O. K. Bouwsma

A Philosopher’s Journey

by Ronald E. Hustwit (Author)
©2014 Monographs X, 228 Pages
Series: American University Studies, Volume 216


O. K. Bouwsma was, with J. L. Austin and J. O. Wisdom, the best known of the «Ordinary Language» philosophers of the mid-twentieth century. In 1950, he initiated the prestigious John Locke Lectures at Oxford as a representative of that school of philosophers, who developed the implications of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy. Bouwsma, a friend of Wittgenstein and oriented by the latter’s work, grasped its implications for his own work. Already possessing a keen sensitivity to ordinary usages, Bouwsma developed a unique and humorous style aimed at philosophy’s seemingly intractable problems. While Wittgenstein provided a method for attacking philosophical tangles, Bouwsma actually applied the method of assembling reminders of everyday language for contrast to the generalized abstractions of philosophers. Passing beyond an attraction to G. E. Moore’s common sense refutations of philosophical skepticism, Bouwsma developed analytic techniques based on the realization that the test of sense in philosophical theorizing lay in the grammar of established usage of language.
An avid reader of Kierkegaard, Bouwsma found in him a clue to understanding the language of religious belief. That language is to be understood in the lives of people who actually practice faith rather than in metaphysical or epistemological systems meant to explain faith’s rationality. To that end, Bouwsma wrote essays on religious themes. In addition to such essays, he also wrote on aesthetics aimed at understanding philosophical language about poetry and music. Directed to any of these areas, his essays are among the finest writings in the British-American philosophical tradition. They flow without technical language, are pointedly humorous, and make delightful reading.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Advance Praise for O. K. Bouwsma: A Philosopher’s Journey
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • Chapter 1. A Sketch of the Journey
  • Chapter 2. The Young Professor in Nebraska, 1928–1939
  • Chapter 3. Finding Oneself in a Woods, 1939–1949
  • Chapter 4. Midway upon the Journey, 1949–1951
  • Chapter 5. Coming to Oneself Where the Right Way Was Lost, 1951–1965
  • Chapter 6. Knowing How to Go on in Texas, 1965–1978
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

← vi | vii → PREFACE

I was privileged to have studied with O. K. Bouwsma at the University of Nebraska for the academic year prior to his retirement (1964–5) and for the two years following his retirement at the University of Texas (1965–67). By the time of Bouwsma’s death at nearly eighty years of age, in Austin, Texas in 1978, J. L. Craft, Bouwsma’s last Ph.D. student was asked by Gertrude Bouwsma to help box his books, unpublished papers, and the hundred’s of legal pads on which Bouwsma kept his journals. In the text, I refer to the journals as a “Commonplace Book.” His oldest son, William J. Bouwsma, then Renaissance historian at Berkeley, became the literary executor of his father’s estate and deposited that literary estate at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas in Austin. Librarians separated the handwritten legal pad journals from the typescript papers and filed them in chronological order beginning with the dates 1949–50. His journals from 1925–49, kept on smaller pads containing some references to family matters, were originally withheld by the family but were eventually microfilmed and added to the collection several years later. The withheld journals also included Bouwsma’s record of conversations with Ludwig Wittgenstein and other philosophers during his two-year sabbatical leave from the University of Nebraska spent at Cornell University, Smith College, and Oxford University. The complete ← vii | viii → collection also includes the John Locke Lectures, letters, miscellaneous philosophy papers written by friends, newspaper clippings, and a small collection of annotated books from his personal library that include The Blue Book, the Philosophical Investigations, and James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnigans Wake. His two Joyce books contain extensive marginalia explaining allusions and puns and are of interest to Joyce scholars.

I prepared an index of all of the papers that includes a list of the topics discussed, with dates, in each of the legal pads and the now microfilmed early journals. I also prepared an annotated bibliography of his published papers. J. L. Craft and I co-edited two volumes of his unpublished papers, Toward a New Sensibility and Without Proof or Evidence; his Wittgenstein Conversations, 1949–51; and two volumes culled from his journals entitled Bouwsma’s Notes On Wittgenstein’s Philosophy, 1965–75 and Bouwsma’s Commonplace Book: Remarks on Philosophy and Education. During his lifetime, Bouwsma published a single book of papers with the title Philosophical Essays. I also produced a video of an interview with his daughter, Gretchen Emmons, and his son Charles Bouwsma in which they discussed their father and read family letters. The video, these published books, doctoral dissertation, the correspondence with Morris Lazerowitz, Kenneth Johnson, and Wittgenstein (copies), the annotated bibliography, and the index have all been added to the collection in the Ransom Center in Austin. As of this writing, Gretchen Emmons, retains the original letters from Wittgenstein as well as additional personal correspondence from some other philosophers. She has given me several hundred pages of notes for a book that her father intended to write on Wittgenstein’s student Yorick Smythies, two papers unpublished papers of Smythies, copies of poems Smythies sent to her father, and a copy of a letter that Smythies wrote commenting on Bouwsma’s conversations with Wittgenstein.

