Choose another writer in this calendar:
by birthday from the calendar.
||Georg Henrik von Wright (1916-2003)|
Finnish philosopher and logician, influential cultural critic and essayist. Georg Henrik von Wright was the successor of the famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein at the University of Cambridge. Von Wright began his philosophical career with a major interest in logic and in the philosophy of science. After Wittgenstein's death, von Wright became one of the executors of Wittgenstein's literary estate and he wrote several articles on his legendary colleague.
"Though in my youth I had been a positivist of a sort, I had never shared the belief in 'progress' through the advancement of science and diffusion of knowledge which has been the ethos of the positivist tradition. My humanist attitudes had been connected with a pessimistic view of reform and a skeptical view of the implications of science and technology for society." (from 'Intellectual Autobiography of Georg Henrik von Wright', in The Philosophy of Georg Henrik von Wright, edited by Paul Arthur Schlipp and Lewis Edwin Hahn, 1989, p. 19)
Georg Henrik von Wright's family was of Scottish origin. His ancestor, George Wright, escaped from Oliver Cromwell's (1599-1658) rule to Narva, from where the family eventually settled in Finland. In the 18th-century the brothers Ferdinand, Wilhelm, and Magnus von Wright became very famous artists, who depicted landscapes and especially birds. Von Wright was born in Helsinki. At the age of 12, after long periods of illness during his early school years, he spent a year in the health resort of Merano in Tirol. There took place his 'intellectual awakening'. Geometry and natural sciences especially attracted him – he also read such philosophers as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. In 1929 von Wright developed an interest in philosophy, and read thoroughly Wilhelm Jerusalem's Einleitung in die Philosophie and Hans Larsson's textbook on psychology.
In 1934 von Wright enrolled as a student at the University of Helsinki, graduating in 1937. His teacher Eino Kaila, who was professor of philosophy at the university, encouraged him to study, outside the prescribed curriculum, such books as Carnap's Abriss der Logistik and Dubislav's Die Definition. Carnap's Syntax he considered too difficult for a beginner although von Wright also studied mathematics. When Kaila urged him to specialize either in psychology or in logic, von Wright followed his liking for the exact line of reasoning.
Logical positivism, or as Kaila preferred to call it, logical
empiricism, deeply influenced von Wright's thinking, as did Jakob
Burckhard’s 'humanism' professed in Weltgeschitliche Betrachtungen. After reading von Wright's exam paper on Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,
Kaila said that he now understood the work better. Later von Wright
acknowledged that perhaps they both did not understand the book.
1937 von Wright travelled to Austria and Italy. Due to the Anschluss in
March 1938, von Wright could not continue his studies in Vienna, and
collaborate with the so-called Vienna Circle. Instead he started to
work on his thesis in Cambridge. Some philosophers have associated von
Wright with the Vienna School of logical positivist, whose members
included Rudolf Carnap, Otto Neurath, Hans Reichenbach, Moritz Schlick,
Karl Popper. Von Wright's himself once said about philosophy, that its
method of is logical analysis and its primary concern is to clarify
meaning. Von Wright studied under C.D. Broad, but he did not meet John Maynard Keynes, whose
work A Treatise on Probability (1921) he had read in order to learn English.
To his surprise he heard that Wittgenstein lived in Cambridge.
Von Wright also contacted him, but their first meeting in March 1939
was a depressing experience for the young student – the famously hot
tempered Wittgenstein became angered because an outsider tried to
attend his course so late in the term. "He seemed furious," von Wright
recalled. "Then he left the room without waiting for an apology or
explanation. I was hurt and shocked." ('Intellectual Autobiography of Georg Henrik von Wright', in The Philosophy of Georg Henrik von Wright, edited by Paul Arthur Schlipp and Lewis Edwin Hahn, 1989, pp. 10-11) Wittgenstein soon calmed down and welcomed von Wright to the next one. Eventually
they formed a friendship, in spite of their different characters and
random correspondence. Von Wright became one of Wittgensten's three heirs and literary executors. The philosopher's Nachlass
was first kept with Elizabeth Anscombe in Oxford and with Rush
Rhees in London. Von Wrigh said in his autobiography, that he never
kept with him papers written or dictated by Wittgenstein, with only
some insignificant exception. However, Nuno Venturinha found among von
Wright's Wittgenstein-related materials an interesting manuscript
focusing on British anti-Nazi propaganda.
