Henry Pietersma

Affiliations: 
Philosophy University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada 
Area:
Phenomenology
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"Henry Pietersma"
Bio:

Henry Pietersma was
born in the Netherlands
and completed his
primary and secondary education there, acquiring fluency
in modern languages and
a solid grounding in classical languages. Then he did
his BA at Calvin College in
Michigan, home and nursery
of two or three generations of
outstanding philosophers of
Dutch descent and Calvinian
convictions. He was to remain
an integral member of that group. He came to the
University of Toronto for his doctorate on Husserl,
supervised by Emil Fackenheim. Thus it was Henry who
introduced Husserl and phenomenology into Canada.
From the 1960s onwards, he shared in the work of a
big department here that made an amazing array
of offerings available to students at all levels. Henry
offered a phenomenology graduate course that was
attended by all kinds of students, not just specialists.
At the undergraduate level, he taught phenomenology
and existentialism, and almost every year epistemology and logic as well. He and I were members of a
faculty group working on 19th and 20th century continental philosophy that met regularly to read papers
and plan course offerings. Being colleagues does not
always lead to friendship, but in our case it did, and
my wife Linda and I were often with Henry and Anita
Turcotte, his wife, in their west-end home with its beautiful gardens, and we were happy to have them visit us
in Fergus, Ontario.
Henry’s earliest academic presentations and publications mainly dealt with Husserl’s thought in relation
to Kant, Brentano, Frege, and the modern tradition of
transcendental philosophy generally. Then, from the
‘70s through the ‘90s, he published a continuing series
of papers on Husserl’s most basic and characteristic
ideas, treating them with a clarity that hardly any other
commentator has achieved—papers on intentionality,
the evident and the true, on horizons, predication, and
existence. A remarkable paper on the phenomenological reduction showed that it constituted Husserl’s
bulwark against skepticism. Henry joined all the leading scholars of Husserl in the English-speaking world in
contributing to textbooks and encyclopedias on Husserl
and phenomenology.
In later years, he was also to write, with comparable
clarity and sympathy, about the later phenomenologists Heidegger, Marcel, and Merleau-Ponty. Indeed,
his deepening absorption in Merleau-Ponty led to his
editing an excellent book of essays: Merleau-Ponty:
Critical Essays (Center for Advanced Research in
Phenomenology, 1989). And near the end of his career,
Henry published Phenomenological Epistemology
(Oxford University Press, 2000); it incorporated many
of the themes of his earlier articles, but went beyond
them with a line of criticism that I, at least, had not
detected in those articles—despite the philosophical
power of all the phenomenologists, they all fell short
in respect of a key requirement of the theory of knowledge: an account of the reality of the external world.
Along with these studies, Henry pursued a theology
that would give adequate expression to the Christian
faith. My understanding is that this ran in parallel to his
work in phenomenology, not depending on it, nor, on
the other hand, giving a grounding for it. Still, he did
maintain that faith in God was an appropriate starting
point for reasoning, no less so than faith in reason itself,
or faith in science, or in human autonomy. Moreover, his
own acceptance of the Christian revelation was marked
by the very same philosophical realism that motivated
his critique of the phenomenologists: the word of God
is not the product of human genius but comes to human
beings from the outside.
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