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.

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
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment & HR Administrator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Business Partner

£55 - 65k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: A HR Manager / HR Business Partner i...

Austen Lloyd: Practice / HR Manager - Somerset

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A rare and exciting opportunity for a Practice...

Day In a Page

Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

Tribal gathering

Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
10 best trays

Get carried away with 10 best trays

Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created