Wisdom, John Oulton (J. O.) (1908–93), philosopher and psychoanalyst, was born in Dublin on 29 December 1908, only child of Thomas Hume Wisdom, brewery clerk, and his English-born wife Jane, daughter of Dr Henry Oulton of St Stephen's Green. The Cambridge language philosopher Arthur John Terence Wisdom, known as John Wisdom (1904–93), was his cousin. His paternal aunt, F. Eva Wisdom (d. 1971), from whom he eventually inherited a family property (Wilmont House, Castlebridge, Co. Wexford, with 140 acres), was a nurse and cookery writer in Dublin in the 1920s. Although he travelled the world, Wisdom regularly revisited Castlebridge (a village north of Wexford town, which by the end of the twentieth century had become a suburb) and retired there in 1979.
The breakdown of caste Wisdom was educated at Earlsfort House School, Dublin. In his mature work, when discussing the difficulty of assessing observer accounts, Wisdom recalls an incident when he and another boy absented themselves from school to attend an Armistice Day commemoration in central Dublin. The demonstration dispersed prematurely but peacefully after republicans exploded a smoke bomb in the crowd; to Wisdom's surprise, on returning to the school the other boy gave a lurid description of a violent dispersal. The story illustrates Wisdom's preferred self-image as cool-headed rationalist, but also implies that the boy's fantasies reflect the fears of the Anglo-Irish minority in the troubled years after 1918.
The Wisdom family were members of the Church of Ireland, and some passing remarks suggest Wisdom received a conventionally religious upbringing. In adult life, however, he was a rationalist and material atheist (i.e., he believed that while the existence of God could not be definitively proved or disproved, it was irrelevant to human existence). Wisdom saw the disappearance of God as a social reality (i.e., people might still believe in God but no longer allowed major life decisions to be influenced by this belief) as reflecting a wider crisis of the western self-image: the breakdown of belief in a hierarchically ordered universe in which every person, however low in the social hierarchy, could see themselves as occupying an exalted place in the cosmic order as children of God. Wisdom thought that many discoveries, such as those of Marx and Freud, had contributed to this breakdown, and that Einstein's challenge to the Newtonian world-picture with its constitutional monarch, First Mover God, had had more influence than generally realised. (Wisdom took a lifelong interest in cybernetics, the science of self-regulating feedback systems, in the view that its implications made a First Mover less likely and more remote even than the Newtonian God and as a possible solution to the mind-body problem. In the 1950s he was a founder and president of the Society for Psychosomatic Research.) In Wisdom's opinion, however, the decisive blow against the old world-picture had been struck by Darwin's revelation that mankind was essentially one of the beasts, and its corollary: that if species were mutable, belief in a distinct and unchanging essence separating man from beast was much less sustainable.
In Wisdom's view, the old world-picture was quietly decaying before 1914, but its destruction was accelerated by the first world war, and the second world war swept away most surviving enclaves where the older mentality lingered. Examples of change cited by Wisdom included feminism and replacement of Victorian emphasis on saving with Keynesian promotion of spending and money velocity. (Wisdom admired Keynes and commented on his writings on probability.) If, as Wisdom himself put it in Nietzschean terms, the history of philosophy consists of important autobiographies (Metamorphosis, 166), witnessing as a youth the collapse of the late-Victorian certainties inculcated by his teachers and parents was a central stimulus to his philosophical enterprise.
Wisdom's occasional references to his Anglo-Irish background (notably a discursion in his study of Berkeley (pp 223–4), which discusses how the Anglo-Irish resembled and differed from the English and those whom Wisdom called the 'Celtic Irish', and how the community had been transformed after 1914 by wartime deaths, post-1922 emigration, and the tendency for those remaining in Ireland to identify more closely with the 'Celtic Irish' than had previously been the case) indicates that he regarded the post-1914 fate of the Anglo-Irish as a local aspect of this ongoing breakdown, both terrifying and liberating, of hierarchies and castes. In some late writings Wisdom remarks that the treatment of the Anglo-Irish minority in the post-independence Irish state was remarkably civilised by comparison with the fate of other deposed ruling castes.
