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Obituary: Professor John Wisdom

Arthur John Terence Dibben Wisdom, philosopher: born London 12 September 1904; Professor of Philosophy, Cambridge University 1952-68; Professor of Philosophy, University of Oregon 1968-72; died Cambridge 9 December 1993.

WHEN in 1963 I first attended John Wisdom's lectures on 'Other Minds' and 'Metaphysics' at Cambridge, I was disconcerted by his silences, his apparent puzzlement, and his direct, questioning gaze, writes Mike Brearley. I fled.

A year later I tried again, and this time stayed. Gradually I came to see that his teaching method reflected his ideas about philosophy. For Wisdom, philosophy was neither the study of arcane facts, nor the pursuit of complex theories; rather, anyone who has reached a certain linguistic level has, he believed, the capacity both to raise central philosophical doubts and to take steps towards settling them. Wisdom called these processes 'provocation and pacification'.

Unlike Wittgenstein, he stressed the insight (rather than the craziness) that informs even - or perhaps especially - the most paradoxical and most notorious philosophical ideas ('There is good in them, poor things'). Philosophy thus calls for a perturbation of our apparently stable conceptual schemes, and an uncomfortable deconstruction of what we know; but also for a reconstruction through which the relations between neighbouring conceptual areas are redescribed, and that which we have always known is seen anew.

Wisdom's account of philosophy was influenced by, and influenced, his understanding and experience of the theory and practice of psychoanalysis, another inquiry through which that which we have in a sense always known is regained, but with greater vividness, particularity and authenticity. In both philosophy and psychoanalysis there is resistance to such knowledge, and to the exploratory use of free associations of ideas which may feel dangerous or mad. Wisdom more than any other teacher I have encountered facilitated and drew out of his students these often inaccessible thoughts. He was truly Socratic.