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.

In Memoriam Peter Caws: poetry

Another life-long joy my father introduced me to is a love of poetry. He had a number of poems memorized for his own pleasure, and he’d recite them for us. It may have started as a way to soothe us before we could understand the language, and I think early on I was primarily impressed by the very feat of memory rather than the poems themselves. Eventually I enjoyed hearing them for their own sake, and grew to love some of his favorites as I went on to discover others. I’ve attempted to memorize some as well, but it doesn’t stick without regular repetition.

The poems I remember best from his repertoire were “Sea Fever” by John Masefield; “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and “The Song of Wandering Aengus” by W. B. Yeats; and “On This Island” by W. H. Auden. I’m sure there were others. When he was ill, one way I could connect with him was to read poetry to him, both his favorites and my own. Eventually I switched to amusing poems when the beautiful ones made him too sad; a lot of Odgen Nash delighted him, and no matter how miserable he was, “Spring Comes to Murray Hill” would inevitably make him laugh.

He wrote poems as well – some serious, but mostly delightful doggerel. My most cherished present, from age 8 to age 52, was the annual birthday poem he would write for me. The first one was lost, alas, but I remember that it featured powers of 2 (I was 8 years old that year, on the 8th of the month, and I was born in ’64). Math, wordplay, and parodies are recurring themes, and some feature footnotes. They’re funny and touching, and I cherish them still and always. I wish I had kept better track of them when I was younger – I have twenty-six of them transcribed and copied from all the sources over the years, and I continue to hope others may turn up.

In Memoriam Peter Caws: long multiplication

I love math, and it’s brought me a lot of joy over the years. I vividly remember the mind-blowing moment in high school when the math teacher introduced the unit circle and Pythagorean identities. After we’d slogged through a semester of trig, geometry (my least favorite math discipline), suddenly connected back to algebra (my favorite)! And one of my most satisfying adult experiences was discovering that I enjoyed calculus despite failing it in college the first time around. It was very hard but I earned straight As in Calculus I, II, and III in my 50s (undergrad at UMass, part of a computer science 2nd bachelor’s program).

None of that could have happened without my dad’s intervention in 4th grade, when I just could not comprehend long multiplication. I was on the road to classic math phobia – shared by my mother and brother, so a real possibility. The times table had already thoroughly spooked me, and it didn’t help that I skipped third grade (to this day I say of any gap in my education that it must have been covered in that year and I missed it). I remember being shocked that earlier generations were required to learn up to 12×12, because a hundred combinations already seemed impossible. (I never memorized the 6-7-8 section – I had to argue to get partial credit on my first calculus midterm for having correctly worked a difficult problem until I wrote 7*9 = 64…)

So 9-year-old me is required to know all the integer combos, and now I also have to know when to carry, how to move across the decimal places, and then add it up at the end? I could not handle it. I felt like my brain wasn’t up to it, that it was too complicated to ever understand, and that the people who could do it must have some special ability that I lacked.

I don’t remember asking my father for help. From a very young age I believed, due to a combination of nature (independence, stubbornness) and nurture (sink-or-swim parenting, a semi-feral childhood), that I was supposed to solve my own problems, and if I couldn’t, that was my failure. The notion of being “just a small child” didn’t cross my mind. But either I did ask, or he saw that I was struggling.

Peter worked with me patiently and gently for hours, typically in the mornings before school. The specifics have faded, but I vividly remember his tidy handwriting as he demonstrated the techniques, and most of all his faith and confidence in my ability to master it. He conveyed over and over again that he knew it was hard for me, that finding it difficult to grasp wasn’t a flaw, but that if I gave him my attention and didn’t give up, I would understand it eventually. Many times I broke down in sobs, insisting that I just didn’t and couldn’t get it, but he never lost his cool or threw in the towel.

There’s no memory of when the light dawned, and maybe it was a gradual change, but it can’t have taken very long. From then on I actively enjoyed long multiplication. I was still prone to errors, but I knew and understood how to do it, and it was one of the first techniques I added to my ever growing jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none toolset. Relishing good-enough skills – the ability to do something with a modicum of success if not at a high level – I also learned from him (see the previous post!) I am eternally grateful.

In Memoriam Peter Caws: The Cat Sat On the Mat

One of my most treasured possessions is a thin square-ruled notebook, bound in buckram. It’s a “Glatigny,” a French brand I can’t find anything about, and was originally used by my father for “Notes for New School course 1966-7” (which I don’t think came to fruition?). He removed those pages, flipped it over, and turned it into a reading manual for me. I have only a few memories before I learned how to read, and once I did know how (age 5, probably?) I had my nose in a book pretty much every waking hour, so this manual was a significant turning point in my life. The title page calls it “Hilary Caws’s Reading Book,” but we always referred to it as The Cat Sat on the Mat.

I don’t remember the craving to learn to read (I do remember the satisfaction of making rows of squiggles and calling it “writing”), so I’m not sure if my father created this book in response to my request, or if he thought it was time I learned. I vividly remember the process. Each evening he would draw another page while I watched. He would show me the sounds (the syllable in parenthesis), examples in words (the second line), and then the bit of the story that included the words. The spinning out of the story night after night was part of the fun, but as I recall he wasn’t very happy with the drawing in #8 and felt like he was starting to run out of ideas. Besides, by then I had pretty much caught on – it even looks like I tried to help write the last word of #6.

This memento represents so many of my dad’s qualities. He was a born teacher. He overflowed with patience and creativity and willingness to devote time to help people (of all ages!) learn. He was willing to tackle things like drawing in which he knew he wouldn’t excel (other examples: playing piano, carpentry) but could do a workman-like job – he believed strongly that any human skill could be attempted. He was a loving and nurturing father. He had a wonderful sense of humor and play. I miss him very much and I’m so lucky to have this book!