Francis Sparshott, one of the Department’s most prominent scholars, died on August 24, 2015. An obituary (written by Mark Thornton) and a series of reflections about Francis (from his former students and colleagues) are below.
In addition, the American Society for Aesthetics has posted an obituary of Francis Sparshott written by Jenefer Robinson.
In Memoriam: Francis Sparshott (1926-2015): poet, philosopher, writer, maker
by Mark Thornton, former Chair, Department of Philosophy
Francis Sparshott, one of the Department’s most prominent scholars, died on August 24, 2015. Apart from visiting professorships in Canada, the U.S. and New Zealand, he spent his entire career at the University of Toronto, being appointed as Lecturer in 1950 and retiring as University Professor in 1991. He was an incredibly prolific writer of prose and verse. His philosophical works include: An Enquiry into Goodness and Related Concepts (1958), The Structure of Aesthetics (1963), The Concept of Criticism (1967), Looking for Philosophy (1972), The Theory of the Arts (1982), Off the Ground: First Steps to a Philosophical Consideration of the Dance (1988), Taking Life Seriously: A Study of the Argument of the Nicomachean Ethics (1994), A Measured Pace: Toward a Philosophical Understanding of the Arts of Dance (1995), and The Future of Aesthetics (1998). He also published thirteen books of poems and scores more in books and magazines, more than a hundred philosophical articles and book chapters, and more than a hundred book reviews: he was not only a prolific writer, he was a voracious reader, and his writing is full of literary and cultural references. The Journal of Aesthetic Education published a special issue in honour of Francis in Summer 1997, which contains an excellent bibliography of his writings (but of course, sadly, only up to that date). Francis was President of the Canadian Philosophical Association in 1975-6, he was appointed a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1977, he was President of the League of Canadian Poets 1977-79, President of the American Society for Aesthetics 1981-82, and President of the Toronto Semiotic Circle 1985-86. He was awarded a Killam Senior Research Fellowship in 1977-78 and a Connaught Senior Fellowship in 1984-85.
Francis was born and brought up in England. His father was a schoolmaster at the King’s School, attached to Rochester Cathedral, and Francis attended the school because his father didn’t have to pay the fees and couldn’t afford to send him to a better school. His father was also in charge of one of the boarding houses at the school, and because the housemaster’s accommodation had no room for him, Francis became a boarder in his father’s house. Francis writes: “That has shaped my world. Children who go to school normally have a double danger and a double sanctuary. The intimacy of home protects them from the savagery of school, the anonymity of school is a refuge from parental pressures. But in my world there was no place to hide. Home followed me to school, school came home with me.” Francis, however, survived, and in 1943 won a scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where in Oxford parlance he “read Greats”, i.e. he studied Greek and Roman literature, in the original ancient Greek and Latin, Greek and Roman history, and Greek philosophy, as well as modern philosophy. After the first year at Oxford, Francis was called up for war duty and served in the army for three years. He writes: “I was conscripted, like everyone else at that time who had a scholarship to learn dead languages, straight into the army Intelligence Corps.” In November 1945 he was posted to Palestine and spent a year there while the conflict escalated “between the remnant of the European Jews desperate to come in and the Arabs who lived there desperate to keep them out.” Francis writes: “I was moved and am still moved by the unassailability of the arguments on both sides, their irreconcilability, and above all by the refusal of each side to admit that the other side’s case was as compelling as its own.” His first book, An Enquiry into Goodness, he says, had its origins in this period.
The war brought Francis a tangible benefit, it paid for the rest of his university degree, as a war veteran. He stayed in Oxford until 1950, earning his M.A. and starting a B.Phil. Oxford at that time was the home of J.L. Austin and Gilbert Ryle. Analytic, “ordinary language” philosophy predominated. The prevailing view, or at least hope, was that philosophical puzzles could be dissolved by attending to language and clarifying the concepts we use. Francis would claim that, although he remained open to other ways of philosophizing, he did analytic philosophy because that was what he was trained to do. Its influence can be seen in the appearance of the word “concept” in two of his book titles, and by his concern with the structure of philosophical problems and theories. At the same time, the content of much ordinary language philosophy struck him as narrow-minded and simplistic, even question-begging.
