Peter Winch

Peter Winch

Peter Guy Winch (14 January 1926, London – 27 April 1997, Champaign, Illinois) was a British philosopher known for his contributions to the philosophy of social science, Wittgenstein scholarship, ethics, and the philosophy of religion. Winch is perhaps most famous for his early book, The Idea of a Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy (1958), an attack on positivism in the social sciences, drawing on the work of R. G. Collingwood and Ludwig Wittgenstein's later philosophy. Winch describes his aims in the opening paragraphs of the first chapter:

That the social sciences are in their infancy has come to be a platitude amongst writers of textbooks on the subject. They will argue that this is because the social sciences have been slow to emulate the natural sciences and emancipate themselves from the dead hand of philosophy; that there was a time when there was no clear distinction between philosophy and natural science; but that owing to the transformation of affairs round about the seventeenth century natural science has made great bounds ever since. But, we are told, this revolution has not yet taken place in the social sciences, or at least it is only now in process of taking place. Perhaps social science has not yet found its Newton but the conditions are being created in which such a genius could arise. But above all, it is urged, we must follow the methods of natural science if we are to make any significant progress.
I propose, in this monograph, to attack such a conception of the relation between the social studies, philosophy, and the natural sciences. [...] It will consist of a war on two fronts: first, a criticism of some prevalent contemporary ideas about the nature of philosophy: second, a criticism of some prevalent contemporary ideas about the nature of the social studies. The main tactics will be a pincer movement: the same point will be reached by arguing from opposite directions. To complete the military analogy before it gets out of hand, my main war aim will be to demonstrate that the two apparently diverse fronts on which the war is being waged are not in reality diverse at all; that to be clear about the nature of philosophy and to be clear about the nature of the social studies amount to the same thing. For any worthwhile study of society must be philosophical in character and any worthwhile philosophy must be concerned with the nature of human society. [1]

Major influences upon Winch include Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rush Rhees, R. G. Collingwood and Simone Weil. He gave rise to a form of philosophy that has been given the name ‘sociologism’ [2]. He also bears responsibility for a small school of sociology that was prepared to accept his radical criticism of the subject[3].

Winch saw himself as an uncompromising Wittgensteinian. He was not personally acquainted with Wittgenstein; Wittgenstein’s influence upon him was mostly mediated through that of Rush Rhees, who was his colleague at Swansea University, and whom Wittgenstein appointed as one of his literary executors[4]. In 1980 Winch published Wittgenstein’s Culture and Value, translated by himself. After the death of Rhees in 1989 he took over his position as literary executor.

From Rush Rhees, Winch derived his interest in the religious writer Simone Weil. Part of the appeal was a break from Wittgenstein into a very different type of philosophy which could nevertheless be tackled with familiar methods. Also Weil’s ascetic, somewhat Tolstoyan, form of religion harmonised with one aspect of Wittgenstein’s personality.

At a time when most Anglo-American philosophers were heavily under the spell of Wittgenstein, Winch’s own approach was strikingly original. While much of his work was concerned with rescuing Wittgenstein from what he took to be misreadings, his own philosophy involved a shift of emphasis from the problems that preoccupied Oxford style ‘linguistic’ philosophy, towards justifying and explaining 'forms of life' in terms of consistent language games. He took Wittgensteinian philosophy into areas of ethics and religion, which Wittgenstein himself had relatively neglected, sometimes showing considerable originality. An example is his illuminating treatment of the moral difference between someone who tries and fails to commit murder and someone who succeeds, in his essay "Trying" in Ethics and Action. With the decline of interest in Wittgenstein, Winch himself was increasingly neglected and the challenge his arguments presented to much contemporary philosophy was sidestepped or ignored. In insisting on the continuity of Wittgenstein’s concerns from the Tractatus through to the Philosophical Investigations, Winch made a powerful case for Wittgenstein’s mature philosophy, as he understood it, as the consummation and legitimate heir of the entire analytic tradition[5].

Wittgenstein famously said that philosophy leaves the world as it is[6]. Winch takes his ideas into regions that have strong moral and political implications. Here is an example from The Idea of a Social Science [7]:

I have wanted to show by these examples that a new way of talking sufficiently important to rank as a new idea implies a new set of social relationships. Similarly with the dying out of a way of speaking. Take the notion of friendship; we read in Penelope Hall’s book The Social Services of Modern England (Routledge) that it is the duty of a social worker to establish a relationship of friendship with her clients; but that she must never forget that her first duty is to the policy of the agency by which she is employed. Now that is a debasement of the notion of friendship as it has been understood, which has excluded this sort of divided loyalty, not to say double dealing. To the extent to which the old idea gives way to this new one social relationships are impoverished (or if anyone objects to the interpolation of personal moral attitudes, at least they are changed). It will not do, either, to say that the mere change in the meaning of a word need not prevent people from having the relations to each other they want to have, for this is to overlook the fact that our language and our social relations are just two different sides of the same coin. To give an account of the meaning of a word is to describe how it is used; and to describe how it is used is to describe the social intercourse into which it enters.



Born 14 January 1926, in Walthamstow, London, attended Leyton County High School for Boys.[8]

Served in the Royal Navy 1944–47.

Graduated at University of Oxford 1949.

Married Erika Neumann and had 2 sons, Christopher and David.

1951 Lecturer in philosophy at Swansea University.

1964 Moved to Birkbeck College, University of London.

1967 Professor of Philosophy at King's College London.

1980–1981 President of the Aristotelian Society.

1984 Moved to USA to become Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Died 27 April 1997, in Champaign, Illinois.[9]

Other works

  • Understanding a Primitive Society, 1964, American Philosophical Quarterly I, pp. 307-24
  • Studies in the Philosophy of Wittgenstein (ed), 1969
  • Ethics And Action, London 1972
  • Culture and Value, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Translated by Peter Winch, Oxford 1980
  • Simone Weil, the Just Balance, Cambridge 1989
  • Trying to Make Sense, Oxford 1987

Further reading


  1. ^ The Idea of a Social Science pp. 1–3
  2. ^ see Sutton, C. The German Tradition in Philosophy. London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1974
  3. ^ see the Discussion in New Rules of Sociological Method by Anthony Giddens London: Hutchinson: 1976
  4. ^ see biography by Colin Lyas
  5. ^ see Peter Hacker Wittgenstein's Place in Twentieth Century Philosophy Blackwell: Oxford: 1996
  6. ^ Philosophical Investigations §124
  7. ^ p.123
  8. ^ see article by D.Z Phillips in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004
  9. ^ Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen: Newsletter 57

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