John Cook Wilson

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John Cook Wilson
Born 6 June 1849
Nottingham, U.K.
Died 11 August 1915
Alma mater Balliol College, Oxford
Era 19th-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Direct realism
Main interests

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


Cook was born in Nottingham, United Kingdom, the only son of a Methodist minister. After Derby Grammar School, 1862–7, Wilson went up to Balliol College, Oxford in 1868, where he read both Classics and Mathematics. He graduated with a rare double double-first: 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).

Cook Wilson married a German woman, 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.


  1. ^ Robin George Collingwood, R. G. Collingwood: An Autobiography and Other Writings, Oxford UP, 2013, p. 220.


  • 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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