Finnish Philosophy in the First Half of the 20th Century
Finnish Philosophy in the First Half of the 20th Century
Finnish philosophy was at a crucial juncture at the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries. The legacy of Snellman's German idealism still exerted an influence after having merged with Neo-Kantian and later also with phenomenological ideas. However, the winds of positivism and naturalism blew stronger as well. This duality characterized Finnish philosophy until the middle of the 20th century. By then, logico-analytic philosophy had established its hegemonic position as the most dynamic and internationally renowned philosophical tradition in Finland.
In this essay, I shall examine Finnish philosophy in the first half of the 20th century in the context of two historical continuums. Such a division is very schematic, for the continuums intersect and blend through the views and influences of individual thinkers. Bertrand Russell, for instance, who is known as a founding father of analytic philosophy, was an important authority for Sven Krohn (1903—99) in his critique of logical empiricism. On the other hand, Eino Kaila's (1890—1958) ideal of a 'deep-mental' life is incomprehensible without a Hegelian conception of values as constantly evolving constructs of human culture. Neither do the two continuums differ in their views about the scope of sensible or possible philosophical research. True enough, philosophers with a positivistic orientation from Edward Westermarck (1862—1939) to Eino Kaila unanimously reject traditional metaphysics. Yet Westermarck became world-famous in philosophy precisely as an ethicist, whereas the logical empiricists with whom Kaila sympathized rejected normative ethics as another form of meaningless metaphysics. Neither is it possible to argue that an emphasis on problems related to argument and justification distinguishes analytic philosophers from others for this feature is not characteristic to analytic philosophy alone, as Dagfinn Follesdal (1997) has pointed out (see also Haaparanta 2003). Therefore, the historical continuums cannot be identified in terms of any philosophical methods, doctrines, problems, or orientations, even if the latter figure in those continuums as their constitutive and reformative elements.
The first historical continuum of Finnish philosophy in the first half of the 20th century ranges from Arvi Grotenfelt (1863-1941) to his pupils J. E. Salomaa (1891-1960), Erik Ahlman (1892-1952) and Sven Krohn. These thinkers share, above all, a view of philosophy as a discipline that aims at the formation of a comprehensive worldview that also includes values. Values, too, have an important role in these philosophers' anti-naturalist views of human nature. Because questions of value do not even in principle belong to the domain of scientific inquiry, the thinkers of this continuum emphasize the autonomy of philosophy in relation to science. Westermarck and Kaila. on the other hand, argue that an intimate connection with the results of empirical science is a vital condition for a progressive philosophy. This second "main trend in Finnish philosophy" (von Wright's expression) also includes Kaila's pupil Georg Henrik von Wright (1916—2003). From his other philosophical "father figure", Ludwig Wittgenstein, von Wright adopted the conception that philosophy is not a science, but instead, aims at the clarification of meanings. In this task, philosophy nevertheless leans on the assistance of a non-empirical science, i.e. logic. Thus, it is possible to find certain cardinal differences between the two continuums. However, the best way to highlight these differences is to get acquainted with the individual thinkers' views.
The idealistic-historical tradition: Grotenfelt, Salomaa, Ahlman and Krohn
Arvi Grotenfelt's major fields of research were the philosophy of history and the history of philosophy. In his philosophy of history, Grotenfelt oriented himself toward a critical examination of the Neo-Kantian philosophy of the history of the Baden school, and Heinrich Rickert's thinking in particular.
Grotenfelt's earliest research focused on experimental psychology that as late as the early 20th century was a part of philosophy. Grotenfelt's doctoral dissertation was based on his research at Wilhelm Wundt's laboratory of experimental psychology in Leipzig. It concerned Weber's law, which states that an increase in sensory intensity is proportional to a relative instead of an absolute increase in stimulus intensity. Grotenfelt adheres to a psychological interpretation of the law, which asserts that the law is not about sensation but about attention. The law also manifests the relativity characteristic of all psychological phenomena. Grotenfelt's interest in experimental psychology also extended to a scientific appraisal of parapsychology.
