Monday, August 16, 2010

The importance of Georg Henrik von Wright

In my last blog I mentioned the Finnish philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright. I think that most people who read my blogs do not know him. However, he has been one of the most important analytical philosophers of the second half of the last century. When I had finished my dissertation many years ago I had the intention to write an article about von Wright, but for one reason or another I didn’t. So maybe I can make up for the omission here a bit, although a little blog can never be compared with a long article. In fact I must limit myself here to a short indication of the importance of von Wright for philosophy.
As said, von Wright (1916-2003) was a philosopher in the tradition of the analytical philosophy and. He studied first in Helsinki under the guidance of Eino Kaila, which brought him into touch with logical positivism, which was then in its heyday. Next, von Wright studied at several other universities in Europe including in Cambridge. In 1939, he met there Wittgenstein, but the first contact was disappointing for von Wright, because Wittgenstein was quite annoyed that a young man unknown to him dared to join his lectures while they had already started. Soon they became good friends, though. Later, after the death of Wittgenstein, von Wright became his successor in Cambridge and he edited Wittgenstein’s later works for publication.
Another important contribution by von Wright to philosophy is his development of deontic logic, the logic of ought. Although deontic logic was already known to the Greek, in fact von Wright can be seen as the founder of this branch of logic, because he proposed the first plausible system of deontic logic.
His third main contribution concerns my own field of interest: action theory. In my blog last week I mentioned already von Wright’s book Understanding and Explanation. This book has been influential in the discussion whether the relation between the premises and the conclusion of a practical syllogism for the explanation of actions is logical or causal. There has been a long and heavy debate on this question, which did not lead to a real solution. In my view, the best analysis of the issue, if not the solution of the problem, has come from von Wright, who showed that it is impossible to establish independently of each other which intention an actor had and the action that the same actor did on account of this intention. And this makes that it is impossible to verify the premises and the conclusion of a practical syllogism independently. However, this does not imply that one cannot explain an action, when one is able to establish separately what the intention of an action is and what the actor allegedly did on account of this intention. For me, von Wright’s approach is still the fundamental solution of the explanation-understanding controversy.
Be that as it is, the discussion gradually faded away, but the importance of von Wright’s book may still be judged from the fact that it has been reprinted in 2004, 33 years after its first publication.
It is true, von Wright is not a very well-known philosopher outside academic circles (and outside Finland), but its influence has not been unimportant as I have tried to show.

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