He was a distinguished Wittgenstein scholar with his own strong philosophical views. But Jack Canfield – a professor emeritus at U of T Mississauga who died in August at 82 – was also known for keeping an open mind to alternate arguments. “He was a passionate philosopher, but also a patient and a sympathetic one, who listened carefully to the views of others,” says philosophy professor Bernard Katz.
Canfield was deeply influenced by Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ideas about mind and language, as well as his own spiritual practice in the Zen tradition – and he explored the relationship between the two in his work. His last book, Becoming Human, was a culmination of this exploration: he traced the origin of language in the journey from hominid to human. Canfield saw no essential difference between humans and other animals, except the uniqueness of language, says Katz. “Jack would say ‘Humans can understand a New Yorker cartoon, but our fellow creatures can’t,’” Katz recalls. “He was very interested in the state of humanity before developing and acquiring language – before becoming human.”
Katz describes Canfield as an “unpretentious” and natural writer. He often reviewed papers and offered feedback to Katz. “I always sought his advice on stylistic matters as well as philosophical ones; he had an elegant, clear style, for which he was well-known,” says Katz. “Though what I’ll remember most is not his suggestions, but his unwavering support and encouraging words.”