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Degenaar in Dialogue: An Essay in Four Parts Part One: Apprentice Philosopher

The master burglar and his apprentice

There is an ancient Chinese story of a young man who approaches his father, a master burglar, and asks to become his apprentice. The son wishes to be taught the art of burglary, before his father’s skills deteriorate with advancing age. The master burglar agrees, and that very night father and son set out together to commit burglary.

They go to a wealthy area, and decide which house to burgle. Later that night, they gain entry to the house and look around. The father notices a large wooden chest in a prominent place in the main room, and asks his son to look inside it. As his son leans forward to look inside, the father suddenly forces him into the chest. He then bolts the chest from the outside, and begins to shout at the top of his voice, waking up the sleeping household. The father then makes his escape, leaving his son behind, locked in the chest.

Some hours later, just before daybreak, the apprentice burglar returns home, angry, demanding to know what his father thought he was doing, and why he had put his son in such danger. Instead of answering the question, the father asks his son how he had managed to make his escape.

On finding himself locked inside the chest, the young man had, at first, been overcome by fear. Once his fear subsided, he discovered a small crack in the wooden chest through which he could see what was happening in the main room of the house. He kept watch through this crack. When he could see only one old servant in the room, he began to scratch on the inside of the chest and to meow like a cat. The servant approached with a lighted candle in his hand. When the servant opened the chest, the young man blew out the candle, leaped out of the chest, pushed the servant aside and ran out into the walled garden.

The startled servant raised the alarm, and others came running. The young man hid in the shadows. He noticed a well in a dark part of the garden. When he saw an opportunity, he went to the well without being noticed, picked up a large rock and threw it in, making a loud splash. The searchers came running, expecting to find the intruder trapped in the well. While they are distracted, the young man slips away, climbs over a wall and makes his way home.

When the young man has completed his story, his father replies, “You do not need me any longer. You have already learned the burglar’s art.”

In his commentary, Jan Kauskas describes the story as “a description of clarity of mind where the rational mind, being temporarily shocked into silence by the predicament, allows the heart-mind to break through and provide a creative solution.”[1]

Ways of learning and teaching

The story is primarily about learning and teaching, rather than about burglary. The apprentice has not yet mastered his chosen art; he surely has more to learn. He learns through a series of improvisations, decided upon in the face of danger and uncertainty, with some decisions made instantly and others requiring patience. He cannot foresee the whole process at the outset, but has to anticipate many possibilities and be ready to respond to whichever of them presents itself in the moment. But he has discovered how to learn, and he can continue on that path.

If the apprentice is asked afterwards to say what he has learned, he may (or may not) be able to do so: for example, that he has learned to keep calm when in danger; to watch patiently, without giving himself away; to weigh up carefully whether the next step of his plan will work, but not so carefully that he misses the moment for it. What is crucial is not whether he can make such a list, but developing the intuition and imagination that guide him through each step.

The version of the story, which I first encountered, was told about a thousand years ago, in answer to the question of what Buddhism is, with the question being asked at a time when the koan became integral to Chan Buddhism (later known as Zen Buddhism, after it was took root in Japan).[2] Like the apprentice burglar locked in the chest, the novice monk is faced with a question that is seemingly impossible to answer and, in the process of wrestling with it, discovers for herself a sudden, unexpected and life-changing insight. The depth and intensity of the process of discovery, rather than a specific answer, is what makes the koan life-changing.

