Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Philosophers - Drury, Maurice O’Connor (1907–76)
The Dictionary of Twentieth-Century British Philosophers


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Drury, Maurice O’Connor (1907–76)

Drury, Maurice O’Connor (1907–76)
DOI: 10.5040/9781350052437-0088

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Maurice O’Connor Drury was born of Irish parents in Marlborough, Wiltshire on 3 July 1907 and died in Dublin on 25 December 1976. He attended Grammar School in Exeter and became interested in philosophy. He went to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1926, and there fell under the spell of Ludwig Wittgenstein . After graduation, Drury entered the Cambridge theological college, Westcott House, but left after one year. He next worked in projects for the unemployed before enrolling in the medical school of Trinity College Dublin, qualifying in 1939. Following the declaration of war, Drury joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and was first posted to Egypt. He later took part in the Normandy landings. In 1947 he was appointed Resident Psychiatrist at St Patrick’s Hospital, Dublin. He married the matron of St Patrick’s, Eileen Herbert, in 1951, and set up home at St Edmundbury, a private clinic in Lucan, County Dublin. For a considerable period, Drury gave lectures in ‘normal’ psychology to medical students at Trinity College and the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin. In 1969 he was promoted to Senior Consultant Psychiatrist. About this time, he began to suffer anginal pain and in 1970 he moved to a private residence in Dublin.

Most of Drury’s publications are collected in The Danger of Words and Writings on Wittgenstein (1996). The following account of his work draws not only on his publications but also on archival material held by the present writer. Drury’s special contribution lies in his vivid depictions of Wittgenstein’s personality. In addition, he is widely acknowledged to be an important source for Wittgenstein’s views on religion. What has been ignored, however, is the linked challenge to widely held views that suggest a disjunction rather than, as Drury deeply believed, a continuity between the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations. These contributions are dealt with below, but what should also be made clear is that through his professional and writing exertions he honed and exhibited his own philosophical consciousness. This is especially manifest in his insights into the limits of psychology and the limitations of psychiatry.

Drury’s philosophical education was a privileged one. His tutors included G.E. Moore and C.D. Broad , as well as Wittgenstein, who in 1929 returned to Cambridge and began to initiate a revolution in Anglophone philosophy. As Drury understood it, the burden of Wittgenstein’s message was that the then canonical analysis of knowledge as a process where the world impresses itself on the knower, who then expresses his knowledge in language, is transformed by the realization that without language, knowledge is impossible. Language sets the limits of the knower’s world. Intellectual influence apart, student and teacher began a friendship that was to be fateful for Drury, who, in turn, was to be the link that facilitated Wittgenstein’s stays in Ireland, where, according to one of Wittgenstein’s literary executors, Rush Rhees , ‘Wittgenstein liked living, and did some of his best work’ (Rhees to Drury, 24 May 1968).

Rhees encouraged Drury in 1965 to write down the recollections that are a widely used source in Wittgenstein studies. They were eventually published in two formats, firstly as ‘Notes’ and then as a journal entitled ‘Conversations with Wittgenstein’. The journal gives an intimate picture of Wittgenstein in his maturity although it is not entirely reliable in matters of dating, and Drury was not always privy to important aspects of his friend’s life. The conversations centred on religion. Rush Rhees believed that Wittgenstein spoke to Drury about religion ‘perhaps more than to anyone else’ (Rhees to Drury, 9 October 1970). The two men rejected ‘natural theology’ and were particularly interested in problems of biblical interpretation. Drury’s record also reveals an openness in both men to prayer and worship. Wittgenstein considered, however, that Drury’s Anglo-Catholic tradition was too narrow, and he counselled him to read more widely in the field of religion and to participate in various forms of worship so that he would sense the many ways in which religious feeling is expressed.

