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The College of Wooster Philosophy Department ; Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin


Selections: Bouwsma-Smyties discussions at Oxford 1950-51; Bouwsma-Smythies discussions at Oxford 1955-56; selected notes on Smythies 1953-74; notes on Smythies’ paper “Non-Logical Falsity”; Smythies’ paper “Non-Logical Falsity”; Smythies’ letter to Bouwsma on Conversations With Wittgenstein, 1949-51; 16 poems by Yorick Smythies; Smythies’ untitled paper on “action-reaction” and “objects” (Bouwsma’s typed response to this paper (c. 100 pages – are in the Bouwsma collection in the Humanities Research Center).

In his commonplace book from 1950 to his death in 1978, Bouwsma kept track of his reflections on conversations and written remarks of Yorick Smythies a student of Wittgenstein. Bouwsma won a Fulbright Fellowship in the academic year 1950-51 to teach and do research at Magdalen College, Oxford University. During that time Wittgenstein, with whom Bouwsma already had a relationship, was often in Oxford, having been diagnosed with cancer, staying with Elizabeth Anscombe and family. Again Bouwsma frequently enjoyed walking and talking with Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein suggested that Bouwsma would also enjoy meeting with the man whom Wittgenstein described as one of his best students – Yorick Smythies. Smythies, it was said, was one of the few, if not the only, of Wittgenstein's students who would argue and disagree with Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein took him very seriously.

To understand Bouwsma's fascination with Smythies, one must understand Bouwsma’s interest in Wittgenstein’s understanding of language in relation to philosophy and to Bouwsma’s interest in understanding Christian faith. Smythies was an adult convert to the Catholic Church. He had, I believe, organized his interests in Wittgenstein's philosophy around specific psychological needs which connect to his conversion. It would seem that he had redefined the task of philosophy, as Wittgenstein conceived it, from uncovering the hidden analogies driving the philosopher to uncovering the hidden motives driving the sinner. As Wittgenstein proposed something like psychoanalysis for intellectual pollution, Smythies proposed something like psychoanalysis for spiritual pollution. In Christian categories, Smythies proposed self-examination for “confession” and “absolution of sin.” In connection with this new task of philosophy, Smythies also, in a strongly critical tone, claimed that Wittgenstein abstracted the whole person – with his moral and religious dimension – from the language-game. This made Wittgenstein's view of language "technical" and "dead" in Smythies’ eyes. These critical ideas fascinated Bouwsma who was at the same time developed in his understanding of Wittgenstein's thought and of Christianity. I have included in my selections from the commonplace book as many of Bouwsma's reflections on Smythies' ideas as possible. They reveal something central and essential about Bouwsma's struggle to put his own ideas together. They also reveal two strains in Bouwsma's conception of philosophy. One is that philosophy is the art of removing the illusions of metaphysics created by inattention to language. The other is that philosophy's importance nevertheless lies in self-understanding. In relation to Christianity specifically, philosophy's importance lies in showing that Christianity is not proved or defended, but lived.

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Wooster, OH


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O.K. Bouwsma, philosophy, notes on Smythies, philosopher, Oxford, 1950, philosophical discussions



Bouwsma’s Commonplace Book Notes On Yorick Smythies And Related Papers:Assembled, Edited, and Introduced by Ronald E. Hustwit Sr.

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