Obituary: J. O. Wisdom

I. C. Jarvie
Thursday 04 March 1993 01:02

John Oulton Wisdom, philosopher, born Dublin 29 December 1908, Lecturer London School of Economics 1948-53, Reader 1953-65, editor British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 1952-63, married (two sons, one daughter), died Castlebridge Co Wexford 30 January 1993.

J. O. WISDOM was an important contributor to philosophy and to psychoanalysis. To the confusion of some he shared both interests and his apposite surname with his cousin the Cambridge professor J. A. T. D. Wisdom. A founding president of the Society for Psychosomatic Research, J. O. Wisdom taught logic and philosophy of science at the London School of Economics between 1948 and 1965, and edited the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science from 1952 to 1963, transforming it from a newcomer into a world-class journal.

John Wisdom was born in Dublin in 1908 to a family from the Protestant pale. Despite years of working and travelling abroad he always kept a connection with the family estate in Co Wexford, and he finally retired there in the 1980s. He was educated at Earlsfort House School, Dublin, going up to Trinity College, Dublin, as Foundation Scholar in Mathematics. In 1931 he graduated with honours in philosophy and mathematics, achieving a First in the former. Two years later he was granted the Ph D for a thesis on the relation between Hegel and realism. As a postgraduate he attended the lectures of GE Moore and Ludwig Wittgenstein in Cambridge, back in Dublin taught briefly at Trinity, then spent eight years teaching maths and physics at secondary schools in England. From 1943 to 1947 he worked for the British Council, seconded to the Philosophy Department of Farouk I University at Alexandria. It was from there that he moved to the LSE as lecturer, becoming Reader in 1953.

Wisdom made a notable contribution to the history of philosophy with three early papers rehabilitating Bishop Berkeley's often dismissed criticisms of Newton. Printed in the hard-to-obtain journal Hermathena, these are considered classics by experts in the field. A pre-war book, Causation and the Foundations of Science, was finally printed in 1946 and in the following year he published one of the earliest critiques of the then-fashionable logical positivist movement in his The Metamorphosis of Philosophy. His head of department at the LSE was Professor Karl Popper, with whose philosophy of science and vigorous anti-positivism he was immediately taken. The result was Foundations of Inference in Natural Science (1952), the first full-length exposition of Popper's views in English, which also contained, inter alia, an excellent critical treatment of Keynes's views on probability.

To those of us studying under Popper in the 1950s Wisdom was a vital mediating figure. When Popper was away he took over classes, and he was always ready with tutorial help on exercises or additional reading. His unique knowledge of both the Hegelian and the Cambridge analytic philosophical traditions helped enrich the critical opposition to them being forcefully expressed at the LSE by Popper and, later, by Ernest Gellner.

In the 1930s Wisdom had been analysed by Ernest Jones and had become interested in the power of psychoanalysis to explain not only mental disorder but also the yearning for what was traditionally thought of as metaphysics. He used those ideas to advantage in studying the dreams of Descartes and Schopenhauer. He found, to his cost, the intellectual atmosphere hostile to serious psychoanalysis of philosophers. His 1953 volume The Unconscious Origin of Berkeley's Philosophy combined a succinct outline of Berkeley's considered philosophy, treating him as a phenomenalist and not a subjective idealist (pace Russell), with an account of Berkeley's psychic structure, taking special note of his strange book on constipation Siris: a chain of philosophical reflexions and inquiries concerning the virtues of tar-water. The book scandalised influential scholars, the anonymous reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement anathematising it: 'Whose faeces and power of defecation are in question is a matter best left, perhaps, in the cloacal darkness appropriate to it.'

The result was that, despite his original contributions to the mind-body problem, to philosophy of science, to cybernetics, to the theory of psychosomatic disorder, and to psychoanalytic theory generally, there was little prospect of Wisdom's getting a chair in the United Kingdom. In 1965 he headed for the New World, spending two years as Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Southern California, living in a house on Malibu Beach and becoming acquainted with and being appreciated by philosophical and psychoanalytic communities very different from their British counterparts. He eventually accepted the headship at the new Fredonia campus of the State University of New York in 1967. When his plans to make that a philosophical centre were undermined he moved for his last decade of full-time teaching to become University Professor of Philosophy and Social Science at York University, Toronto, where he was widely admired by colleagues on campus and in the psychoanalytic community.

Soon after arrival he organised the foundation of, then presided over, a second journal, Philosophy of the Social Sciences. (It is hoped to publish tributes and a complete bibliography in the September issue.) He made an effort to synthesise his ideas on world-views, self and society in a late book, Philosophy and its Place in Our Culture (1975).

A tall and gracious man, patient and gentle with junior colleagues and students, John Wisdom had many friends in all the places he had worked and lived. After retirement he continued to be intellectually active, seeking theoretical reconciliation within psychoanalysis and publishing important works on the philosophy of science and on Freud and Women (1992).

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