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Article abstract: Wisdom was a British analytic philosopher associated with Ludwig Wittgenstein. His writings, in vivid conversational style, deal especially with the nature of philosophy and with the philosophy of mind.

Early Life

Arthur John Terence Dibben Wisdom attended private schools in England and then entered Cambridge University, where he studied moral science, as philosophy was called there. G. E. Moore and Charlie Dunbar Broad were the two professors of philosophy at Cambridge then; Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell, though no longer there, were influential through their writings. After earning his bachelor’s degree in 1924, Wisdom did nonacademic work and then became lecturer at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. To this period belong his early books Interpretation and Analysis in Relation to Bentham’s Theory of Definition, Problems of Mind and Matter, and Logical Constructions (which first appeared in a journal before its publication in 1969 in book form). These writings show the influence of Moore and Russell; Wisdom agrees with them that logical analysis is the proper method in philosophy but tries to go beyond them in discussing what sort of translation from one form of words to another can express a logical analysis, and how such analyses can be illuminating.

Life’s Work

In 1934, Wisdom returned to Cambridge as lecturer in philosophy. He took an M.A. from the university and became a fellow of Trinity College. Wittgenstein had returned to Cambridge in 1929, and Wisdom attended his classes and fell in with the new form of philosophical thinking Wittgenstein was developing. Outsiders heard rumors about Wittgenstein’s revolutionary new ideas, but he published nothing in this period. Wisdom did publish, and consequently Wisdom’s writings came to be a main source through which the wider world could gain glimpses of Wittgenstein’s later thought. The journal articles that Wisdom wrote from the mid-1930’s through the 1940’s are collected in his books Other Minds and Philosophy and Psycho-Analysis, the most widely read of his works.

Wisdom was appointed professor at Cambridge early in the 1950’s and continued teaching there until his retirement late in the 1960’s. His book Paradox and Discovery contains articles written during the 1950’s and 1960’s. After retiring from Cambridge, he went to the United States and taught for several more years, mostly at the University of Oregon. He subsequently returned to live in Cambridge.

Wisdom was tall and genial, had a brilliant smile, and loved a good time. He had a passion for riding, and for a time he maintained a horse of his own. His wife, Pamela Strang, was a painter. His teaching was untraditional in style and content. He rarely spent time expounding any philosophical text. Generally, his classes consisted of spontaneous thinking efforts in which teacher and students joined in dialogue. His way of teaching is reflected in his mature writing style, which is informal and resembles dialogue.

Readers accustomed to didactic exposition sometimes become impatient with this style. They ask why Wisdom does not flatly state his own position instead of wasting time expressing conflicting viewpoints. The answer is that for Wisdom, as for Wittgenstein, philosophy is not a body of doctrine that can be flatly stated. For them, philosophy has to do with perplexities into which people fall through misunderstanding how their language works. Wittgenstein compared the person caught in philosophical perplexity to a fly in a flytrap: The victim, having the fixed idea that the way out must lie in a certain direction, struggles fruitlessly and with increasing desperation, despite the fact that in another direction the way has lain open all the time. If the victim can be brought to a new understanding of the structure of the situation, the trouble will disappear. With philosophical perplexities, though, merely telling the victim where the way out lies does little good, because the victim will not assimilate this news. A conceptual readjustment is needed that can be brought about only gradually and with difficulty, as a new perspective is built up to replace the fixed idea that generated the trouble.

Wisdom gave much of his attention to two philosophical perplexities, both of which had been of concern to Wittgenstein as well. These two issues are the nature of philosophy (where the paradox is that it looks as though philosophy is not a branch of knowledge, so how can it be of any value?) and the meaning of statements about mental phenomena (where the paradox is that it looks as though a person cannot really tell whether others are conscious, because all a person has to go on is others’ bodily behavior).