Grotenfelt's main problem in his philosophy of history concerns the grounds on which a historian selects his or her data. Grotenfelt adopted this question from Rickert who argued that history and cultural sciences differ from natural sciences by focusing on the individual and unique instead of general laws. Nevertheless, Rickert argues that history is an objective science because its material is selected on the basis of objective cultural values. Grotenfelt accepts Rickert's views about the priority of the individual and the role of values in historical research in his works Der Wertschätzung in der Geschichte (1903) and Geschichtliche Wertmassstäbe in der Geschichtsphilosophie, bei Historikern und bei Volksbewusstsein (1905). Yet he points out that cultural values are not established and differentiated enough in order to function as an objective foundation for historical research. However, this does not imply relativism, for Grotenfelt assumes idealistically that the criterion for historically relevant facts is their contribution to the development of the highest mental and spiritual capacities of humankind. On the other hand, the search for general laws is intimately related to history through sociology, for the study of unique events is impossible without the research of general and collective connections. Therefore, Rickert's anti-positivist distinction between generalizing and individualizing sciences is implausible.
Grotenfelt acted as the Professor of Theoretical Philosophy at the University of Helsinki between 1905—30. His pupils included all Finnish philosophers of the following generation, that is, Eino Kaila, J. E. Salomaa, Erik Ahlman and Sven Krohn. Only Kaila oriented himself to experimental psychology and later to neo-positivistic philosophy. Others continued in the tradition of Neo-Kantian or idealistic philosophy. Furthermore, Grotenfelt exerted considerable influence through his Uuden ajan filosofian historia (1913; 1938) ["The History of Philosophy in Modern Times"] in two volumes, which was the first of its kind in Finnish.
J. E. Salomaa
Jalmari Edvard Salomaa studied philosophy under the supervision of Grotenfelt. He also followed the latter's Neo-Kantian orientation and his interest in the history of philosophy and the philosophy of history. In his main work, Totuus ja arvo (1926) ["Truth and Value"] Salomaa asserts that every epistemological position presupposes some metaphysics. This view is a critique of the logical positivists, who argued that we do not need any metaphysics for science tells us what the world is like and the only remaining task for philosophy is to consider if the same concepts and laws apply to the description and explanation of all phenomena. Salomaa maintains that the metaphysical background suppositions of epistemological realism are metaphysical realism, the congruence between knowledge and reality, and a law-like order of the world. In his moral philosophy, Salomaa adheres to the phenomenological view that values are perceived through emotions. The independence of values from the valuing subject that becomes evident in moral experience leads, in turn, to a metaphysics in which values are given an absolute existence. On the other hand, values are realized in culture, which manifests our capacity to free ourselves from the causal relations of nature and project ourselves into the realization of autonomously set ends. In this Kantian view of culture, the end of education is the adoption of objective values. Salomaa supplements these values with the Snellmanian, Finnish ideal of the cultivation of special, national virtues.
In his philosophy of history, Salomaa agrees with Grotenfelt that historians aim to understand unique events and their meaning in opposition to natural sciences, which search for general laws. Salomaa points out that history cannot attain the completely unique because we can only describe reality through general concepts. Salomaa also agrees with Grotenfelt's critique of Rickert, who maintained that objective cultural values provide criteria for the selection of historically relevant facts. Salomaa points out that all human action is related to some cultural values, which therefore, do not suffice as criteria for selection.
Salomaa worked as the Professor of Philosophy (1930-58) and Pedagogics (1932-1955) at the University of Turku. His pupils included Sven Krohn and Urpo Harva (1910—94). Salomaa was a prominent advocate of public education and open university education as well. His most enduring contribution to Finnish philosophy consists of his monographs on Schopenhauer, Snellman and Kant, together with his work in the history of philosophy.
Erik Ahlman began his career as a researcher and teacher of classical philology. However, during the 1920s, his main interests shifted to philosophy which he had studied as a minor subject under Grotenfelt. However, Ahlman was to a considerable extent a self-made philosopher, for his earliest influences came from the popular 'philosophies of life' of the early 20th century. These included Arthur Schopenhauer's voluntarism, Henri Bergson's vitalism, and Friedrich Nietzsche's ethical individualism. These early influences remained significant in Ahlman's later thinking, which was strongly influenced by Max Scheler's phenomenological theories of value and metaphysics.
