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Francis Sparshott: A Remembrance
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Philip Alperson

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 work in philosophical aesthetics that will be remembered by most members of the ASA. It is hard to single out for special attention any of his many works. Francis made important contributions to the fields of the philosophy of music, the philosophy of film, the philosophy of aboriginal art, the philosophy of craft, the philosophy of dance, the philosophy of criticism, and many other areas of artistic endeavor. 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 itself, 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.

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