In my account of Bouwsma’s philosophical journey in this book, I have focused primarily on his development as shown in his published papers and journals. His daughter Gretchen and his wife Gertrude provided much of the background on the family setting as it related to his philosophical development and were of particular help in clarifying the setting of the two years Bouwsma spent with Wittgenstein. The philosopher Elmer Sprague, family friend, Nebraska undergraduate, and Oxford student of Gilbert Ryle, was also a source of information about Bouwsma and has written a memoir of him. J. L. Craft, to whom Bouwsma spoke openly about his philosophical work, was fountain of knowledge and understanding for my project. Craft and I have collaborated on Bouwsma projects for over thirty years.

← viii | ix → In the course of my preparation of this book, I have had scores of conversations with philosopher friends who have been fascinated with this unusual man who blended his love of language, his quick wit, and his method of philosophical analysis into a style that was inseparable from his personality. While his writing is exceptional, a personal exchange with him always left one with that “stunning effect” that Socrates was said to have had on his interlocutors. An exchange often left them with an amusing story or philosophical insight that they shared with me. I would like to acknowledge their input to my understanding of Bouwsma through personal connections, by conversations, or letters, whether or not they are explicitly named in the book: William Anderson, Elizabeth Anscombe, Alice Ambrose, Richard Bell, Betty Carpenter, Alburey Castell, John Cook, Jimmy Lee Craft, Robert Dewey, Edmund Erde, Cedric Evans, William Gordon, Paul Holmer, Richard Howey, William Hines, Lee Gordon, Kenneth Johnson, Dewey Jensen, Jeremiah (Jere) Jones, Robert Knoll, Larry Kimmel, Paul Olsen, Thomas Martin, Morris Lazerowitz, Norman Malcolm, Michael Malone, John Murphy, Harry Nielsen, Charles Peek, Jack Rogers, John Silber, David Solomon, Elmer Sprague, Roger Sullivan, Benjamin Tilghman, Jon Torgerson, Bruce Waters, Perry Weddle, Richard Wood, and John Whalen.

Many thanks are in order to The College of Wooster for funding research for the project, to the University of Texas Ransom Center librarians John Kilpatrick, Catherine Henderson, and Patricia Fox, and to the University of Nebraska Love Library archivist Brink Peterson for their help over many years of visits to those libraries.

Several people have been especially helpful in preparing this work, and I thank them: The Bouwsma family, including Gertrude, for many letters and meals, William, for permissions, Chuck and Gretchen for conversations and the video interview, and niece Eve Heidtman, for general Bouwsma family background. The long friendship with J.L. Craft has developed my understanding of Bouwsma and provided insights, materials, and hospitality. Craft and Bill Gordon have hosted me on many trips to Austin and provided opportunities to discuss work in the Bouwsma collection.

Several of my College of Wooster students have helped with indexing the microfilmed reels of Bouwsma’s early notebooks: Thomas Ames, Jordan McNickle, Quentin Fisher, and Timothy Seaton. Henry Moore helped with indexing and hospitality at the Ransom Center. Additionally, I have profited from conversations with April Contway and Sean Hunter, two students with a thirst for Wittgenstein.

← ix | x → Elmer Sprague communicated with me over many years on his friendship with Bouwsma and gave me copies of several memoirs he had written on him. Sprague also collected papers from philosophers on Bouwsma’s work intending to have them published as a book, but only some were published in the journal Philosophical Investigations. Likewise, Jon Torgerson organized a conference on Bouwsma’s philosophy at Drake University that produced a collection of unpublished papers. Kelly Jolley (Auburn University philosopher) has thought much about Bouwsma, published a paper on him, and reflected an understanding of him in his extensive writings. John Cook, a former Bouwsma student, has also published books and articles reflecting on Bouwsma and Wittgenstein. I maintain a friendship with Edward Minar at the University of Arkansas who has good instincts on what Bouwsma is doing in relation to Wittgenstein and directed my son Ronald Hustwit Jr.’s doctoral dissertation on Wittgenstein. I have also had many profitable and insightful discussions with a long-time friend, John Kooistra, philosopher, poet, oenologist, and Alaskan salmon fisherman, who listens, understands, and chooses words with precision and beauty.

