Martin Versfeld

A South African Philosopher in Dark Times

Ernst Wolff and contributions by Ruth Versfeld, Paul Van Tongeren, Kobus Krüger, Marlene van Niekerk, and Antjie Krog

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First book-length study of one of the foremost South African philosophers

Martin Versfeld (1909–1995) is one of South Africa’s greatest philosophers, appreciated by academics and activists, poets and the broader public. His masterful prose spans the tension between disquiet and joy. Detractor of the violent trends of modernity, a critic of apartheid from the first hour, he was among the first philosophers of ecology. At the same time he celebrated the generosity of the world and advocated an ethics of simplicity, drawing on mediaeval theology and Eastern wisdom. His philosophy offered food for thought in dark times of the 20th century, as it still does for us in the 21st century.

This first book-length study on Versfeld is an invitation to think with him on justice and exploitation, cultural difference and human nature, religion and the environment, time and connectedness.

Ebook available in Open Access.
This publication is GPRC-labeled (Guaranteed Peer-Reviewed Content).

“Go and read Versfeld! His philosophy develops this basic orientation in an ethics of simplicity, in critique of injustice, often with irony and humor, but without ever being frivolous.”, Ernst Wolff

PREFACE – Between joy and disquiet: Philosophising in dark times 

Major publications by Marthinus Versfeld 

1. “Fertilizer to the last” – Biographical snips
(by Ruth Versfeld)

2. What was Versfeld doing when he was doing philosophy? 
1. On the warts 
2. From autobiography to enigma 
3. Genre – Or, how to do things with words 
4. Theology: A portrait of the philosopher as an odd fish 
5. Polyphony of philosophy: Introductions, liberal translations, historical work 
6. Apartheid and other empiresque behaviour 
7. A note on celebration 
8. On its most intimate lesson 
9. Conclusion 

3. Self-knowledge and practical reason in a time of political madness 
1. Introduction: Self-knowledge in a period of political madness 
2. “Gods” and “idols” 
3. War, exploitation, racism. Critique of social and political violence 
4. Urgency, time and incarnation 
5. Unity and decay 
6. The concept of unity – Or, a philosophy of incarnation 
7. Reception and continuation 

4. Versfeld and Nietzsche: Strange bedfellows
(by Paul van Tongeren) 
1. Introduction 
2. Sounding out idols 
3. Man, morality and metaphysics 
4. Nihilism 
5. Conclusion 

5. Grasping the truth from where we are 
1. Introduction: Flux, stability and where we are 
2. Anthropology as first philosophy 
3. Traditions and cultural criticism 
4. Using a thorn to take out a thorn, and throwing both away 
5. Questioning from where we are 

6. Versfeld’s dialogue with Eastern thought
(By J. S. Krüger) 
1. Introduction 
2. Groundbreaking early works 
3. Midcareer 
4. Mature thought 
5. Conclusion 

7. Poiesis – On the voice of poets, philosophers and other potters 
1. On writing 
2. Connectedness 
3. Creativity, love, generosity 
4. Poiesis 
5. Silence 

8. Reverberations
(poems by Marlene van Niekerk and Antjie Krog) 

9. Sanctus Marthinus laudator philosophicus – Or, sitting at the guru’s feet 

10. What is living and what is dead of the philosophy of Martin Versfeld? – Or, the philosopher read by a vultur 
1. Augustine: Ventriloquism or interpretation as independent thought? 
2. Plurality 
3. Something or nothing? 
4. Close to the earth? 
5. Land in Klip en klei – You said, “the obvious”?
6. Ecology: The logos on our common home 
7. On subtle critique 
8. Ambiguities of anthropology 
9. The end 


Format: Monograph - free ebook - PDF

224 pages

ISBN: 9789461664143

Publication: September 07, 2021

Languages: English


Antjie Krog, multiple award-winning writer, poet and journalist, is a professor at the University of the Western Cape.
Ernst Wolff is professor of philosophy at the Institute of Philosophy, KU Leuven.
Kobus Krüger is emeritus professor of science of religion at the University of South Africa.
Marlene van Niekerk, multiple award-winning novelist and poet, is professor of creative writing at the University of Stellenbosch.
Paul van Tongeren is emeritus professor of philosophy at the Radboud University, Nijmegen.
Ruth Versfeld works in teacher education and curriculum development in South Africa.
This two-part article explores South African philosopher Martin (Marthinus) Versfeld’s (1909–1995) interpretation (shown to belong within the discipline of the history of ideas) and application (indicated as modern-critical) of medieval philosophy during his uninterrupted career as a lecturer and professor of philosophy at the University of Cape Town (UCT) from 1937 to 1972. [...] This evaluation is the first of its kind in the developing Versfeld scholarship and takes place against the backdrop of a recent and extensive overview of Versfeld’s intellectual legacy and the first monograph on the Capetonian by Leuven philosopher Ernst Wolff (Martin Versfeld: A South African philosopher in dark times, 2021).
Johann Beukes, litnet, 2022-10-27, Part 1 and Part 2