Chan Buddhism had its roots in the older Chinese tradition of Daoism. It seems likely that the story had older roots in Daoism, which emphasized natural spontaneity above the conscious calculation of means and ends, centuries before Buddhism came to China.[3] Daoism later provided the philosophical basis for the soft martial art of Taijiquan. In the thirteenth century, the Daoist monk Zhang Sanfeng copied the fluid movements of a snake fighting with a heron, to devise the Taiji fighting style, in which the weak could learn how to overcome the strong.[4]

The practice of Taiji provides another way in which, through specific sequences of physical movement, you find yourself changed, in a way similar to how the apprentice burglar was changed in the ancient story, although more slowly. For the first year or two, you follow the sequence of its gentle movements, until you quite suddenly become aware of their underlying principles. The Daodejing’s precept of softness overcoming hardness becomes a habit or instinct, first in your body and then—later, when you discover it—in your heart’s mind.[5]

The story of the apprentice burglar serves here to as a rough guide to a different experience of learning and teaching. It guides me in one more attempt to understand the life and work of Johan Degenaar, who was my teacher, and later my colleague and friend, until his death in 2015. It seems possible to me that studying Taiji for the past six or seven years, initially in response to a health crisis, may also have enabled me to see Degenaar in a somewhat different light than I did before.

I’ve written about Degenaar before, but in a different vein and context.[6] My intention here is not to revise or retract what I’ve written before. But I want to take a different approach to his life and work, and what I now understand to be his primary legacy. Where once I thought of that legacy principally as a set of arguments and alignments, I now think of it more as a kind of philosophical artistry, in which conversation, dialogue, provocation and engagement—and related forms of collective debate and discovery—play the central part, and also provide a crucial key to understanding his written work.

As time goes by, that legacy seems to become richer and more complex—in my mind, at least—and I hope it continues like that.

Discussion, dialogue and dialectic

There is no single term that covers all of the broadly dialogical practices or activities I wish to discuss in this essay. In Afrikaans, the term gesprek serves to identify Degenaar’s engagement with others most clearly, perhaps because of a special sense given to it initially by N.P. van Wyk Louw, and then developed by others, including Degenaar.[7]

Gesprek was also the term that Degenaar most often used, always seeing the activity in a positive light, but not always giving the term a specific meaning. He wrote in praise of oop gesprek for a volume he co-authored with W.A. de Klerk and Martin Versfeld in 1969. [8] There he lists the moral requirements of the practice, in a kind of checklist of abstract ideals. His essay admonished and exhorted, rather than capturing Degenaar’s own practice of engaging with others, within the frame of their own insights, however limited. It makes me wonder whether Degenaar’s actual practice of oop gesprek may have matured only in the 1970s. It seems likely, at least, that the concrete practice of gesprek took Degenaar in a different direction than the abstract ideal he set out in 1969. In later years, for those who knew him, gesprek became what he did, and what he stood for, but which he felt less need to explain or justify.

In English, gesprek would most often be translated as discussion, which is a broader, less focused term than gesprek. Discussion is often understood to include random exchange of views, while gesprek carries the connotation of a more serious exchange on a specific topic, often aimed at establishing a shared point of view.

At crucial points in this essay, I use the term dialogue, or its adjective dialogical—as in my title and when providing an overview of Degenaar’s style of engagement. The adjective dialogical seems to me to have the advantage of being less Platonic than the noun, but is perhaps overly academic. When I began writing, the more modest terms discussion and conversation seemed preferable, and their frequent use here conveys something of the spontaneity and ease of Degenaar’s exchanges. But the element of genuine rigour—which was not always immediately apparent, but was central to Degenaar’s practice—is better conveyed by the terms dialogue (as a noun, not a verb) and dialogical.

The dialogical process often moved from relaxed conversation through questioning to careful testing of conclusions. No-one was necessarily thinking about what stage the process had reached, or concerned themselves with terminology to describe it. The terms I’ve mentioned as actual or possible descriptions of the activity were used somewhat interchangeably, by Degenaar and his interlocutors. They belong on a continuous spectrum, with their differences often a matter of context or emphasis.

It’s more important to me to convey the frequent artistry that Degenaar brought to spoken exchanges than to decide on a name for the specific art form. This is not always easy to do, as an essential element of Degenaar’s art of dialogue was its lack of ostentation; even its concealment. It was not concerned with displaying the brilliance of its exponent, but enabling others to develop their own views and find their own voices.

Much of what I describe in this essay is the attempt, in different contexts, to make the transition from discussion to dialogue. Sometimes the attempt is thwarted, or even sabotaged; sometimes making that transition enabled differences and commonalities of meaning to be clarified; sometimes it opened up new vistas, and changed lives.

Both discussion and dialogue involve mutual interruption and response; but dialogue has a more definite emphasis on the shared aim of those involved of coming to a clearer understanding of a question that they both see as significant. This does not exclude the possibility that participants in dialogue will eventually agree to disagree; but they will do this only after a shared effort to establish the truth of the matter has been attempted and failed. This is often a question of emphasis, as no-one can say in advance how far that attempt to reach agreement should be sustained. But that does not mean it is a trivial question.

Dialogue is sometimes seen as an exchange between two people, and no more than two. What is essential to it, however, is not the number of participants, but rather that each participant takes responsibility for their own statements. In this ideal sense, dialogue requires a shared commitment to the truth and a willingness to consider criticism of your views, and rethink them completely, if necessary. When I speak of Degenaar’s art of dialogue, I have in mind the many techniques—often improvised, but drawing on what became an established, even familiar, repertoire—for enabling discussion to achieve the philosophical scale of dialogue. I describe the early context and development of Degenaar’s commitment to dialogue in the second part of this essay, and the structure and repertoire of his dialogical engagement in the third part.

Practices of dialogue, as Dmitri Nikulin has argued, are sometimes treated as the inchoate beginnings of systematic modes of philosophy, which conceive of themselves as having “outgrown” dialogue in their quest for “monological, strict and conclusion-oriented thinking.” [9] But Degenaar had the capacity to make dialogue into a process of philosophical discovery and life-changing adventure.

The process of dialogue might also be described as dialectical, mainly in the sense used by Plato and others to describe Socrates’ practice of dialogue, but not only. This term may illuminate the process I seek to describe, but it is not essential to describing it. It is simpler to avoid the term here, for the most part. Dialectic was a term which Degenaar used quite sparingly, and for the most part colloquially. The element of dialectic which most appealed to him, I think, was that of surprise.

As my account of Degenaar’s art of dialogue unfolds, I hope it will also clarify his distinctive practice of philosophy, not simply as an academic discipline, but as similar to what Pierre Hadot has described as a “way of life,” deeply informed by ethical aims.[10]

Degenaar’s generation

Degenaar began his studies at Stellenbosch in 1944, at the age of seventeen, beginning the B.A. degree that would qualify him for admission to the Theological Seminary, and would then, if he had completed the postgraduate B.Th. degree, have qualified him to be called to the ministry of the Dutch Reformed Church.

It is very likely, as Etienne Britz suggests, that funding from the church in his small home town of Ladysmith, Natal, enabled Degenaar to undertake university studies at all. His father had been imprisoned during the South African War, as a “Natal rebel” who owed loyalty to the British crown, and was apparently in poor health for the rest of his life. His mother earned a modest income for the family by renting rooms in their house to boarders.[11]

Philosophy was a required subject for admission to the Theological Seminary, along with the Biblical languages, Hebrew and Greek. Philosophy at Stellenbosch had been invigorated by the appointment of J.F. Kirsten to the chair in 1942, just a few years before Degenaar first arrived at the university. Degenaar and many of his contemporaries threw themselves into the discipline with passion, many of them coming to see philosophy not just as a requirement, but as a calling in its own right.

