Georg Henrik von Wright and the Time of Internationalization


Published in Ajatuksen kulku, suomalaiset filosofit maailmalla - maailman filosofit Suomessa. Tankens vägar, finländska filosofer i världen - världsfilosofer i Finland.

Trains of thought, finnish philosophers in the world - the world´s philosophers in Finland.  (Toimittaja, redaktör Inkeri Pitkäranta.)

Finnish National Library, 2004. Kansalliskirjaston Gallerian julkaisuja 6. /Nationalbibliotekets Galleri; publication nr 6./National Library Gallery publications 6.

Risto Vilkko

Georg Henrik von Wright and the Time of Internationalization


Georg Henrik von Wright (1916–2003) began his philosophy studies at the University of Helsinki in 1934. The subject of philosophy was divided in Helsinki into theoretical and practical philosophy. During that time the main fields of theoretical philosophy were psychology, epistemology, and logic, whereas practical philosophy concentrated on moral and social philosophy with a strong anthropological flavour in the spirit of Professor Edward Westermarck (1862–1939) who was not only a distinguished philosopher but also a renowned anthropologist and sociologist (see Salmela’s contribution in this volume). However, von Wright was from the very beginning more drawn to the theoretical alternative led by Professor Eino Kaila (1890–1958). Kaila was an advocate of the new philosophy of the Vienna Circle, so-called logical positivism, which later gave birth, together with certain other philosophical movements, to the Anglo-Saxon tradition of analytic philosophy. When Kaila a little later urged his young and talented student to specialize either in psychology or in logic, von Wright chose the latter. Later he considered this to be the most far-reaching decision in his life. In his memoirs he reflects as follows: “Had I chosen psychology, I would hardly have become a psychologist of significance. However, it is possible that in that case my artistic interests and literature in particular, would then have better blossomed in my subsequent scientific life. My liking for the exact scientific and mathematical rigour decided this choice” (von Wright 2001, 55–56).


Von Wright completed his Master’s degree in three years and took his Doctorate, with a dissertation on the logic of induction, in 1941.


Von Wright visited Cambridge for the first time in 1939. Cambridge soon became his second intellectual home. In the late 1930s he also visited Vienna and had hopes of collaborating with members of the Vienna Circle. However, the road to Vienna was cut off, due to the Anschluss of 1938, and most of the members of the Vienna Circle had fled abroad. As a consequence of these circumstances von Wright was drawn closer and closer to the most important strongholds of English analytic philosophy, Cambridge and Oxford. The time spent in Cambridge in the 1940s was decisive for his philosophical career.


Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951), possibly the most influential philosopher in the 20th century, came to Cambridge in 1929. However, von Wright only came to know about this when he first arrived in Cambridge ten years later. Likewise in 1930s, Kaila, too, was ignorant of Wittgenstein's whereabouts. This is a telling example of the state of Finnish philosopher’s international scientific contacts during that time. In Cambridge von Wright studied under Wittgenstein’s supervision and gradually the teacher-student relationship developed into a close friendship. Wittgenstein eradicated von Wright's logical empiricism, but left intact his original and genuine interest in the application of logical tools in his philosophical work. In Cambridge von Wright also made the acquaintance of several leading Anglo-Saxon analytic philosophers, such as C. D. Broad, G. E. Moore, Alan Anderson and Georg Kreisel. Trinity College was the most renowned scientific community in Cambridge.


Von Wright became known to the international philosophical community in the early 1940s, when Broad wrote for the leading international philosophy journal Mind a series of commentary articles on von Wright’s results in the field of the logic of induction. Broad’s contributions soon made von Wright famous not only in England but also elsewhere in the Western philosophical world.


Von Wright was internationally oriented from the very beginning of his career. When the Second World War ended he had already established close relations to Cambridge philosophers and also visited all four Swedish universities of that time (Stockholm, Uppsala, Lund, and Gothenburg). In 1945 he travelled to Copenhagen and there made the acquaintance of Edgar Rubin, Jørgen Jørgensen, and Alf Ross. Jørgensen was, like Kaila in Finland, a supporter of radical empiricism and the application of new logical tools to philosophy. According to von Wright, at that time Denmark was an important intermediator of ideas to the Nordic countries. The Danish philosopher Harald Høffding (1843–1931) was, for example, during the early 20th century an important mediator, introducing new philosophical trends and developments to Finland.


