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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

The provocative pessimist

Georg Henrik von Wright had a significant impact on the development of philosophy in Finland and Scandinavia during the second half of the twentieth century. He held the Swedish-speaking chair in philosophy at the University of Helsinki in the 1940s alongside on occasion three other Finnish professorships. And during his time as professor in Cambridge in the late-1940s he got to look after two Finnish chairs during one sabbatical.

Von Wright served as expert on numerous professorial appointments in Finland and Scandinavia. He was a member of the Academy of Finland between 1961 and 1986, and chancellor of Åbo Akademi in the years 1969-77, as well as chairing the Philosophical Society of Finland for the decade between 1962 and 1973.

On the international stage, he was the head of the International Union of History and the Philosophy of Science (IUHPS) from 1963 to 1965 and chaired the Paris-based Institut International de Philosophie from 1975 to 1977. Von Wright was also a board member of the Institut de la Vie, for the years 1976-84,  also based in Paris.

The particular research areas that von Wright became most famous for might be seen as rather specialized. But he rather considered them as a branch of research with broader significance. In 1948 he wrote:

“In a world of specialised scientists, philosophy will be the first guardian of civilization.”

From his early days as a student in the 1930s von Wright published essays, reviews and popular scientific articles alongside his academic research. He wrote first for the student paper Studentbladet and subsequently for periodicals such the Swedish-language Nya Argus and Finsk Tidskrift. Furthermore he published several collections of philosophical essays as well as overviews like Den logiska empirismen (‘Logical empiricism’, 1945) and Logik, filosofi och språk (‘Logic, philosophy and language’, 1958).

Von Wright also intervened as a humanist in issues relating to society. In choosing to take a stand against the Vietnam war in 1968 he threw himself into the limelight. Meanwhile his thinking began to be influenced by Marxism, the Frankfurt School and the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor.

Taking a stand on current political issues brought von Wright into the spotlight.​
Taking a stand on current political issues brought von Wright into the spotlight.​

The new direction in philosophy came to a climax for von Wright with Vetenskapen och förnuftet (‘Science and reason’, 1986). In it he argues that the predominance of technological rationalism in western culture is critical for the whole of humanity. The book triggered a unique debate in the Finnish daily Svenska Dagbladet. Even political figures like the Swedish Moderates’ leader Carl Bildt and Bengt Westerberg from Sweden’s Folkpartiet got involved.

In The Owl of Minerva (1992) von Wright questioned the idea that an emphasis on research combined with market forces would eventually solve the challenge facing the environment and society’s ills. About this time he began to characterize himself as a ‘provocative pessimist’.

Georg Henrik von Wright held a unique position within Finnish culture. This is reflected in the fact that in his last years he was twice voted the country’s leading intellectual in a poll conducted by the Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat. Von Wright was also greatly respected elsewhere in Scandinavia. In 1995 in Stockholm, von Wright’s critique of progress in the modern age attracted a full house – 1,300 listeners.

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