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The professor and the philosopher – Thomas Hurka and George Grant

By Mark Wegierski
web posted December 17, 2018

(In commemoration of 100 years since the birth of George Grant; 30 years since the passing of George Grant.)

(This essay arose out of a piece defending George Parkin Grant – originally written in 1992 -- that the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper had refused to publish.)

In the last three 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 premodern 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!

George Grant had thought deeply about issues of the problem of subjectivity in late modernity. He had somehow retained a belief in a transcendent God, as Professor William Christian reminds us, in his March 18, 1992, "Feedback" piece (“The philosopher, the vacuum cleaner and the perfection of God.”) in The Globe and Mail.

Although both George Grant and Thomas Hurka are arguably grounded in what is ultimately a similar epistemology (i.e., one recognizing the possibility of a discernible, objective standard), George Grant is extremely aware of the dangers and near-dystopic nature of late modernity. He does not repose -- over-sanguine, content, unalienated, and without serious reflection -- in the bosom of this late modernity. George Parkin Grant can be understood as a person who, confronting the near-insanity and surreal texture of life in our period, the repudiation of nearly all hitherto-existing notions of the good in the Twentieth Century, chose to anchor his hopes on the idea of an absolute, transcendent standard in the heavens, which he called "God."

Other possible positions of resistance are some types of "immanentism," which see something like human nature -- as understood by the thinker -- itself constituting a standard; some types of "historicism," which see human history and the rooted communities derived therefrom, as a standard; or "existentialism," which, while it realizes that there are no ultimate standards, makes the struggle a choice of will, and of commitment to one's own posited humanity and genuine inner freedom. There are, as well, the attempts to change the nature of the intra-philosophical discourse, for example by shifting from a metaphysical to an ontological focus. All these come back once again to the problem of finding a grounding for one's philosophical position and its ethical dimension, in this period of late modernity.

The notion that contemporary society is in some way "inclusive" or "pluralistic" -- that it does not strive to impose a single, ultimately narrow vision of the good on everyone -- is a misapprehension. One should note that in this way it differs from no other society, although one might perceive the "model" it offers as ultimately negative; as well as perceiving the quasi-totalitarian tightness of this attempted conditioning -- certainly in terms of normative and utilitarian, as opposed to highly coercive controls. This tendency to thoroughgoing and total indoctrination into prevailing norms arguably goes beyond that attempted by the Inquisition (which was more concerned with formal obedience to external authority than innermost belief, and which also never claimed it was exercising a beneficent tolerance), because the prelates had no mass-marketing, mass-media, mass-education and state-therapeutic systems to supersaturate a person with their views from the ages of two to eighteen, after which -- theoretically at least -- they are given "the right to make their own choices."

And, although we can typically make any number of choices in sexual practices, luxury foods, market-labels, retirement options, or conventional entertainments and amusements -- which is often mistaken for "pluralism" – it is very difficult to voice and fight for any notion of the good that antedates this period of late modernity.

George Grant does not believe that in a hyper-technological society, values can be formed apart from technology. Professor Hurka believes that in one system (contemporary liberalism) technology can be used in what could be considered a "positive" way. The whole point of Grant's ideas is that the development of modern technology, however initially attractive, is ultimately destructive of people's humanity.

George Grant argues furthermore that "liberalism is the perfect ideology for capitalism," i.e., that there is a powerful nexus between the development of a certain type of liberalism and the development of a hyper-technological economy. Social liberalism (basically coterminous with increasing consumption) and the economic conservatism of the corporations go hand in hand. Herbert Marcuse (or Timothy Leary) and the chairman of General Motors are travelling on the same road to Aldous Huxley's "liberated" Brave New World, a metaphor of which is the never-ending orgy where "all of our various orifices are incessantly satisfied," but of course everything of real human worth and meaning has been lost.

As modern Western technology encroaches upon the world, our fate is most likely one of three alternatives: the relatively near-term extinction of human beings through some massive technologically-derived and/or ecological disaster; the extinction of human beings over the next few hundred years in grotesque satiation (if technology does indeed "solve" all of our problems, but without our ability to set any kind of limits on it); or the annihilation of the West and choking off of technological over-development by more vital, prolific peoples possessing a greater measure of life-instinct. The possibilities of Western cultural and social renewal, and of the West’s own taming of its technology, now seem rather unlikely.

In a world of genetic experimentation (for example, the attempt to map out or "sequence" the entire human genetic code) -- of carrots with genes of mice; of flies engineered with eyes in places where they never naturally occur; of mice with genetically human blood (which can be seen as some of today's  violations of the orders of nature) -- and with the enormous "other realm" of electronics and media, now nibbling on the edges of ultimately post-human, infinitely malleable "virtual reality" -- Professor Hurka's criticism of George Grant seems quite petty.

It is only by maintaining some degree of reflection concerning technology and about the way the world is going (even as we are all forced to participate in it, to a greater or lesser extent) that anything recognizably human can be salvaged from the wreck to come. Professor Thomas Hurka is actively attacking an authentic thinker who gives these issues the most serious consideration. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.




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