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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.

In 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.

Besides teaching 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 Czechoslovakia.

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.

For further reading: Essays on Wittgenstein in Honour of G.H. von Wright, edited by Jaakko Hintikka (1976); Tulevaisuus: juhlakirja akateemikko Georg Henrik von Wrightin 70-vuotispäivän 14.6.1986 kunniaksi, edited by I. Niiniluoto, H. Nyman (1986); The Philosophy of Georg Henrik von Wright, edited by Paul Arthur Schlipp and Lewis.Edwin Hahn (1989); Suomalaisen kulttuurifilosofian vuosisata by Mikko Salmela (1998); Alternative Action Theory: Simultaneously a Critique of Georg Henrik Von Wright's Practical Philosophy by Ota Weinberger (1998); In Search of a New Humanism: The Philosophy of Georg Henrik Von Wright, edited by Rosaria Egidi (1999); Actions, Norms, Values: Discussions With Georg Henrik Von Wright, edited by by Georg Meggle, Andreas Wojcik (1999); Ajatuksen kulku. Tankens Vägar. Trains of Thought, edited by Inkeri Pitkäranta (2004); Proofs, Paradoxes, and Probabilities: The Logical Turn of Philosophy in Finland by Michael von Boguslawski (2011); Georg Henrik von Wright by Bernt Österman & Risto Vilkko  (2016); 'Wittgenstein on British Anti-Nazi Propaganda: A Fragment' by Nuno Venturinha and Jonathan Smith, in Nordic Wittgenstein Review 7(2), December (2018); Georg Henrik von Wright: modernin maailman ajattelija, edited by  Johan Strang and Thomas Wallgren; translated by Timo Soukola (2020); The Creation of Wittgenstein: Understanding the Roles of Rush Rhees, Elizabeth Anscombe and Georg Henrik von Wright, edited by Thomas Wallgren (2023)  

Selected works:

  • Eino Kaila: Mänskliga kunskapen: vad den är och vad den icke är, 1939 (translator)
  • The Logical Problem Of Induction, 1941
  • Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: ett tvåhundraårs minne, 1942
  • Den logiska empirismen: en huvudriktning i modern filosofi, 1943
    - Looginen empirismi: eräs nykyisen filosofian pääsuunta (suom. Hilppa Kinos, 1945)
  • Carl Olof Nordman: en minnesskrift, 1944
  • Über Wahrscheinlichkeit:eine logische und philosophische Untersuchung, 1945 (Societas scientiarum Fennicae)
  • Medvetande och materia, 1945
  • On the Idea of Logical Truth. 1-2, 1948-50  (Societas scientiarum Fennicae)
  • Form and Content in Logic: An Inaugural Lecture: Delivered on 26 May 1949 in the University of Cambridge, 1949
  • A Treatise on Induction and Probability, 1951
  • An Essay in Modal Logic, 1951
  • On Double Quantification, 1952  (Societas scientiarum Fennicae)
  • Tanke och förkunnelse, 1955
    - Ajatus ja julistus (suom. Jussi Aro, 1961)
  • Logical Studies, 1957
  • Logik, filosofi och språk: strömningar och gestalter i modern filosofi, 1957
    - Logiikka, filosofia ja kieli: ajattelijoita ja ajatussuuntia nykyajan filosofiassa  (suom. Jaakko Hintikka, Tauno Nyberg, 1958)
  • On the Logic of Negation, 1959 (Societas scientiarum Fennicae)
  • The Heterological Paradox, 1960 (Societas scientiarum Fennicae)
  • The Varieties of Goodness, 1963
    - Hyvän muunnelmat (suom. Vesa Oittinen, 2001)
  • Norm and Action: A Logical Enquiry, 1963
  • The Logic of Preference: An Essay, 1963
  • Essay om naturen, människan och den vetenskaplig-tekniska revolutionen, 1963
  • "And then", 1966 (Societas scientiarum Fennicae)
  • Kriget mot Vietnam, 1967
  • An Essay in Deontic Logic and the General Theory of Action, 1968
  • Time, Change and Contradiction: The Twenty-Second Arthur Stanley Eddington Memorial Lecture Delivered at Cambridge University 1 November 1968, 1969
  • Tieteen filosofian kaksi perinnettä, 1970 [The Two Traditions of the Philosophy of Science]
  • Explanation and Understanding, 1971
  • Causality and Determinism, 1974
  • Handlung, Norm und Intention: Untersuchungen zur deontischen Logik, 1977
  • Humanismen som livshållning och andra essayer, 1978 [Humanism as a Way of Life and Other Essays]
    - Humanismi elämänasenteena (suom. Kai Kaila, 1981)
  • Freedom and Determination, 1980
  • Wittgenstein, 1982
  • Sodanuhka, kilpavarustelu ja rauhanliike = Krigshotet, kapprustningen och fredsrörelsen = The Threat of War, the Arms Race and the Peace Movement, 1983 (English transl. by Greg Coogan)
  • Philosophical Papers, 1983-84 (3 vols.; Philosophical logic; Practical Reason; Truth, Knowledge and Modality)
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, by Norman Malcolm, 1984 (2. ed., with a biographical sketch by G. H. von Wright)
    - Minnen av Wittgenstein / Med en biografisk skiss av G. H. von Wright (övers. av Thomas Warburton, 1967)
  • Filosofisia tutkielmia, 1985 (suom. Heikki Nyman, Tauno Nyberg ja Jyrki Uusitalo)
  • Vetenskapen och förnuftet: ett försök till orientering, 1986
    - Tiede ja ihmisjärki: suunnistusyritys (suom. Anto Leikola, 1987)
  • Science, Reason and Value, 1989 (The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences)
  • 'Intellectual Autobiography of Georg Henrik von Wright', 1989 (in The Philosophy of Georg Henrik von Wright, edited by Paul Arthur Schlipp and Lewis.Edwin Hahn)
  • Minervan pöllö: esseitä vuosilta 1987–1991, 1992 [The Owl of Minerva]
  • Myten om framsteget: tankar 1987-1992 med en intellektuell självbiografi, 1993 [The Myth of Progress]
  • The Tree of Knowledge and Other Essays, 1993
  • Att förstå sin framtid: tanke och förkunnelse och andra försök 1945-1994, 1994
    - Ihminen kulttuurin murroksessa (suom. Risto Hannula, Jussi T. Aro ja Heikki Nyman, 1996)
  • Six Essays in Philosophical Logic, 1996
  • Logiikka ja humanismi, 1998 (contains Looginen empirismi, Logiikka, filosofia ja kieli, Humanismi elämänasenteena)
  • Tieto ja ymmärrys, 1999 (contains Tiede ja ihmisjärki, Minervan pöllö, Ihminen kulttuurin murroksessa)
  • In the Shadow of Descartes: Essays in the Philosophy of Mind, 1998
  • Mitt liv som jag minns det, 2001
    - Elämäni niin kuin sen muistan (suom. Iiro Kuuranne, 2002)
  • En livslång vänskap: brevväxlingen mellan Göran Schildt och Georg Henrik von Wright 1937-2001, 2008 (edited by Erik Kruskopf)
  • Den okände von Wright: tidskritik och andra texter av Georg Henrik von Wright 1926-1997, 2023 (edited by Joel Backström, Thomas Wallgren)

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