Woodger, Joseph Henry (1894–1981)

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Joseph Henry Woodger, the British biologist, was born at Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. He was graduated from University College, London, where he studied zoology, and after war service returned there to teach. The rest of his academic career was associated with the University of London, as reader in biology from 1922 to 1947 and professor of biology from 1947 to 1959. In the term of 1949-1950 he was appointed Tarner lecturer at Trinity College, Cambridge, whose philosophersC. D. Broad, Bertrand Russell, and Alfred North Whiteheadgreatly influenced his early outlook. Later, the influence of the logicians Rudolf Carnap and Alfred Tarski can be seen in his writings, some of which are highly formal studies of the language and principles of biology. The chief work of his early period is Biological Principles (1929); the two best-known works of his later period are The Axiomatic Method in Biology (1937) and Biology and Language (1952).

Underlying the whole of Woodger's activities as a philosopher of science is his concern with a single problem generated by "the contrast between the brilliant skill, ingenuity and care bestowed upon observation and experiment in biology, and the almost complete neglect of caution in regard to the definition and use of the concepts in terms of which its results are expressed." The effect of this has been to arrest the development of the life sciences. Hence, in Biological Principles Woodger proposed to examine a number of key concepts that have entered into the chronic controversies and antitheses of biology, such as those between mechanism and vitalism, preformation and epigenesis, teleology and causation, structure and function, organism and environment, and body and mind. He employed the techniques of analysis made familiar by the Cambridge philosophers of the time. These techniques required clarity and precision in the use of ordinary English expressions, but no use of logical symbolism was introduced. Woodger showed that many of the traditional disputes arose either from failure to eliminate metaphysical elements from biological topics or from shortcomings in the biologists' language, which was often sloppy and imprecise. Trouble was also caused by the implicit adoption of theories of knowledge that were not critically evaluated. He objected to phenomenalism, for example, because the arguments used by phenomenalists presupposed the very knowledge that they declared unattainableknowledge about brains and sense organs as physical objects in the world. In his own alternative to phenomenalism, Woodger contended that the existence of such objects is a hypothesis that "seems unavoidable for anyone who does not believe that when he uses language he is always talking to himself" (Biology and Language, p. 69).

In his subsequent work Woodger turned to mathematical logic as a means of reconstructing the language of biology. Here he made some pioneer contributions. The Axiomatic Method in Biology used the machinery of Whitehead and Russell's Principia Mathematica to construct a logical calculus that could be applied to certain nonmetrical concepts of genetics, embryology, and taxonomy. The standard apparatus of logical constants, logical variables, postulates, and theorems was taken over, and to it was added a set of ten undefined "biological constants" together with postulates concerning them. The resulting axiom system permitted the deduction of a number of consequences in the form of precise specifications of such notions as "gametes," "zygotes," "cell hierarchies," "alleles," and so on. A simplified version of this calculus was given in The Technique of Theory Construction (Chicago, 1939), in which a specimen theory that is a fragment of the earlier system was neatly developed.

Biology and Language showed how these matters could be approached from the reverse direction. In a section devoted to the reconstruction of the language of genetics, Woodger began not by axiomatizing the set of genetical statements but by recasting observation records in symbolic form and then introducing piecemeal the technical vocabulary needed to move to successively higher levels of theory. This book went beyond classical symbolic logic in its discussion of the language of evolutionary studies, where Woodger developed a special branch of set theory in order to reconcile the gradualness in evolutionary changes with the demand that passage from one taxonomic category to another must take place in one generation.

Logicians have been more appreciative than biologists of Woodger's "experiments" in applied logistic. The abstract formalisms are clear, rigorous, and interesting as logical exercises. Yet although the claims made for them are modest, it might well be argued that it is premature to produce axiomatizations of existing biological knowledge or even that biology is not the sort of science that can be fully reconstructed in axiomatic terms.

See also Broad, Charlie Dunbar; Carnap, Rudolf; Organismic Biology; Philosophy of Biology; Philosophy of Science; Russell, Bertrand Arthur William; Tarski, Alfred; Whitehead, Alfred North.


works by woodger

Biological Principles. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1929.

The Axiomatic Method in Biology. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1937.

Biology and Language. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1952.

works on woodger

Berkeley, E. C. "Conditions Affecting the Application of Symbolic Logic." Journal of Symbolic Logic 7 (1942): 160168.

Carnap, Rudolf. Introduction to Symbolic Logic and Its Application, 213225. New York: Dover, 1958.

Goudge, T. A. "Science and Symbolic Logic." Scripta Mathematica 9 (1943): 6980.

Gregg, J. R., and F. T. C. Harris, eds. Form and Strategy in Science: Studies Dedicated to Joseph Henry Woodger on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Reidel, 1964.

T. A. Goudge (1967)