O.K. Bouwsma, a graduate of Calvin College’s philosophy department, was a longtime professor of philosophy at the University of Nebraska and, later, the University of Texas. He is one of four presidents of the American Philosophical Association who was an alumnus of our department here at Calvin. He was also one of the first U.S. interpreters of Wittgenstein and influenced students like Norman Malcolm who went on to play a significant role in the reception of Wittgenstein in North America.
I was recently re-reading one of Bouwsma’s classics, a little review essay on Wittgenstein’s Blue Book that first appeared in the Journal of Philosophy in 1961. It includes one of my favorite passages of philosophy ever, and makes me think being a student of Bouwsma must have been spell-binding:
I have been trying in these paragraphs to represent a certain source of misunderstanding, an obstacle to misunderstanding. It may also be represented in this way: Philosophers are people who investigate what sorts of things there are in the universe. They are, of course, scrupulous in these investigations beyond the scrupulosity of any other investigator. They stand at the gate and wait, fearing to tread where angels rush in. And what do they ask? They ask questions such as: Are there angels, universals, pure possibilities, uncrusted possibilities, possibilities with a little mud on them, fairies, creatures made of beautiful smoke, relations, the Lost Atlantis, real equality among tooth-picks, sense-data, ghosts, selves in prison with two feet, everlasting shoe-makers, heaven, thinking horses, pure uncontaminated acts, absolutely independent tables, the minds of stars, the spirits of an age, perfect circles, the geometrical point of a joke, the devil, floating impressions, categorical don’ts, one simple called Simon, perspectives waiting to take their places as the penny turns, gods, any ding-dong an sich with a bell so one can find it in the dark, trees, houses, and mountains of the mind, itches of necessary connection, two impossibilities before breakfast, blue ideas, enghosted pieces of furniture, etc.
And if now anyone comes to the reading of this book [Wittgenstein’s Blue Book] expecting the author, for instance, to say: “Yes, yes, God exists,” and then to show him a new and knock-out proof that is guaranteed for a thousand years or to help him to an old one, long buried in a Kant heap, but now freshly washed and polished, well, the author is more likely to remind him that thought Nietzsche some years ago read an obituary notice to the effect that God is dead, he, the author, had not even heard that God was sick. “The living God!” And as for inventing any new apriori synthetic, a new drug to cure this or that, or any and all, sorts of incertitude, though he seems at one time to have been interested in inventing a new type of airplane propeller and showed a keen interest in all sorts of gadgets, a milk bottle, for instance, from which with the use of a spoon, one could pour off the cream—“Now, there’s America for you!”—this particular form of invention he seems not to have been interested in. He was more inclined to recommend a few old home remedies and common herbs, garden variety simples which he was insistent one should not confuse. And as for those readers in general who want answers to their questions and who, if they already have answers, want better reasons, the author givens neither better reasons for the old answers nor any answers, and those readers who keep their questions may be considered either fortunate or unfortunate as the case may be.
I have tried to show how it is that this book should disappoint some readers, supposed that they had expectations in reading it. I have suggested that the reason why such readers have such expectations is that it is, or is read as, a book in philosophy. And it is a book of philosophy, surely? Well, it is and it isn’t.