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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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Chapter 6. Knowing How to Go on in Texas, 1965–1978

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Late in the summer of 1965, Bouwsma moved to Austin, Texas to begin teaching at the University of Texas. Five graduate students from Nebraska already under his tutelage came with him. The move marked the beginning of thirteen more years of productive teaching and guidance of graduate students. In twelve of those thirteen years, he was engaged in full teaching duties that included his regular Saturday morning discussion group made up primarily of graduate students from his seminars, a practice begun at Nebraska and carried on to Texas.

The University of Texas Philosophy Department was, during Bouwsma’s tenure, a diverse center of philosophical schools and interests. Department Chair John Silber, himself a Kant scholar, oversaw the collecting of these philosophers. There were existentialists and phenomenologists, such as Hartmann from Germany; logicians such as the Italian Angelini and the German Lorenzen; philosophers who were scholars of notable historical figures, such as the British Hegel scholar J. N. Findley; a core of specialists in Ancient Philosophy also attached to the very distinguished Classics Department, such as Thomas Gould, Alexander Mouralatos, and J. P. Sullivan; and various other notable philosophers, such as Charles Hartshorne, Chester Lieb, David Miller, Edmund Pincoffs, Al Martinich, and Louis Mackey. The philosophy department had over twenty-five faculty plus a regular cycle of distinguished visitors. There were colloquia on Fridays at which some of the world’s ← 155 | 156 → best-known philosophers would present papers and defend their views. This international hub for philosophy made...

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