophy of science. He had already written in this area: not only can Metamorphosis be seen primarily as a criticism of logical positivism, but he had written three papers on Berkeley’s criticism of Newton and of Newtons calculus, published in Hermathena in 1939, 1941 and 1941<(6) The Editors (1993b) “Publications by John Oulton Wisdom” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Vol. 23 No. 3, pp. 287-297.> . In a tribute after Wisdom’s death, Joseph Agassi wrote:

he presented Berkeley as the leading critic of the calculus whose criticism was a major factor in the evolution of mathematics, although the literature on the history of mathematics was most unfair to Berkeley because he was deemed a hostile critic. Current views on Berkeley have been unrecognizably transformed as a result of Wisdom’s work

John Agassi (1993) ” JOHN OULTON WISDOM In Memoriam Tributes I.” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Vol. 23 No. 3, pp 280-281. Quote on p. 281.

Agassi also praises Wisdom’s Foundations of Inference in Natural Science, the first full length exposition of Popper’s views on falsification and, according Agassi, the best introduction until Popper’s own Logic of Scientific Discovery.<(7) Agassi (1993), p. 281.> (See quote from the book here).

Wisdom’s next full-length work returned both to Berkeley and the application of psycho-analysis to the realm of ideas. The Unconscious Origins of Berkeley’s Philosophy (1953). Wisdom suggested that the origins of Berkeley’s philosophy lay in hypochondria, expressed most clearly in his fascination with tar-water, which Berkeley regarded as a purifying agent. According to Wisdom, Berkeley’s essay on tar-water, Siris, reveals Berkeley had a sense of being physically contaminated, requiring internal purification. This physical contamination had, said Wisdom, an analogy to matter. In the religious sphere, the idea of matter undermined religious belief (an opinion Berkeley clearly expressed), acting therefore as a kind of spiritual, intellectual and cultural contaminant. Berkeley’s anti-materialist philosophy, therefore, was the metaphysical equivalent of tar-water, purging matter and its associated harms.<(8) Duddy (2004), p. 376>.

However the obvious question is, so what? Even if Wisdom is accurate about the origins of Berkeley’s thought, we cannot rationally dismiss or accept them on that basis (the genetic fallacy). They stand or fall based on their consistency and accuracy. Wisdom’s later book, Philosophy and Its Place in our Culture (1975), acknowledged this criticism, but argued that too much concern about the genetic fallacy can hamper our investigation into philosophical theories. Using psycho-analysis is not concerned with assessing falsehood or truth but with deepening understanding of a particular philosopher and hence her theories<(9) Thomas Duddy (2002) A History of Irish Thought, Routledge, p. 304.>.

In the intervening twenty-three years, Wisdom had left the LSE, working in several universities in the United States before settling at York University, Toronto, Canada from 1969 to his retirement in 1979. In that time Wisdom had less respect for logical analysis than he had in his younger days.
Philosophy and Its Place in our Culture focuses on the way philosophy contributes to the dominant worldview (Weltanschauung) which regulates how people live their lives. Philosophy (including personal philosophies) and world-views interact, and both are affected by the environment in which they exist. Wisdom posits that the diversity of philosophical systems and methods merely reflects the modern Weltanschauung (in which uncertainty and diversity are central) <(10) Duddy (2004), pp. 376-7.>

After his retirement, Wisdom retired to Castlebridge, Wexford, the home of his family. When he met Karl Popper in the 1980s, the philosopher did not recognise his former colleague:

When [Popper] was in his late eighties someone who had become a colleague in 1948 and whose appearance had changed considerably since, said to him, “I’m John Wisdom”; “No you’re not,” came the reply!

“Karl Raimund Popper” Proceedings of the British Academy, 96, pp. 645-684 (online). Quote on p. 682.

Wisdom’s old age seems to have been tinged with mischief rather than over-confidence: he wrote a letter to the Irish Times in 1980 asking (against the certainties of the time) if anyone really wanted unification of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. He died in Castlebridge on 30th January, 1993.