In later years, when Degenaar spoke about his earlier formation, he described his youthful response to Afrikaans poetry, especially the work of D.J. Opperman and N.P. van Wyk Louw.[12] It seems that philosophy must have been a sudden revelation for him, once he got to Stellenbosch; hitherto unknown territory, which soon seized his imagination: “Philosophical reflection began for me with my arrival at Stellenbosch in 1944. . . . I immediately fell for Socrates. . . The moment that I discovered philosophy, I knew right away that, although I had come to study theology, philosophizing would be a tremendously important element of my development. The saying of Socrates, ‘an unexamined life is not worth living,’ became the motto of my life. . . . I would say that in my first year, my meeting with Socrates, was a central event in my life.”[13]

Kirsten was clearly a gifted and energetic teacher, and made philosophy into a discipline that engaged the most urgent existential needs of that generation. But this generation did more than follow in Kirsten’s footsteps. They made use of Kirsten’s perspectives to develop their own, and in the process brought about a significant re-orientation of the discipline at Stellenbosch.[14]

Although the students of that generation may not have been aware of it, they were also the beneficiaries of a re-alignment of disciplinary fortunes related to the long campaign by a conservative faction of the Dutch Reformed Church to remove Professor Johannes du Plessis from his post at the Theological Seminary. The campaign began in earnest in 1926, with the launch of theological journal Die Ou Paaie, intended to oppose what was known as “the modern direction” in theology and secure the removal of du Plessis. Du Plessis was removed from the Theological Seminary in 1932, after many court cases, but remained on as Professor of Hebrew until his death in 1935.

As the conservative faction gained control of the Theological Seminary, so the intake of theological students declined: from 43 in 1931 to 12 in 1937 and seven in 1939, before numbers gradually increased again. But many students found their years at the seminary a soul-destroying experience. Increasing numbers of them sought relief from it by pursuing postgraduate studies in philosophy, either along with their theological studies or instead. As student numbers declined in theology, so they expanded in philosophy. In 1930, there was one MA student in philosophy (out of 42 in the university as a whole); in 1931, five (out of 43); in 1932, six (out of 40); in 1933, 13 (out of 41); in 1934, 14 (out of 42)—that is, more than a third of the students registered for master’s degrees were by then in philosophy![15]

Kirsten was a supporter of du Plessis, in his student years, as were the majority of the student body. For this he incurred the wrath of the conservative faction in the seminary. When he completed his theological training in 1934, a fellow student, J.D. Vorster, took the unusual step of objecting to Kirsten’s legitimation in the ministry.[16] Kirsten entered the ministry, and was also the first student to complete a D.Phil. in philosophy at Stellenbosch.

Kirsten was appointed as professor of philosophy in 1942. In his philosophical work, he sought to balance faith and knowledge, treating Christian faith as an essential anchor in the flux of life. The first generation of his students accepted this framework, but came to reject the balancing act between them. They saw authentic faith as willing acceptance of the constant flux of life, without a safe harbour. In this they drew on the philosophical work of Kierkegaard, then newly translated into many languages from the Danish in which he’d written a century before.

The leading figures in this process were James Oglethorpe (who became a Dutch Reformed missionary in Zambia and later an adviser to Kenneth Kaunda), Daantjie Oosthuizen (who was professor of philosophy at Rhodes University until his death in 1969) and Johan Degenaar (the youngest of the three).[17] Oglethorpe and Oosthuizen both completed their training for the Dutch Reformed ministry, while also completing the master’s degree in philosophy. After completing his B.A. degree, Degenaar registered both for the B.Th. degree at the Theological Seminary and an M.A. in Philosophy, but soon decided to abandon his theological studies.

Although these three were the outstanding figures in that generation, there were many others who shared their sense of philosophical adventure and discovery. This resulted in growing numbers of students registering for M.A. degrees in philosophy, with their theses adopting broadly similar approaches and themes, and with a similar sense of the urgency of their enquiries.[18]

At the same time, this generation’s sense of existential isolation went along with a certain pessimism. Oosthuizen writes of his M.A. thesis, Die Verklaringsdrang, that its central problem can be understood “only within his own life.” Hence the thesis itself is “comical” because the author “wants to get the approval of other people when such approval is a misunderstanding.”[19] In the sub-title, perhaps imitating Kierkegaard, he describes his thesis as “Aesthetic-comical considerations in connection with the philosophy of explanation, in the direction of an existential dialectic”—another sign, if it was needed, that he did not imagine that he was providing a definite solution to his chosen problem.

Oglethorpe is similarly dismissive, not so much of his own specific, but negative, argument, as of the claims of the philosophy itself. He seeks to demonstrate that “philosophy can never provide a satisfactory account of knowledge.”[20] Oglethorpe was even more forceful in dismissing the dominant theological views of his context, arguing that the Dutch Reformed Church, in supporting racial domination for the sake of “the right of the nation to survive” was “forfeiting its most precious possession, its faith.”[21]

Degenaar affirms at times this philosophical pessimism, but then rebels against it. In an extraordinary epilogue to his M.A. thesis, he recalls a decisive exchange with himself, and with the ghosts with whom he is in dialogue. As these ghosts depart, Jesus asks Degenaar if he wishes to leave as well. In that moment he realizes that, there is nowhere to go, and yet he must go into the world: “God will only be with me if I go and live out his presence. . . . I must be actively in the midst of life, otherwise the holy mystery of it will be lost and it will become an intellectual problem.” [22]

Degenaar holds onto the sense of “holy mystery,” but—unlike his contemporaries—he finds a way to make it compatible with philosophical activism. He argues that “the philosopher-prophet” must serve God “precisely in my relation to my fellow-man.”[23]

How should philosophers pray?

Degenaar was appointed as a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at Stellenbosch in 1949. He then spent two years studying at Groningen University in the Netherlands, before returning to Stellenbosch to begin teaching in 1951. He also submitted his D.Phil. thesis in 1951, completing his formal studies. He turned twenty-five in that year.

Degenaar may have been seen as the “safe choice” among the leading candidates, rather than the most brilliant among them.[24] But there was perhaps no safe choice for a post of that kind in the context of the rise of Afrikaner nationalism after 1948, in a time before Afrikaner nationalism had consolidated its power.

It became clear, soon after Degenaar began teaching in 1951, that he would follow his own distinctive path. It seems that this first become apparent through his apparently deliberate and increasingly mischievous subversion of the practice of beginning each philosophy lecture with prayer.

This practice of beginning philosophy lectures with prayer may have been established by Kirsten, or at least given new emphasis by him, if it had existed before. Etienne Britz, who was a first-year philosophy student at Stellenbosch in 1966, describes Kirsten’s opening prayer as providing a stable point of reference that students could hold onto during the somewhat kaleidoscopic overview of ancient Greek philosophy that would follow. A lecture by Kirsten defending the work of a specific Greek philosopher would be followed by another lecture, in which the same philosophical arguments would be overturned, leaving students uncertain of what to believe.[25] Kirsten’s prayer had the effect of steadying this heaving ship amid the storm.

Degenaar continued Kirsten’s practice of beginning each lecture with prayer. But his prayers were quite different in tone and perspective. They had the effect of disturbing, rather than reassuring, student minds. Thus, where Kirsten acknowledged God as distant and almighty, Degenaar engaged with Jesus in more familiar, conversational tones. Sometimes his prayer was sympathetic; for example: “Thank you, Lord, for loving this earth so much that you broke yourself to come here.”[26] Sometimes his prayer was cheerful and informal, as in his regular blessing of the meal: “Our Father, thank you for our friendship and make us glad.”[27] Sometimes as if sharing a joke: “Thank you for philosophy that helps us look closely at life. Liberate us from our imagined certainties. Protect us from seeking new certainties, and make us content with the daily bread that you send us from heaven.”[28]

The best-known of these prayers asked: “Lord, once we had to make people into Christians; help us now to make Christians into people again.”[29] That Degenaar himself continued to mention this prayer, long after he discontinued his practice of prayer in the classrooms, suggests that it was among the most contentious of his early challenges to Stellenbosch orthodoxy.

No doubt, this prayer had a certain shock value. But it may also have antagonized Degenaar’s senior colleagues because it was not that easy for them to respond. That is, it was not obviously absurd to expect Christians to recognize the humanity of others, including non-believers. Nor was it obvious that leading figures in Stellenbosch Christianity were free of stern and judgmental attitudes, or had no need for a more human touch.