Above all, Ahlman was interested in values and their relation to humanity and culture. His basic view on values represented subjectivism. In his first book, Arvojen ja välineiden maailma (1920) ["The World of Values and Means"] combines Schopenhauer's metaphysics of will to Nietzsche's ethical demand that every individual must create his or her own values. Ahlman suggests that every individual will contain values that are essential to that person alone, which he or she must disclose and purge of alien influences. Furthermore, those values constitute the cornerstone of individual morality. The problem of purging one's core values of the distortions of introspection is studied in Totuuden probleemi (1929) ["The Problem of Sincerity"]. The 'problem' concerns the verification of values through intuitive, emotional evidence. Ahlman argues that intuition does not provide sufficient reasons for adopting values. Therefore, one must eventually choose them freely in an existentialist manner. For this reason, Ahlman agrees with logical empiricists that value judgments are neither true nor false.
Ahlman's view of culture is idealistic as well. In Kulttuurin perustekijoitä (1939) ["Basic Elements of Culture"], he maintains that the essence of culture can be defined in terms of a ranking order between values that manifests itself in the various domains of culture and that is generally accepted in the community. A normative theory of the foundation of culture is supplemented with a theory of instruments that are applied in the realization of values. Ahlman's philosophy of culture involves critical reflections as well. He agrees with Nietzsche and Oswald Spengler who maintain that Western culture has passed into a state of disorganization and insecurity. Ahlman suggests that along with its loss of authority in scientific questions, Christianity has suffered a blow as an ethical authority as well, and no corresponding worldview has emerged. The fact of value pluralism does not, however, imply that everything is as valuable as everything else or that anything is permissible. Ahlman argues that this kind of fallacy has resulted in a vacuum of objective values, which along with a general confusion has given rise to flagrant selfishness and hedonism on the one hand, and irrational value fanaticism on the other. The Second World War realized Ahlman's sinister meditations.
After the end of World War II, Ahlman immersed himself in philosophical anthropology. Scheler's influence is again obvious but only suggestive: Ahlman's account is based on his early view of spirit as a structure that is distinct from our biological nature. The activity of spirit is manifested in human self-consciousness, shame and other 'higher emotions', a sense of vocation and humour, internal polarity and partial biological unsuitability, and disinterested moral sense.
Ahlman acted as the first Professor of Philosophy and Theoretical Pedagogics at the Jyväskylä Institute of Pedagogics - the present University of Jyväskylä - between 1935-8. He was also the Rector of the university between 1940—48. Before his death in 1952, Ahlman acted for four years as the Professor of Practical Philosophy at the University of Helsinki. Ahlman was a widely respected person during the years of dispute between different philosophical schools. He was a self-critical thinker who did not make polemical attacks against other thinkers. Furthermore, he had interest in and resources for the study of semantical and metaethical problems that were emphasized by the logico-analytic approach. Moreover, Ahlman's philological studies have been characterized as original, pioneering, and long-lasting, and along with Salomaa, Ahlman was the first academic philosopher who taught and applied phenomenology in Finland.
Sven Krohn is known above all as a critic of logical empiricism and as a protagonist of a spiritual view of humanity. Krohn received strong theosophic influences from his parents. He studied philosophy under the guidance of Grotenfelt, who shared Krohn's interest in parapsychology, and Rafael Kar-sten, who had earned his merits as an ethnologist. However, Erik Ahlman and J. E. Salomaa were even more influential; the former supervised Krohn's doctoral thesis Der logische Empirismus (1949) and the latter examined it.
Krohn's conception of philosophy is predominantly phenomenological and hermeneutical. He maintains that philosophy analyses the contents and relations of fundamental concepts that are given to us in a primal condition of human existence. This method is supplemented with the disclosing hermeneutics that Krohn attributes to Immanuel Kant's and Martin Heidegger's thinking. This kind of hermeneutics studies the ontological preconditions of phenomenologically given conceptual schemes. Krohn's thinking incorporates certain theosophical aspects as well. These include the idea of a divine core self, confidence in the scientific verifiability of paranormal phenomena, the doctrine of reincarnation, and the idea of a truth that is recognizable in different religions and philosophies.
