November 2001

"Naked power rules world"

One of the few Finnish intellectuals whose career has been a major part of history of science in the 20th century is the philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright. In Britain, he is remembered as Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge in the late 1940s. Now von Wright has published his memoirs at the age of 85, a major event in Finnish publishing this autumn. (This report is based on two reviews in the Finnish press: Helsingin Sanomat and Hufvudstadsbladet, both 16 October 2001.)

An expert on Wittgenstein, Wright has for decades been in charge of the Austrian philosopher's works. The two philosophers met in Cambridge and, according to von Wright, the encounter changed his life. He succeeded Wittgenstein in the professorship in Cambridge but three years later decided to resume his career in Finland. He describes this as his life's "most difficult decision".

Wright became a member of the Finnish Academy in 1961 and later in the decade shot into wider fame with his criticism of the United States' war against Vietnam. At the time, he was a visiting professor at the Cornell University. Having reached the age of 50, his criticism of the US changed his life once more. His article, published in Helsingin Sanomat and Hufvudstadsbladet, created a sensation. After it, there was no return to the Ivory Tower. To his chagrin, he realised that by turning against the US he had lost many of his old friends. Because of the negative reactions to his views, he had to contemplate further questions of international politics and public life and later published a collection of essays about humanism as a world view.

Unlike many Finnish intellectuals, Wright's criticism of the United States did not make him see the Soviet Union as an ideological ally.

"Fear of the Soviet Union and a feeling of repugnance towards communism were deep in my Finnish blood and made it more difficult for me to take a critical stance of the increasingly threatening US action to defend 'the free world' against another world which was difficult to fathom in the mind of Westerners."

Nearer our own time, Wright has criticised the US war against Iraq and NATO's war against Yugoslavia. In his view, these military operations have threatened the international system of justice.

"Naked power is now the dictator of the world. A disgrace against humanity, this power shamefully pretends to be the defender of human rights and humanitarian actions."

Wright writes about ecological threat. He thinks that the world economy only appears to be "a leveller".

"I think the world situation undeniably calls for pessimism... Although we have no historical experience which would prove that a world gone haywire couldn't be put right."

Wright thinks that the people who might agree with him are value conservatives and left intellectuals who both have "a critical attitude towards things as they are".

Wright disagrees with both groups.

"I don't believe in a golden age of the past nor a bright new future. My role as a critic of our times is different."

Timo Hämäläinen, who wrote the review of Wright's memoirs in Helsingin Sanomat, says that the book offers a good clue as to what this role might be.

Georg Henrik von Wright, Mitt liv som jag minns det. Bonniers/Söderströms 2001. [In Swedish]

See also:

When neutrality meant independence

25 September 2001

"I am not at war, are you?"

24 September 2001

Debate on foreign policy livens up

17 April 2001

Non-aligned countries face European security turmoil

12 May 2000

Ahtisaari warns against doctrine of humanitarian intervention

24 March 2000

Aftermath of Kosovo: Europe takes military route to security

October 1999

Ex-president criticises West's policies in Yugoslavia

31 August 1999

Finland agonises over Kosovo

May 1999

Intellectuals divided by events in Yugoslavia

27 April 1999

[home] [archive] [focus]