Obituary: Professor John Wisdom

JOHN WISDOM's name was almost too good to be true: he was the true, the literal philosopher, a pure lover of wisdom; and he lived the truth of Wittgenstein's famous dictum that philosophy is not a doctrine but an activity, writes Andor Gomme (further to the obituary by Professor Ilham Dilman and Mike Brearley, 15 December). His great delight was doing or making philosophy, and his special pleasure lay in persuading students to share the delight of making philosophy together. So his 'lectures' were always conversazioni, which on reflection one might realise had been subtly guided by him but which at the time always made one feel that he was learning in just the same way as the rest of us.

Learning philosophy with John Wisdom was fun, leaving vivid vignettes of memory: of his illustrating some problem in the philosophy of perception by telling us that we were on safari in Africa and suddenly heard the sound of hooves. 'Giraffes]' he whispered conspiratorially; and the aural perception was backed up by a visual one as he wonderfully mimicked the animals, becoming absorbed in watching his own long fingers imitating the characteristic sideways lope of giraffes running. But we had got and would remember the point about the relation between fact and varieties of evidence.

His radiant smile was ever ready in moments of congratulation; on one occasion we were talking of what it meant when someone claimed to be 'seeing snakes'. What, Wisdom 'innocently' asked, would be the best reason for thinking that he really did see snakes? All searched their minds for some deep answer until one student hesitantly suggested 'the fact that there really were snakes there'. 'Blessed woman]' he exclaimed in thankfulness that one of us at least could see a simple truth, but the smile was equally ready to reassure when someone was, he felt, going off the rails; in the heady days of phenomenalism, a tough-minded student asked, 'Why shouldn't we say that statements about the past are simply statements about what we find when we look in diaries, history books, etc?' In his deepest voice Wisdom breathed back, 'Because it would be false', but the immense all-encompassing geniality prevented any sense that he was ticking the student off or correcting him.

Wisdom was of course deeply concerned in how language affects the nature and possibility of thought, and this gave him a special interest and pleasure in quirks of idiom. 'Would a rose smell as sweet if it were called an onion?' he once asked. I ventured to suggest that it might depend on what an onion was called. 'Ah,' he said, 'you may be right' - quite as if the point had not struck him before. And when someone asked him about the phrase used by the young Pip in Great Expectations when he sees a stranger in the local who 'stirred his rum-and-water pointedly at me', Wisdom's eyes moved cogitatingly into the corners of their sockets in a gesture that no one who ever knew him could forget: 'Well,' he pondered, 'in the normal meaning of the phrase, 'stirring one's rum-and-water at someone . . .' ' But the rest of the sentence was drowned in uproar.

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