Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Philosophers - Wisdom, John Oulton (1908–93)
The Dictionary of Twentieth-Century British Philosophers


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Wisdom, John Oulton (1908–93)

Wisdom, John Oulton (1908–93)
DOI: 10.5040/9781350052437-0475

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John Oulton Wisdom was born in Dublin on 29 December 1908 and died in Castlebridge, County Wexford on 30 January 1993. He was educated at Earlsfort House School and at Trinity College Dublin, where he studied under the Hegelian scholar H.S. Macran. He graduated from Trinity College in 1931, continuing his postgraduate studies in philosophy until 1933, when he received a doctoral degree for a thesis on Hegel. He then moved to Cambridge, where he studied philosophy and was directly exposed to the teaching of G.E. Moore and Ludwig Wittgenstein . His first teaching post was in Cairo, where he published The Metamorphosis of Philosophy in 1947. In 1948 he was appointed to the staff of the London School of Economics, where he became closely associated with the influential philosopher of science, Karl Popper . He also became editor of the British Journal of the Philosophy of Science. In the 1960s he moved to the United States, where he taught at several universities before finally moving to Canada and to a professorship in philosophy and social science at York University, Toronto. He taught at Toronto until his retirement in 1979, after which he returned to Ireland.

In the Preface to his early work, The Metamorphosis of Philosophy, Wisdom thanks G.E. Moore for explaining to him the intricacies of logical analysis. More significantly, he also thanks Ernest Jones, the President of the International Psycho-Analytical Association, for convincing him of the importance of unconscious mental activity. The quite diverse influences of Moore and Jones, representing two different kinds of ‘analysis’, are evident in Wisdom’s work, and indeed the originality of his own thought consists in his attempt to provide a constructive psychoanalytical response to the central claims of logical analysis (more commonly called logical positivism). The central argument of logical analysts is that all statements or theories that are not verifiable in experience are, strictly speaking, meaningless. Statements about transcendental realities about realities that are beyond the reach of the senses – are just a kind of nonsense because there is no possibility of establishing their truth or falsity. Yet, while accepting that such metaphysical statements are indeed nonsense, strictly speaking, Wisdom is unhappy with the claim that they are altogether meaningless. For one thing, people who make such statements seem to speak intelligibly to each other, seem to understand each other perfectly well, and generally behave like people engaged in significant conversation or discussion. Wisdom contends that speculative philosophies, just like dreams, myths, literature and art, arise out of deep emotional needs that are not always apparent at the level of conscious thought itself. People have not only an intellectual need but also an emotional need to speculate about their place in the universe, about the origins of that universe, about the persistence of order in nature, about the possibility of life after death, about deity, about the possible existence of things unavailable to sense or reason. Telling people (as the logical analysts do) that their metaphysical beliefs are nonsense is not much more helpful than telling people that their dreams are nonsense. As far as the psychoanalyst is concerned, there is a lot more to be said about both dreams and metaphysics, since both are creations or expressions of the complex human psyche and can be understood, albeit not in the same way that other expressions are understood. The fact that the speculative thinker is more ‘awake’ than the dreamer does not mean that he is completely disengaged from his unconscious, or that unconscious needs do not find their way into his speculations.

The analogy can be taken further. Dreams, considered rationally, are indeed nonsensical; but considered symptomatically, as expressions of unconscious wishes, impulses or conflicts, they soon become more meaningful than many orderly sequences of well-framed propositions. Analogously, the nonsensical theories of speculative philosophy may, when considered symptomatically, prove meaningful to the psychoanalyst who knows what to look for. If one merely looks at what the sentences of metaphysical philosophy directly or literally express, then it may be true that they do not make sense from the point of view of logical analysis. But if one looks at those same sentences from the point of view of what they express symptomatically, then it may be possible to find meaning among them. For the psychoanalyst, speculative philosophy is always about its authors in much the same way that dreams are always about the dreamer. Wisdom, following Nietzsche, is prepared to say that ‘the history of philosophy consists of important autobiographies’ (Metamorphosis of Philosophy, p. 166). People other than psychoanalysts may derive satisfaction from reading speculative philosophy if they can ‘attune’ their emotions or frame of mind to that of the philosopher. This attunement, however, has more to do with unconscious resonances that have been aroused by the rhetorical devices of the writer than with the literal, rational claims of the text itself. Sympathetic readers of a philosopher such as Hegel are responding not to the power of his reasoning but to the powerful rhythms of an unconscious emotional structure working itself out at an extraordinarily abstract level. The effect of the ‘hidden’ text of speculative philosophy is to some extent like the effect of a certain kind of poetry where emotive, rhetorical devices are more important than any statement that the poet makes.