Krohn's epistemology is founded on the criticism of logical empiricism. Krohn argues that the basic views of logical empiricism are either flawed or entail absurd consequences. In his metaphysics, Krohn adheres to a dualistic view on the relation between mind and matter. Such concepts as "I", "decision", "responsibility", and "freedom" presuppose a substance-like self. The "core self that comprehends and aspires toward spiritual values is the opposite of an empirical self that constantly faces the threat of falling back to drive- and desire-based willing. The aim of human life is, therefore, the liberation of one's "core self from the prison of the physical-cum-mental "delusive self. This aim also directs Krohn's philosophy of culture in which he attempts to replace the mechanistic-cum-materialistic view of man as a machine with a spiritual view of human nature. Parapsychology and religions provided additional evidence for Krohn's dualistic conception of reality and human nature.
Krohn acted as Salomaa's successor at the University of Turku, and his term, 1960—70, proved to be a vital research period for phenomenologico-hermeneutical and Marxist philosophy. Krohn's nearest disciples were Lauri Rauhala (1914—), Lauri Routila (1934-), Matti Juntunen (1943-79), and Lauri Mehtonen (1945—). The evaluation of Krohn's significance in Finnish philosophy has been an extremely controversial issue. Nevertheless, it appears to be an indisputable fact that he was the most significant protagonist of phenomenological philosophy in the late 20th century in Finland.
The tradition of postivism and analytic philosophy: Westermarck, Kaila and von Wright
Edward Westermarck was a philosopher, sociologist, and cultural anthropologist. He oriented himself early on to British philosophy, whose empiricism, clarity, and sense of reality he esteemed. These qualities were lacking from the speculative German philosophy, which was the dominant tradition in Finland during Westermarck's student days. As a consequence, he conducted the bulk of his research in England and published it in English.
G. H. von Wright suggests that Westermarck's guideline in his research work was the evolutionary idea that the origin and development of social phenomena can be studied in the same manner as the history of organic nature. This conception emerges already from Westermarck's doctoral thesis, which became part of The History of Human Marriage (1891) — a work that made its author world-famous and has been translated into seven languages. In this work, Westermarck refuted on evolutionary grounds and by relying on comprehensive historical data the previously held view of promiscuity as the original form of cohabitation between the sexes. Instead, he demonstrated that the first human societies were monogamous.
The evolutionary paradigm guided Westermarck's other major project as well. This was his research into the origin and development of morality. Even if Westermarck regarded himself primarily as a philosopher, The Origin and Development of Moral Ideas (1906; 1908) in two volumes is an eclectic study: it examines morality as a biological, psychological, and social phenomenon on the basis of wide anthropological, ethnological, and historical data. Westermarck argues that morality is a social phenomenon that is based on distinct emotions of moral approbation and resentment. Even if moral emotions are common to all people, the objects of approbation and resentment vary between individuals, societies, and times. Neither is it possible to reach an agreement on the objects of moral approbation and resentment for emotions cannot be true or false. This entails that morality is always subjective and relative and that there cannot be any normative moral truths. In Ethical Relativity (1932), Westermarck repeats, elaborates and defends his moral theory against the criticism that it had received during the previous quarter of a century.
Westermarck's final philosophical work was Christianity and Morals (1939), as well. This book sums up the moral critique that Westermarck mounted against Christianity throughout his production. Westermarck distinguishes between two basic theories of salvation, the moralistic one of Jesus, and a theological one of Paul. He argues that the ethics of Jesus is based on his impartial and disinterested moral emotions that are guided by extended altruism, whereas the Pauline view that requires faith in religious dogmas for salvation goes against an enlightened moral sense. Furthermore, Westermarck points out that Christianity cannot take credit for the moral progress of the last few centuries. Rather, the credit for progress should be attributed to the Enlightenment.