In 1950, Fulton Anderson, the head of U of T’s department of philosophy, urgently required, in Francis’s words, “someone who could read Plato in Greek and teach at the bottom of the salary scale.” So Anderson “went to Oxford, where Greek philosophy came from in those days, and got a list of prospects from Gilbert Ryle,” who happened to be Francis’s supervisor. Anderson, it seems, opted first for David Gallop, but he was not available, so on Sunday August the 27th 1950, in his London hotel bedroom, Anderson interviewed Francis and offered him a Lectureship at $2800 a year; two days later Francis accepted, only too happy to escape from postwar England and its still rigid class system, and sailed for Canada on October the 5th. Francis was assigned to the department of ethics at University College, which was part of the university department of philosophy. Victoria and Trinity also had departments of ethics, but they were independent insofar as they made their own appointments, though admission to the graduate faculty was at the discretion of the university department. The college departments were officially abolished on June the 30th 1975 and since then philosophy has been one big happy family.
At the end of his first year Francis was told that there was not enough ancient philosophy for him to teach the next year, so he had to teach aesthetics as well. Francis writes: “At Oxford in my day aesthetics ranked with phrenology and metaphysics among outmoded follies. It seemed that in the New World things were a bit different.” Dissatisfied with the prevailing textbook, Francis decided to write his own textbook, which turned into The Structure of Aesthetics. However, Francis found that he could not use it as a text after all, since that would have been “vain and greedy.” With six books on aesthetics to his credit and innumerable invited lectures and articles on the subject, not to mention a report on The Aesthetics of Structures (1981, a neat inversion of his earlier book’s title) for what was then the Nova Scotia Technical College, Francis is now known far and wide for his work on aesthetics. It is remarkable that such a huge body of writing and teaching should have had such a fortuitous beginning. Many professors are stimulated by teaching new subjects to pursue them further, but not often to that extent.
In 1955, Francis, still only a Lecturer, was offered an Assistant Professorship at Victoria College. Anderson declined to match the offer, either because he wanted to replace Francis with David Gallop (one version) and/or because he didn’t like Francis (another version). Whatever, Francis moved to Vic and David Gallop came to UC. Once ensconced at Vic, Francis stayed there for the rest of his academic career, becoming Associate Professor in 1962, Professor in 1964, and University Professor in 1982. He was chairman of the Vic department from 1965 to 1970, during which time he kindly appointed me, starting as a sessional lecturer.
Francis’s next book after The Structure of Aesthetics was The Concept of Criticism (1967), which he says was written for a discussion group “consisting mostly of literature teachers” who were uncertain about what exactly criticism is: “I have to admit they were not in the least bit grateful.” They were probably not looking for a 200 page book.
Next came Looking for Philosophy (1972) in which Francis wrestles with the question of whether philosophy is actually worth doing. He comments: “it made me for a while a sort of cult figure among feminist philosophers, who are always looking for ways of philosophizing that depart from the male norms of confrontation and domination.” In one essay he carefully examines whether reality is really real, finding many reasons in the writings of great philosophers to conclude that it is not.
In 1982 Francis published his magnum opus, in both senses, a 726 page book on The Theory of the Arts: “The theory of the arts was not what I was writing but what I was writing about.” Francis adds: “My chief concern in writing the book was to deprive theorists of excuses for prevalent errors and follies. That most people persist in error and folly without having an excuse or feeling the need for one is only what might have been expected.”
We now come to what many feel was Francis’s most distinctive contribution to aesthetics, his work on the perhaps hitherto unknown area of philosophy, the philosophy of dance. Selma Jeanne Cohen asked Francis in 1981 why he hadn’t written on the aesthetics of dance. Francis started writing. His book expanded and became two books. The first part was published in 1988 as Off the Ground:First Steps to a Philosophical Consideration of the Dance.