During Finland's Winter War (1939-40), von Wright was exempted from military service,
but he worked in a voluntary organization for propaganda on the home front. On May 31, 1941,
von Wright published his doctoral thesis, The Logical Problem of Induction, and married
on the same day his fiancée, Maria Elisabeth, née von Troil. After the outbreak
of the Continuation War (1941-44), he worked at the Governmental Information Centre
(Valtion Tiedotuslaitos). Like Kaila and most of the academic elite in Finland,
he expressed his support to Germany in the war
against the Soviet Union. Von Wright did not consider Nazism the most serious threat
to culture and human rights but bolshevism. In 1943 he was appointed lecturer at the
University of Helsinki and professor of philosophy in 1946. At that time he was only 29.
During the following years he held of several other professorships at the Universities of
Helsinki and Turku. Von Wright retired in 1961. The most prominent of von Wright's post-war year students was Jaakko
Hintikka, who found his way to philosophy from mathematics.
In 1948 von Wright was invited to succeed Wittgenstein. He worked in Cambridge for three years, where he got to know G.E. Moore, whose influence – along with Wittgenstein and Kaila – was crucial for him. An Essay in Modal Logic, which he wrote in 1950, took a fresh look at the notions of necessity and possibility, discussed already by medieval logicians. His famous article 'Deontic Logic' was published in Mind. The article made von Wright the founder of modern deontic logic, which studies the logical relations between the normative notions of the permitted, the obligatory, and the forbidden. In these works, which influenced especially action theory, von Wright developed ways in which the concepts "ought to", "may", and "must not" can be restricted to sentences, which describe actions.
Von Wright's study Treatise on Induction and Probability (1951) has been considered the most distinguished attempt to develop Francis Bacon's and John Stuart Mill's theories of eliminative induction. After Wittgenstein's death in 1951, von Wright decided to return to Finland. It was the most difficult decision in his life, he later said, but "it also felt a challenge to stay and work for the future of my country". However, he also spent much time abroad as a visiting professor. Many of his books were based on his lecture series, which he gave in several places from Vermland in Sweden to New York. His own chair in philosophy at the University of Helsinki was in the faculty of humanities. Its language of instruction was Swedish, but he also had the chair in practical philosophy in the faculty of political sciences, where he taught in Finnish.
In 1963 von Wright published three books. The Varieties of Goodness he considered his best and most personal work. In this conceptual-analytical study about the different uses of the word "good", von Wright distinguised instrumental, technical, utilitarian, hedonic, welfare, and moral types of goodness. Other studies from the same year were Norm and Action, concerning the existence and validity of moral and legal norms, and The Logic of Preference.
Explanation and Understanding (1971), about differences in
explanatory methods between the humanities and the natural sciences,
showed the influence of Wittgenstein's last writings. Based on von Wright's lectures in Cambridge and
Cornell, it is perhaps his best-known work. This study of "analytic hermeneutics" attracted much attention with its
attempt to create a bridge between the Anglo-American analytic and the
Continental hermeneutic traditions, the two major rival approaches to
philosophy. Freedom and Determination (1980) was von
Wright's last major book on logic. In it he continued to elaborate his
ideas of the relaion between actions and their reasons and also the
differences between the human and the natural sciences.
In his later years von Wright wrote of ethics, cultural philosophy, and ecological questions. Increased teaching duties committed von Wright to studying the great ethical writings of Aristotle, Kant, and Moore. He became interested in the work of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and produced on these authors two essays, which are among the most insightful writings in Finnish literary criticism. In addition, he began to take an interest in cybernetics and mathematical behavioral science.