Further Reading

  • I. C. Jarvie (1993) “Obituary: J. O. Wisdom” in The Independent [4 March 1993] (online).
  • Thomas Duddy (2004) “Wisdom, J. O. (1908-93)” in Thomas Duddy (ed) Dictionary of Irish Philosophers, Thoemes, pp. 375-377.
  • Thomas Duddy (2002) A History of Irish Thought, London:Routledge, pp. 301-5.
  • J. O. Wisdom (1946) Causation and the Foundations of Science (Paris, 1946).
  • J. O. Wisdom (1947) The Metamorphosis of Philosophy (Cairo, 1947).
  • J. O. Wisdom (1952) Foundations of Inference in Natural Science (1952).
  • J. O. Wisdom (1953) The Unconscious Origin of Berkeley’s Philosophy.
  • J. O. Wisdom (1975) Philosophy and its Place in our Culture (1975).
  • J. O. Wisdom (1987) Philosophy of the Social Sciences (Aldershot, 1987)
  • J. O. Wisdom (1992) Freud, Women, and Society (New Brunswick, 1992).

Featured Image: “This is Wiseman’s book, entitled Words Of Wisdom”, WisdomMedia/Wikimedia,
CC BY-SA 3.0.

12 Jan

Edmund Burke and the Fight against Injustice

Lecture given as part of the course “Ireland in Rebellion: 1782-1916” delivered by Prof. Patrick Geoghegan, Department of History, Trinity College Dublin. (11 mins)
29 Dec

Dissolving Philosophy


It is a curious but indisputable fact that every philosophical baby born alive is either a little positivist or a little Hegelian. […]

Professor J. O. Wisdom of York University, Toronto, once observed that he knew people who thought there was no philosophy after Hegel, and others who thought there was none before Wittgenstein, and that he was prepared to contemplate the possibility that both were right.


Ernest Gellner (1987) “Positivism against Hegelianism” in Relativism and the Social Sciences,  Cambridge University Press. Quote on p. 4.

Wisdom was qualified to comment, as someone who studied both, even if his conclusion is cursing both houses! Wisdom was born 110 years ago, on this day.

13 Dec

Cooke against the radicals

Statue of Henry Cooke against bare tree branches

The statue of Henry Cooke (who died on 13th December 1868) stands in Belfast with its back to the “Inst”, the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. Its pose can be seen as a symbol of his determined conflict with the liberal (and, he feared, religiously unorthodox) school [1]. 

A non-denominational establishment founded in 1810 by William Drennan, the Belfast Academical Institution served as both a school and a university. Cooke alleged it was a “seminary of Arianism”, due to the presence of prominent anti-Trinitarians and Unitarians such as William Bruce Jr (chair of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, nephew of William Bruce the printer) and Henry Montgomery (chair of English) [2]

Read More
24 Nov

Science must take her path & Theology hers: Mary Boole’s questions to Darwin

Do you consider the holding of your Theory of Natural Selection, in its fullest & most unreserved sense, to be inconsistent,—I do not say with any particular scheme of Theological doctrine,—but with the following belief, viz:

That knowledge is given to man by the direct Inspiration of the Spirit of God.

That God is a personal and Infinitely good Being.

That the effect of the action of the Spirit of God on the brain of man is especially a moral effect.

And that each individual man has, within certain limits, a power of choice as to how far he will yield to his hereditary animal impulses, and how far he will rather follow the guidance of the Spirit Who is educating him into a power of resisting those impulses in obedience to moral motives.

The reason why I ask you is this. My own impression has always been,—not only that your theory was quite compatible with the faith to which I have just tried to give expression,—but that your books afforded me a clue which would guide me in applying that faith to the solution of certain complicated psychological problems which it was of practical importance to me, as a mother, to solve. I felt that you had supplied one of the missing links,—not to say the missing link,—between the facts of Science & the promises of religion. Every year’s experience tends to deepen in me that impression.

But I have lately read remarks, on the probable bearing of your theory on religious & moral questions, which have perplexed & pained me sorely. I know that the persons who make such remarks must be cleverer & wiser than myself. I cannot feel sure that they are mistaken unless you will tell me so. And I think,—I cannot know for certain, but I think,—that, if I were an author, I would rather that the humblest student of my works should apply to me directly in a difficulty than that she should puzzle too long over adverse & probably mistaken or thoughtless criticisms.

At the same time I feel that you have a perfect right to refuse to answer such questions as I have asked you. Science must take her path & Theology hers, and they will meet when & where & how God pleases, & you are in no sense responsible for it, if the meeting-point should be still very far off.

Letter from Mary Everest Boole, dated 13th December 1886, addressed to Charles Darwin (online at The Darwin Project).
Continue reading

15 Nov

World Philosophy Day: Francis Hutcheson, Iris Murdoch and the Good Place

Welcome! Everything is fine.

