Analytic Philosophy

Ordinary Language Philosophy

Who was O.K. Bouwsma?

Oets Kolk (O.K.) Bouwsma (1898–1978) was famous for his humorous manner of teaching Ludwig Wittgenstein’s (1889–1951) ordinary language philosophy over a 50-year teaching career, most memorably at the University of Texas at Austin. He would classically expose the absurdity of philosophical claims with elaborately silly examples of the kind of world that would be necessary for them to be true or plausible. René Descartes’ (1596–1650) dreaming and evil demon sources of doubt were among Bouwsma’s favorites. In a course on prophecy, he lauded Wittgenstein as follows:

What is a prophet like? Wittgenstein is the nearest to a prophet I have ever known. He is a man who is like a tower, who stands high and unattached, leaning on no one. He has his own feet. He fears no man. “Nothing can hurt me!” But other men fear him. And why? Not at all because he can strike them or take their money or their good names. They fear his judgment…. [T]he acquaintance with Wittgenstein has given me some inkling as to what the power of the prophet was among his people. “Thus saith the Lord” is the token of that being high above all fear and all blandishment, fearless and feared, just and conscience. Thus saith the Lord!

Bouwsma’s papers are collected in Philosophical Essays (1965), Toward a New Sensibility, (1982), Without Proof or Evidence (1984), and Wittgenstein Conversations (1949–1951). The Humanities Research center in Austin, Texas, has archived Bouwsma’s notebooks and class notes.


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