The title of this book is somewhat misleading: Only two of the fifteen essays are concerned with psychoanalysis. Rather, Wisdom shows that there are certain similarities between the approach of the metaphysician and the approach of the psychoanalyst; he also shows that there are similarities between the approach of the metaphysician and that of the lawyer, or the mathematician, the logician, the scientist, the art critic, or even the novelist. Wisdom’s design, therefore, is really to clarify the term “metaphysics.” He suggests in one place that his task is one of “meta-metaphysics,” that is, one of determining the status of metaphysical problems and metaphysical judgments. The essays are united in their common concern with this problem. They extend in time of publication from 1932 to 1953 and are arranged, roughly, in chronological order. Several are critical book reviews. Only one, the last, appears in print for the first time.
The Penumbral and Nonpenumbral
The question of whether the penumbral can be reduced to the nonpenumbral has divided philosophers into two schools. On one hand are the naturalists, empiricists, and positivists. They accept the Verification Principle. On the other hand are the realists and the transcendentalists, who accept the Idiosyncrasy Platitude. The former maintain such statements as “A cherry is nothing but sensations and possibilities of more,” “A mind is nothing but a pattern of behavior,” and “There are no such things as numbers, only numerals.” The latter argue that every statement has its own sort of meaning, and “everything is what it is and not another thing.” Examples can be found in “Ethical propositions involve value predicates and are ultimate,” “Mathematical propositions are necessary synthetic propositions—an ultimate sort of proposition,” and “Statements about nations are not to be reduced to statements about individuals; they are about a certain sort of concrete universal.”
Wisdom’s contention with regard to both of these principles is that a person should examine what he or she means when saying that either of them is true. To say this is to suppose that the principles in question can be confirmed or disconfirmed. This is not the case: Neither principle is a scientific theory. The issue should, therefore, be formulated in terms of the question whether one should accept the Verification Principle or the Idiosyncrasy Platitude. Now, however, what has the issue become? Can one say that the Verification Principle is a metaphysical theory? Yes, says Wisdom, in a certain sense. It is not so much a metaphysical theory as a recipe for framing metaphysical theories; it is a mnemonic device that tells those who accept it how to proceed in settling certain metaphysical issues. It draws their attention to “the deplorably old-fashioned clothes in which it presents itself,” because it appears in the disguise either of a scientific discovery that removes a popular illusion or of a logical proposition from which deductions can be made. Furthermore, the principle serves to draw the attention of those who reject it to the fact that underneath its disguise it has obvious merits. The principle, therefore, has the characteristics of all metaphysical statements in that it covers up what it really intends to say. The same is true of the Idiosyncrasy Platitude. Whether either of these is called “metaphysical” is of no great importance; the point is that in examining the reasons for or against accepting one of these principles, one is led into the activity that is designed to eliminate metaphysical perplexities and to arrive at that clarification of structure which is the goal of philosophy.
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.