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Bruce B. Wavell (1916-1983):

Philosopher and Logician


Article as it originally appeared in The Alumni Record, Vol. 60:3 (Summer 1983), 41.

"...Every inch a professor"

The following words were spoken by Dr. Daniel R. DeNicola at a memorial service for Bruce Wavell at the Knowles Memorial Chapel on April 22, 1983.

VVhen the brilliant philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, was teaching at Cambridge University in the early 1930's, he was accosted by a tall, serious undergraduate studying mathematics and physics who had a cheeky request: he wanted to sit in on Wittgenstein's graduate lectures. After a lengthy conversation, Wittgenstein agreed, and Bruce Wavell became the only undergraduate ever permitted to witness the genius at work, thinking through philosophical problems before his crowded classroom with a frightening and exhausting intensity. This experience made an indelible impression on Bruce. It affected his sense o f what it is to do philosophy and what it is to teach.  Unlike Wittgenstein, who continually feared for his own sanity, Bruce's brilliance was combined with a profound and humane sanity.
In the 1950s, Bruce earned his Ph. D. in Mathematical Logic at the University o f London under Sir Karl Popper. The intervening years were spent in diverse and interesting roles-all o f which seemed to add something important to Bruce's understanding of the world. He was a grammar school mathematics master (he loved geometry), a senior lecturer in telecommunications for the Army Signal Corps, an engineer in charge o f technical publications, a sojourner in a monastery. He married Joan Plater and became a devoted father. He came to believe that a loving and sustaining marriage and parenthood call upon virtues and offer joys like no other institution. He came to Rollins in 1959 to teach mathematics and logic, choosing this institution over others because, as he once told me, "I thought they wanted a good teacher at Rollins, and having grown up in Malaya, I innocently imagined the Florida climate to be somewhat similar. " Nearly all o f Bruce's philosophical work was done at Rollins. For 23 years full o f students and colleagues here he became, as one friend has said, "the only one o f us who was every inch a professor. "
Bruce became concerned that the formal logic he was teaching did not apply to practical contexts-did not help his students decide what to do or what to believe. This problem arose, he concluded, because formal logic was based on mathematical models, not on human communication, natural language. He came to believe that our ordinary language contains a hidden logic waiting to be revealed by careful study. This he formalized in his first book, Natural Logic-a symbolic logic based on ordinary English.
This latent logic, this logos, this Reason at work in our ordinary discourse is marvelously complex and subtle, bespeaking the slow but impressive evolution of culture. Science and art and the law-even Robert's Rules of Order, he believed-all represented sophisticated refinements o f the "common sense" reason present in everyday conversation. As his vigorous, polymathic mind ranged over these different "universes o f discourse, " as he called them, he found the pattern repeated: each was imbued with and organized by the force o f human reason. None o f us is fully aware o f this, o f course; that is the task o f enlightenment. The ancient injunction to "know thyself" is echoing here. Bruce would say that self-understanding means understanding the order, the reason implicit in our culture and in its institutions, to see how our concepts work and beyond them to the Logos which gives them form and function.
A poet-in-residence once sent me this two-line poem:

On Bruce Wavell's Rising to Speak at a Faculty Meeting:
He Stands
To Reason.

Bruce was not a rationalist in the traditional sense. He did not believe this to be a rational world. "A demented world, " "a crazed world," he called it. But he believed this is a world in which we can find the guiding force of Reason, if only we awake to it. He rejected the dualism o f mind and body, of reason and passion. He made the understanding and improvement o f practice the highest o f his theories. Certainly Bruce believed that proper procedures of deliberation, rational decision procedures, were required by reason, and he devoted great energy to systems for assigning due weight to relevant factors. But remember that he said the enlightened person, like the Buddha,

"... is able to perform this feat
Each moment o f his life,
Because he is at one,
In Harmony,
With the Logos. "

In how many memorable classes and conversations with Bruce have we heard these themes?. As he sat forward in his chair, fiddling with his pipe, eye twinkling and face glowing as he warmed to his point, passionately defending reason, he seemed the Logos incarnate. How he surprised us! The mathematician who quoted lyric poetry; the logician and engineer who pursued Buddhism as a way to get beyond the useful constraints of our concepts; the dignified scholar with the bemused countenance and the hearty laugh in the stately and colorful academic garb; the department head o f strong opinions who recruited faculty of different beliefs, with whom he could argue. That we should be surprised shows our own limitations; for Bruce, all these, his teaching, his research, his service to the College, his public and personal life, were done as a single graceful act.
Some years ago I quoted from Michael Oakeshott a passage which Bruce loved:

"As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors, of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation that goes on both in public and within each of ourselves . . . . . . Education, properly speaking, is an initiation into the skill and partnership of this conversation in which we learn to recognize the voices, to distinguish the proper occasions of utterance, and in which we acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to conversation. And it is this conversation which, in the end, gives place and character to every human activity and utterance."

For us, his family, friends, students and colleagues, Bruce not only contributed to this conversation, he helped us understand it. And already we miss his voice.

- Daniel R. DeNicola

"We have lost one of our most distinguished colleagues. His influence on Rollins students and faculty as teacher, scholar and philosopher is incalculable. Never have we known such a passionate faith in human reason.
So spoke Rollins Dean of the Faculty Daniel R. DeNicola of his former teaching colleague, Dr. Bruce Wavell, who died unexpectedly on April 15, 1983.  Bruce Brooke Wavell, who held the position of William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor- Emeritus of Philosophy, joined the Rollins faculty in 1959 as Assistant Professor of Mathematics and retired from full-time teaching' following the 1981-82 academic year.  A native of Hove, England, he attended Christ's College, Cambridge and received the B.S. and Ph.D. degrees from London University.  In 1961, Dr. Wavell attracted a grant o Rollins College from the National Science Foundation for a summer mathematics program for gifted high school students.' He founded the Honors Program at Rollins and served as its director for many years. In 1962, he left the mathematics department and assumed teaching responsibilities in the Department of Philosophy & Religion, where he taught "'Logic," "Philosophy of Law," "Philosophy of Science" and 'Values Theory."  Wavell was a past president of the Florida Philosophical Association and a member of the American Philosophical Association and the Semiotic Society o America. He wrote four books: Language and Reason, The Lining Logos: A Philosophico-Religious Essay, Natural Logic and Teaching Values in the Liberal Arts, the latter manuscript currently pending publication. He also wrote numerous articles, including his most recent contribution, "Scientific and Religious Universes of Discourse," which appeared in the December 1982 issue of ZYGON, The Journal of Science and Religion, published by Rollins College. His latest paper, "Wittgenstein's Doctrine o f Use," will be published posthumously in Synthese by Reidel Publishing Co., Dordrecht, Holland.  Dr. Wavell is survived by his wife, Joan Plater Wavell, Administrator of the Cornell Fine Arts Center at Rollins three children, Richard, Barbara (a 1976 graduate of Rollins) and Alice Daphne Wavell; and a brother, Stewart who lives in England.  The family has requested that remembrances be offered through the Book-A-Year Memorial Program at Rollins.

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