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Georg Henrik von Wright

Born June 14, 1916, Helsinki. Died June 16, 2003, Helsinki.

Master of Arts (Philosophy) 1937, Licentiate of Philosophy, 1941, Doctor of Philosophy, 1953, University of Helsinki
Master of Arts, University of Cambridge, 1948

Chancellor, Åbo Akademi, 1969–1977
Member, Academy of Finland, 1961–1986, President, 1968–1970
Professor at Large, Cornell University, 1965–1977
Professor of Philosophy, Trinity College, University of Cambridge, 1948–1951
(Acting) Professor of Philosophy, Åbo Akademi, 1946–1959
(Swedish-speaking) Professor of Philosophy, University of Helsinki (appointed 1946), 1943–1961
Docent of Philosophy, University of Helsinki, 1943

Several spells as acting professor (Practical and Theoretical Philosophy)
Visiting professor at Cornell University, UCLA in Los Angeles, University of Pittsburgh, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and Leipzig University

Research interests:
Philosophical logic, theory and ethics of value, cultural philosophy, philosophy of norms, philosophy of the humanities and philosophy of mind.

Publications, research projects and other academic activities
Posthumous publication of Wittgenstein’s works, and related research

Awards and honours
Critical European Prize, 2002
Tage Danielsson prize, 1998
Selma Lagerlöf literary prize, 1993
First Nordic philosopher to be included in The Library of Living Philosophers series, 1989
Karl Emil Tollander prize, 1987
Swedish Academy’s grand prize, 1986
Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Research award, 1986
Swedish Cultural Foundation’s culture prize, 1982
Wihuri International Prize, 1976

Photo:Helsingin yliopistomuseo
Written by Bernt Österman (ed. Tomas Sjöblom)
Translated by John Calton

From logical-analytical philosophy to cultural critic

In 1949, when Georg Henrik von Wright was strolling alone along the banks of the river Cam in Cambridge, he suddenly had a revolutionary thought: the formal connections between the concepts ‘some’, ‘none’ and ‘all’ seemed to be the same as between the concepts ‘possible’, ‘impossible’ and ‘necessary’.

Von Wright immediately realised he had come upon a potentially new way of developing modal logical concepts. Later in the year he worked out that the same analogy could also be used with the conceptual trio ‘permitted’, ‘forbidden’ and ‘obligatory’; and from this created the basis for deontic logic, which was to become his most famous contribution as a logician.

A young Georg Henrik von Wright. Photo: von Wright and Wittgenstein archive.​​
A young Georg Henrik von Wright. Photo: von Wright and Wittgenstein archive.​​

Von Wright first arrived in Cambridge as young postgraduate student in 1939. He had been a student of Eino Kaila’s in Helsinki. His studies in Helsinki culminated in a Master’s dissertation De empiriska satsernas avgränsningsproblem (’The demarcation problem of empirical propositions’, 1937), and later the doctoral thesis The Logic of Induction (1941).

Whilst resident in Cambridge he had an unforgettable encounter with Ludwig Wittgenstein. At the same time von Wright got to know C.D.Broad, who was later to have a major impact on von Wright’s early academic career by writing a series of articles on von Wright’s doctoral thesis in the English journal Mind.

Von Wright succeeded Wittgenstein as professor of philosophy at Trinity College in 1948. Following Wittgenstein’s death in 1951, it became apparent that von Wright had been named along with Elizabeth Anscombe and Rush Rhees as literary executors of Wittgenstein’s estate. And in the same year von Wright resigned his post in Cambridge and returned to Finland.

Georg Henrik von Wright returned late in life to the river Cam, where he first had the revolutionary idea of modal logic.​
Georg Henrik von Wright returned late in life to the river Cam, where he first had the revolutionary idea of modal logic.​

Philosophical logic remained one of the main strands of von Wright’s research. As deontic logic led to an increased interest in the philosophy of norms and action, von Wright gained recognition as a philosopher of law. His main work on the philosophy of norms is Norm and Action (1963). In the same year von Wright published what he considered his best work, The Varieties of Goodness. The book can be seen as an original attempt to find a middle way between normative ethics and metaethics.

A work which is probably better known internationally is Explanation and Understanding (1971), in which von Wright seeks humanistic alternatives to explanatory models based on general laws of the natural sciences. In 1998, with the publication of In the Shadow of Descartes, von Wright summarized his developing interest in the philosophy of mind.

The general public know Georg Henrik von Wright best for his essays on cultural criticism and his stand on societal issues, which cemented his position as one of the leading intellectuals in the Nordic countries. In his essay collection, Tanke och förkunnelse (‘Thought and prophecy’, 1955), von Wright wrote on such authors as Dostojevsky, Tolstoy and Spengler. Humanismen som livshållning (‘Humanism as a way of life’) was published in 1977. He attracted particular attention for Vetenskapen och förnuftet (Engl. Explanation and Understanding, 1986), Minervan pöllö (’The owl of Minerva’, 1992) ja Ihminen kulttuurin murroksessa (‘Science and reason’, 1996).


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