Three years later Francis retired. I remember asking if he was planning to write more philosophy, he replied that since he was no longer being paid to do so, it was unlikely. However, old habits died hard because he published three philosophy books in retirement. First came his commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics with the slightly forbidding title of Taking Life Seriously (1994). Francis started working on this in his graduate days at Oxford, and continued on and off thereafter. In the summer of 1952 Francis was on an archaeological dig, sharing a cottage with half a dozen others on Rice Lake. His future wife, Kitty, joined the group later. According to her, “the first thing she noticed when she came into the cottage was a young man with a beard, sitting in the only comfortable chair, under the only light, reading Aristotle.” They were married on February 7th, 1953. I remember reading a draft of his book decades ago and commenting on the Tractatus– type numbering system that he favoured. Francis thought that it clarified how every part of the book was related to the other parts, but it seemed to me that it was overdone, the numbering being carried to six decimal places, e.g. one section is numbered 2.253223. This meticulous arrangement exemplifies the order and structure that Francis wanted to bring to his philosophical work.
Next came the second volume of Francis’s book on dance: A Measured Pace: Toward a Philosophical Understanding of the Arts of Dance (1995). And last The Future of Aesthetics (1998), consisting of the Ryle Lectures at Trent University in 1996. He continued to publish articles and poems, the last book of poems that I know of is dated 2006, and in 2004 he published an article on dance for the Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics, thus ensuring that the philosophy of dance would have its place in an authoritative survey of aesthetics.
Francis had an ambivalent attitude to philosophy because what he really loved was poetry: “almost from the time I first knew what poetry was I knew that I understood poetry in a way that my teachers never would and that I was brought into the world to make poems, not necessarily good poems but the poems I was brought into the world to make.” He adds: “So I was brought into the world to make trivial and mediocre poems? Well, tough.” I don’t believe he really thought that his poems were trivial and mediocre. In 1981 he was pleased indeed when he won the First Prize in the CBC Literary Competition for his poem “The Cave of Trophonius,” which was later published as the title poem of one of his books. In his memoirs he confesses to disappointment that none of his poems “are good enough to justify a life.” I cannot really comment on Francis’s poetry because I know nothing about poetry except what he taught me: that poetry is truth and thus needs no reasons, while philosophy can only claim to be true and thus must be supported by reasons. Francis once suggested to me that I don’t really like poetry, which, however, is not completely true. I can, though, comment on the titles of his books of poetry which seem to me wonderful. Sometimes he invests everyday expressions with a deeper meaning, e.g. Storms and Screens (1986) and Scoring in Injury Time (2006). Sometimes there is an absurdist twist: e.g. New Fingers for Old Dikes (1981), The Hanging Gardens of Etobicoke (1983) and Views from the Zucchini Gazebo (1994). His first published book of poems was A Divided Voice (1965) suggesting the two voices, philosophical and poetic, in which he spoke. The second was A Cardboard Garage (1969), the cardboard being the book’s covers and the garage a place to store his poems. His other books of poetry are The Naming of the Beasts (1979), The Rainy Hills (1979), Sculling to Byzantium (1989), Home from the Air (1997), and The City Dwellers (2000).
Francis was a serious person but he was also extremely funny. He said that making people laugh was a survival tactic that he, the housemaster’s son, had started at school: “I can still usually make people laugh on a suitable occasion. Actually it is easy: all one has to do is tell the exact truth. Nothing is funnier than things as they really are, but I can do puns and stuff as well.” When he was Secretary of the Victoria College Council he had to keep the minutes: “people laughed at my minutes, not because I made jokes but because I tried to make an accurate and succinct record of what my assembled colleagues had said and done.” Francis is well known for his witty footnotes. His puns and love of wordplay are manifest in A Book by “Cromwell Kent,” which Francis had printed in 1970. The pseudonym “Cromwell Kent” was by way of contrast with the Oxford philosopher Stuart Hampshire: “if, as experience proves, a philosopher can be called Stuart Hampshire, why not Tudor Cornwall or Cromwell Kent?” Kent was the county of Francis’s birth and upbringing. Cromwell was an adversary of the Stuarts. In fact Stuart Hampshire was one of those Oxford philosophers who disparaged aesthetics, and he is one of those philosophers whom Francis criticizes in The Structure of Aesthetics. Hampshire maintained that “ethics is necessary but aesthetics is not, because art is gratuitous but action is not.” For Francis this sentiment reflects the typical philosopher’s emphasis on thinking and doing. However, “if we accept the traditional division of human activities into thinking, doing and making – and it seems a reasonable enough division – aesthetics seems to arise as naturally out of reflection on making as ethics out of reflection on doing.” It cannot escape one’s notice that thinking, doing and making correspond to the Aristotelian triad of noesis, praxis, and poiesis, and to the three traditional concerns of philosophy, the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.
