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.

JOHN WISDOM, Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University from 1952 to 1968, was a distinguished philosopher who made a lasting contribution to his subject.

Wisdom was born in London in 1904, went to school in Suffolk and Somerset and then to Cambridge, where he studied 'moral sciences', that is, philosophy. After two years at the National Institute of Industrial Psychology in London he returned to academic life. He was a lecturer at St Andrews University for five years, teaching philosophy and psychology. His early books Interpretation and Analysis (1931) and Problems of Mind and Matter (1934) and a series of articles on 'Logical Constructions' in Mind in 1931-33, published as a book in 1969, belong to this time.

He returned to Cambridge in 1934 where he became Lecturer in Philosophy, and a year later Fellow, of Trinity College. He attended Ludwig Wittgenstein's classes there, which made a profound impact on him and changed the direction of his approach to philosophy, as can be seen in his two books of this period: Other Minds (1952) and Philosophy and Psycho-Analysis (1953). These are important works and bear the imprint of Wisdom's distinctive style and philosophical individuality.

In 1952 he was appointed to the Chair of Philosophy at Cambridge, held earlier by GE Moore and Wittgenstein, and which he occupied until 1968. His book Paradox and Discovery (1965) belongs to this period. In it he develops the themes and approach we find in his previous two books. He appraises aspects of Wittgenstein's and Moore's contributions to philosophy and continues his work of showing that philosophy can advance and deepen our understanding, not in the ways with which we are familiar in logic and the sciences, but in a way that good literature does.

Following a year spent as Visiting Professor at the University of Oregon at Eugene, Wisdom responded to a letter from his students at Eugene, and an invitation from the Department of Philosophy there, by resigning his Chair at Cambridge and returning to Oregon in 1968 on a permanent basis. He had previously enjoyed teaching in the United States - at Virginia, UCLA, and Colorado.

His last book, Proof and Explanation (1990), comprises a course of lectures he gave at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, in 1956-57, edited from tapes by his friend Stephen Barker in Virginia. The book covers a wide scope in philosophy and is concerned with the nature of reasoning inside and outside philosophy, a theme which runs through his earlier writings. He argues for the fundamental character of the particular case in all forms of reasoning, such as a mother refers to in explaining things to her child. He argues for the priority of 'mother's method' over 'father's', where the father resorts to general principles in his explanations. It is the mother who has to come to the rescue when the child now asks for an explanation of the father's general principles - what they mean and why the child should believe them.

Philosophy was changing and has changed greatly since Wisdom delivered these lectures and others contained in his earlier books. It has gone more and more the way of metaphysics, formalisation and Wisdom's 'father's method's' way. Consequently his contribution to philosophy is not sufficiently appreciated today. But this leaves its importance untouched.

Wisdom was a distinguished teacher who really thought and worked hard in class. He did not lecture from notes and brought his students into dialogue with what he was saying. His lectures at Cambridge were exciting and those who attended had the distinct feeling that something important was happening there: that philosophical understanding was being taken forward. One was impressed by the way Wisdom responded to every question from scratch, never resting on ground he had gained previously. This was 'philosophical work' and the work done in the lectures was original. It was appreciated by people who flocked to hear him from all corners of the world.

Wisdom was a very genuine person, who cared nothing for appearances. He did not have an ounce of vanity in the make-up of his personality, and I never heard him speak an unkind word about anyone. Although in the academic world he rose to an elevated position, he remained detached from its regards and never compromised with the ways of the world for any purpose. In his students he inspired gratitude and loyalty, and all those who came to know him fell under the spell of his charm and grew fond of him.

He was a devoted husband. His second wife, Pamela, died four years ago. He never recovered from that loss. He leaves behind a son from his first marriage who stood by him in his last years.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...

Surrey County Council: Senior Project Officer (Fixed Term to Feb 2019)

£26,498 - £31,556: Surrey County Council: We are looking for an outgoing, conf...

Recruitment Genius: Interim Head of HR

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources and Payroll Administrator

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower