John Cook Wilson

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John Cook Wilson, FBA (6 June 1849 – 11 August 1915) was an English philosopher.


Cook was born in Nottingham, the only son of a Methodist minister. After Derby Grammar School, 1862–7, he Wilson went up to Balliol College, Oxford in 1868, where he read both Classics and Mathematics, gaining a 1st in Mathematical Moderations, 1869, 1st in Classical Moderations, 1870, 1st in Mathematics finals, 1871, and a 1st in Literae Humaniores ('Greats') in 1872. (He was, along with H. A. Prichard, one of Oxford's few early twentieth-century philosophers, to have a mathematical background.) Wilson became a Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford in 1874. He was Wykeham Professor of Logic and a Fellow of New College, Oxford, from 1889 until his death. H. A. Prichard and W.D. Ross were among his students.

Mathematics, he said, is the best preparation for logic (Statement and Inference, I : xxxviii). There is an amusing story of how he introduced calculus in a lecture to classically trained undergraduates. At the end of the lecture 'he walked smartly to the door, locked, or pretended to lock, it, and then standing there with his back to it said with decision : 'No one shall leave this room until you all grasp the essentials of this simple matter' (Statement and Inference, I : xv). He had, however, little sympathy with the mathematical logic developed by Bertrand Russell.

Belonging to a generation brought up in the atmosphere of British idealism, he espoused the cause of direct realism. His posthumous collected papers, Statement and Inference, were influential on a generation of Oxford philosophers, including H. H. Price and Gilbert Ryle. He also features prominently in the work of J.L. Austin, John McDowell, and Timothy Williamson. P.F. Strawson's expression, 'the attributive tie', in Individuals (1959, 168) is named 'in memory of Cook Wilson'.

In his inaugural lecture Cook Wilson acknowledged that his deepest intellectual debts were to his mathematics tutor at Balliol, Henry Smith, to his Balliol philosophy tutor, T.H. Green, and to the classicist Henry Chandler.

Cook Wilson often argued for the existence of God as an experiential reality. He is quoted saying 'We don't want merely inferred friends, could we be satisfied with an inferred God?' He also had a long running dispute with Lewis Carroll over the Barber Shop Paradox.

Cook Wilson's classical contributions should not be overlooked : 'On rearrangements of the Fifth Books of the Ethics' (1879), 'On the Structure of the Seventh Book of the Nicomachean Ethics, ch. i – x (1879); 'On the Interpretation of Plato's Timaeus' (1889); 'On the Geometrical Problem in Plato's Meno' (1903) and others listed at lxvi–lxxii of Statement and Inference, I. The latest discussion of Cook Wilson's classical work – on the Meno – is to be found in David Wolfsdorf, Trials of Reason (Oxford, 2008, 164–9, 172).

In a satirical sketch Humbert Wolfe (1885–1940) represented Cook Wilson as publishing only a single footnote on the meaning of 'to ti en einai'. The passage reads as follows : 'He professed ... under cover of a long white beard, metaphysics (sic) at the university of Oxford. He was a Realist, that is to say that he was a Scot, and had a balcony constructed at his semi-detached villa to confute Idealists. His published works – during the fifty odd years of his professorship – were (but I may be wrong) a footnote on the meaning of το τι ην είναι [Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1029b 13–14 - 'the essence'] referred to by an eminent German commentator thus : 'ut putide scripsit Cooke-Wilson' ['as Cooke-Wilson nauseatingly writes']. His further claims to distinction ... were first that he umpired in a war between sections of the Oxford University Volunteers, riding on a bicycle in a gentleman's cycling suit, and waving his white beard like the helmet of Navarre, and secondly that on being asked for a testimonial in respect of a Scholar of Wadham wrote tersely, 'I do not remember the man.' The man now (he hopes without malice) recalls himself to the Professor's lamented memory' (H. Wolfe, Portraits By Inference, London : Methuen, 1934 : 32-3).

The text continues (33): 'It was during the second term of the academic year, the one in which the Boat Race appears to be rowed, that the Professor, lecturing in the Schools, announced, by way of illustrating a syllogism, to an enraptured audience, "The man Jones is not rowing well this year." In that vast brain, even then perhaps occupied with the last line of the footnote, there could not have been room for knowledge of contemporary events. He was therefore pleasantly surprised when a loud applausive clamour echoed through the hall. His eyes concealed under stalactites of eyebrow and eyelash were observed to show signs of intelligence. 'Am I after all,' perhaps he was reflecting in his Doric way, 'powpewlarr?' He wasn't. He had, however, drawn attention in a lecture on metaphysics to the fact that the President of the O.U.B.C. [Oxford Union Boating Club] – one Jones – had magnificently put himself out of the boat because he was dissatisfied with his own rowing.'

Cook Wilson married a German wife, Charlotte Schneider, in 1876. They had no children.


  • Statement and Inference, edited from the manuscripts by A.S.L. Farquharson (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1926)
  • Statement and Inference (new edition, Thoemmes Continuum, 2007, 1091 pages) ISBN 1-85506-958-X
  • On Military Cycling or Amenities of Controversy (1889)
  • On the Interpretation of Plato's Timaeus (1886, new edition 1980) ISBN 0-8240-9571-5
  • Aristotelian Studies I (1879)
  • On the Platonist Doctrine of the Asymbletoi Arithmoi (new edition, 1980) ISBN 0-8240-9571-5

A full list of Cook Wilson's publications can be found in Statement and Inference, ed. A.S.L. Farquharson (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1926): lxvi–lxxii.


  • H.A. Prichard, Professor John Cook Wilson, Mind, New Series, Vol. 28, No. 111 (July 1919), pp. 297–318
  • N. Baladi, La notion de connaissance chez Cook Wilson (Le Caire, Imprimerie de l'Institut français d'archéologie orientale, 1939)
  • M. Ahmed, The Theory of Judgment in the Philosophies of F.H. Bradley and John Cook Wilson (University of Dacca, 1955)
  • Humbert Wolfe, Portraits by inference (London : Methuen, 1934). Cook Wilson is gently satirised as 'Prof. Cooke-Wilson' in the chapter, 'Jones's wedding' (see above).

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