Francis describes three reasons why he liked to write philosophy. In the first place, he wrote philosophy because he was a writer: “Prose came naturally to me.” He might have been a writer of fiction or history instead. “But,” he says, “I would not have been me if I had never been a writer at all.” In the second place, he says, “Philosophy, of a sort, comes easy to me because I cannot understand things that seem obvious to everyone else. But I keep puzzling away at them. It is my good fortune that all I need to do is worry away at things the way I like to do, and worry away at what sort of worrying I am doing, and I am automatically doing philosophy in a way that other philosophers will accept.” And third, he says, “philosophical thinking has become part of me: the shapes of argument and philosophical dialectic have become a living reality that I feel on my nerves, plastic and malleable.” So philosophy was as much part of him as poetry.
In his memoirs Francis writes: “most members of my profession, I have come to learn, do not read a philosopher’s words to see what he is saying, but only to see which opinion already familiar to them he comes closest to espousing.” And in the Foreword to one of his later books he says “that (as the reception of my own work has convinced me) few teachers of philosophy are interested in following long trains of argument. Perhaps even philosophers really want opinions, something to believe (or disbelieve) and pass on to their students, not ways of thinking that can be traced and retraced; in any case, they have a natural preference for what can be succinctly stated and tidily discussed.” We can only plead in reply that we simply lack the capacity to read, assimilate, and write as much as Francis did. When he criticized others (and some of his book reviews are decidedly critical), it was because he simply wanted to stamp out “errors and follies.”
Francis’s last published book was Scoring in Injury Time in 2006. Francis was 80, and it was certainly “injury time”. His wife Kitty had died in 2004. Some years later Francis developed Alzheimer’s, a disease which had also afflicted his father. Francis died in the True Davidson Home in Toronto at the age of 89. He is survived by his daughter, Pumpkin, who still lives in the house on the Scarborough Bluffs that Francis and Kitty bought in the 1960s.
(Note: I have quoted Francis’s own words extensively, because no one knew Francis as well as Francis did. Being an academic, I feel obliged to cite my sources: Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series Volume 15; unpublished memoirs made available to me by Pumpkin Sparshott, many thanks; The Structure of Aesthetics pp. 23-4; Taking Life Seriously pp. xv-xvi; and his Reply to Commentators in the Journal of Aesthetic Education, Summer 1997.)
Reflections about Francis Sparshott from his colleagues and former students
From Philip Alperson (Temple University)
Francis Sparshott was a fierce, remarkable man.
Those of us who had the honour and privilege of knowing him are keenly aware of the astonishing range of his erudition. Possessed of deep expertise in Greek philosophy and classics, ethics, aesthetics and the history of philosophy, fluent in several languages, Francis was also a highly cultured person with serious interests in music, literature, the visual arts, and dance. A nationally recognized poet and author of over a dozen books of poetry including the evocative The Cave of Trophonius, which won the CBC Poetry Award in 1981, Francis also served as President of the Canadian League of Poets. He occasionally remarked that he thought of himself as a poet who also did philosophy.
