G. H. von Wright

Formative figure in the evolution of analytical philosophy
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The Independent Online

Georg Henrik von Wright, philosopher: born Helsinki 14 June 1916; Lecturer and Acting Professor of Philosophy, Helsinki University 1943-46, Professor of Philosophy 1946-61; Professor of Philosophy, Cambridge University 1948-51; Research Professor in the Academy of Finland 1961-86; Professor at Large, Cornell University 1965-77; married 1941 Elisabeth von Troil (one son, one daughter); died Helsinki 16 June 2003.

G. H. von Wright came from a remote corner of Europe to be one of the continent's chief philosophic representatives on the world scene.

Descended from a Scottish emigrant to the Baltic - supposedly a royalist though he himself seemed much more a Roundhead - he was brought up in Finland to admire German culture and his first philosophy teacher, Eino Kaila, attended the Vienna Circle. He too would have gone to Vienna to study but the Circle had vanished even before the Nazi takeover. He learnt English, originally from Keynes's Treatise on Probability (1921). To Cambridge then Georg Henrik von Wright came early in 1939, for a Finn's obligatory "stage" abroad. It became his second intellectual home and C.D. Broad, G.E. Moore and Ludwig Wittgenstein were in different ways his patrons.

He spent the Second World War (two wars for Finland) at home in Helsinki, doing some technical work but mostly writing press reviews on behalf of the government (allied with the Germans this time). His earlier letters to his second home were published anonymously (and without his knowledge) by Broad in the Cambridge Review. They give the picture of a decent and clear-sighted man making the best of an almost hopeless situation, which those who knew him in later life will recognise.

Meanwhile Moore published von Wright's article on probability in Mind in 1942, and Broad reviewed his thesis, The Logical Problem of Induction (1941), in 1944. The book made von Wright known, and Broad (a great Scandinavophil) brought him back to England in 1947 as a visiting lecturer at Cambridge. Von Wright's general aim was to give a detailed justification of logical empiricism (like Kaila he preferred this to the more aggressive term logical positivism). In the book, partly under the inspiration of Heinrich Hertz, he showed that there was in principle no answer to the "problem", the question having been wrongly posed from the start. At the time this was an advance, but he saw that too much was left open by such a dissolution of problems. He came to think that the work of reconstruction was not enough.

This visit to Cambridge brought a deepening of his relations with Wittgenstein, another Scandinavophil, who appreciated von Wright's unembarrassed directness, which soon set aside initial misunderstandings. (It was, indeed, almost impossible to quarrel with him.) And then there was the link of German literature. But he could not call himself a pupil of Wittgenstein, which perhaps helped their friendship, for Wittgenstein (like a jealous book-lover) hated to see his own problems in the hands of another. He did not try to do philosophy in Wittgenstein's way though he admired the other's intensity. With Wittgenstein you had to dig up your roots each time, while with Moore it was a matter of dogged struggle with the detail of arguments for a predefined position.

Von Wright's effect on Wittgenstein was enough to determine the great man to nominate him in petto as his successor as Professor of Philosophy, and the Cambridge electors, no doubt wittingly, followed this recommendation. Thus he came back to the city for the last short years of Wittgenstein's life, some part passed as an invalid in the von Wrights' house. He became intimate with the Wittgenstein circle, unabashed by some unconventionality.

Finally, von Wright was one of the three named in the will to oversee the publication of Wittgenstein's work, practically all still in draft. It was to be a heavy task, particularly for one averse to controversy and assertive personalities. Taking that into account, it was well performed. He wrote a brief memoir, prepared the first catalogue and set up, in Helsinki, a centre for scholarly work, naturally somewhat neglected in the first pressure for timely publication. With his death (the last of a tontine) the copyright of the Wittgenstein papers passes to Trinity College, Cambridge.

Von Wright returned to Helsinki in 1951 shortly after having laid Wittgenstein to rest (it was he who chose the chaste but not at all English gravestone). He did not want to make his life (still less his children's) in England and he was perhaps too young to function well as a professor. He seemed absurdly young at this period, though in middle years he began to look older than he was, an appearance belied only by his physical vigour. A slightly later incumbency by him might have done wonders for Cambridge - if he had been there with Bernard Williams!

But his work did not suffer by the move. He could follow up the work on modal logic that had begun when he discovered deontic logic, i.e. when he observed that "may", "ought to" and "must not" were analogous to the traditional "modalities" of possibility, necessity and impossibility. It was a brilliant step in the generalisation of modal logic, which has been an important part of the history of logic for the last 50 years - one thinks of Ruth Barcan Markus, Saul Kripke, Jaakko Hintikka (a pupil) and Arthur Prior. He contributed technically as well as philosophically to later developments.

Von Wright had a body of work on inductive logic behind him and an impressive programme for philosophical logic: a number of papers, like that on conditionals, were much discussed, but partly as a result of his deontic discovery and also for the external reason that he had to teach moral philosophy, his interests turned in that direction. (From his first logico-empirical days he had always had the feeling, "There must be more to it than this!") There was also a change in what he hoped from philosophy: now it was to be not reconstruction but the inventive construction of conceptual schemes suitable for attacking though no longer with hope of removing definitively the problems and contradictions that seem to arise in different areas of activity and science.

His work was furthered by the freedom from teaching and administration that appointment to the Finnish Academy gave him in 1961. For a couple of years he was its President but usually his membership involved very few formal duties. He became in fact Professor at Large to the world (it was his actual title at Cornell, his third intellectual home) and gave lecture series (Gifford, Tarner, Nellie Wallace and others), which then appeared as books. Like that other Baltic Scot (or would-be Scot) Kant, but more mobile, he had the privilege of setting his own agenda.

New topics were treated in Norm and Action (1963), which made him a figure of reference in the world of legal philosophy; The Varieties of Goodness (1963), which rather than talking about goodness in general attempted a typology of instances falling under the concept (he occasioned much controversy by not recognising "morally good" as a type); and then, as his interest in what came to be called the philosophy of action developed, Explanation and Understanding (1969). And the list continued, often with conferences organised round his own work. His last new interest was in philosophy of mind, another specialism born in the last half century.

There were original ideas in all he wrote and he was a formative figure in the evolution of the analytical philosophy of his time but, as he himself saw, not a revolutionary philosopher. A bourgeois thinker, Wittgenstein might have said of him as of Frank Ramsey. (His philosophy of ethics would surely have been anathema to Wittgenstein: it smacked of the creation of a machine for being decent, though to be sure von Wright was not concerned with actual moral cases.)

The suppressed side of von Wright found an outlet (apart from his devotion to Wittgenstein) in his "exoterikoi logoi" - his Swedish (and sometimes Finnish) language publications which dealt with humanism and ideals and drew heavily on literature from several languages. He was confident he was right (with few exceptions) not to give them to a wider public but never quite explained why. Perhaps the doggedness of detailed argument was not suitable, while the exact tone of voice was necessary, to defend his "provocative pessimism", not resignation but recognition that so much was subject to chance and yet so much to be done and above all thought about. It was of course no secret to his friends.

Von Wright enjoyed considerable privileges throughout his life but wore them as lightly as possible. He and his charming and aristocratic wife attended the Queen on a state visit to Finland. One can be sure he bore himself with the same ease with which he dined among the undergraduates when neglected by his hosts in college.

Brian McGuinness