Wright, Georg Henrik von (1916–2003)

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Georg Henrik von Wright held the Swedish language chair of philosophy at the University of Helsinki from 1946 through 1948 and from 1952 through 1961; in between he was professor at the University of Cambridge (19481951). From 1961 until his retirement he was a research professor in the Academy of Finland. A member of the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland, von Wright lived almost all of his life in Helsinki. According to von Wright, the major influences on his philosophy were Eino Kaila, an important and charismatic figure in Finnish philosophy; G. E. Moore; and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Kaila sparked von Wright's interest in formal matters and his use of logical methods. Moore's writings may have inspired von Wright's unpretentiousness and unrelenting quest for clarity. Wittgenstein had a profound personal influence on von Wrighthe was Wittgenstein's student, then his successor as professor in Cambridge, and finally, with G. E. M. Anscombe and Rush Rhees, one of his literary executors. Yet Wittgenstein's philosophical influences on von Wright's work are less apparent.

Throughout life von Wright combined, to an extent that is not common among today's academic philosophers, two rather different approaches to philosophy: one the passionate commitment of the humanist and the other the detached objectivity of the scholar. The former approach is exemplified by a number of books in Swedish such as Tanke och förkunnelse (Thought and prophecy) (1955), Humanismen som livhsållning (Humanism as a way of life) (1978), and Vetenskapen och förnuftet (Science and reason) (1986). With his largely pessimistic views about the future of humankind, von Wright has won wide public acclaim in the Nordic countries, particularly in Sweden.

In the rest of the world, von Wright is best known for his academic work. He wrote on induction and probability (The Logical Probability of Induction [1941]; A Treatise on Induction and Probability [1951]) and on ethics (The Varieties of Goodness [1963]). But his main reputation lies in modal logic and in the theory of action. In An Essay in Modal Logic (1951), von Wright developed his method of distributive normal forms and analyzed a number of modal systems, one of which is nowadays usually referred to the Gödel/Feys/von Wright system T. In this work von Wright recognized the possibility of modal logics of knowledge and belief (that is, logics in which the modal box operator is interpreted as "the agent knows that" or "the agents believes that"); it was he who introduced the terms epistemic logic and doxastic logic, respectively, for these kinds of logic. This theme was later developed in great detail by von Wright's countryman and one-time student Jaakko Hintikka.

Von Wright's paper "Deontic Logic" in Mind (1951) opened up the new field of deontic logic and was the first in a long series of papers and books in which von Wright elaborated and deepened his analysis. One important insight was that the fruitful study of deontic logic requires a logic of action as a basis, and in Norm and Action and many later works he tried to lay the foundations of such a logic. He is unique among early action theorists in letting his formal logic of action inform the philosophy of action and vice versa.

According to von Wright, to act is to interfere with the course of natureto bring about a change, to bring about an event. This view led him to question the relationship between action and causality and eventually convinced him that an explanation of human action in purely causal terms will always leave out something important. In Explanation and Understanding (1973), he presented an influential examination of practical syllogisms: although they cannot possess logical validity in the ordinary sense, nevertheless they may be accepted as explanations ex post actu.

See also Anscombe, Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret; Ethics, History of; Hintikka, Jaakko; Humanism; Induction; Modal Logic; Moore, George Edward; Probability and Chance; Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann.


works by von wright

The Logical Problem of Induction. Acta Philosophica Fennica, fasc. 3. Helsinki: Societas Philosophica, 1941.

"Deontic Logic." Mind 60 (1951): 115.

"An Essay in Modal Logic." Studies in Logic and the Foundations of Mathematics. Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1951.

A Treatise on Induction and Probability. International Library of Psychology, Philosophy, and Scientific Method. London: Routledge& Kegan Paul, 1951.

Tanke och förkunnelse (Thought and prophecy). Helsinki: Söderström, 1955.

Norm and Action: A Logical Inquiry. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963.

The Varieties of Goodness. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963.

Explanation and Understanding. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press; London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971.

Humanismen som livshållning och andra essayer (Humanism as a way of life and other essays). Helsinki: Söderström, 1978.

Vetenskapen och förnuftet: ett försök till orienteering (Science and reason: An attempt at orientation). Helsinki: Söderström, 1986.

books about von wright

Schilpp, P. A., and L. E. Hahn. The Philosophy of Georg Henrik von Wright. Vol. 19 of The Library of Living Philosophers. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1989.

Krister Segerberg (1996, 2005)

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