In 1946 von Wright was only 29 years of age when he was promoted to the position of the Swedish-speaking Professor of Philosophy at the University of Helsinki. During the 1940s he also held of several other professorships in philosophy at the Universities of Helsinki and Turku. In 1948 he accepted a call to take over from Wittgenstein as chair at Cambridge University. However, after Wittgenstein’s death in 1951 he resigned his chair in Cambridge, moved back to Finland, and resumed his former chair at the University of Helsinki. He never regretted this decision even though he later regarded it as the most difficult one in his entire life. After the war he found England an exhausted society. On the other hand, in Finland he experienced a new spirit, a sense of joint effort for the benefit of the country and for the continuity of its independent future. In his memoirs von Wright writes as follows: “under those circumstances it also felt a challenge to stay and work for the future of my country” (von Wright 2001, 153). His work A Treatise on Induction and Probability, which was published in 1951, ended that period in von Wright’s philosophical career which began in the 1930s under Kaila’s supervision.


Even though von Wright’s philosophical development was strongly influenced by Kaila and Wittgenstein, he never became a mere disciple of either Kaila or Wittgenstein. In his memoirs he makes it clear that his philosophical method and temperament were very different from Wittgenstein's. He also got the impression that Wittgenstein greatly appreciated their different characters. According to von Wright, “our friendship was based not on one’s influence on another, but on independent, and sometimes perfectly random correspondence of taste and valuations” (von Wright 2001, 127). Wittgenstein is reported to have said that von Wright was the only one of his students whom he had not spoiled with his education, the only one who did not attempt to imitate his way of thinking or his mode of expression.


Wittgenstein left his literary estate to von Wright, Elizabeth Anscombe, and Rush Rhees, with the suggestion that they publish whatever they found suitable. The arranging of this material, its investigation, interpretation, and editing for publication constituted an important part of von Wright's philosophical work. In this connection we should also remember another notable Finnish philosopher Erik Stenius (1911–1990), whose influential work Wittgenstein's Tractatus was published in 1960. Stenius made a remarkable career not only in the Wittgenstein studies but also in the fields of logic and the philosophy of language. He held the Swedish Professorship in Philosophy at the University of Helsinki from 1963 until 1974, and worked for some time, during the 1960s, as a visiting Professor at the University of Iowa and Duke University.


One of von Wright’s and Stenius’s most accomplished Finnish contemporaries in the fields of logic and philosophy Oiva Ketonen (1913–2000), came to the University of Göttingen in the late 1930s. At Göttingen he worked on his doctoral dissertation under the supervision of the famous logician Gerhard Gentzen (1909–1945). Even though Göttingen was at that time no longer the nerve centre of the mathematical world, Ketonen's stay there proved productive, for after returning to Finland Ketonen soon finished his outstanding dissertation Untersuchungen zum Prädikatenkalkül (1943). The outbreak of the Second World War ruined Ketonen's plans to visit Zurich to profit from the supervision of David Hilbert's collaborator Paul Bernays.


At the beginning of the 1950s von Wright invented deontic logic, which studies the logical relations between deontic modalities, i.e. the normative notions of the permitted, the obligatory, and the forbidden. His essay "Deontic Logic", which was published in Mind in 1951, was a landmark in the field of philosophical logic. From deontic logic it was natural for him to move on to the logic of norms, which aims at the regulation of human action in the fields of morality and justice. The logic of norms is based on the logical theory of action, which, in turn, is built upon the formal explication of changes. Hence, von Wright also became interested in the logical and philosophical questions of action and change. One of his most important works Norm and Action (1963) discusses these themes. The Varieties of Goodness, which von Wright considered his finest work, was also published in 1963. It deals with the different uses of the word “good”. The logic of action and change dominated von Wright’s philosophy until the end of the 1960s.


Deontic logic made von Wright famous not only in Europe but also in South America, where he established close relations with several philosophers and intellectuals. The Argentinians Eugenio Bulygin and Carlos Alchourrón were two of his most important South American collaborators.


Von Wright extended his influence to North America in 1954 when he accepted a call to teach at Cornell University as a visiting professor, a stay he greatly enjoyed. During his first semester in the United States his seminar on Wittgenstein’s Tractatus attracted not only his old friends and colleagues Norman Malcolm and Max Black, but also several future philosophical celebrities, such as Roger Albritton, Keith Donellan, Carl Ginet, and Sidney Shoemaker. He also paid visits to several other American universities. He made his first contact with academic circles on the west coast in 1960 when he took part in the first International Congress of Logic, Methodology and the Philosophy of Science at Stanford. He renewed these ties three years later as a visiting professor at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). However, Cornell University remained his “third intellectual home”, where he held the Andrew D. White Professorship-at-Large for twelve years.


In the summer of 1961 von Wright was appointed a member of the Finnish Academy. This position enabled him to concentrate completely on his philosophical work. Undoubtedly it had an important influence on von Wright’s decision to stay in his home country although he received, over the years, several attractive offers to leave Finland for celebrated universities abroad. He considered Helsinki an excellent city for thinking.


