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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.

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.

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18 Jul

Philosophical paradigm shift: CS Lewis on the fall of English Hegelianism.

I have learnt in other fields of study how transitory the ‘assured results of modern scholarship’ can be. When I was a boy one would have been laughed at for supposing there had been a real Homer: the disintegrators seemed to have triumphed for ever. But Homer seems to be creeping back. Even the belief of the ancient Greeks that the Mycenaeans were their ancestors and spoke Greek has been surprisingly supported. We may without disgrace believe in a historical Arthur. Everywhere, except in theology, there has been a vigorous growth of scepticism about scepticism itself. We can’t keep ourselves from muttering multa renascentur quae jam cecidere.

Nor can a man of my age ever forget how suddenly and completely the idealist philosophy of his youth fell. McTaggart, Green, Bosanquet, Bradley seemed enthroned for ever; they went down as suddenly as the Bastille. And the interesting thing is that while I lived under that dynasty I felt various difficulties and objections which I never dared to express. They were so frightfully obvious that I felt sure they must be mere misunderstandings: the great men could not have made such very elementary mistakes as those which my objections implied. But very similar objections – though put, not doubt, far more cogently than I could have put them – were among the criticisms which finally prevailed. They would now be the stock answers to English Hegelianism.

C.S. Lewis (1996) The Essential C. S. Lewis NY:Scribner, p. 357. Available online .

C. S. Lewis gives his testimony on the suddenness of English Hegelianism’s decline. He views it as the end of a philosophical approach rather than the eclipse of certain ideas. It was, to use Kuhn’s term, a paradigm shift.

The Latin phrase “Multa renascentur quae jam cecidere, cadentque quae nuc sunt in honore” is from Horace and means “Many words now in disuse will revive, and many now in vogue will be forgotten”1. (It is inscribed on Robert Clayton’s memorial in Celbridge, probably expressing the hope that his ideas would be judged more kindly in the future than by his contemporaries. In other words, for an 18th century paradigm shift.)

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10 May

JD Bernal: politics and science

Eugene Garfield on JD Bernal and Bernal’s book Social Function of Science, which was an inspiration for the field of Scientometrics (the study of “the science of science” as Bernal put it in The Social Function of Science .) From Web of Stories.

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26 Apr

Wittgenstein Uncovered (in Ireland)

On the 129th anniversary of Wittgenstein’s birth, enjoy this programme from the Lyric Feature series (on RTE Lyric FM) originally made in 2002. Exploring Wittgenstein’s thought, it also looks at “Wittgenstein’s pupil” Con Drury, Wittgenstein’s time in Ireland and the reactions of those he encountered. Among those spoken to are the Irish Wittgenstein scholar Cyril Barrett (d. 2004).

More information on the programme is here.

05 Feb

Erwin Schrödinger: What is Life?

A white cat plays with a ball in a box, with a skeleton cat in the same pose diagonally across from it.

If parallel universes exist, there is one in which Eamon de Valera lived out his days as a maths teacher. In that universe, Erwin Schrödinger never came to Dublin, and probably never wrote What is Life?.

Erwin Schrödinger fled Berlin and Nazism in 1933, travelling to Oxford (where he heard he had won the Nobel Prize) and Princeton. The famous Schrödinger’s cat paradox appeared in his essay The present situation in quantum mechanics (1935), based on the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics. A thought experiment where a cat sealed in a box either lived or died depending on whether a quantum event occurred, it seemed to suggest two universes, one with a dead cat and one with a living cat, existed in parallel until an observer saw whether the cat was alive or dead.

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15 Jan

Iris Murdoch on the unity of the virtues

[M]oral advance carries with it intuitions of unity which are increasingly less misleading. Courage, which seemed at first to be something on its own, a sort of specialised daring of spirit, is now seen to be a particular operation of wisdom and love.[…] ​Freedom, we find out, is not an inconsequential chucking of one’s weight about, it is the disciplined overcoming of self. Humility is not a peculiar habit of self-effacement, rather like having an inaudible voice, it is self-less respect for reality and one of the most difficult and central of all virtues.

Iris Murdoch (1970/2013) The Sovereignty of Good, Routledge, p. 93.

29 Dec

The Irish Constitution and the evolution of Human Rights

The statue of Hibernia that stands on the Dublin General Post Office, with an Irish flag in the background

The Irish Constitution is the fundamental law of Ireland (the Republic of Ireland). Approved by a statewide plebiscite held on 1 July 1937, it came into force on 29th December 1937, 80 years ago today.

A constitution absolutely ours

It replaced the 1922 Constitution that established the Free State after the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. The Treaty caused deep division, resulting in the splitting of Sinn Fein into pro-Treaty (Cumann na nGaedheal, later Fine Gael) and anti-Treaty factions and a bloody eleven-month civil war1. The anti-treaty side lost, and abstained from participation in the Dail. In 1926 Sinn Fein split further when Eamon de Valera suggested ending abstention. de Valera’s group formed Fianna Fail, which went on to win the 1932 General Election. From 1933, de Valera started a series of amendments to a constitution that he viewed as “imposed from without” by the British. In 1935 he stated “I hope…that we will be able to bring in a constitution which…will be absolutely ours.”2

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23 Dec

CS Lewis critiquing Christmas

Lucy meets Tumnus: against a snowy landscape, a little girl and a faun carrying parcels stand under a wrought iron streetlight.

“Always winter and never Christmas!” The dismay expressed at that idea in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe does not mean that C.S. Lewis was an uncritical fan of Christmas. In 1957 he wrote “What Christmas means to me”, critiquing the idea of Christmas1

Lewis outlines the three meanings of Christmas: as a religious festival (“important and obligatory for Christians…of no interest to anyone else”), a popular holiday (“an occasion
for merry-making and hospitality…I much approve of merry-making”) and a commercial racket. This third is what Lewis objects to.

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16 Nov

The Mindful Asking of Essential Questions

The charge of lack of progress can also be equivocal. If philosophy is the mindful asking of essential questions, perhaps there are never ready-made answers that can be encapsulated in univocal categories, hence packaged and transmitted through time, like mail handled through the post. […] No genuine philosopher can accept answers ready-made from others: this is simply the nature of the philosophical enterprise as a metaxological dialogue. This may seem to confirm the prejudice that philosophy is just sophisticated, not to say sophistical garrulousness. The deeper meaning is that each age and every individual must struggle, in the overdetermined ambiguity of the middle, to renew for itself a mindfulness of the essential questions. Nothing, not even scientific method, can stand proxy for this struggle.

William Desmond (1990) Philosophy and Its Others, Albany NY: State University of New York Press, pp. 31-2.
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