O.K. Bouwsma

It’s time for an anecdote to help us forget serious business (and the coronavirus) for a few minutes! This one is about a well-known American philosopher. And with a name like that you know he must have been unusual.

I didn’t know him personally, but he was a godfather to the daughter of my first chairman at the University of Rhode Island. They had met and become close friends while both are teaching at Calvin College. My chairman used to tell me stories about O.K. Bouwsma that I thought were delightful. Apparently he was quite the character — brilliant but very funny as well.

Bouwsma was an acknowledged expert on the thought of René Descartes. He didn’t write much, but what he wrote was after months and months of deep thought and careful study. His books were mainly collections of his excellent essays — many of them on Descartes. Very tight and always insightful.

He was asked to deliver a paper at the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association (now THERE’S a dry meeting if ever there was one!). He delivered his paper and, as was usual, listened carefully to the rejoinder read by a brash, young man who had a very high opinion of himself. After his critique Bouwsma asked the young man where he found the evidence for one of the major points and he responded: “In the Third Meditation” — (of six Meditations). Bouwsma smiled and nodded and then said: “Oh, I see. I haven’t gotten that far.” Needless to say  the young man was silenced!

The only time I ever had anything like genuine contact with the man was when we were searching for a new person to add to our philosophy department at the university where I was teaching at the time. We poured through applications for the position — and there were a great many as young folks coming out of graduate school were desperate to find work. In fact we eventually decided upon a man who was working at a men’s clothing store in Philadelphia! A man with a PhD from a major university who turned out to be an excellent teacher and a good friend. And there he was measuring men’s inseams.

In any event, we had to read more letters of recommendation than you can imagine when I came across a letter supporting a candidate from The University of Texas at Austin — a very good school with a strong philosophy department. As it happened, O.K. Bouwsma was teaching there and he wrote the young man a letter supporting his candidacy. It consisted of three brief paragraphs, tight and not overly wordy. It was a strong recommendation as it happened and it finished with a brief statement: “What else can I say? He also has very nice hair.” I thought it wonderful, but we passed on that candidate for other reasons.

In any event, Bouwsma is one of those characters who flits into and out of our lives — in reality or in our imagination. And I enjoy thinking about him from time to time. I hope you enjoyed this brief retreat from reality as well.

It’s All About Me

In 2004 I wrote a book in which I sought to discover the roots of the rampant subjectivism that permeates modern culture and indeed the modern (and post-modern) world. It was cumbersomely titled (by the publisher) The Inversion of Consciousness From Dante To Derrida and professed to be a “study in intellectual history.”  In that book I pointed to three main factors that seemed to lead human attention away from the world “out there” and to the subject himself or herself. I noted the Protestant Reformation, the birth of modern science, and the philosophy of Francis Bacon and René Descartes.

The Protestant Reformation undermined the absolute authority of the Catholic Church and with it the certainty in the minds of most of those in the Western World that there is an absolute right and wrong, there is Truth, and the soul is immortal. This uncertainty, not to say anxiety, coupled with the Cartesian doubt with which Descartes started his system, resulted in growing uncertainty not only about the authority of the Church but also about the veracity of human faith and the certainties upon which were based the confidence of earlier generations. The invention of Galileo’s telescope exacerbated the situation as it called into question the confidence humans had in their own sense experience: seeing was no longer believing. Jupiter had moons that had never before been seen and this called into question the entire edifice of Ptolemaic astronomy that had been the framework of “science” since the time of the ancient Greeks. Moreover, the Ptolemaic view had the support of the Catholic Church which found Galileo’s discoveries deeply disturbing because they supported the Copernican theory that called into question the certainties on which the Church had rested its guidance of human activities for centuries.

If we ignore the corruption within the Catholic Church itself, including the “grand schism,”  the Protestant Reformation was the final straw in bringing down the tower of certainty that was the medieval church — as I have noted in previous posts. Especially in the writings of John Calvin, the accumulation of great personal wealth was no longer seen as an evil but was welcomed as a sign of God’s favor. And this gave license to human greed which found its home in the economic system of capitalism as put forward in the writings of Adam Smith. For Smith capitalism promised humankind a new world of peace and prosperity; but more than that it encouraged human beings to pay close attention to themselves and to their own well-being. In the end an “invisible hand” would guarantee  benefits to all based on the success of the few.

All of these factors, it seemed to me brought about what I called the “inversion of consciousness,” the turning away from the world to a preoccupation with the self and to personal pleasure and self-indulgence. There can be no question but that modern science and capitalism have brought about many benefits to humankind. Modern medicine and the possibility of financial gains promised by these two factors alone prolonged human life and raised humankind to new heights of ease and comfort. But it was bought at a price and there is a serious question whether or not that price was worth paying.

I recently finished a book by Hannah Arendt that was published almost 50 years before my book. It is titled The Human Condition, and I had not read it when I wrote mine, but I found a great many areas of agreement between the two books, which is most encouraging — surprising even. Arendt characterizes our age as one in which “self-centered and self-indulgent egotism” are prevalent, an age in which the only value is life itself — not the quality of life, but simply life itself. She points to the same three factors as I do in attempting to discover modern man’s preoccupation with himself. But she places a great deal more stress on the doubt of René Descartes than I did. She thinks Descartes’ doubt, with which he begins his systematic journey to rational certainty, places the subject firmly within himself as the final authority about not only right and wrong but, more importantly, about truth. Cartesian doubt even undermines religious faith. The truth is no longer about the world; in the modern world it is about one’s perception of the world.  And thinking is turned away from the world to the subject himself who is thinking about the world. And it is thought, after all, that provides Descartes with the springboard that established the certainty of his own existence and, ultimately, about the world. “I think, therefore I am.”

In the modern world, then, it is all about me. Knowledge is determined by how we reason about what is going on about us and right and wrong collapse — as does virtue — into mere opinion about what might lead to greater personal benefits  in the short term. And while much of this seems remote and of interest only to philosophers and scientists we must note that those ideas have slowly permeated our culture and deeply affected the way we think about our world and about ourselves. All of us. And if we add to the mix the recent explosion of interest in electronic toys that fix the attention to the gadget in hand, it becomes obvious how the world outside the self has simply disappeared. The self is all and the objective world has become lost in the inversion of consciousness.