In memoriam Peter Caws: philosophical aphorisms

In my father’s papers I found a letter from 1985 in which Zak van Straaten, director of the University of Cape Town Institute for Advanced Studies in Philosophy, was soliciting philosophical aphorisms for a proposed anthology. He defined what he was looking for as “a short, philosophical maxim that is able to stand on its own and expresses a truth of general importance” and said it should not be longer than 50 words. I find no evidence that the anthology ever actually came out, but my dad and/or assistants (there’s handwriting that’s not his) compiled 3 pages of submissions from his writings. Most of these sources haven’t been digitized yet, so I’ll prioritize those next.

  • A person who is at a loss for anything to do does not need moral instruction, he needs love or vitamins or psychoanalysis. – Science and the Theory of Value, 1967, p. 122
  • The function of science is the explanation of nature in its own terms; its method is that of imagination controlled by evidence. – ibid, p. 41
  • The first task of humanists in a technological age is surely to understand technology — not merely to use it, gratefully or ungratefully. – “The Humanities in a Technological Age,” in Societal Issues, Scientific Viewpoints, edited by Margaret Strom, 1987.
  • Having trivial desires made easy of attainment has encouraged an attitude toward the world in which the being of things is overlaid by their handiness, so that nothing is really an end, not even human beings themselves. – ibid
  • The humanities have a task that is independent of the age, namely to articulate the best. – ibid.
  • Although there could never be a sound defense for doing only metaphysics, there may sometimes be a defense for doing only analysis, namely at times when a great deal of unanalyzed and conflicting metaphysics has been inherited. – The Philosophy of Science: A Systematic Account, 1965, p. 6.
  • Science is about things in the world, but it is also one of the things that philosophy finds in the world. – ibid, p. 10.
  • It is easy for the privileged to overrate the idealism of the underprivileged. – “What Happened in Paris?Partisan Review 35:4, fall 1968.
  • Philosophical criticism, like charity, begins at home, and in an imperfect world there is always work to be done there. “The Case of the Athenian Stranger: Philosophy and World Citizenship”, Teaching Philosophy 8:2, April 1985.
  • The structure of subjectivity is wholly borrowed — from the structure of its body and brain, or from whatever other structures it can find its way into. The subject is a consumer of structure. This accounts for literature. – “The Ontology of Criticism”, Semiotexte, 1:3, Spring 1975.
  • The philosopher may think of himself as a thinker, but his thought will be barren if he is not also a talker or a writer. – Sartre, 1979, p. 19.
  • Philosophical systems are suspect nowadays because the most familiar notion of system stresses systematic completeness, in a effort to achieve which many philosophers have been led into extravagance if not absurdity. – “The Structure of Self-Reference,” in Philosophes critiques d’eux-memes, vol. 2, 1976.
  • The structural capacity of mind turns out to be very much greater than is ordinarily needed for survival in the natural world; this has permitted the construction over time of mythological, social, theoretical, political, literary, and other structures. – ibid.
  • If we are not to drown in our own publications [we] must break the pious association of instruction with inquiry except at the most advanced level. – “Instruction and Inquiry”, Daedalus, Fall 1974.
  • The committed revolutionary is the fundametalist of politics; his attitude towards the old regime has something in common with the preacher’s attitude toward sin: the revolution may come to seem more important as a struggle between good and evil, in which the wicked are to be punished, than as a means of liberating the oppressed. – “Reform and Revolution”, in Philosophy and Political Action, edited by V. Held, K. Nielsen, C. Parsons, 1971.
  • It is better than nothing to get a solution with the help of a machine, but the fact that we have got a solution may remove the necessity of simplifying the theory. Suppose someone had been able to offer the use of a computer to a pre-Copernican astronomer; the need for a Copernican revolution would have been removed at once. – “Science, Computers, and the Complexity of Nature”, Philosophy of Science, v. 30, 2 April 1963.
  • The possibility of literature is the most spectacular gift of language. – “Critical Innocence and Straight Reading,” in New Literary History V.XVII (Autumn 1985).
  • The measure of the philosophical authenticity of an idea is not the amount of excitement it can generate but the amount of criticism it can survive. – “What Good is Academic Philosophy,” unpublished paper.

I remember another collection of aphorisms and thoughts – not The Book of Hylas, but perhaps a precursor. I must have a version of it somewhere and I’ll put it up when I find it. I do remember teasing my father about how short some of them were – “a single word can’t be an aphorism!” A related document is the “Quotations from Ex-Chairman Caws,” a student’s transcription of things my dad said in class that he thought were funny or notable.

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