But it is his philosophical work that will be remembered by most members of the Department. It is hard to single out for special attention any of his many works but I should be remiss if I did not mention in particular his two magisterial books on the scope and range of the field of aesthetics, The Structure of Aesthetics (Toronto, 1963) and The Theory of the Arts (Princeton, 1982). I remember dropping off a chapter of my dissertation when Francis was working on the latter book. Trying to make casual conversation, I asked him what he was working on. He responded, “The theory of the arts”. I asked him which theory of the arts he was interested in. He responded, “The theory of the arts”. I thought he was joking. I should have known better. These two enormous, erudite, and daunting works, together set out a topology of the arts, artistic activities, and aesthetic theories, an achievement whose scope had not been attempted before nor have they been equaled since. These books are not only comprehensive in scope; they are filled with countless fine-grained detailed analyses. They are, throughout, witty, incisive, and elegantly written.
When I say that I tried to make casual conversation with Francis, I should also say that my hesitancy in this regard was related to an aspect of Francis’s worldview that I admired enormously. Francis took life very, very seriously. It is no coincidence that his important book in ethical theory, an examination of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, bears the title, “Taking Life Seriously”. It wasn’t that Francis had no sense of humour. To the contrary, no one could read his books – especially his legendary footnotes – without appreciating his comic and sometimes caustic side. But Francis had a fierce and unrelenting intellect and spirit of inquiry. He never let up in this. And of all the remarkable traits of this very remarkable person, this is the one whose memory I cherish the most. That in the shadow of his unrelenting critical nature he could be so kind and generous to his students and colleagues, is a tribute to the depths of his humanity.
From David Gallop (Trent University)
Apropos Francis’s tongue-in-cheek account of his being pushed out, supposedly to make room for me: Quite untrue, although it is true he didn’t get on well with FH Anderson. My difficulty when I replaced Francis at UC in 1955 (when he left there for Vic) was that such a stunningly brilliant, witty, and already productive, man was ‘a hard act to follow’. His colleagues at UC obviously missed him greatly, and were furious with Anderson for letting him go. His replacement, a naive and totally inexperienced novice, must have seemed to them a very bad bargain.
I was in awe of him, but also grateful for the kindness that he and Kitty showed me. They several times asked me to dinner in their small apartment on Lippincott Street, and made me feel at home. Their daughter, Pumpkin (née Margaret), was then 14 months and in a playpen.
My whole life was therefore intertwined with Francis’s in the oddest way. I had previously been offered the job which he took in 1950, and I had been bitterly disappointed at having to decline it, to do two years National Service. Had I been able to accept the job in 1950, Francis would quite likely never have come to Toronto at all. And had he not gone to Vic in 1955, I would probably never have come to Canada, or got back into academic philosophy (escaping from a government job). This strange connection has always given him a special place in my memory and affection. Besides which his philosophical work, especially in ancient philosophy, was an inspiration and a stimulus.
From Doug Hutchinson (University of Toronto)
About 20 or 25 years ago I found myself needing to fend off a Chair of our Department who insisted on assigning me to teach our undergraduate course on Aesthetics, despite my protestations that it was outside my area and I would be no good at it; and anyway I didn’t even believe in the existence of the subject. In case the fending off didn’t succeed, I needed a plan B, and so I wrote from Germany to my colleague Francis Sparshott, appealing for help, for reading lists, textbooks, whatever this thing needed.
In his charming and helpful reply, Francis told me the story of how the same pickle had happened to him in an earlier decade: he got assigned to teach some course on aesthetics and he protested that it was outside his area, that all he knew was Aristotle’s Poetics (which is pretty mysterious anyway, he said darkly), and anyway he didn’t believe in the existence of that so-called subject. But he was up against Fulton Anderson, and so he lost the struggle, and was pitched into bleak and black despair. “In this situation there was really one two choices I could possibly make,” said Francis to me in that letter: “I could throw myself under a trolleybus and just end it once and for all, or I could go to the Brass Rail and get royally drunk and wake up in the morning and think again about it.” Francis chose the latter option, a very wise choice, especially in hindsight.
