The Selected Writings of Maurice O’Connor Drury review
John Hayes assembles illuminating writings by a Dublin doctor friend of Wittgenstein
Dr Maurice O’Connor Drury: this book provides an original perspective on Wittgenstein’s thought and introduces us to the life and writings of Drury himself, who spent most of his professional life as senior psychiatrist at St Edmondsbury in Lucan, a division of St Patrick’s Hospital in James Street.
The Selected Writings of Maurice O’Connor Drury: On Wittgenstein, Philosophy, Religion and Psychiatry
Edited by John Hayes
Ludwig Wittgenstein is acknowledged as a major philosopher of the 20th century. I often came across references to his friendship with an Irish doctor, Maurice Drury, of whom I knew nothing. Happily, this ignorance has been dispelled by this splendid book. At one level it provides an interesting and original perspective on Wittgenstein’s thought through the mirror of his friendship and conversations with Drury. More generally, it introduces us to the life and writings of Drury himself, who spent most of his professional life as senior psychiatrist at St Edmondsbury in Lucan, a division of St Patrick’s Hospital in James Street.
The book is in six sections: an introduction to his relationship with Wittgenstein; his written record of this relationship; Drury’s own philosophical writings; his letters on religion including insights on Wittgenstein’s developing interest in the topic; Drury’s writings on medicine and psychiatry including a fascinating series of lectures on hypnosis which he himself practised as a psychiatrist; and finally, biographical and historical information which puts Drury’s life and work in context.
Drury’s friendship with Wittgenstein extended from his philosophy studies in Cambridge in the late 1920s, (where he was awarded a starred first degree), to his caring attention at the philosopher’s deathbed in 1951. He recounts how Wittgenstein, although passionately interested in philosophy, considered teaching it a ridiculous profession and had encouraged him to pursue his medical studies at Trinity, which he did with brilliant results. Wittgenstein sought several distractions from professional philosophy. He worked as a village schoolmaster, an architect, a hospital porter, a medical researcher. He seriously considered studying medicine, like Drury, at Trinity to become a psychiatrist and enter into practice with Drury.
Wittgenstein often visited his friend. In Dublin he used to stay in Ross’s Hotel near the Phoenix Park where, with Drury, he liked to walk and talk philosophy or visit Dublin Zoo to sit and think. His thought had developed from what seemed initially a positivistic limitation of meaningful language to statements which mirrored empirically verifiable facts. “The meaning of a proposition is its method of verification.” In his later thought, he has a much broader conception of meaningful language as articulating appropriate “language games” or linguistic usage to describe various dimensions of human experience and to show what transcends the scope of such descriptions.
Drury, having been exhorted by Wittgenstein “whatever becomes of you, don’t stop thinking”, maintained a serious interest in philosophy. He tells us that it is the profound influence that Wittgenstein had on his thought that has fashioned his philosophical reflection. Various examples of this reflection recorded in the book manifest themselves as an illuminating dialogue with his teacher. These writings include “The Method of Philosophy”, “Conversations with Wittgenstein”, “The Danger of Words” and “Lectures to a Student of Philosophy” (addressed very prematurely to his two-year-old son Luke who later became president of the Royal Irish Academy).
He develops Wittgenstein’s conviction that: “philosophy will signify what cannot be said by presenting clearly what can be said. There are indeed things which cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.” Bearing this in mind, he seeks to show how many seemingly profound metaphysical claims arise simply from confused use of language such as was the case with Moliere’s physician who when asked “How it is that opium puts people to sleep?” replied profoundly that it is because opium has “dormitive properties”. Drury goes on to argue that words such as “hysteria” and “psychopathic personality” are likewise “symbols of our ignorance rather than of any understanding”. More generally, in an intriguing lecture “Hypotheses and Philosophy” he argues that: ‘The great philosophical danger in every natural science is to confuse an hypothesis with a fact – an hypothesis which is taken for a fact easily assumes an ontological status apart from the data which gave it birth. It becomes a hidden reality behind phenomena.”
Such thinking is applied in his lecture “Concerning Body and Mind” in which he rejects an exclusively materialist conception of consciousness. The physics, physiology and biochemistry of the brain depend on sensory perception, memory, and language as their tools – they don’t explain them, they presuppose them. “However much we learn about the physiology of the eye and optic tract this will never explain how seeing is possible.”
Philosophy and religion
He also has interesting things to say about religion and in a lecture “Madness and Religion” discusses how, as a psychiatrist he sought to differentiate between them. More generally he agrees with Wittgenstein that the role of philosophy is not to provide a philosophical justification of religion but to disclose it as that which shows itself as the mystical beyond the competence of scientific or metaphysical discourse. He likes to quote a remark of Wittgenstein to him “I am not a religious man but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view.” (Shortly before his death Wittgenstein had considered living a life similar to a religious brother, but without formal commitment, in the Dominican Hawksyard Priory in Staffordshire.)
These are just a few indications from a substantial work excellently assembled and edited by Prof John Hayes. It is of interest to the general reader as well as to students of philosophy or psychiatry. As it is somewhat expensive in hardback, hopefully it will soon be available in paperback to the wide audience which it deserves.
I must add a personal postscript. I grew up on the North Circular Road in Dublin and spent much of my time every week in the Phoenix Park and Dublin Zoo. I can imagine the two men, walking through the park deep in conversation, over whose learned heads I may have kicked a football, or whom as a young teenager I may have stood beside in the zoo, contemplating with them the antics of the residents of the monkey house – and I think of the conversation I might have had the privilege to enjoy.