Obituary: Professor John Wisdom
Wednesday 15 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.
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