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.