Since the 1960s von Wright was also active in the field of cultural debate. In 1967 he wrote, while staying in the USA, an essay entitled “Kriget mot Vietnam” (“The War Against Vietnam”). It was publihed in the leading Finnish and Swedish newspapers, in a Danish journal Information, and as a separate pamphlet. Adopting a stance on the war in Vietnam changed von Wright permanently from an external observer to an active cultural critic. Later he publicly criticized, among other things, the optimistic belief in the omnipotence of science and the myth of technoscientific progress, the exploitation of the environment, the ever widening gulf between the rich and the poor, the building of new nuclear power plants, and several military campaigns around the world. He strongly believed that Western culture had not properly understood the serious consequences of its current irreversible decline.


Von Wright's new socially critical attitude also had an influence on his academic activity, which broadened, during the early 1970s, from the Anglo-American analytic tradition towards the so-called Continental tradition or traditions. This development was expedited by his newly awakened interest in hermeneutic studies in the field of philosophy. The most important result of this new territorial conquest was one of his most famous works Explanation and Understanding (1971), which is based on his lectures in Cambridge in 1969 and in Cornell during the following year. This work, which discusses the differences between natural scientific explanations and explanations in the field of human sciences, has been considered a bridge between the Anglo-American analytic and the Continental hermeneutic traditions in Western philosophy. Later von Wright further elaborated his views of the relations between actions and reasons, and of the different kinds of scientific explanation, in his works Causality and Determinism (1973), Freedom and Determination (1980), and in his lengthy essay "Of Human Freedom" (1985).


During the 1980s and the 1990s von Wright left aside actions, norms, values, and explanations, and delved into the classical questions of the philosophy of mind, such as the mind-body problem. This philosophical research culminated in 1998 with the collection of essays In the Shadow of Descartes. In the beginning of the new millennium von Wright reverted to his former subject of value problems in the spirit of his favourite work The Varieties of Goodness which he had written forty years earlier. He considered his work Six Essays in Philosophical Logic (1996) as the end point of his career as a logician.


Von Wright was a member of the Finnish Academy from 1961 until 1986, and acted as its President during the years 1968–1970. He worked and lectured as a visiting professor in a number of universities around the world, and was active in several of scientific societies, associations, foundations, and commissions. He was, for example, the President of the Philosophical Society of Finland (1962–1973), of the International Union of the History and Philosophy of Science (1963–1965), and of the Institut International de Philosophie (1975–1977). He received an Honorary Doctorate from the Universities of Bergen, Bologna, Buenos Aires, Helsinki, Innsbruck, Leipzig, Liverpool, Lund, Salta, Stockholm, Tampere, Tromsø and Turku, as well as from Saint Olaf College in Minnesota.


Von Wright did not greatly enjoy scientific conferences and rarely accepted an invitation to give a single visiting lecture, though he liked leading a seminar or giving a series of lectures as a visiting professor. In fact, many of his books are based on a lecture series. Thus, his Logik, filosofi och språk (1957) was written on the basis of lectures at Vermland in 1956; Norm and Action and The Varieties of Goodness are based on lectures at St. Andrews in 1959-1960; Deontic Logic and the General Theory of Action (1967) encompass courses in Pittsburgh and Cracow; Causality and Determinism is based on a series of lectures in New York in 1976; and the lengthy essay “Of Human Freedom” on two lectures in Helsinki in 1984. Von Wright’s books have been published in sixteen different languages.


It is remarkable that the work of two Finnish philosophers has been discussed in the American book series Library of Living Philosophers. Being honoured with a volume in this series is considered a distinction in philosophy of the same level as being awarded with the Nobel Prize in the sciences or the Fields Medal in mathematics. In addition to von Wright, his student Jaakko Hintikka (*1929) will also be the subject of a forthcoming volume in this prestigious series. Hintikka has held philosophical chairs in the USA since 1964, first at Stanford University, then at Florida State University, and for the last thirteen years at Boston University. During the years 1970-1981 he was a research professor in the Academy of Finland. Like von Wright, Hintikka is one of the most eminent philosophers of our time. His wide and versatile scientific production extends from mathematical and philosophical logic to the philosophy of science, philosophical aesthetics, the philosophy of language, the history of philosophy, and current developments in the field of systematic philosophy.


In the history of Finnish philosophy von Wright and Hintikka began a genuinely new international era. Even though Finland has succeeded in producing during the last few decades a number of internationally distinguished thinkers, von Wright and Hintikka are still the best-known Finnish philosophers around the world.