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 Dublin1 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

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

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. Speculative philosophy is about its authors: satisfaction from reading philosophy comes from attunement with the philosopher’s frame of mind 5.

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 19416. In a tribute after Wisdom’s death, Joseph Agassi wrote7:

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

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.8 (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.9.

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 theories10

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) 11

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 colleague12:

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!

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).
A book standing on grass, its ornate leather binding facing the viewer, bearing the title "Words of Wisdom"

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


  1. Thomas Duddy (2004) “Wisdom, J. O.” in Thomas Duddy (ed) Dictionary of Irish Philosophers,  Thoemmes, pp. 375-377.
  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.
  3. Duddy (2004), p. 375.
  4. J. O. Wisdom (1947) The Metamorphosis of Philosophy,
    Cairo:Al-Maaref Press, p. 166
  5. Duddy (2004), p. 375-6.
  6. The Editors (1993b) “Publications by John Oulton Wisdom” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Vol. 23 No. 3, pp. 287-297.
  7. 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.
  8. Agassi (1993), p. 281.
  9. Duddy (2004), p. 376.
  10. Thomas Duddy (2002) A History of Irish Thought, Routledge, p. 304.
  11. Duddy (2004), pp. 376-7.
  12. “Karl Raimund Popper” Proceedings of the British Academy, 96, pp. 645-684 (online). Quote on p. 682.
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