In his post on Virtual Philosopher for World Philosophy Day, Nigel Warburton says, “We are living in a Golden Age for public philosophy, philosophy presented to a general audience rather than a specialised academic one”1. The post includes numerous examples, but omits one which arguably demonstrates this most clearly: the first mainstream television series in which philosophy is front and centre, The Good Place.

The focus of The Good Place is ethics. It is a show where not just the ideas, but the physical books from courses in ethics make an appearance. One of the main characters is even a moral philosopher. Naturally, Consequentialism, Deontology and Virtue Ethics make an appearance, but I’m going to look at one ethical philosophy that does not feature: that of Francis Hutcheson.

Read More

01 Nov

Rage and frenzy will pull down more in half an hour than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in a hundred years.

It is this inability to wrestle with difficulty which has obliged the arbitrary Assembly of France to commence their schemes of reform with abolition and total destruction. But is it in destroying and pulling down that skill is displayed? Your mob can do this as well at least as your assemblies. The shallowest understanding, the rudest hand, is more than equal to that task. Rage and frenzy will pull down more in half an hour than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in a hundred years. The errors and defects of old establishments are visible and palpable. It calls for little ability to point them out; and where absolute power is given, it requires but a word wholly to abolish the vice and the establishment together.

Edmund Burke (1790/2014) Reflections on the Revolution in France, University of Adelaide (online). Emphasis added.

The Reflections were published on this day in 1790.

24 Aug

Travels to the East

Two monks and a guide (Odoric of Pordenone and James of Ireland) encounter a group of naked cannibals outside city walls.

Odoric of Pordenone and James of Ireland in Sumatra.
gallica.bnf.fr / BnF Français 2810, f.104r, 15thC

Ireland is famous, of course, for the peregrinato who left Ireland for the continent in the Early Middle Ages and their scholarly successors. Some, however, went further afield. When the Franciscan missionary Odoric of Pordenone was to Asia (c. 1316–18), he was accompanied by James of Ireland for at least part of this journey. On Odoric’s return to Italy he dictated an account of the things he had seen, dying a few months later (January 14, 1331) on his way to papal court at Avignon1 On the 5th April after Odric’s death, a gift of two marks was given to James by the city of Udine, described by the public books of “companion of the blessed Brother Odoric, loved of God and Ordoric”2.

Odoric’s account was popular in the later Middle Ages, and Odoric was lauded by later writers, including Luke Wadding.

08 Aug

Francis Hutcheson on Empire

Alongside the mercantilist and metrocentic strain in civil philosophy in the 1730s, there was also an anti-imperial and philocolonial strand. This was represented most notably by the Hiberno-Scot Francis Hutcheson’s A System of Moral Philosophy, which he composed between 1734 and 1737, in the period before the anti-Spanish agitations but in the aftermath of the Excise Crisis and the darkest days of Walpole’s premiership. Hutcheson questioned the very foundations in rights of dominium upon which the British Empire rested, and argued that ‘[n]o person or society…can by mere occupation acquire such a right in a vast tract of land quite beyond their power to cultivate’. This denial of the juridical basis on which the British Empire in America was claimed was in its own way as Lockean as that of the author of the Essay on Civil Government, but took seriously Locke’s sufficiency condition for legitimate possession. Hutcheson went even further, and proposed colonial independence should the mother-country impose ‘severe and absolute’ power over its provinces. ‘The insisting on old claims and tacit conventions’, he concluded, ‘to extend civil power over distant nations, and form grand unwieldy empires, without regard to the obvious maxims of humanity, has been one great source of human misery’.

David Armitage (2000) The Ideological Origins of the British Empire, Cambridge University Press, p. 188.

Continue reading

06 Aug

The most famous thing O’Connell said…and Wellington didn’t

Daniel O'Connell and the Duke of Wellington, both dressed as Irish chieftains, argue about Repeal.

Daniel O’Connell had a gift with words. Many of his aphorisms have been passed down to us: “The altar of liberty totters when it is cemented only with blood”1 or “Gentlemen, you may soon have the alternative to live as slaves or die as free men”2  But surely his best known aphorism is this (and its many variants): “being born in a stable does not make a man a horse”.

Wait! Isn’t that a quote from Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington? It’s commonly thought to be so, but when it appears in recent biographies it is often with a caveat. For example, though Gregor Dallas simply reports the remark (as an example of Wellington rejecting his homeland)3, Gordon Corrigan calls the remark “apocryphal” 4 and Richard Holmes qualifies his account of how “he was to deny his Irishness” with a cautious “(so it was said)”5 Why the caution?
Read More