Wisdom offers his most ambitious ‘psychoanalysis’ of a speculative philosopher in his Unconscious Origin of Berkeley’s Philosophy (1953), an analysis that reveals the strengths and weaknesses of his approach. Having scanned Berkeley’s biography for signs of neurosis, he concludes that he suffered from hypochondria – that is, from a morbid anxiety about his health. His fascination with tar-water (a dilution of conifer resin) as a cure-all for a whole range of ailments can be understood as a fairly obvious symptom of this neurosis. Particularly significant is Berkeley’s conception of tar-water as a cleanser or purifier. Its function in his scheme of things is to clear all kinds of impurities from the body and thereby improve the health of the patient. According to Wisdom there is evidence in Siris (Berkeley’s essay on the medicinal powers of tar-water) that he frequently felt poisoned and defiled, believing that he had ‘some bad, harmful, or persecuting stuff inside him, possessed of physical and psychical powers, such as only … a magical purifier would dispel’ (Unconscious Origin, p. 141). Wisdom interprets this sense of a clogging internal poison as a variation on the theme of Berkeley’s philosophy of perception. In his philosophy of perception Berkeley’s neurosis expressed itself as a fear or horror of matter, and impelled him to set about cleansing the world of matter by putting forward his famous idealist formula, namely that the existence of things consists in their being perceived. Matter, because it is the basis of materialism, threatens religious belief, and therefore works its way into human thinking as a kind of intellectual and cultural poison, challenging philosophers like himself to develop an anti-materialist antidote. The idealist formula functions as just such an antidote, as a metaphysical equivalent of tar-water, as a universal panacea or principle of intellectual purification. It does this by denying reality to matter and equating reality instead with the perceptions of either the human mind or the mind of God. As tar-water serves to expurgate the internal poisons, so the esse percipi principle serves to expurgate the ‘external’ poison that is matter, making the world safe for true and purified believers.

In his later book Philosophy and its Place in our Culture (1975) Wisdom reiterates his belief that it is not the business of the psychoanalyst to pass judgement on the truth or validity of theories or philosophies, only to add to our biographical understanding of the people who produce the theories and philosophies. A false theory can be as insightful in this respect as a true one, just as a bad novel can tell the analyst as much about the author as a good one. At the same time, Wisdom presents a much more expansive conception of philosophy than he did in his early work. He has less respect now for logical analysis or logical positivism, suggesting that philosophy is a major contributor to the formation of the dominant worldview (or Weltanschauung) according to which people ‘justify’ the way they live in a particular place at a particular time. A personal philosophy and a social Weltanschauung share similar features in that neither is in itself provable or disprovable, yet people’s minds and lives are governed by them. Personal philosophies and worldviews feed off each other, and their rise and fall has a lot to do with developments taking place outside them. The modern Weltanschauung is one of diversity and uncertainty, a fact that is reflected in the almost anarchic diversity of philosophical methods, arguments and systems. This diversity of systems may suggest a failure on the part of philosophers to find the one true method that would enable them to resolve their differences and disagreements, but in reality it represents the susceptibility of philosophy to the culture in which it finds itself and to which it duly gives expression. If the culture is diverse, then philosophy will reflect and contribute to that diversity. In that case, systematic diversity is not a failure but a kind of success.


Causation and the Foundations of Science (Paris, 1946).

The Metamorphosis of Philosophy (Cairo, 1947).

Foundations of Inference in Natural Science (1952).

The Unconscious Origin of Berkeley’s Philosophy (1953).

Philosophy and its Place in our Culture (1975).

Philosophy of the Social Sciences (Aldershot, 1987).

Freud, Women, and Society (New Brunswick, 1992).

Further Reading

B[erman], D[avid], ‘John Oulton Wisdom – an Appreciation’, The Irish Times, 17 February 1993, p. 11.

Duddy, Thomas, A History of Irish Thought (2002).