It is with great sorrow that the Department of Philosophy and the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences report the passing of our revered colleague Peter Caws, University Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Human Sciences, Emeritus. He died peacefully at home in Foggy Bottom, on April 20, 2020.
Peter was born in 1931 in Southall, Middlesex, now part of west London, in a house that can still be seen from the train between Heathrow and Paddington, and in which he endured the Blitz during World War Two. He was brought up in a repressive fundamentalist sect, the Exclusive Brethren. After a B.Sc. (hons.) in physics from the University of London he escaped to the United States in 1953, where a one-year fellowship at Yale grew into a Ph.D. in philosophy in 1956. There followed teaching stints at Michigan State University and the University of Kansas, and then a brief interlude as an officer of a major foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York. Back in the academic world he taught at the City University of New York (Hunter College and the Graduate School), and in 1982 became University Professor of Philosophy, and eventually also Professor of Human Sciences, at The George Washington University in Washington, DC. He retired in 2013 as University Professor of Philosophy Emeritus but continued to teach an annual seminar in the Honors Program until 2017.
Peter was author, editor, or translator of 10 books, author of over 150 journal articles and reviews, and editor of three journal issues. Over his long and illustrious career, he showed extraordinary philosophical range, making seminal contributions to philosophy of science, political philosophy, structuralism, ethics, and Sartre scholarship. He served as a board member of many organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Philosophical Association, and the Society for General Systems Research, and was an honorary member of Phi Beta Kappa. After taking up his position as University Professor at GWU in 1982, Peter was instrumental in founding and leading the Human Sciences Interdisciplinary Ph.D. Program. He was also a devoted contributor to the GWU Honors Program.
Peter was an aficionado of classical music and, during a period when he commuted to GWU from Delaware, he served as president of the board of the Newark Symphony Orchestra (2007-2010). In their tribute to him, the NSO writes that “he was always present in our audience, sharing his love for classical music, encouraging our youth soloists, and led the orchestra through our new music director search in 2009.”
We will all remember fondly Peter’s extraordinary erudition and breadth of knowledge, unquenchable curiosity, fierce intellectual rigor, dry wit, strong personality, and urbane, refined manner. His profound sincerity and sheer intellectual charisma made him a magnet to students, colleagues, and administrators seeking mentoring and advice. Peter Caws was deeply and widely loved here, and his passing will leave an enormous void in the Philosophy Department, the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, and all of GWU.