College and postgraduate career In Michaelmas term 1926 Wisdom matriculated in TCD after winning a junior and school exhibition. He won first-class honours at the little-go examination (taken soon after matriculation to test the quality of students), and studied philosophy and mathematics. During his undergraduate career Wisdom won a foundation scholarship in mathematics, a senior exhibition, the Michael Roberts prize and the Lloyd exhibition. He graduated in 1931 with honours in mathematics and a first in philosophy. He was also a prime mover in the establishment of the TCD Metaphysical Society in 1929, and represented Trinity at golf. Wisdom was a former member of the Rathfarnham Golf Club but entered Royal Dublin as a university member. In 1928 he was runner-up in the Irish close amateur championship. In 1931 Wisdom captained the Dublin University Club and by his insistence on professional-standard coaching and training led the team to their first ever victories in the Junior Cup and the Barton Shield for senior foursomes; he also led them to gallant defeats against the Oxford and Cambridge golf teams. While undertaking postgraduate work at Selwyn College, Cambridge, he represented Cambridge in a golf tournament against Oxford in March 1933.
At Cambridge, Wisdom attended the lectures of G. E. Moore and Ludwig Wittgenstein, and later paid tribute to Moore for initiating him into the then dominant school of logical positivism, which sought to assimilate philosophy to a positivst interpretation of the natural sciences by arguing that all statements which were not logically or empirically verifiable were meaningless. Wisdom was, however, primarily a TCD postgraduate, and it was from TCD that he received his Ph.D. in 1933 for a dissertation, supervised by Professor H. S. Macran, on the relationship between Hegel and realism.
After teaching briefly at Trinity, Wisdom spent eight years teaching science and mathematics in British secondary schools while engaged in further philosophical research. In a series of articles in the TCD journal Hermathena (1939, 1941, 1942, 1953), Wisdom revolutionised understanding of the contribution of George Berkeley (qv) to mathematical understanding by his closely reasoned negative criticism of the assumption, underlying Isaac Newton's mathematical technique, that space was infinitely divisible; although Berkeley's criticisms were ultimately disproven, they highlighted genuine weaknesses in mathematical understanding. The full significance of Wisdom's articles, the most sustained piece of research he ever undertook, was not recognised until the later work of Imre Lakatos on the fallibility of mathematics. (In later life Wisdom claimed to have solved the paradoxes of Zeno of Elea, which similarly turn on the question of whether space is infinitely divisible.)
In the late 1930s Wisdom prepared the first draft of a wider study of Berkeley, which became the basis of The unconscious origin of Berkeley's philosophy (1953), and there may be an element of identification in that book's respectful description of the young Berkeley, confidently setting out in his student notebooks many of the concepts he would later develop, as a 'philosophical dictator' confident in the awareness of his powers and uncompromising in his challenge to lazy assumptions. Wisdom always remained a polymath, striving to create a synthesis incorporating philosophy, the natural and social sciences, and psychology, based on his own deep knowledge of each discipline. He was notable for clarity of style and Shavian willingness to provoke the reader.
Psychoanalysis Wisdom's development was not simply a triumphant progress. He had manic-depressive tendencies, which may have been related to a wider sense of intellectual crisis and inner isolation. (Wisdom liked to suggest that the disproportionate number of philosophers who were social misfits and male celibates suggested that the basic impulse behind philosophy was the desire to establish a basis for communication with fellow human beings.)
His psychological difficulties led him to Freudian psychoanalysis. In 1930 he was analysed by Ernest Jones (1879–1958), Freud's official biographer and principal literary executor. He found the experience helpful, trained as an analyst himself in the late 1940s, and became a lifelong guest member of the Psychoanalytic Society, to which he read several papers. On Freud's 80th birthday he contributed an admiring profile of 'one of the most misunderstood men alive' to the Irish Times (6 May 1936). In the post-war period, Wisdom, like Jones, was strongly influenced in his Freudianism by Melanie Klein, who placed greater emphasis on 'primitive' dream-consciousness than orthodox Freudians (who focus more on the ego), and by Wilfrid Bion. Wisdom's stature among psychoanalysts was indicated by an invitation to become one of the editor-translators of the standard English-language edition of Freud's works; he refused in order to concentrate on his own projects. Throughout his career as a philosopher Wisdom engaged in extensive clinical and seminar work with analysts; colleagues both admired and were daunted by his willingness to participate in the treatment of severely disturbed asylum patients, in the belief that analysis could help them as it helped him.
Academia and the LSE; Karl Popper Wisdom's career was affected by the second world war, though he did not see active service. His first book, Causation and the foundations of science, discussing the question of determinism versus free will, had already been proofread and typeset by a Paris publisher when the fall of France prevented its publication; the publisher preserved the type and it was eventually published in 1946. From 1943 to 1947 he was assigned by the British Council to Farouk I University in Alexandria, Egypt; his second book, The metamorphosis of philosophy (1947), was published in Cairo. It reflects the developing and eventually overwhelming reaction against logical positivism's unduly restrictive view of what constituted meaningful discourse. Wisdom pointed out that the logical positivist view of theological and metaphysical statements as simply meaningless failed to account for the ability of practitioners of those disciplines to engage in mutually intelligible discourse. Wisdom suggested the answer could be supplied by psychoanalysis, with its exploration of the dream-logic behind the fantasies through which we address our emotional needs.