In his striking paper ”Philosophical Perplexity” (1936), Wisdom considers whether philosophical statements (for example, “One can’t know what is in the mind of another”) have meaning merely as expressions of verbal conventions, as the logical positivists were maintaining. Wisdom speaks both in favor of and in opposition to this purely verbal interpretation. This appears strange: Must not there be a definite answer one way or the other? Wisdom does not think so. He insists that whatever one says about such a matter may be misleading. If one says that philosophical statements are purely verbal, the comparison is to paradigm examples of verbal statements that they only partly resemble; if one says that they are not verbal, they are contrasted with these examples, from which they only partly differ.

Wisdom urges that each thing a person says gets its point from the range of comparisons and contrasts that it proposes, and that any proposed comparison or contrast has the potential to mislead, because any two cases always are both different and similar. This does not mean that nothing useful can be said, but to speak illuminatingly, one must take care to bring out what is good about the better parallels and what is misleading about the poorer parallels. One can best advance by employing a rich variety of comparisons and contrasts, so that one gradually comes to see the type of case in question in its manifold relations of similarity and difference to many other kinds of cases.

Although Wisdom’s writings strongly show the influence of Wittgenstein, Wisdom departed in one important way from Wittgenstein’s view of philosophy. Wittgenstein made it appear as though philosophical perplexities are generated only through bad thinking by philosophers, and that the proper task of good philosophy is to dissolve those misunderstandings, after which there will be no further need for philosophy. Wisdom dissented, holding that philosophical paradoxes arise out of everyday thinking as well. He also held that they can have the power to illuminate, as well as to confuse, so they are to be welcomed, not simply eliminated. By first appreciating the force of a philosophical paradox and then by learning how to resolve it, one can gain a surer command of the conceptual terrain.

Wittgenstein was accustomed to having disciples who embraced his teachings unquestioningly, so he can hardly have been pleased at Wisdom’s dissent. Wittgenstein seems to have been even more displeased later, when Wisdom, in his 1946 paper “Philosophy and Psycho-Analysis” (which became part of a book by the same title in 1953), compared the process of resolving philosophical perplexities to the process of Freudian psychoanalysis; in both, Wisdom says, insight is gained through reflecting on a range of phenomena so as to see new patterns in them. Wittgenstein probably regarded this comparison as belittling his work, though Wisdom had not intended it that way.

Wisdom’s views about the philosophy of mind are more in line with Wittgenstein’s. He, like Wittgenstein, tried to bring out how unsatisfactory is the idea of the soul as a little person within, watching an inner screen, as it were, on which are projected images that the person describes to himself or herself in a private language, while trying to infer from them conclusions about what exists in an outer world. This picture encourages absolute skepticism about one’s ability to know the mind of another, and it fails to recognize that language must be in principle public, with public criteria for the correct application of its terms.

This may seem to point toward a behavioristic view according to which speaking of what is going on in the mind of another is just a shorthand way of speaking about that person’s bodily behavior. Thus, “He’s angry” would simply mean “He’s flushed, shouting loudly, waving his fists, and that sort of thing.” Wisdom rejected behaviorism of that sort, however, because it glosses over the crucial point that the chief way of settling whether a person is angry is by asking that person.

Wisdom held that an asymmetry between first-person and third-person mental ascriptions is built into language. This asymmetry is difficult to describe and is the main source of philosophical perplexity about the mental. The first-person locution “I’m angry,” when uttered sincerely by someone who understands the language, carries a special weight toward settling whether that person is angry. It can outweigh extensive observations made by others of the person’s bodily behavior. This does not have to mean that the subject inspects the private, inner contents of his or her mind to detect whether anger is present; rather, the person has been trained to use language, and under the rules of language his or her own word carries special weight because it is the word of a competent language user (of course, anyone who speaks could be lying, but that does not affect the point here). Through such an argument, Wisdom tried to avoid both the unduly mentalistic picture and the crudely behavioristic account of the meaning of statements about the mental.

In his widely read article “Gods” (published in Philosophy and Psycho-Analysis), Wisdom turns to the philosophy of religion. He does not take a stand in favor of religion; his aim is the modest one of refuting the criticism that religious statements are meaningless because observations cannot verify or falsify them. Wisdom notices that in earlier times religious statements sometimes were understood as implying specific observational predictions, and so were empirically testable. Wisdom grants, however, that most modern persons do not understand religious statements in this way. Thus, nowadays, when the prayers of religious believers are not answered, they do not regard this apparent lack of a literal answer as disconfirming their belief. Does this show that their religious statements have no factual meaning?