In his last years Francis was cared for at True Davidson Acres Home for the Aged, in a unit for memory-impaired seniors, where I visited him on several occasions. On my first trip I brought a new book to give him: Aristotle, his Life and School, by Carlo Natali, which I had translated and edited. He got interested in the book, and then got up to get a book out of his library, and went partway down the hall before realizing that he didn’t have a library anymore and was not at home. I had brought books of his poetry and read him some of my favourites, and he listened carefully, with wry smiles at the appropriate places. But he got confused after a while, and so I got the exit code and made my departure. When I returned to see him on later occasions, I found him clutching that book, and he had read parts of it; for several months it was the only book he had around him, and though I was glad to have provided it to him, it was poignant to see how his great library was reduced to one dry prosaic volume of mine.
Francis and I used to see each other as friends at concerts and operas far more than on campus as colleagues. On one occasion a few years ago I got fired up after attending a bio-ethics lecture on caring for memory-impaired seniors, by using music to re-integrate their awareness, sometimes with spectacular results. I knew just what to do for Francis: I brought my my good headphones and my laptop and cued it up to the ‘Sailor’s Hornpipe’ dance in Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas, which I knew he knew in every note and word. But as he listened to my headphones, his face went darker and darker, until he shook his head, and said, “It’s no good, take them off. Music doesn’t make sense to me anymore.” And music used to be the thing in his life that made the most sense.
From Deborah Knight (Queen’s University)
I had the great good fortune to be assigned to Francis as one of my initial advisors when I entered the Ph.D. program back in 1989, although initially I confess I was pretty daunted. At the meeting to review my preliminary examination, Francis gently suggested that my answer to the ethics question was so lamentable that I really should just avoid the area altogether. But he encouraged me to proceed into other areas, and so I enrolled in his class that year, which centered on his wonderful first book on philosophy of dance, Off the Ground.
Francis’s interests in art dance were, predictably, expansive and his familiarity with actual performances equally broad. Yet with dance as with other topics, Francis was unexpectedly familiar with popular arts, including popular TV mystery shows such as Murder, She Wrote. He knew about my background in film studies, and allowed me to write a paper on the way dance had emerged from full-scale musicals such as the classic Astaire and Kelly movies to feature prominently in recent films such as Saturday Night Fever and Flashdance. In his comments on that paper, Francis asked why I hadn’t discussed Dirty Dancing, and also referenced the dance interludes in The Two Ronnies and the musical interludes in The Goon Show, which were omitted in North America but ran in the UK. He also unforgettably remarked about the paper, “The philosophical analysis is, of course, very thin.” I’ve been careful to work on my philosophical analysis of the arts ever since.
Francis always had a way of reminding me of important things. Looking for Philosophy is a book I read as a set of reminders, as I do The Future of Aesthetics. I still assign his article from 1971, “Basic Film Aesthetics,” when I teach the philosophy of film — it is a reminder, which many in film theory should have attended to at the time, about why we can’t claim that the film camera functions like the human eye. Although I did not write my thesis in philosophy of art, Francis has figured as a mentor to me throughout my career.
When he retired, he held a Dutch Auction of his books — the sign on his door proclaimed “Office of the Sparshott.” The object I loved best in his office, sadly not up for auction, was a delicate sculpture, minimalist and abstract, that stood about a foot high and was displayed on his crowded window sill. I appreciated it even more, and certainly differently, when he told me it was an animal’s jawbone he and Kitty had found once when walking.
I went early to the Dutch Auction, though I knew that the early folks would pay the highest prices. Looking over the very well stocked bookshelves, I asked Francis if he would choose for me the four books that he had found most valuable in teaching aesthetics and the philosophy of art. I have them still.
From Jenefer Robinson (University of Cincinnati)
I was a graduate student at U of T from 1970 to 1973 and received my PhD. in 1975, with Francis as my supervisor. As far as I can recall, my first encounter with Francis was when I attended the first day of his graduate aesthetics class. Francis stood at the head of the seminar table, speaking in paragraphs, his eyes closed, his right hand holding his brow. The students moved restlessly in their chairs. I decided that the mixture of these students and Francis did not augur well for a pleasant learning experience, so I went to Francis and asked him if I might take an Independent Study with him on Nelson Goodman’s Languages of Art, which had just shaken up the drowsy world of analytic aesthetics. He readily agreed and I consequently wrote my dissertation partly on Languages of Art and partly on Guy Sircello’s totally different book, Mind and Art, which Francis introduced me to. I had been studying a good deal of logic at U of T, for which I had little natural aptitude, and the discovery of Languages of Art – logic and art in one book! – was an eye-opener. After writing my dissertation I moved away from logic and more towards some of the ideas I found in Sircello. So Francis had a huge effect on my life and I’ll always be grateful to him for setting me on a path which has proven so very rewarding over so many years.