It was Wittgenstein who organized the financial subvention that made it possible for Drury to study medicine at Trinity College Dublin. The two men spent several holidays together in Ireland and also with the Drury family in England in the 1930s. In 1947, the year in which Drury returned to Dublin after the war, Wittgenstein resigned his Cambridge professorship in philosophy and came to Ireland to write. For the duration of his stay (c. eighteen months), Drury devoted himself to the considerable needs of his former teacher. Drury became interested in depressive illnesses and engaged in the introduction of drugs to treat them. As already noted, he gave lectures on psychology. However, he discontinued these lectures because he ‘began to have serious doubts about the truth’ (Drury to Rhees, 10 July 1968) of what he was saying. What these doubts were is most accessible in his only published book, The Danger of Words. The point of this work, which has been described in Ray Monk’s The Duty of Genius (1990) as ‘the most truly Wittgensteinian book published by any of Wittgenstein’s students’ (p. 264), is to bring the ‘critique of language’ to bear on the practice of medicine. The ‘danger of words’ is that we can be ‘dazzled by what we know’ (p. 114). Compounding this was the promise of a science of psychology that putatively would give control over the mind comparable to the control over matter achieved by physics and chemistry. But Drury observed that this was a promissory note whose date of delivery was always receding. In principle, psychological or sociological researches that identify statistical patterns in behaviour can never touch an individual’s problems in their uniqueness. Besides, intractable difficulties arise because the instrument of knowing (the mind) is also the object of knowing. The relevant comparison is to a telescope that can be trained on any object except itself.

The Danger of Words is based on talks that Drury gave to the Medico-Psychological Club at the University of Swansea and what he refers to variously as the ‘Medical’, ‘Journal’ and ‘Psychiatric’ clubs in Dublin. In these talks he wanted to teach his fellow practitioners a modesty in their clinical practice. Philosophical awareness of the logical limits of what can be said (and therefore known) intensifies a salutary sense of wonder at what remains inexpressible and unknowable, beginning with how it is possible that we come to use language at all. The sense of wonder in which philosophy is rooted is especially appropriate when dealing with the mentally ill. Their symptoms are not easily distinguishable from the experiences reported by mystics – or by those (such as Aldous Huxley ) who were experimenting with psychotropic drugs. Drury had no easy answer as to when it is appropriate to treat for disease and when to allow a spiritual journey to take its course, but he was clear that the second cannot be reduced to the first.

He considered psychiatry to be in a ‘fearful muddle’. First, the accepted classification of mental illness did not bring sufficient order into the ‘mass of phenomena’ to be accounted for. Second, although there were successful methods of treatment for some conditions, their effectiveness could not be explained. In addressing these difficulties, he found that the traditional psychologists were of ‘no help’ and that he had grown more and more sceptical of psychoanalytical doctrines. On the other hand, he did not believe that those who were taking a physiological approach could give a complete account of mental illness. Drury was attracted by the behaviourist approach because it oscillated ‘between physiology and psychology’, although it too was confused, in his view. The irreducible question was ‘how far can the behaviour of living creatures be explained without introducing terms like thinking, feeling, intention, etc. etc.?’ (Drury to Rhees, 10 May 1969). He noted that ‘most psychiatrists write as if no one is ever responsible but all is determined either psychologically or neurologically; but they all act as if people were responsible’ (Drury to Rhees, 3 July 1970). All in all, Socrates had got it right: we must acknowledge both the role of causes and of reasons in understanding human behaviour.

After Wittgenstein’s death, a small group of his former students Rhees, Elizabeth Anscombe , Raymond Townsend, Norman Malcolm, G.H. von Wright and Drury – acted as keepers of the Wittgenstein flame. For his part, Drury believed that the importance Wittgenstein attached to his work in the philosophy of mathematics was not appreciated. More broadly, he was far from convinced that the interpretation of Wittgenstein that had become standard in analytic circles was accurate. He identified the promoters of this canonical view as A.J. Ayer , J.L. Austin and Gilbert Ryle . He doubted that Ryle in particular appreciated that, even in Wittgenstein’s logical work, he was following ethical and religious imperatives. Drury put this blindness down to a Ciceronian understanding of philosophy as an activity fit for gentlemen but not one that might change one’s life entirely, as it had done his own. Using Schopenhauer’s characterization, he alleged that the ‘professorial’ philosophers assumed that the finely honed methods of conceptual analysis would lead to ‘something entirely compatible with common sense’ and with the new civilization shaped by science and technology – but Wittgenstein, who was ‘revolted by our modern bourgeois smugness’ (Drury to Rhees, 21 May 1967), did not believe that his thought would be understood by his contemporaries. This was because instead of distancing themselves from widely prevalent, but false, philosophical assumptions, they subscribed to them.

All through his life, Drury attempted to formulate what he understood philosophy to be. Already as a medical student, he read a paper at Trinity College Dublin on ‘The Method of Philosophy’ (1935) which takes a standard logical positivist position: ‘Philosophy is concerned with meaning not with truth.’ Its task is to distinguish the nonsensical from the meaningful in the various fields of knowledge. This orientation seems to have changed by 1954, when he wrote an introduction to philosophy in the form of a series of ‘Letters’ addressed to a neophyte ‘Student of Philosophy’.In these letters he maintained that the metaphysical perplexities that had attracted him to philosophy as an adolescent – about the nature of what is real, good, true and beautiful – were not ‘dissolved’ by Wittgenstein’s method as the logical positivists had believed. Linguistic analysis, rather, should arouse and intensify the passion for what lies beyond language.

