New SEP entry: John Cook Wilson

The SEP has just published a new entry (written by Mathieu Marion, Université du Québec à Montréal) on John Cook Wilson, an important influence on J.L. Austin and other early practitioners of “ordinary language philosophy” at Oxford. To access the entry, click here.

Here is the introductory paragraph, and below that, section 2 of the entry, on Cook’s views of “Ordinary Language”:

John Cook Wilson (1849–1915) was Wykeham Professor of Logic at New College, Oxford and the founder of ‘Oxford Realism’, a philosophical movement that flourished at Oxford during the first decades of the 20th century. Although trained as a classicist and a mathematician, his most important contribution was to the theory of knowledge, where he argued that knowledge is factive and not definable in terms of belief, and he criticized ‘hybrid’ and ‘externalist’ accounts. He also argued for direct realism in perception, criticizing both empiricism and idealism, and argued for a moderate nominalist view of universals as being in rebus and only ‘apprehended’ by their particulars. His influence helped swaying Oxford away from idealism and, through figures such as H. A. Prichard, Gilbert Ryle, or J. L. Austin, his ideas were also to some extent at the origin of ‘moral intuitionism’ and ‘ordinary language philosophy’ which defined much of Oxford philosophy until the second half of the twentieth-century. Nevertheless, his name and legacy were all but forgotten for generations after World War II. Still, his views on knowledge are with us today, being in part at work in the writings of philosophers as diverse as John McDowell, Charles Travis, and Timothy Williamson.

2. Ordinary Language

Cook Wilson believed that in philosophy, one must above all “uncompromisingly […] to try to find out what a given activity of thought presupposes as implicit or explicit in our consciousness”, i.e., to “try to get at the facts of consciousness and not let them be overlaid as is so commonly done with preconceived theories” (SI, 328). By ‘preconceived theories’, Cook Wilson meant the sort of systematic philosophizing or ‘reflective thought’, as he called it, which was prevalent in his days and that one finds in, say, the works of Bradley and the British idealists, but also, earlier, the empiricists. According to him, ‘reflective thought’ had two major defects: it is based on principles that, for all we know, might be false and, concomitantly, it is too abstract, because it is hardly based on the consideration of particular concrete examples. Indeed, in a passage where he criticized Bradley’s infamous infinite regress argument against the reality of relations (Bradley 1897, 28), Cook Wilson begins by pointing out that “throughout this chapter there is not a single illustration, though it is of the last importance that there should be” (SI, 692)—on the critique of Bradley, see also Joseph (1916a, 37). As H. H. Price put it later, for Cook Wilson and his epigones “to philosophize without instances would be merely a waste of time” (Price 1947, 336). This is an attitude that was also then found on the Continent in the Brentano School.

Furthermore, Cook Wilson thought that philosophers are most likely to introduce distinctions of their own that do not correspond to the ‘facts of consciousness’ and thus distort our understanding of them. He therefore strove to uncover ‘facts of consciousness’ through an analysis of concrete examples which would be free of philosophical jargon. This is strongly reminiscent of descriptive psychology of the Brentano School. As a matter of fact, Gilbert Ryle, who described himself as a “fidgetty Cook Wilsonian” (Ryle 1993, 106), but who was also one rare Oxonian who knew something about phenomenology in the 1920s, believed Cook Wilson’s descriptive analyses to be as good as any from Husserl (Ryle 1971, vol. I, 176 & 203n.).

If philosophical jargon is not to be trusted, ordinary language is a safer guide:

It is not fair to condemn the ordinary view wholly, nor is it safe: for, if we do, we may lose sight of something important behind it. Distinctions in current language can never safely be neglected. (SI, 46) [See also SI (102), quoted below.]

It is safer because distinctions found in ordinary language are “more likely to be right than wrong” (SI, 874)—albeit not always, see, e.g., (SI, 35)—mainly because “they are not the issue of any system, they were not invented by any one” and they were developed “in what may be called the natural course of thinking, under the influence of experience and in the apprehension of particular truths” (SI, 874). Furthermore, “reflective thought tends to be too abstract, while experience which has developed the popular distinctions recorded in language is always in contact with the particular facts” (SI, 875). Cook Wilson, therefore, considered it “repugnant to create a technical term out of all relation to ordinary language” (SI, 713), and he particularly disliked the tendency to unearth some concept in Greek philosophy in order to introduce a new technical term.

Thus, Cook Wilson appealed to ordinary language almost every other page in Statement and Inference. For example, he argued in support of his views on universals (see section 6) that “ordinary language reflects faithfully a true metaphysics of universals” (SI, 208). But he did not merely appeal to ordinary language in order to undermine philosophical distinctions, he did it also in a constructive way. For example, when distinguishing between the activity of thinking and ‘what we think’, i.e., between ‘act’ and ‘content’ (SI, 63–64), he argued that this is “likely to be right” because “it is the natural and universal mode of expression in ordinary untechnical language, ancient and modern” (SI, 67) and “it comes from the very way of speaking which is natural and habitual with those who do not believe in any form of idealism” (SI, 64).

These views were to prove particularly influential in the case of J. L. Austin, who began his studies at Oxford four years after the publication of Statement and Inference. It is a common mistake to think of Wittgenstein as having had some formative influence on Austin, as he was arguably the least influenced by Wittgenstein of the Oxford philosophers (Hacker 1996, 172). The philosophy of G. E. Moore notwithstanding, it is rather Cook Wilson and epigones such as Prichard that are the source of the peculiar brand of ‘analytical philosophy’ that was to take root in Oxford in the 1930s, known as ‘Oxford philosophy’ or ‘ordinary language philosophy’. One merely needs here to recall the following well-known passage from Austin’s ‘A Plea for Excuses’, which is almost a paraphrase of Cook Wilson:

Our common stock of words embodies all the distinctions men have found worth drawing, and the connections they have found worth marking, in the lifetimes of many generations: these surely are likely to be more numerous, more sound, since they have stood up to the long test of the survival of the fittest, and more subtle, at least in all ordinary and reasonably practical matters, than any that you or I are likely to think up in our arm-chairs of an afternoon—the most favoured alternative method. (Austin 1979, 182)

The influence of Cook Wilson on Austin extends much further, including on the analysis of knowledge (see section 4).

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