In 1947 Wisdom was appointed to a lectureship in philosophy at the London School of Economics, becoming a reader in 1953 and teaching logic and the philosophy of science. Wisdom worked closely with Karl Popper, then head of the department, and was profoundly influenced by him. He accepted Popper's falsificationist interpretation of scientific method (the scientist formulates a theory and then devises tests which might falsify it; knowledge always remains provisional and may be qualified by a stronger theory, as Newton was by Einstein) as distinct from the traditional inductionist view (the scientist gathers raw data and uses them to formulate a theory to be confirmed by experiment). Wisdom's Foundations of inference in natural science (1952) was the first major statement of Popperian theory in English (predating the appearance of Popper's earlier works in translation).
For the rest of his career Wisdom remained a Popperian, and one of his major projects was to extend the Popperian analysis of the natural sciences into the social sciences. He was not an uncritical disciple; he thought Popper's criticisms of holism and historicism (i.e., the belief that reality could be grasped as a whole, and that history was shaped by intelligible laws) possessed great force and were finally decisive. (Indeed, Wisdom suspected such Weltanschauungen or schemata – a concept which assumed increasing importance in his later thought – could not be dispensed with in formulating a theory, and that such world-views were never finally disproved but simply marginalised as they appeared less relevant to humanity's concerns.) Wisdom also thought that Popper's methodological individualism was insufficient (since it failed to recognise that institutions develop identities separate from individual members) and that this shortcoming was a by-product of Popper's overwhelming concern to reassert liberalism against totalitarianism. Where Popper (and another LSE colleague, Ernest Gellner) regarded Freud and Marx as quintessential pseudo-scientists peddling untestable and hence meaningless theories, Wisdom maintained that as social scientists Freud and Marx exemplified Popper's method of devising a hypothesis before gathering data, and that Popper's criticism gave insufficient attention to the possibility that a hypothesis might be untestable in practice but not in principle. Wisdom himself proposed several means by which specific Freudian theories could be tested by Popperian criteria.
Wisdom established a reputation among his students as a forceful, generous and open-minded teacher, notable for ability to listen to what others had to say and develop it, and for skill in chairing seminars and moderating conflicts (he regularly acted as intermediary between students and the less accessible Popper). Wisdom encouraged postgraduates to publish in the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, which he edited (1952–63) and developed into a world-class journal; he even invited students to stay with him at weekends while he taught them how to write essays.
Wisdom's hopes for a synthesis of philosophy and psychoanalysis, however, received a setback with the reception of The unconscious origin of Berkeley's philosophy (no. 47 in the International Psychoanalytical Library edited by Ernest Jones), which aimed to provide the first full-length psychoanalytic study of a philosopher. (Wisdom had offered psychoanalytical interpretations of Descartes and Schopenhauer in earlier journal articles.) After a brisk account of Berkeley's life and thought, drawing on the pioneering researches of A. A. Luce (qv) and others, Wisdom attempted to explain why a mind of such tremendous analytical power – for example, Wisdom saw The querist, with its emphasis on money velocity, as proto-Keynesian, and believed much harm could have been avoided if Adam Smith had paid attention to it – could produce a philosophy which in its overall scope was clearly fantasy. Wisdom argued that since Berkeley never explained divine causation, his resort to God as universal cause simply begged the question. Wisdom suggested that this enigma could be clarified by Freudian and Kleinian theories of infant development; thus Berkeley's hostility to matter is presented as a reaction against his own body's production of faeces (seen as poison), his attempt to found an American college in Bermuda is an attempt to assume the role of father/god in a new island free from the corruption overcoming Ireland (Wisdom cites Jones's psychoanalytic interpretation of Irish hostility to partition as reflecting identification of the island with the body of the supposedly virgin mother), and Berkeley's late advocacy of tar water as panacea attempts to purge psychosomatic illnesses induced by unconscious attribution of the failure of the college project to self-poisoning.
