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The professor and the philosopher (Part One)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted May 7, 2012

In the last two or so decades, there seems to have emerged a tendency, in the Canadian establishment media, to criticize George Parkin Grant (1918-1988), one of Canada's pre-eminent thinkers (on those rare instances when he is noticed at all). Several years ago, an editorial article in Saturday Night (at that time a leading Canadian magazine) decried the supposed prevalence in Canada of what it called "the Creighton-Grant nationalist thesis." (Donald Creighton being Canada's long-deceased, pre-eminent, conservative nationalist historian.) In response to the publication of Grant's Selected Letters (edited by William Christian, University of Toronto Press, 1996), the well-known Canadian literary figure, Robert Fulford, wrote a snide review ("Re-evaluating praise for George Grant." The Globe and Mail, September 11, 1996), where he expressed surprise at Grant's religious beliefs. Thomas Hurka's column of March 17, 1992 in The Globe and Mail – Canada's establishment liberal newspaper ("Thomas Hurka laments George Grant's ideas on the morality of technology"), which was the second-last column of his major stint at that newspaper, is also an especially pointed example of this harping against Grant. It certainly appears to be some sort of Canadian "tradition" to deride Canada's genuine achievers -- from philosophers and literary critics (such as Northrop Frye) to businesspeople and even some pop-stars (such as Bryan Adams) – while too often elevating "politically-correct" mediocrities.

George Grant was never well-connected enough to have obtained a cozy platform in "Canada's national newspaper" -- for any length of time -- to voice his own philosophical views. In Professor Hurka's byline it is stated that he "teaches philosophy at the University of Calgary specializing in ethics." However, judging from his Grant piece, as well as his last column during this major stint at The Globe and Mail ("Thomas Hurka explains why academic writing is so boring and the musings of journalists are so shallow," March 24, 1992), one might think that he is largely unaware of some developments in modern philosophy.

Philosophy in late modernity is heavily influenced by subjective and hermeneutic approaches, as Hurka's citing of Nietzsche as well as Derrida in that last column shows. However, the paradigm of scholarship Hurka describes in his last piece appears antiquated. Much of modern philosophy has abandoned the model of attaining pure objectivity, and no longer believes that such is readily accessible to the practitioner.

It could be further pointed out that the academy is in no way immune from the passions of political polemic which Hurka thinks is confined to the worlds of journalism, business, and conventional politics. Who, if not the stereotypical "bad" university professors, are known for their hair-splitting quarrels, their Machiavellian intrigues to advance their status in the profession, and their willingness to damn to scholarly oblivion anyone who diverges one millimetre from their various pet-theories? Today, it is often considered that all arguments outside the purest "hard sciences" are in fact "interested" and "clouded" by subjective and emotional responses. The so-called positivist consensus of the 1950s is long-gone -- and it is generally accepted that, even in the physical sciences, paradigms are postulated first, and then the appropriate facts are found to support the paradigms.

Many thinkers point to the deep problem of the all-devouring nature of the subjective approach in philosophy and other areas of study outside the physical sciences, and of how the philosopher, if he or she is to be honest, must admit to being a sort of polemicist. It is, in fact, the issue of the inaccessibility of an absolute grounding of one's philosophical position, especially in its ethical dimension -- and on what basis one can make such "truth-claims" -- that is arguably the central issue of modern philosophy, and the central problem as well as the great latent danger of late modernity.

The position of classical moral theory (as described by Professor Hurka) -- that "what's good and evil is independent of our will and should guide it" --  clearly does not correspond with the picture of the human personality as it is understood today. We generally desire that which we think to be "good," and we in most cases do that which we find in some sense "pleasurable," or which helps us avoid "pain," but the ultimate roots of our behaviours and beliefs -- although they can be endlessly speculated upon -- can never be fully uncovered. Human personality, in all its multifarious dimensions, cannot ultimately draw a sharp line of distinction between behaviour motivated by human reason, and behaviour motivated by human desire.  

Professor Hurka's triumphalist "trouncing" of George Grant as a philosopher can be understood as being based on an appeal to Hurka's own "authority" as a paragon of Western Aristotelian logic and philosophy, and also on his prestige as a "professional philosopher," i.e., as someone who teaches philosophy at a university, and happens to have a newspaper column, which does not necessarily mean that he is seriously tackling the great questions of the present and past ages.

A late modern philosopher could point out, for example, that the notion of an objective external ethical absolute is a kind of fiction -- however necessary it may be for the functioning of human personality and society -- and that ultimately, for every person, "right and wrong are whatever we want them to be," though what we "want" is based, in varying degrees, on our place in society and history, family and social conditioning, and biological make-up, as well as other, even less discernible and perhaps unknowable factors.

In regard to railways, computers, and so forth, which Hurka says we choose to construct in a way which serves human purposes, Grant would say that modern technology ends up creating drives and tendencies independent of human control, and that these drives and tendencies, generally-speaking, have a negative effect, from the standpoint of pre-modern notions of the good. The computer does ultimately impose on us the ways in which it will be used -- and these are frequently maleficent directions!

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

 

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