The Grice Club


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Tuesday, February 16, 2016



Wason, whose first name was Peter (as Strawson's) is judged by some to 
have laid the foundations for the modern study of reasoning -- and it is
perhaps  a 'pity' that Grice does not quote from him in his "Aspects of Reason",
which  OTHERS think laid the foundations for the best study of reasoning.

For the record, Peter Cathcart Wason was a psychologist, not, like 
Strawson and Grice, a philosopher.

He was born at Bath (so-called because of the favourite Roman  occupation:
long thermal baths in the middle of the countryside).

Like Popper, Wason was engaged in academia in London (London Uni, if you 
must, and University College if you must-must).

Why is Wason important?

Well, while not a philosopher, he still challenged the orthodox view  of
his time that people were by nature basically rational and logical, 
demonstrating, by the ingenious construction of novel experimental tasks, a  range of
what are now known as "cognitive biases".

In so doing, he laid the foundations for the modern study of  reasoning.

After a childhood – by his own account – of "failing school exams with 
monotonous regularity" and then officer training at Sandhurst, Wason became  a
liaison officer in the 8th Independent Armoured Brigade and was injured in 
Normandy in 1945.

Meanwhile, Grice was becoming a captain and engaged in action in the 

Wason read English at New College (or as I prefer, "New") at Oxford 
(obviously), where he met his wife Marjorie Salberg.

When they met, obviously, she wasn't his wife, but you get the drift.

In 1950, he decided to start again by reading for a degree in Psychology at
University College London.

This was not convenient for Griceians, for had Wason stated 'with the 
dreaming spires,' he would have become a Griceian.

Wason stayed at "University" (+> College, London) for the  rest of his
academic career.

Following his PhD and a period of work as a research fellow, in he was 
appointed to the position of Reader in Psycho-Linguistics -- i.e. the study of 
how we Griceianly process utterances.

Wason's love of English and English literature had an impact on this work 
in psychology in several ways, and in the later part of his career he
undertook  research into the psychology of writing (and reading).

He was extremely interested in the art of writing (not so much reading) and
took great pains to impose the highest standards on his PhD students.

He wrote with great clarity and conviction in his own publications, and 
this is one of the major causes of his influence.

However, he could be as hard on himself as on his students.

On one occasion he wrote several drafts of an entire book before abandoning
it, as he was not satisfied with the final product.

The fact that his wife IMPLICATED, "Don't judge a book by its cover" didn't
help; since by the time she implicated this, the book didn't even have a 

His other great passion was chess, which he played only by correspondence –
but to a very high standard – eventually achieving the standing of
International  Master in this form of play. Grice also loved chess, but he played
only by  telephone and only with George Myro.

Of Wason's publications, probably the most influential was his long  essay,
"Psychology of Reasoning: structure and content" (co- authored by P.N. 

Like Grice's and Strawson's "In defense of a dogma", co-writing is a 
fascinating psychological phenomenon. Grice would start the sentences and 
Strawson would finish them.

Wason's and Johnson-Laird's essay was focused mostly on the psychology  of

The essay develops several new tasks and paradigms for the study of 
reasoning that are heavily used to this day, as well as founding a tradition in 
the study of cognitive biases.

In this context, the term "bias" refers to the tendency of people to err in
systematic ways relative to a logical analysis of the problems they are 

("When Popper read that he was fascinated" -- I'm paraphrasing)

Wason's work was influenced by two academic "giants" of his period:

-- the Austrian philosopher Sir (as he then wasn't) Karl Popper and
-- the great Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (In Occitan, "Jean" is 

Popper had devised a highly influential philosophy of "science" that 
founded the doctrine of falsificationism.

For centuries, philosophers had battled with the so-called "problem of the 
justification of induction", which is that no amount of confirmatory 
observations can prove the truth of a general claim, such as a scientific law 
("All ravens are black," to use Reichenbach's example).

Popper proposed that the object of science was not to confirm theories, but
rather to falsify them, a process which is logically sound.

Only that zoologists are hardly curious as to how unblack a raven can  be?

Good theories would survive this effort and endure. Today, the blackness of
the raven is explained via genetics.

Wason took Popper's 'conceptual' analysis to be the correct foundation for 
hypothesis testing, which he studied psychologically through tasks of his
own  devising.

Contrary to Popper's strictures, Wason claimed on the basis of his 
experiments that people had a strong confirmation bias.

Wason writes: "In the real world the fixated, obsessional behaviour of some
of the subjects would be analogous to that of a person who is thinking in
a  closed system – a system which defies refutation, e.g. existentialism or
the  majority of religions. These experiments demonstrate how dogmatic
thinking and  the refusal to entertain the possibility of alternatives can easily
result in  error."

When philosophers started to speak of nonmonotonic reasoning, Wason was 
impressed. "All birds fly, except if that bird is a penguin or an ostrich or 
...'. This is called by philosophers (Wason is not one) 'ceteris paribus 
reasoning'. And the clause, "If x is a bird ----cp----> x flies" is referred 
to as a ceteris-paribus conditional, or 'if'. Lawyers used them a lot, and 
indeed Hart makes 'defeasibility' one criterion for a law to be a law.

Piaget's developmental theory of human intelligence was enormously 
influential. Piaget proposed that children develop through a series of 
well-identified stages, until as adults they finally achieve the ability for  formal,
abstract thinking and logical reasoning.

Wason, whose interest was in ADULT reasoning, strongly  contested Piaget's
analysis, demonstrating repeated evidence of "illogical  reasoning" -- or
what philosophers would have as invalid reasoning -- and  bias in his adult
subjects – mostly his own undergraduate students at University  (+> College,

It is said that the Uni committee once told him that he should stop 
criticising University (+> College, London) students, as it gave the uni a  'bad

Wason's work was based mostly on the reasoning task that he most  famously
invented, the four-card selection task, known as the Wason selection  task.

Wason described the selection task as "deceptively simple" (and questioned 
the English of authors unfortunate enough to describe it as "deceptively 

Wason's implicature seems to be that nothing can be 'deceptively difficult'
-- unless it is.

By this Wason meant that while the selection task did look easy and 
straightforward, it was in fact very hard.

Perhaps he was reading Grice's Causal Theory of Perception at that time, 
which focuses on those examples: "That pillar box looks red to me; but
perhaps  it ain't". The redness of the pillar box is a 'deceptively complex' for
the  causal theorist of perception.

Only about 10 per cent of people get Wason's problem right, and these were 
later discovered to be those who are very high in general intelligence.

Although a problem in logical reasoning, it has been known to defeat 

Writing of the task Wason writes: "the selection task reflects [a tendency 
towards irrationality in argument] to the extent that subjects get it wrong
. .  . It could be argued that irrationality rather than rationality is the

This may be behind Grice's later emphasis that rationality is a 
value-oriented concept, an ideal. When Grandy/Warner were thinking of an acronym  for
their Clarendon book (Clarendon told them: "No Grice in the title: that 
won't sell") they came up with "Philosophical Grounds of Rationality: 
Intentions, Categories, Ends", or P. G. R. I. C. E. for short!

Not all contemporary scholars agree with Wason. But it has to be granted 
that Wason's reasoning problems live on.

In particular, many hundreds of psychological experiments have been and 
continue to be published in which the Wason selection task is used to inform
our  understanding of human thinking -- and it has to be granted that Wason's
early  familiarity with Popper did help to inform his views.

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