Wisdom urges that even after the stage in an inquiry is reached at which one no longer needs to collect further observational data, a question of fact can still remain unsettled. For example, two visitors may encounter a garden; they see no gardener but disagree about whether the garden is tended. One sees a pattern of disorder and judges that there is no gardener; the other sees suggestions of order and care and judges that there is a gardener, perhaps an invisible one. Their disagreement may reach a point where further collection of observations does not help, yet the disagreement continues. Wisdom says it can still be a disagreement about a matter of fact, because they may be disagreeing about what pattern is there in the phenomena: Is it a pattern of orderly care or not? This need not be merely a question about how they feel; it can be a question to be answered by thoughtful reflection on what is there, and one contender may be able to show the other something about the pattern that the latter had not previously seen.

Wisdom concludes that religious disagreements can be like this. They can be factual disagreements, even though they do not call for the collection of further observational data, and there can be reasonable discussion back and forth between the parties, as each undertakes to show the other patterns that the other had overlooked. There can be a fact of the matter in such a case. Thus, the logical positivists, who dismissed religious statements as meaningless, were proceeding too hastily.


Wisdom originally came to prominence as a presenter of Wittgensteinian ideas to the public, and he did this in a vivid manner. Later, he was eclipsed in this role, as Wittgenstein began to speak for himself through the posthumous publication of large quantities of his own writings.

Wisdom should not, however, be regarded merely as a disciple of Wittgenstein, for he was an independent and creative thinker on his own. The enduring interest of his writings comes from their lively charm, their genial tolerance for conflicting viewpoints, and, above all, the insights they offer into central philosophical issues of enduring concern.

Additional Reading

Bamborough, Renford, ed. Wisdom: Twelve Essays. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1974. Contains twelve appreciative essays about Wisdom’s philosophy by his friends and former students, along with a bibliography of Wisdom’s writings. The essays by D.A.T. Gasking, Judith Thomson, and Keith Gunderson are especially helpful.

Broad, C. D. “The Local Historical Background of Contemporary Cambridge Philosophy.” In British Philosophy in the Midcentury, edited by C. A. Mace. London: Allen and Unwin, 1957. This article contains Broad’s reminiscences about the philosophical scene at Cambridge over much of the time when Wisdom was there. Broad makes scant mention of Wisdom, probably because they had little in common philosophically.

Gasking, D. A. T. “The Philosophy of John Wisdom, I and II.” Australasian Journal of Philosophy (1954). A sympathetic account of Wisdom’s way of doing philosophy.

Hacker, P. M. S. Wittgenstein’s Place in Twentieth-Century Analytic Philosophy. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1996. A careful and readable account of Wittgenstein’s philosophy during his earlier and later periods. The book does not directly speak of Wisdom but sheds light indirectly on him.

Passmore, John. A Hundred Years of Philosophy. London: Gerald Duckworth, 1957. A broad survey of philosophy in the English-speaking world from the middle of the nineteenth to the middle of the twentieth century. See pages 367-368 and 434-438 for mention of Wisdom and his role in philosophical developments.

Urmson, J. O. Philosophical Analysis. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1956. A short and incisive critical account of leading movements in analytic philosophy. Pages 76-85 and 169-182 pertain to Wisdom’s earlier and later periods of work. Urmson recognizes Wisdom as an independent thinker and not merely an expositor of Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. The Blue and Brown Books. New York: Harper and Row, 1958. This volume is based on notes taken by students who attended Wittgenstein’s lectures during the 1930’s. The material was circulated privately in typescript for many years and was published only after Wittgenstein’s death. It provides a view of what may have been the content of the lectures by Wittgenstein that Wisdom attended.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. New York: Macmillan, 1953. Published soon after Wittgenstein’s death, this is the most polished and impressive of his writings. It contains the authoritative formulation of his later views concerning the philosophy of mind and the nature of philosophy, matters that were of central concern to Wisdom.