Westermarck carved out for himself a distinguished career both in Finland and England, and he is still one of the best-known Finnish scientists in the world. Westermarck acted as a Professor of Practical Philosophy at the University of Helsinki between 1906-1918, and in 1919 he became Professor of Philosophy and Rector at the Swedish-speaking university of Turku, Abo Akademi. He retired from the latter post in 1930 and from the former in 1932. Westermarck also held a Chair of Sociology at the University of London between 1907— 1930. From a historical perspective, he is known above all as the last major representative of the classical English school of social anthropology, along with James Frazer and Edward Tylor. Westermarck imported to Finland the empirical tradition of social and cultural studies. His pupils Rolf Lagerborg (1874— 1959) and Rafael Karsten (1879-1956) became professors of philosophy. However, only Lagerborg was original as a philosopher. Lagerborg established himself as a behaviourist and positivist and as a relentless critic of Christianity. Westermarck's influence was greatest in sociology, and as a tribute to him, the Finnish Society of Sociology, established in 1940, was named after him. However, one does not often find Westermarck's name in contemporary discussions, the reason being the rejection of his evolutionary and comparative research methods after World War II. This same fact has obstructed the evaluation of Westermarck's ethics. Even if Westermarck himself held his "scientific ethics" to be a form of philosophical study, his research into biological, psychological, and sociological laws of moral evaluation does not qualify as philosophical from a modern point of view.
Eino Kaila was a philosopher and psychologist and one of the foremost opinion leaders of his generation in Finnish cultural life. Kaila rooted within Finland the tradition of empirically and scientifically minded thought whose seeds Edward Westermarck had sown a generation earlier, as G. H. von Wright (1944) has pointed out.
Kaila started his career as a psychologist, and his view of human nature is naturalistic. However, Kaila does not accept reductionism but instead adheres to psychophysical parallelism. Kaila's main contribution to psychology is his work Persoonallisuus (1934) ["Personality"] in which he applies the Gestalt theory developed by Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang Kohler. Kaila's view is also related to Freudian depth psychology. Kaila maintains that personality is a multilayered, internally tensioned structure that consists of animal, mental, and "deep-mental" needs. This whole structure pertains to the explanation of human behaviour. Needs explain the purpose-oriented meaningfulness that is characteristic of all behaviour.
The cornerstone of Kaila's philosophical thought is the explication, analysis and justification of the worldview that goes back to his early experience of "philosophical awakening". Kaila was attracted to monistic views that were able to bring together apparent gaps between "the so-called material and the so-called psychic, the inorganic and the organic, and the corporeal and the mental" (Kaila 1992, 506). Kaila's first and only comprehensive exposition of his monistic philosophy of nature was Nykyinen maailmankäsitys (1929) ["Contemporary View of the World"]. This synthesis is founded on the principle of holism, according to which wholes manifest new qualitative features that cannot be reduced to the qualities of their parts. Kaila suggests that "matter" is a relational system of structural elements whose content manifest qualities. Qualities — such as experienced sounds, lights, or colours — can be defined as field states of relational systems. In this way, reality can be conceived as material from a structural point of view and mental from a qualitative point of view. Metaphysical monism can be reached if qualities and structures are interpreted as manifestations of the same, ontologically neutral stuff.
In the 1930s, Kaila's thinking became entwined with the research problems of the Vienna Circle. It is an interesting detail that Kaila introduced "logical empiricism" as his epistemological position as early as in 1926, that is, before the Vienna Circle philosophers adopted this designation. Kaila sums up his own logical empiricism in Inhimillinen tieto (1939) ["Human Knowledge"] in four theses. The first principle states that sentences which are not true on conceptual grounds cannot be true independently of experience. The principle of testability argues that statements about reality must have a "real content", that is, their truth must imply something determinate in experience. The principle of translatability, in turn, requires that it must be possible to translate every theory with real content into the language of human experience. Logical behaviourism, finally, argues that sentences about a subject's immediate experience can be translated into sentences about the subject's observable behaviour and states in his or her brain. The most original aspect of Kaila's theory is, nevertheless, the notion of invariance. It refers, as von Wright (1992, 81) points out. to a regularity or a lawful order "which subsumes different phenomena under a common concept or heading and which enables us to anticipate or predict new phenomena under that same heading". Concepts express regularities and they constitute a series of logical constructs that range from the contents of immediate experience to theoretical concepts. However, the constitution of reality works the other way round. Theoretical objects are thus more real than objects of immediate experience.