This specific prayer also had an aesthetic and pedagogic form in which Degenaar found continuing, life-long delight. It reversed the conventional relationship of terms within a simple statement, raising the possibility that we had habitually got things back to front. It didn’t tell people what to think, but prodded them into thought. At times, it brought people together in laughter caused by puzzlement and fresh insight. It is not hard to understand how this strategy of reversing the established relationship of terms distressed those who saw themselves as guardians of the conventional wisdom.[30]

In an academic culture which promoted conformity, especially among its younger members, Degenaar was a constant source of surprise, even amazement. Willie Esterhuyse recalled many years later his first encounters with Degenaar, when Esterhuyse was a first-year student studying towards admission to the Theological Seminary, the “shocked silence” with which Degenaar’s remarks would be met, and the perplexity among students about whether to pray for him or wish for him to rid the dominees of their dull solemnity. Esterhuyse writes: “I have never yet encountered a more inspired lecturer. Every lecture was a feast—often as captivating as poetry. His ability to make the world of philosophy accessible to students and to cultivate a love of the subject among them is truly unequalled. Sometimes, in his class, I thought to myself: This man is enchanted [betowerd]—enchanted by thought itself. He will place all of us under the spell of philosophy.”[31]

Within a few years of his appointment, it must have been apparent that Degenaar was not conforming with the dominant norms of Stellenbosch academic life, and was perhaps actively challenging them. Because he was teaching philosophy—which was a required subject for students studying towards admission to the Theological Seminary—and because theology had so central a role in the history and self-conception of the university, this was not an issue which the conservative Stellenbosch establishment could simply overlook.

Degenaar’s situation was, by then, in some ways comparable to that of the apprentice burglar in the ancient Chinese story, locked in a wooden chest, in the main room of the house he had come to burgle; but in some ways more ambiguous. Degenaar was not an intruder, or not in the same obvious sense. To the extent that he was infringing on the established, but unspoken, codes of the time, it was not obvious who had the authority to call him to order, or how to do so. His words and conduct were not a clear violation of the formal requirements of the academic post to which he had been appointed. And it could not always have been easy to tell when his conduct was a kind of light-hearted innocence, and when it was deliberate provocation.

Sometimes he may have chosen greater conformity with the norms that dominated Stellenbosch academic life, or avoided provoking those who upheld them. In some contexts, his actions may have suggested that he sought to conform.[32] It may be that he was given more or less explicit hints, opportunities or incentives to mend his ways. But is it possible, at this stage, to reconstruct any part of this process?


[1] Jan Kaskaus, Laoshi: Tai Chi, Teachers and the Pursuit of Principle (Santa Fe: Via Media, 2014), kindle loc. 1233. The Chinese word xin can be translated both as heart and as mind. The idea of the heart-mind is an integral part of Taoism and its sequels.

[2] Kauskas attributes the original story to Goso Hoen, which is the Japanese name for Zen master Wuzu Fayan (1047-1104); cf. Laoshi, kindle loc. 1195. On Wuzu Fayan, cf. Taigen Daniel Leighton, Dogen’s Pure Standards for the Zen Community (Albany: SUNY Press, 1996), pp. 147-48.

[3] Cf. David Hinton, China Root: Taoism, Ch’an and Original Zen (Boulder: Shambhala Publications, 2020), pp. 6-10.

[4] Barbara Davis, The Taijiquan Classics: An Annotated Translation (Berkeley, California: Blue Snake Books, 2004), pp. 15-18. There are many versions of Zhang Sanfeng’s observation of the snake and the heron.

[5] Cf. Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching: A New Translation (Boston & London: Shambala, 2007), chapters 8 and 78.

[6] Andrew Nash, The Dialectical Tradition in South Africa (New York: Routledge, 2009), chapter 4: “How Kierkegaard Came to Stellenbosch,” chapter 5: “Johan Degenaar and the Politics of Oop Gesprek,” chapter 8: “The New Politics of Afrikaans.” The book had its origin in a series of articles published in the South African Journal of Philosophy in 1997-98, and a Ph.D. thesis submitted at the University of Cape Town in 2000.

