The 12+12 Books of Christmas #1

WP_20151201_20_42_21_ProMy better half challenged me to write a Christmas calendar, counting down from today to Christmas Eve. It differs from a normal Christmas calendar in that we will be writing about some of our favorite books for twenty-four days straight. It seems like a good idea and gives us the chance to list some of our most cherished works of literature, philosophy and frankly whatever kind of printed weirdness lurks on our bookshelves.

My first choice is a 1970 University of California pressing of John Wisdom’s Paradox and Discovery. I first came across a 1965 Blackwell copy of the book in my university library and loved it. I’ve since bought my own first edition. I very rarely do that, but here it felt necessary. There was something very special indeed about the book when I first read it, and I’ve read it through many times since. There are fascinating philosophical ideas, a very practical way of approaching them and incredibly clear prose that cuts through it all.

If you have never heard of John Wisdom or his amazing book, do not despair. Most people have not. He was at Cambridge with people like Wittgenstein and Stephen Toulmin, a student of the former and a teacher of the latter. Perhaps it’s all in my head, but I do have a kind of grey eminence idea of Wisdom himself. Who knows if that’s true. In the grand scheme of things, perhaps the author is not that important.

At least three things in Wisdom’s writing are important in this book. First of all, he was a contemporary of G.E. Moore, Bertrand Russell and the analytical philosophy crowd in Cambridge. His essays describe what happened in philosophy during this intense period. Secondly, he presents an argument that favors a case-by-case method of reasoning over abstraction. Thirdly, and most important of all, is his peculiar but completely disarming style of writing. As an ordinary language philosopher he seemed to demonstrate a masterful grasp of the English language which he used to lead readers through strings of arguments about everyday things. In this, he comes close to Wittgenstein’s later thought, but there are slight differences in temperament. Wisdom is more playful and humorous. He has many more “gotcha” moments in his texts. Having said that, I’ve yet to find someone who can explain Wittgenstein’s philosophical method better than Wisdom.

As much joy as the book has brought me, there is also a tinge of the tragic related to it. After translating Wisdom’s essay “The Meanings of the Questions of Life” into Finnish as a labor of love, I tried to find out who owns the rights to it. Blackwell, sadly, is no more, so I tried Wiley-Blackwell instead, thinking it would be easy to figure this out. They apparently hold the rights to Blackwell’s catalog. Nobody there could help me. They could not grant me the rights, but they could not deny publication either, because they didn’t seem to know whether or not they had the rights to the work. I’m still waiting and hopefully we can get this thing sorted in the near future. In the meantime, I might just go ahead and translate a few more essays in this excellent collection with or without permission. You know, for fun.

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