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O. K. Bouwsma

A Philosopher’s Journey


Ronald E. Hustwit

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.
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← 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Austin, Texas in 1978, J. L. Craft, Bouwsma’s last Ph.D. student was asked by Gertrude Bouwsma to help box his books, unpublished papers, and the hundred’s of legal pads on which Bouwsma kept his journals.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...

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