Kaila renounced logical empiricism during the 1940s due to problems with logical behaviourism and the principle of translatability. His main interest shifted to the field theory of physics which he saw as a promising foundation for his monistic worldview. As a new form of causality, required by the field theory, Kaila introduced the notion of "terminal causality". In contrast to the traditional "initial causality" that explains phenomena in terms of initial conditions, terminal causality aims at an explanation in terms of side, limit and end conditions. Kaila's attempt to create a philosophy of nature that was based on terminal causality remained, however, unfinished.
Kaila's ethics and philosophy of culture are founded on the ideal of "deep mental" life. Kaila maintains that human beings have a species-typical need to deep-mental life, that is, to experience and realize aesthetic, ethical, and religious values. Deep-mental life shares the distinguishing features of classical art: depth, authenticity, and multilayeredness. These qualities also manifest themselves also in a religious sense of life, which is characterized by experiences of piety, sanctity, and deep meaningfulness. Kaila admits that high religions are "billows" of deep-mentality. Yet on the other hand, they are "spiritual insurance companies" in which lower needs, such as the need for self-protection and the will for power, find channels for expression. Therefore, Kaila finds his foremost models of deep-mentality in the tradition of European high culture, rather than religion.
Kaila acted as the first Professor of Philosophy at the University of Turku between 1921—1930. The most dynamic and influential period of Kaila's academic career was, however, his term as Professor of Theoretical Philosophy at the University of Helsinki between the years 1930 and 1948. For the last decade of his life, Kaila was a member of the Finnish Academy. Even if Kaila did not leave significant traces on the international development of his fields of research, his contribution to the development of Finnish philosophy and science was immense. Kaila conveyed fresh ideas and approaches to the Finnish academic community. These included experimental psychology, hereditary psychology, Gestalt theory, the psychology of personality, mathematical logic, and logical empiricism. The last became the dominant orientation in Finland and in the Nordic Countries after the Second World War.
Kaila founded the first psychology laboratories in Finland at Turku and Helsinki. He also educated the first generation of Finnish psychologists as his own assistants. Kaila initiated the establishment of the chair of psychology at the University of Helsinki in 1951, its first holder being Kai von Fieandt (1909—2000). Other pupils of Kaila who became professors of psychology were Arvo Lehtovaara (1905—85), Ohto Oksala (1905-84), Kullervo Rainio (1924-), and Martti Takala (1924-). In philosophy, Kaila establish a school that dominated Finnish philosophy until the 1980s. Kaila's pupils included G. H. von Wright and Oiva Ketonen (1913—2001), who both became members of Finnish Academy, and Erik Stenius (1911—90) who established himself as an internationally renowned Wittgenstein scholar. Even Jaakko Hintikka (1929—), who in fact was von Wright's pupil, studied under Kaila for a while. Together these philosophers fortified and passed on Kaila's influence to the following generations of researchers. Kaila, who adhered to the thesis of unified science, exerted an influence on natural, social, and behavioural sciences as well.
Even if Kaila considered logic an important instrument in the analysis of philosophical problems, he was not really a logician or an analytic philosopher. The linguistic emphasis of analytic philosophy was alien to Kaila and he did not accept the Vienna Circle's attempt to restrict philosophy to semantic and epistemic research because this programme implied the rejection of Kaila's cherished metaphysical monism as an insoluble quasi-problem. Therefore it was G. H. von Wright alone who became the pioneer of logico-analytic philosophy in Finland.
