John Wisdom Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

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...

(The entire section is 2482 words.)