Wason, whose first name was Peter (as Strawson's) is judged by some to
laid the foundations for the modern study of reasoning -- and it is
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
For the record, Peter Cathcart Wason was a psychologist, not,
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
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
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
read English at New College (or as I prefer, "New") at Oxford
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
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
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
However, he could be as hard on himself as on his
On one occasion he wrote several drafts of an entire book
it, as he was not satisfied with the final product.
The fact that his wife IMPLICATED, "Don't judge a book by its cover"
help; since by the time she implicated this, the book didn't even
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.
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
Strawson would finish them.
Johnson-Laird's essay was focused mostly on the psychology of
The essay develops several new tasks and paradigms for the
reasoning that are heavily used to this day, as well as founding a
the study of cognitive biases.
In this context, the
term "bias" refers to the tendency of people to err in
relative to a logical analysis of the problems they are
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
had devised a highly influential philosophy of "science" that
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
Popper proposed that the object of science was
not to confirm theories, but
rather to falsify them, a process which is
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
Wason took Popper's 'conceptual' analysis to be the correct
hypothesis testing, which he studied psychologically through
tasks of his
Contrary to Popper's strictures, Wason
claimed on the basis of his
experiments that people had a strong
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."
philosophers started to speak of nonmonotonic reasoning, Wason was
impressed. "All birds fly, except if that bird is a penguin or an ostrich
...'. This is called by philosophers (Wason is not one) 'ceteris
reasoning'. And the clause, "If x is a bird ----cp----> x flies"
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
Piaget's developmental theory of human intelligence was
influential. Piaget proposed that children develop through a
well-identified stages, until as adults they finally achieve the
ability for formal,
abstract thinking and logical reasoning.
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 (+>
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
four-card selection task, known as the Wason selection task.
described the selection task as "deceptively simple" (and questioned
English of authors unfortunate enough to describe it as "deceptively
Wason's implicature seems to be that nothing can be
-- unless it is.
By this Wason meant that
while the selection task did look easy and
straightforward, it was in fact
Perhaps he was reading Grice's Causal Theory of Perception at
which focuses on those examples: "That pillar box looks red to
perhaps it ain't". The redness of the pillar box is a 'deceptively
the causal theorist of perception.
Only about 10 per
cent of people get Wason's problem right, and these were
to be those who are very high in general intelligence.
problem in logical reasoning, it has been known to defeat
Writing of the task Wason writes: "the selection task reflects [a
towards irrationality in argument] to the extent that subjects get
. . . 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.
Not all contemporary scholars agree with Wason. But it has to
that Wason's reasoning problems live on.
many hundreds of psychological experiments have been and
continue to be
published in which the Wason selection task is used to inform
understanding of human thinking -- and it has to be granted that Wason's
early familiarity with Popper did help to inform his views.