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Remembering Francis Sparshott
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Jenefer Robinson
University of Cincinnati

Francis Sparshott

Francis Sparshott


Francis Sparshott was a distinguished philosopher and man of letters, a former ASA president (1980-82), as well as a highly regarded poet and former president of the League of Canadian Poets. The back cover of The City Dwellers and Other Verses (2000) describes him as “Intelligence Corps Sergeant, Professor, Philosopher, Verse-Maker, Poet, Photographer, and City Dweller.” He was also my PhD dissertation director, someone whom I admired and of whom I was very fond. Francis wrote many books on aesthetics and ethics, including 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 (1988), Taking Life Seriously (1994), A Measured Pace (1995), and The Future of Aesthetics (1998). His deep knowledge of the writings of Plato and Aristotle informed much of his work. He also authored many fine volumes of poetry, including The Cave of Trophonius, which won the First Prize for Poetry in the C.B.C. Literary Competition in 1981.

I was a graduate student at University of Toronto from 1970 to 1973 and received my Ph.D. 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 that has proven so very rewarding over so many years.

In his Aesthetics class Francis had appeared stiff and forbidding (although in retrospect he may just have been suffering from a migraine), 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 on their dissertation from their supervisors, but Francis’s comments were not just spot on but often very funny. For example, in discussing Sircello on artistic expression, I described how he likens some uses of expression words to the use of “red” in “red bucket” meaning a bucket full of red paint (as opposed to some other color). This inspired Francis to scribble a limerick on the side of the page, beginning “There was an old man of Nantucket, Who had some red paint in a bucket.” Unfortunately I’ve forgotten the next 2 lines, but I do recall that the last two words were “confound it”! Around the same time I sent him one of the Christmas cards I’d made myself that year by varnishing maple leaves, which are large and beautiful and prolific in Canada. Francis wrote back thanking me for the maple leaf: “Just what I’ve always wanted, when you need one you can never find one.”

For much 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 a vast number of articles, of course, but concentrated mainly on writing 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, unlike the normal style of Analytic Philosophy that prevailed at that time. Not that he could not write Analytic Philosophy. Anyone who remembers his incisive—sometimes disconcertingly honest—reviews will attest to that. But he was chiefly interested in understanding philosophical questions in their larger contexts. Philosophy mattered to him as a serious undertaking, not just a way of scoring points. The two tendencies come together in The Theory of the Arts, a book that traces the various lines of thought about the arts from the Greeks to the present, not as a mere sequence in the history of ideas, but as a kind of conceptual geography. The main text (with appendices) is 500 pages and the notes (including notes on the appendices!), where more detailed points are discussed, run to 81 pages, and contain most of the jokes. This book—among others that he wrote— deserves to be much better known than it is.

Francis and I stayed in touch all these years, even after he retired and eventually stopped coming to the ASA. One Christmas it was his turn to send a bizarre card: it showed a conference table with Santa Claus at the head and six reindeer sitting around it. Francis commented: “This is a very mysterious card. What is supposed to be happening at this meeting? Why does Santa have such tiny legs?” I think that he and I 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 his last. It was called Scoring in Injury Time (2006), a title that encapsulates the quality of much of his poetry: a blend of wit and melancholy.

Francis was a deeply learned man, 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 great affection.

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