In retrospect, the book was regarded even by psychoanalysts as unduly reductive – like much early psychoanalytic work. Although Wisdom emphasised that his analysis was not meant to pathologise Berkeley and that his complexes had not kept the bishop from being both a fine man and a great thinker, established Berkeley scholars reviewed The unconscious origin in cloacal terms and intimated that it was not the bishop of Cloyne who was obsessed with faeces. Wisdom believed this reaction contributed to his failure to secure a chair in a British university. This did not restrain Wisdom from further attempts at collective psychoanalysis; he suggested in the early 1960s that the sense of crisis affecting Britain reflected a collective sub-clinical depression caused by the breakdown of the gentleman/player divide and the consequent inability of gentlemanly social rituals to perform their traditional role of containing and dispersing aggression.
To the New World In 1965 Wisdom left the LSE and moved to North America, where his prolific publications carried more weight than in the less quantified British system. The American system was also better paid; an important consideration, as he had acquired new family responsibilities. After giving the 1966 Taft memorial lectures in philosophy at the University of Cincinnati, he taught for two years (1966–8) as distinguished visiting professor at the University of Southern California (living in a house on Malibu Beach) and for one year (1968–9) at State University of New York–Fredonia (in the far west of the state beside Lake Erie) with frequent guest lectures at other SUNY campuses. After Wisdom's attempt to make the small and remote Fredonia campus a major centre for academic philosophy was rejected, he took up a university professorship of philosophy and social sciences at York University, Toronto, in 1969. During a decade at York he founded and co-edited the journal Philosophy of the Social Sciences and established a monthly academic seminar aimed at intellectual exchange between disciplines. His major publication from this period, Philosophy and its place in our culture (1975), outlines the failure of twentieth-century philosophy to coalesce around an agreed set of questions and suggests the discipline of philosophy is perhaps best understood as the residue left by the development of the natural sciences, its central concern being how we should live and communicate with one another.
Last years, personal life, and legacy In 1979 Wisdom retired to Castlebridge House, Co. Wexford, where he died in his sleep on 30 January 1993. Despite declining health in his later years, he remained intellectually active to the end, continuing to referee for Philosophy of the Social Sciences and maintaining a steady stream of books and academic papers (often written up from earlier discussions). Chief among these were Challengeability in modern science (1987) and the trilogy Philosophy of the social sciences (vol. i: A metascientific introduction, and vol. ii: Schemata were published in 1987, and vol. iii: Groundwork for social dynamics was published posthumously in 1993). The trilogy, unlike the more advanced Challengeability, was intended as a beginners' guide to his views on scientific methodology in the social sciences, and incorporated papers from as far back as the 1950s. A major theme of his late work was androgyny, the exploration of the feminine in man and the masculine in woman and the fear of each in the other; this is a major theme of the last book published in his lifetime, Freud, women, and society (1992), an idiosyncratic work which defends the Master against charges of deliberate falsification while acknowledging Freud's failings (notably, inability to accept criticism). As with much of Wisdom's work, this was seen as somewhat quirky. Less weightily, his love of Socratic provocation is visible in a letter to the Irish Times (6 August 1980) which asks whether Irish nationalists really want reunification and comments that for a long time he supported Irish unity in the hope that it would civilise the north and make the south efficient, until he realised it might instead combine the worst features of both states.
Wisdom and some of his admirers thought his full stature was never adequately recognised; be that as it may, he was unquestionably a significant contributor to the philosophical conversation of the twentieth century.
An early marriage contracted in Britain in the 1930s to a woman ten years his senior soon broke down, but since his wife refused to consent to a divorce, it was only dissolved in 1969–70 after the introduction of no-fault divorce in Britain. By a second union with a Danish nurse whom he met while visiting Copenhagen to lecture in 1958, Wisdom had two sons and a daughter. The breakdown of this relationship, owing to emotional incompatibility reflected in disputes over childrearing practices, contributed to his decision to move to America. While teaching in California, Wisdom developed a relationship with Clara Lamb (née Williams; b. 1925), an assistant professor in the philosophy of science and social anthropology who attended some of his courses; she followed him to Fredonia and after both were divorced and Wisdom secured custody of his children, they married 6 June 1970; he was her fourth husband. Wisdom regarded their marriage as fufilling all the hopes for love, understanding and intellectual companionship which he had sought throughout his life, and the acknowledgments to his later books pay tribute to the extent to which his work was enriched by Clara's criticisms drawing on her own academic expertise. In 2013 Clara Wisdom privately published a fictionalised autobiography in the form of a series of short stories, What Lorna knows (Creative Space Independent Publishing Platform). Wisdom's children were educated at Sandford Park and Alexandra schools in Dublin, and at TCD; in 2013 all his descendants (including six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren) were living in Ireland.
A list of Wisdom's publications is in Philosophy of the Social Sciences, xxiii, no. 3 (September 1993), 287–97.