[7] Cf. N.P. van Wyk Louw, “Die Oop Gesprek,” in Versamelde Prosa (Cape Town: Human & Rousseau, 1986), vol. 2, pp. 3-5.

[8] J.J. Degenaar, “Die Oop Gesprek,” in J.J. Degenaar, W.A. de Klerk and Martin Versfeld, Beweging Uitwaarts (Cape Town: John Malherbe, 1969), pp. 7-16.

[9] Dmitri Nikulin, Dialectic and Dialogue (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), p. 72.

[10] Cf. Pierre Hadot, What Is Ancient Philosophy? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002). Hadot’s perspective on philosophy has also been used to interpret Buddhist philosophy; cf. David V. Fiordalis, ed., Buddhist Spiritual Practices: Thinking with Pierre Hadot on Buddhism, Philosophy and the Path (Berkeley, CA: Mangalam Press, 2018).

[11] Cf. Etienne Britz, “Vroue is óók genooi vir die Oop Gesprek,” Die Burger, 12 December 2016; Etienne Britz, “Die Lastige Johan Degenaar: Bespreking aangebied by Koopmanskloof 29 Oktober 2016,” unpublished typescript, pp. 2–3. However, I believe that Britz is mistaken in saying that Degenaar began his studies in 1943.

[12] Cf. Pieter Duvenage, Afrikaanse Filosofie: Perspektiewe en Dialoë (Bloemfontein: SUN Media, 2016), p. 81.

[13] Duvenage, Afrikaanse Filosofie, p. 81. “Filosofiese besinning begin met my koms na Stellenbosch in 1944. . . . Ek het onmiddellik geval vir Sokrates. . . . Die moment toe ek filosofie ontdek, toe weet ek, alhoewel ek gekom het om teologie te studeer, dat filosofering ‘n geweldig belangrike element in my ontwikkeling sou wees. Die uitspraak van Sokrates, ‘an unexamined life is not worth living,’ het die slagspreuk van my lewe geword. . . . Ek sou sê my eerstejaar, my ontmoeting met Sokrates, was ‘n sentrale gebeurtenis in my lewe.”

[14] This is an unavoidably simplified account of a more complex process. For a fuller account, cf. Andrew Nash, The Dialectical Tradition in South Africa (New York: Routledge, 2009), chapter 4: “How Kierkegaard came to Stellenbosch,” pp. 65-84; an earlier version of this chapter is also, perhaps more easily, available in South African Journal of Philosophy 16:4 (1997), 129-39.

[15] These trends are more fully set out in Nash, Dialectical Tradition in South Africa, pp. 79-80. Figures are taken from the Stellenbosch Jaarboek, which indicates registrations rather than completion of degrees.

[16] Anton van Niekerk, “A department under siege,” p. 453.

[17] Oosthuizen was a temporary lecturer at Stellenbosch in 1949, while completing his theology degree. For more on Oosthuizen’s philosophical career, see This site includes a link to my overview, Andrew Nash, “Dialogue Alone: D.C.S. Oosthuizen’s Engagement with Three Philosophical Generations,” African Sociological Review 9:1 (June 2005), pp. 62-72.

[18] Other philosophy thesis topics are listed in Nash, Dialectical Tradition in South Africa, note 12 of chapter 4, p. 225. The now-familiar B.A. Honours degree was introduced only in 1957.

[19] D.C.S. Oosthuizen, Die Verklaringsdrang: Aesteties-komiese oorwegings i.v.m. die verklaringsfilosofie in die rigting van ‘n ekistensiële dialektiek (MA thesis, Stellenbosch, 1949), p. 3; fuller quotation in Nash, Dialectical Tradition in South Africa, p. 99. I do not provide the Afrikaans original for this passage, and related passages quoted in this section; only my English translations are available to me at present.