In his Aesthetics class Francis had appeared stiff and forbidding, but in tutorial he was a delight, just as learned as always, but relaxed, cordial and witty. I doubt there are many students who positively looked forward to getting comments from their supervisors, but Francis’s comments were not just spot on but often very funny. Once, I remember, he included a ribald limerick to illustrate some point in Sircello. And Francis was always very good to me. For example, he invited Monroe Beardsley (described by Nelson Goodman as “the dean of American aesthetics”) to be my outside examiner for the PhD oral exam. Monroe was a lovely man. He made all kinds of interesting comments on the dissertation and then remained a mentor to me for the rest of his life. Francis clearly anticipated that something like this would happen if he involved Monroe in my career.
For most of my professional life I would see Francis at meetings of the American Society for Aesthetics, where he would dutifully sit through papers, often without much apparent enjoyment. I think he was a little impatient with the usual conference-type papers, critiquing some small point in somebody else’s small paper. He himself wrote articles, of course, but mainly large books that mapped out the conceptual terrain of some set of issues, such as his The Structure of Aesthetics and The Theory of the Arts. His wife Kitty once told me that Francis thought of himself primarily not as a philosopher or even as a poet, but as a writer. And it’s true that his philosophy is written in a literary style and that his poetry was probably more important to him than his philosophy, or at least that’s how it seemed to be towards the end of his career.
Francis and I stayed in touch all these years, even after he retired and eventually stopped coming to the ASA. At Christmas he would sometimes comment sardonically on the card he was sending: “Why does Santa Claus have such tiny feet?” I think that we got on so well partly because we were both Brits and shared a similar sense of the absurd. In earlier days I’d occasionally send him papers, which he was always willing to critique, and he would occasionally send me his latest volume of poetry. The most recent I received was called Scoring in Injury Time, a typical Francis title, witty, but also somewhat melancholy.
Francis was a true scholar and intellectual as well as a prize-winning poet, but he was also my friend and teacher, sometimes melancholy but also warm, kind, humorous, and someone for whom I will always feel not just respect but deep affection.
From Wayne Sumner (University Professor Emeritus)
I was a student at Vic from 1958 to 1962, when Francis and John Irving comprised the Ethics Department there. The arrangements of the day called for all ethics courses to be taught in the colleges, so I had Francis as a teacher on a number of occasions. The first of these (I think) was a course on Plato and Aristotle and there, to my impressionable undergraduate eyes, Francis first came to exemplify the very figure of a philosopher: bearded, austere, somewhat unkempt, but fiercely devoted to the life of the mind. I even thought that he resembled Socrates or Plato (I wasn’t so sure what Aristotle looked like).
Francis had a unique lecturing style: he would speak at great length without benefit of notes and with his eyes closed. We students used to say that if we were all able to tiptoe out of the classroom soundlessly Francis would not notice we were gone until the end of the hour.
We all found him hugely intimidating (though I cannot recall a single occasion on which he put a student down). In my third or fourth year I was a member of a very small seminar taught by Francis on something or other. One day I was walking back to Vic from the direction of Queens Park with one of my fellow students, heading toward the seminar. We could see Francis looking at us from the window of the seminar room at the front of the old Vic building. At that point the other guy peeled off toward the Pratt Library, saying that he would not be coming to class. Since Francis had already seen me, I knew I had no escape. Sure enough, I was the only member of the class to turn up. Francis carried on as usual, as though the room was full, while I sat there desperately trying to think of something to say so that I would not look a total idiot.
