von Wright, Georg Henrik

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Philosopher and inventor of deontic logic, Georg Henrik von Wright (1916–2003), who was born in Helsinki, Finland, on June 14, was also a cultural critic of technoscientific progress. In philosophy, von Wright is best known as Ludwig Wittgenstein's successor in the chair of philosophy at Cambridge (1948–1951), and for participating in the publishing of Wittgenstein's papers posthumously. Von Wright was also a major contributor to the rebirth of modal logic in 1950s. Among his most important academic works are Norm and Action (1963), Varieties of Goodness (1963), and Explanation and Understanding (1971). The last had a distinctive role in efforts to bridge the gap between the Anglo-American and continental European traditions in philosophy.

Apart from his work within academic philosophy, von Wright was an important public intellectual in Finland and Scandinavia. Throughout his career he wrote philosophical essays in which he dealt extensively with the questions of the effects of science and technology on human life. He presented his cultural analysis in Vetenskapet och förnuftet. Ett försök till orienteering (Science and reason: An attempt at orientation), published in 1986.

Von Wright's cultural philosophy focuses on the critical situation of modern Western civilization, seen as threatening the whole globe. Many of the most serious problems of the modern world can be understood as direct consequences of techno-scientific advance. Von Wright wrote about the ecological crisis, the existence of weapons of mass destruction capable of devastating all human life, the ethical vacuum that has followed secularization and collapse of traditional value systems, and the expansion of instrumental reason in all areas of human life.

Von Wright sought the origins of these problems in the history of ideas. He located the roots of modern science and technology in the objectification of nature, the inclination toward mechanistic and deterministic causal explanations, and reductionism. The manipulative ethos of modern natural science is explicit in the writings of the pioneering philosophers of science, such as Francis Bacon (1561–1626) and René Descartes (1596–1650). It is clear that this conceptual framework has produced impressive results. However, von Wright asserted that the cost has been high.

Furthermore, von Wright noted how science is becoming an ever more important force for production. This development is problematic for science itself. The crucial question concerns what will happen to truth as the goal of science, if science becomes dependent on demands for profit, and if new discoveries are kept secret for commercial and military purposes. Von Wright also doubted the ability of modern science to provide a culturally understandable and meaningful worldview.

Although von Wright arrived at his conclusions independently, his analysis of techno-scientific progress has predecessors. Cultural critics such as Oswald Spengler, Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, and the thinkers of Frankfurt School developed similar themes. Von Wright's achievement is the sobriety and transparency of his analysis. His background in analytical philosophy makes his argument especially interesting, because this tradition has usually been very optimistic concerning modern natural science.


FSEE ALSO Scandinavian and Nordic Perspectives; Wittgenstein, Ludwig.


Schilpp, Paul Arthur, and Lewis Edwin Hahn, eds. (1989). The Library of Living Philosophers, Vol. 19: The Philosophy of Georg Henrik von Wright. La Salle, IL: Open Court.

von Wright, Georg Henrik. (1963). The Varieties of Goodness. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

von Wright, Georg Henrik. (1986). Vetenskapen och förnuftet. Ett försök till orienteering [Science and reason: An attempt at orientation]. Borgå, Sweden: Söderström.

von Wright, Georg Henrik. (1993). The Tree of Knowledge and Other Essays. Leiden: Brill.