[20] Oglethorpe, Die A Priorisme van Karl Heim, p. 78; full quotations in Nash, Dialectical Tradition in South Africa, p. 99.

[21] Oglethorpe, “Segregasie in die Kerk,” Die Stellenbosse Student, November 1947, pp. 34-35.

[22] J.J. Degenaar, Kennis as Lewe (M.A. thesis, Stellenbosch, 1948), pp. 117-19.

[23] Degenaar, Kennis as Lewe, p. 108.

[24] On the question of Degenaar as a “safe” appointment, cf. Andre du Toit, “Sokratiese Vryheid aan ‘n Volksuniversiteit,” in Dirk Hertzog, Etienne Britz and Alastair Henderson, ed., Gesprek sonder Grense: Huldigingsbundel ter Ere van Johan Degenaar se 80ste Verjaarsdag (Stellenbosch: H & B Uitgewers, 2007), pp. 96-97.

[25] Etienne Britz, “Die Lastige Johan Degenaar,” Unpublished lecture, 29 October 2016.

[26] Dankie, Here, dat U hierdie aarde so liefgehad het, dat U uself gebreek het om hierheen te kom (Lina Spies, “Sy beiteljie was sterk genoeg,” in André du Toit, ed., In Gesprek: Opstelle vir Johan Degenaar {Stellenbosch: Die Suid-Afrikaan, 1986], pp. 118-19).

[27] Onse Vader, dankie vir ons vriendskap en maak ons bly (Ibid.)

[28] Quoted in Anton van Niekerk, “A department under siege: How Philosophy at Stellenbosch was split in order to survive,” Stellenbosch Theological Journal 3:1 (2017), p. 455. This is van Niekerk’s translation form the Afrikaans transcription of Degenaar’s student, Zenobia Lutz.

[29] Here, voorheen moes ons van mense Christene maak. Help ons vandag om van Christene weer mense te maak. There are slightly different versions of this prayer, including in articles by Esterhuyse and van Niekerk, which I cite in this essay.

[30] In Part Two of this essay, the relationship of sex and dancing provided another potentially explosive example of this inversion of the conventional order of terms.

[31] ‘n Meer begeesterde dosent as hy het ek nog nie teëgekom nie. Elke lesing was ‘n fees—dikwels meesleurend soos poësie. Sy vermoë om die wêreld van die filosofie vir student toeganklik te maak en ‘n liefde vir die vak by hulle te kweek, is werklik ongeëwenaard. Soms het ek in sy klas gesit en vir myself gesê: Hierdie man is betowerd—betowerd deur die denke self. Hy gaan ons nog almal onder die betowering van die filosofie plaas (Willie Esterhuyse, “Dosent par excellence!” in du Toit, In Gesprek, p. 116.) The Afrikaans words betowerd and betowering can also be translated as bewitched and bewitchment.

[32] According to Nico Smith, who was a conservative theology professor when he met Degenaar in 1966, Degenaar continued to go to church each Sunday, perhaps until the late 1960s (Nico Smith, “My buurman oorkant die straat,” in du Toit, ed., In Gesprek, p. 125; cf. van Niekerk, “Department under Siege,” p.457, quoting an unpublished manuscript by Carel Anthonissen.)



May 24, 2021

Johan Degenaar had uncanny feeling for his audience, an empathy which somehow refused solemnity and always enlightened via humor, a sort of secret collaboration. One felt profoundly included, even vital in a pursuit of truth. Though we never experienced the ritual of prayer we were inspired to explore all forms of elation. It became far easier to experience ectacy as philosopher than with mind-altering substances, though we did not avoid drugs. Personally, it gave me permission me to push the envelope in artistic expression. A sort of primitive faith, an integrated Christian impulse pervaded those magic years. I felt like a Buddhist then.

Thanks for a comprehensive picture which appreciates his most valuable contribution to a country racked by denial…


Feb 03, 2021

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