Each of my adult children has helped with the project in various ways and accompanied me at different times to the Ransom Center: Holly Tate, philosophy student and social worker, with indexing and transcribing the John Locke Lectures; Dr. Ronald E. Hustwit Jr., philosopher and United States Air Force officer, with reading, indexing, and discussing specific topics; and Dr. William P. Hustwit, historian and professor, with indexing and advising. In addition to general support and understanding, my wife Barbara, author, Willa Cather scholar, and unmatched grammarian, has painfully removed many of my grammatical and word choice blunders—those remaining are all mine.

The chapter titles and even the book’s subtitle have been borrowed and adapted from the first line of Dante’s Divine Comedy: “Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, where the right way was lost.” —an illusion to Bouwsma’s midlife meeting with Wittgenstein.

← x | 1 → ·1·


Oets Kolk Bouwsma, one of six children, was born October 22, 1898, and raised in the predominantly Dutch community of Muskegon, Michigan, in the first years of the twentieth century. His parents, Jochem (Joseph) and Hillegien (Helen) Bouwsma, were Americans of Dutch origin, having immigrated to the United States around 1880. Joseph was an exceptional businessman. He founded and owned several enterprises including a recycling company called “Muskegon Rag and Metal,” the “Pine Street Furniture Store,” and a toy factory that manufactured the well-known “Raggedy Ann” dolls. He bought and managed large subdivisions of real estate within Muskegon, owned and managed a lakefront resort for tourists, owned several automobile franchises, and was said to have owned the first automobile in Muskegon—a 1910 Pierce Arrow.

Of the six children, only Edward, Oets, and Angelyn survived to adulthood. All three had the home life that would prepare them for academic and intellectually rich lives. Economic conditions of the great depression of the 1920s forced Edward, the oldest, to stay in his father’s business enterprises. Oets and Angelyn journeyed into the academic world and lived within academic communities throughout their lives. The Dutch immigrant ethos, with its Calvinist Christian Reformed Church, shaped their work ethic, their austere manners, and their love of literature and music. All three children trained in music—Edward, in particular, had training in voice for church music.

← 1 | 2 → Oets and Angelyn were well educated in literature and philosophy. Both attended Calvin Preparatory School, Calvin College, and the University of Michigan’s graduate school. While Angelyn did not complete a Ph.D., she met and married Albert Stevens who did complete one in English literature at Michigan and taught English. As a graduate student, Angelyn attended classes taught by the visiting poet W.H. Auden, whom she and her husband came to know well. Out of their friendship, the Stevens named one of their children “Wystan Auden Stevens.” Auden, in response, wrote and dedicated a poem to the birth of their son titled “Mundus et Infans.” A prominent biography of Auden provides a picture with the Stevens, noting Auden’s admiration for their “simple Christian faith.”

Dutch was the language of Scripture reading and mealtime prayers in the Bouwsma home. Piano lessons and hymns were staples, and theological discussions were commonplace with visitors. Movies were forbidden. The latter provided a temptation for Oets who was known to have gone to these forbidden venues, sometimes taking his younger sister Angelyn with him. On occasion, he attended Vaudeville shows, also forbidden, with Edward. Oets entertained friends with comedy routines copied from those acts. Seemingly out of character, the quiet Oets sometimes skipped school and nicked small gifts for his mother at the five-and-dime store. He also enjoyed flying kites and making miniature parachutes, all of which seem to embody a freedom from the austere ethos of his home life. Angelyn related a prophetic anecdote from their childhood: Oets and she made piles of leaves into which they dove with Oets prophetically crying, “Ik ben di meester van de domines”—“I am the teacher of the preachers.”


X, 228
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (September)
sensitivity everyday language religious belief rationality philosophical skepticism
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 228 pp.

Biographical notes

Ronald E. Hustwit (Author)

Ronald E. Hustwit is the Frank Halliday Ferris Professor of Philosophy at the College of Wooster, where he has taught philosophy since 1967. After graduating from Westminster College in Pennsylvania, he studied for an M.A. at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and a PhD at the University of Texas at Austin. He has published papers on Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein, and collected and edited five books of the papers of O. K. Bouwsma. He has been a Fellow at St. John’s University’s Center for Ecumenical and Cultural Research in Minnesota, a Visiting Scholar at The University of Texas, and a Visiting Lecturer at Aberdeen University in Scotland.


Title: O. K. Bouwsma
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