Georg Henrik von Wright
Georg Henrik von Wright who started his career in the first half of the 20th century was the most prominent Finnish philosopher both internationally and in his native Finland in the last century. He is best known for his pioneering research in logic, philosophy of science, and action theory, along with his critique of Western culture. Von Wright crystallized his view of philosophy into three convictions: "that philosophy is not one of the sciences, that its method is logical analysis, and that its primary concern is to clarify meaning" (von Wright 1989, 45). The persons whose influence von Wright evaluates as most significant for him were Kaila, Wittgenstein, and G. E. Moore. Kaila invoked von Wright's interest in logic and its use in the analysis of philosophical problems. From Wittgenstein he learned that one cannot hope for any final solutions in philosophy. Instead, philosophy aims at calming the mind that is tormented by philosophical problems. In accordance with Moore, von Wright emphasizes that philosophy has to reject arguments that conflict with common sense and concentrate on analysing the meaning of the remaining arguments instead.
Von Wright has been characterized as a pioneer who has found new objects of study both in new questions and in forgotten and neglected fields of philosophy. His thinking was persistent and dynamic. Over the long term, in his many publications he developed and elaborated his views of the same basic subjects, such as modal logic, practical reasoning, action theory, the good of man, and value rationality. (See Risto Vilkko's essay in Ajatuksen kulku (Trains of Thought)).
The revolutionary idea of von Wright's modal logic is the insight into conformity between quantifiers in modal concepts and in predicate logic. Von Wright noticed that the alethic modal concepts "possible", "impossible", and "necessary" can be defined in terms of each other and negation in the same way as existential and universal quantifiers. The same applies by analogy to deontic concepts, "ought to", "may", and "must not", and to epistemic modalities, "verified", "undecided", and "falsified". Von Wright's theory also differed from its predecessors in not seeing modal logic as an alternative to prepositional logic but as its upper structure. This view has made modal logic into one of the most researched fields in philosophical logic.
The premises of practical reasoning consist of an intention of reaching a goal together with a belief concerning the necessary means of reaching this goal. The conclusion is an action that realizes or embarks on the realization of these means. The philosophical problem concerns the conditions on which practical reasoning can be logically binding. The theory of practical reasoning led von Wright to pluralism in the philosophy of science in Explanation and Understanding (1971). There he noticed that practical reasoning, which concerns the understanding of an action's meaning from the agent's perspective, offers the humanities and social sciences an explanatory method that differs from causal explanation in natural sciences.
Practical reasoning pertains to von Wright's theory of action as well. He distinguishes between the results and consequences of an action. His example is an opening of a window which results in the opening of the window with a possible consequence of ventilation in the room. A result has a logical connection to action, whereas consequences only have a causal connection to it. The fact that actions have causal consequences does not, however, imply that they could be explained causally. From the perspective of practical reasoning, actions are means that an agent undertakes in order to realize his or her goal. The determinants of human action fall into two groups: internal and external. The former include volitional attitudes, such as wants and intentions, and epistemic attitudes, such as beliefs and reasons. External determinants are rules that are learned through participation in social practices. Such rules include laws, moral norms, customs, and traditions. These determine our behaviour either as internalized duties or by the normative pressure they exert on us.
The core concept of von Wright's moral philosophy is "the good of man" that refers to well-being and happiness. Both happiness and well-being are "necessary" or "natural" ends in the sense that the pursuit of their opposites — unhappiness and ill-being — as intrinsic ends would be perverse and irrational. The good of man defines moral goodness as well, for moral norms and duties are technical norms that concern the means of reaching the good of man. Another central notion in von Wright's ethics is "value-rationality", i.e. to qualify the preferential choices of an agent with knowledge of the causal consequences and prerequisites connected with attaining the optional ends. A reasonable agent does not pursue ends that require means that cost more than the rewards that the attainment of those ends would provide. Yet value-rationality does not guarantee that all people will choose the same values. Thus, von Wright adheres, nevertheless, to a subjectivist theory of value. Weakness of will is also a serious practical problem that is connected with value-rationality. One chooses an action whose consequences are desired in the short run, but whose long-term consequences turn it into an unwanted one. Since the 1970s, von Wright warned his Western contemporaries about the collective shortsightedness of this kind in his philosophy of culture.