Von Wright was appointed in 1961 to the Academy of Finland, which freed him from teaching duties in his home country. During this and the next decade he spent a great deal of time in the United States ‒ from 1965 to 1977 von Wright was a visiting professor at Cornell University, "his "third intellectual home". He also lectured at several universities in Europe. In 1994-95 he was a visiting professor at the University of Leipzig. From 1968 to 1977 he was Chancellor of Åbo Akademi. In 1986 von Wright received the prize of the Alexander von Humboldt and the great prize of the Academy of Sweden. He was awarded the Selma Lagerlöf literary prize in 1993 and Tage Danielsson award in 1998. In 2002 he received the Critical European Prize. He was also a member of numerous learned academies and societies, and honorary doctor of several universities. Von Wright died in Helsinki on July 16, 2003, at the age of 87.
Among von Wright's many works are popular books on philosophy and scientific knowledge,
articles defending the humanist ideals of Western culture in modern society, essays on literature
and on writers such as Leo Tolstoy – Anna Karenina
became for von Wright the most profound aesthetic experience in
literature – and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, whose central theme was according
to von Wright the tragedy of freedom. (He had little to say about
modern Finnish writers.) Writings aimed at the general
public had an appeal that transcended social and ideological and barriers. Most of his
readers fell into two groups,
leftist intellectuals and value conservatives.
and philosophical research, von Wright participated in debates on the
modern scientific view of the world
and its impact on technology and social institutions. Although von
Wright could not be defined as a pacifist (unlike many of his
students), he expressed very strongly worded anti-war sentiment in the
1960s, when he wrote about the Vietnam War and the occupation of
What becomes of "lasting progress" von Wright shared some of Wittgenstein's scepticism. He
criticized belief in
the omnipotence of science and the industrial form of production
grounded on the scientific knowledge of nature: "There can be no
question but that enhanced material well-being, standard of living, in
many, perhaps most, cases is progress in a genuine sense of the word. .
. . But it is not necessary that this valuation will persist when
growth has reached above a certain level or when its repercussions on
the environment or on the social order have to be taken into account." (The Tree of Knowledge and Other Essays by Georg Henrik von Wright, 1993, p. 220)
Since his school years, von Wright had felt nostalgia for
times gone by and especially for the Greek and Roman cultures. This
reflected in his essays, in which Wright often used classical mythology
to shine a light on issue at hand. In the essay 'Progress: Fact and
Fiction,' a critical look at the Great Idea of Progress ("a matter of
faith – like the Christian notion of salvation through trust in God"), von Wright spoke of
the Owl of Minerva, which begins its flight at dusk. "Only when the day
is over, can one pass a rightful judgement on the work done during it.
. . . Spiritually, we are in a period of what I propose to call reflective dusk.
Before us is the impenetrable darkness of night. It may still last long
to dawn when a new orientation in the world can be clearly
articulated." ('Progress: Fact and Fiction' by Georg Henrik von Wright, in The Idea of Progress, edited by Jürgen Mittelstrass, Peter McLaughlin, A. S. V. Burgen, 1997, pp. 12-13)
Von Wright saw – like Oswald Spengler – that our own cultural cycle has reached its height and has now started its decline. "When traditions slacken their hold on the mores, a culture looses its self-identity, becoming styleless, fades out." ('Progress: Fact and Fiction' by Georg Henrik von Wright, in The Idea of Progress, edited by Arnold Burgen, Peter McLaughlin, Jürgen Mittelstrass, 1997, p. 16) We are going towards chaos – art becomes experimental, old and new forms of superstitions and irrationalism arise, and the culture of body takes the place of spiritual values. Von Wright did not reject the long-term perspective that the whole human race as a distinct species is falling into destruction. Himself von Wright characterized as a "provocative pessimist". Von Wright's own work has been analyzed in the prestigious series Library of Living Philosophers (1989) and elsewhere.