The Finnish philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright, Gifford lecturer in 1959 and 1960, was one of the most prominent European philosophers of the 20th century. He was perhaps best known for his connections with Wittgenstein as student colleague and after the latter’s death as executor. Von Wright’s work much of which was greatly influenced by Wittgenstein included important writings on logic philosophy of science modality philosophy of mind and ethics.
Von Wright (although his name was pronounced von Vrikht, he was of Scottish ancestry) was born in Helsinki on 14th June 1916. He studied first in Helsinki, where his main influences were the Vienna-based logical positivists, Wittgenstein, Jacob Burkhardt and Oswald Spengler. In 1938 he continued his studies at Cambridge where Wittgenstein was based, and his doctoral thesis was published in 1941 as The Problem of Induction. He went on to hold professorial positions in Helsinki, Cambridge and Cornell. During the 1940’s von Wright and Wittgenstein became close friends and regular correspondents and in 1948 von Wright took over Wittgenstein’s professorship at Cambridge. After Wittgenstein’s death in 1951 von Wright played a key role in assembling and making public Wittgenstein’s unpublished work and later wrote a book himself about his friend and mentor.
Much of von Wright’s work bridged the common divide in analytic philosophy between logic and philosophy of science on the one hand and moral and social philosophy on the other. He played a central role in the development of deontic logic outlining the logical relations between normative or moral propositions. A recurring theme in his work was the differences between scientific explanation and intentional explanation of human behaviour and between the natural sciences and the social sciences. These ideas were developed in two of his most famous books Explanation and Understanding (1971) and Freedom and Determination (1980).
Much of von Wright’s work especially in his later years was specifically concerned with ethics politics and value theory. His Gifford lectureship at St Andrews in 1959 and 1960 resulted in two volumes The Varieties of Goodness and Norm and Action. He also became an increasingly prominent public figure in his native Finland engaging in political debate from a distinctively pessimistic perspective sceptical about the supposed progress of humanity and, in particular, about the role of science and technology in shaping the political world. Beyond analytic philosophy and politics he wrote on Russian literature and a variety of other subjects.
Most of the latter part of von Wright’s life was spent back in Finland though he held a number of visiting posts at numerous universities outside his homeland most notably a post at Cornell which he held for twelve years.
Von Wright died in Helsinki on 16th June 2003.