I must have come up with something, because Francis was always very supportive of me as a student, and then again (after my return from Princeton) as a junior colleague. I recall giving my very first conference presentation at an event organized at Vic and having Francis congratulate me afterward on my talk. Since Francis was a severe critic of incompetence–or, worse, charlatanry–I thought I must have done pretty well.
Eventually I became Francis’s department chair. One of the chair’s tasks was to identify members of the department worthy of nomination for prestigious external prizes and awards. Since Francis was a University Professor by then (at the time our only one, I think) I naturally thought of him. When the idea was broached to him, Francis would always respond in his typically self-deprecating way but would in the end consent to being nominated “just for the money”.
My last experiences with Francis were as fellow members of the U of T Press’s Manuscript Review Committee. At every monthly meeting each of us had the responsibility of reading a ms. (and the readers’ reports) and recommending for or against publication. Grumpy, acerbic, but always funny, Francis was one of the committee’s stars. We all looked forward eagerly to his dissection of the foibles and failures of the poor author in question. Though he was (in my experience) never unkind to students, here he could give full rein to his intolerance of sloppiness, pomposity, and pretentiousness. I learned from him to demand that philosophical work measure up to a high standard, though I could never manage to express myself as forcefully or wittily as he did.
From Elizabeth Trott (Ryerson University)
I was in first year general arts at Victoria College (1961) reading Plato’s Republic for the first time, when I saw Francis Sparshott for the first time. And, by the end of the course, I believed I had encountered a Philosopher King. First encounters can be powerfully life changing. He would stride into class, lecturing with his eyes closed, occasionally opening them to glance out the window, but never really looking at us. A few of us speculated that he had his lecture notes written on the inside of his eyelids. Were we just shadows in the cave, and not candidates for his viewing? I soon became determined to escape and face the light.
Several years later, when I registered for a graduate course in aesthetics with Francis, he greeted me with, “And, what are you doing here?” The journey from the cave was clearly going to be long and tough. Francis did not suffer fools gladly, and it wasn’t until I had been at several conferences with him, presenting a paper or commenting on another, that he greeted me with his eyes open. Several years later, when I was teaching philosophy on contract at U of T, and I had been assigned his office during a visiting professorship of his, on his return he recorded my presence there with his camera — a somewhat better response, I thought, than a repeat of, “And, what are you doing here?”
Francis and I became collegial friends. Occasionally I would cross his path at the Toronto dance theatre where he held season’s tickets. His love of art in all its modes bifurcated his academic life, and he was, I truly believe, stretched to the limit between a rigorous, analytic philosophical mind and an intense poetic alter ego. Francis tended both drives, churning out often cited philosophy books and articles, and kept pace publishing many books of poetry. I have all of his philosophy books, and most of his poetry books, some of each genre, autographed. Writing an entry on him, as I did, for various learned dictionaries was not easy, especially as I knew his poetry, in style closer to TS Eliot than Shelley, was his deepest love. But there was more to him that met the mind.
I was honoured one day with an invitation to spend time with Francis and his devoted wife Kitty, at their cottage near Tobermory. There he lived with eyes wide open. The property was decorated with cedar wood collages; mobiles made from cedar roots hung from the trees. Sparkles of sunshine reflecting off the smooth surfaces all worn to a shine by nature, not the human hand, created a magical walk in the woods. Francis had made them all. When I wrote about him and his work I could not include the love he expressed in his decorated forest, a window on his deep passion for beauty and the mysteries of life beyond the mind.
Yes, I will remember his brilliance as a philosopher, but I knew the other side of Francis, a side few of his colleagues could even have imagined – a quiet humility in face of the overwhelming power of natural beauty. His mind could only express his verbal responses to the world through the intellectual framework of concepts; even reading his poetry requires a considerable and demanding focus. But his love of life shone through sparkles in the woods, hidden from the cave dwellers, revealed only to a chosen few. I no longer had to answer to “And, what are you doing here?” Though our philosophical interests were clearly distanced in method and orientation (he was bluntly critical of my work in Canadian philosophy), his gradual, Aristotelian friendship certified for me that my treacherous path had been well chosen.SHARE