In the lecture given in University College Dublin in 1967, in which he had attacked Ayer, Austin and Ryle, Drury maintained that the transcendent purpose of philosophical activity – a purpose explicitly acknowledged in the Tractatus (with its reference to ‘Das Mystice’) – was implicitly assumed in the Philosophical Investigations. It was wrong to see the second book as a kind of corrective of the first – at least in this respect. The point of ‘displaying the speakable’ was still to ‘signify the unspeakable’ (Tractatus, 4.115).

In Simone Weil, Rush Rhees and he found a contemporary thinker who complemented Wittgenstein. Drury was attracted by Weil’s view that ‘science to-day will either have to seek a source of inspiration higher than itself or perish’ (Drury to Rhees, 12 March 1969). Drury also believed, perhaps too readily, that her attempt to find a ‘religious manner of working’ (Drury to Rhees, 22 March 1969) in all areas of human endeavour found an echo in Wittgenstein, who once told him: ‘I am not a religious man but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view’ (‘Notes’, p. 79). Despite the declarations in his writings about how Wittgenstein was to be understood, it appears from his correspondence that Drury was insecure about his stance and sought reassurance (perhaps advisedly) from Rhees. On the other hand, he did not want to show ‘cowardice’ (Drury to Rhees, 28 July 1966) in respect of the duty to be faithful to his teacher.

Drury did not share Moore’s belief that if one could solve certain problems in epistemology then everything else would fall into place. He thought that ‘there is no one central problem in philosophy, but countless different problems. Each has to be dealt with on its own’ (‘Conversations’, p. 111). Wittgenstein had explained to Drury that philosophy is like trying to open a safe with a combination lock: ‘each little adjustment of the various dials seems to achieve nothing, it is only when all these are in the right position that the door opens’ (‘1967 Dublin Lecture’, p. 7). Clearly, this was an arduous activity but Drury subscribed to the promise in Plato’s seventh letter that ‘as a result of continued application to the subject’ an epiphanic experience will come when truth is ‘brought to birth in the soul of a sudden, as light that is kindled by a spark’.

Drury was convinced that each generation has to tackle from scratch the philosophical questions that raise themselves in its particular time and place. Philosophical questions and, a fortiori, answers, are not simply inherited. Indeed, it is scarcely possible to understand why previous generations thought particular problems ‘absolutely vital’. What great philosophers do is to solve ‘completely and definitively’ the problems which were holding up the development of thought in their time. These problems, rooted in the unexamined assumptions of their age, are a source of ‘human bondage’. When formulated they lose their ‘absolute power’ and are seen to be just ‘one way of looking at things’ (Drury to Rhees, 2 March 1959). Withal, Drury did not believe that ‘man’s salvation’ comes from ‘philosophical reasoning and speculation’ but saw it rather as ‘an act of God in history’ addressed to those ‘who have lost confidence in their own power, and despair’ (Drury to D.Z. Phillips, 23 July 1964).

Towards the end of his life, Drury happily turned from writing philosophy to psychiatry where he felt more secure. He wrote a monograph on hypnosis that has never been published. He did not seek to prove scientifically the value of hypnosis for phobic disorders but rather advised his (medical) readers to try it for themselves and showed them how to do so.


The Danger of Words and Writings on Wittgenstein , ed. with an Introduction by David Berman, Michael Fitzgerald and John Hayes (Bristol, 1996). This volume reprints ‘The Danger of Words’ (1973), ‘Fact and Hypothesis’ (1974), ‘Some Notes on Conversations with Wittgenstein’ (1976) and ‘Conversations with Wittgenstein’ (1981), and contains the ‘1967 Dublin Lecture on Wittgenstein’.

Other Relevant Works

‘A Symposium’, in K.T. Fann (ed.), Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Man and his Philosophy (New Jersey, 1967), pp. 57–78 .

‘Letters to a Student of Philosophy’, with an Introduction by Desmond Lee , Philosophical Investigations, vol. 6 (1983), pp. 76–102, 159–74 .

Further Reading

Flowers, Berry (ed.), Portraits of Wittgenstein (Bristol, 1999), vol. 4.

Phillips, D.Z., Rush Rhees on Religion and Philosophy (Cambridge, 1997).