Reviews of Northern Spirits

What divides us makes us Hegel; Book re-examines the philosophical basis of a nation

National Post, Tuesday, March 25, 2008

by Robert Fulford

Iris Murdoch, a sharp-eyed philosopher before she began writing her outrageous novels about convoluted relationships, once suggested a way to learn the real purpose of a philosopher. You should ask, "What is he afraid of?"

We know what scared G.F.W. Hegel (1770-1831), the titan of German idealism. He was terrified at the prospect of Europe being devastated by irreconcilable forces. And in the 1950s, when Europe finally made peace with itself through a common market, one of the main planners was a great Hegelian theorist, Alexandre Kojeve.

Robert C. Sibley of the Ottawa Citizen has used Murdoch's question and Hegel's philosophy as a way to think about modern Canada. For more than a century, leading Canadian scholars, including our most eminent philosophers, have applied Hegel's theories. Sibley draws a clear line from Hegel to Canada and asks the Canadian version of Murdoch's question:What are Canadian philosophers afraid of?

Northern Spirits: John Watson, George Grant, and Charles Taylor — Appropriations of Hegelian Political Thought (McGill-Queen's University Press), published last month, began life as Sibley's doctoral thesis in political science at Carleton University. He's shaped it as a stimulating analysis of the thinking that drives Canadian public life.

We know one thing that frightens Sibley himself: He's afraid of writing badly. His firm, clear prose shows a devotion to careful craftsmanship and an affection for third drafts. In itself that's un-Hegelian. Hegel never for a moment worried about being understood, so he wasn't concerned when people called his prose the most impenetrable verbiage ever imposed on helpless students.

Sibley's three Canadian subjects are well chosen for their historic reach and their influence on the way Canadians think about their society.

John Watson (1847-1939), a Queen's University professor, developed an international reputation in the 19th century for his Hegelian analysis of the troubled relations between governments and individuals. He worked on new approaches to Christian institutions, preparing the intellectual ground for the creation of the United Church of Canada in 1925.

George Grant (1918-1988), a distinctly unloved thinker within Canadian philosophy departments, nevertheless became for a few years the most prominent Canadian philosopher. His Lament for a Nation, perhaps the least understood of all famous Canadian books, helped jump-start the radical nationalist movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

And Charles Taylor (1931-), well regarded among Hegelians everywhere on the planet, has become best known in Canada for articulating the virtues of multiculturalism.

Sibley takes us on a guided tour of political culture in English-speaking Canada, stopping along the way to exchange words with public figures ranging from Stephen Leacock to Pierre Trudeau, from Lawren Harris to Michael Bliss, from Richard Gwyn to Larry Zolf. He suggests that even Canadians who don't actually read Hegel are intuitively Hegelian.

His three chosen philosophers have something remarkable in common: At certain points all of them have been on top of the news, a surprise to anyone who imagines that philosophers live private lives behind university walls.

Watson, aside from helping reorganize Canadian Protestantism, became a serious proponent of world government after the First World War. Grant developed links connecting anti-Americanism, anti-modernism and Canadian nationalism — links that remain powerful today. And Taylor deployed Hegel's dialectic, a philosophy of contradictions and their resolutions, to argue for Quebec's unique place within the country and the necessity of a new multiculturalism.

As Sibley maintains, "To read Watson, Grant and Taylor is to see Hegelian thought alive and acting in the present, not as some dead philosophical artifact of the past."

Canada, eternally contested territory, exists by playing variations on themes by Hegel, the price of painful but necessary reconciliation. Careful political crafting, with Hegelian tools, makes the country work.

The solutions of Watson, Grant and Taylor indicate their fears. Iris Murdoch would have no trouble recognizing that all of these philosophers have been appalled by the possibility that Canada could dissolve into fragments and become several nations or be absorbed by the U.S. One of them decided it happened long ago: Grant, the eternal pessimist, said, "Canada has ceased to be a nation," with only legal formalities awaiting settlement. It's hard to imagine exactly what he had hoped for, since he never quite explained when Canada was a nation, but certainly he was disappointed. Lament for a Nation mourned Canada's slow disappearance into, as he often put it (in a phrase borrowed from Kojeve), "the universal and homogeneous state."

All of Sibley's philosophers, at different times, have responded as Hegelians to the constantly unfolding crisis of Canadian nationhood. Hegel provides a framework in which people can recognize their diversity, permit particular cultures to retain their distinctive features but remain within a single state. As Sibley says, Canadians seem to have grasped that our regional and ethnic tensions help make us the country we are, for good or ill.

He quotes Michael Ignatieff's "distinctly Hegelian" recognition of the arguments at the core of our political psychology. As Ignatieff puts it, "Canada just happens to be one of those countries that is committed, as a condition of its survival, to engage in a constant act of self-justification and self-invention." He adds that those who weary of this endless dialogue are weary of being Canadian.

Is it by collective intuition, I've often wondered, that Ontario for six decades has almost always arranged to be governed by a provincial party different from the one holding power in Ottawa? It looks like a Hegelian strategy. Brian Mulroney's Meech Lake scheme promised, in effect, to "settle" the central French-English conflict in Canada. That was unrealistic — and unHegelian.

On the cover of Sibley's book, a classic Lawren Harris painting, North Shore, Lake Superior, neatly symbolizes the contents. The split trunk of a tree, partly light and partly dark, suggests the discord embodied in Canadian life. Sibley quotes Roald Nasgaard, a former curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, who sees Harris's picture as a symbolic exploration of Canadian identity and a metaphor responding to the condition of life in the geographic vastness of Canada.

Northern Spirits, a revealing title for this remarkably ambitious book, refers to the spirit that breathes life into an organism and also to spirit as Hegel expresses it: a dynamic force and the highest principle of life. Readers who believe they understand Canada may well finish this book thinking unexpected thoughts.

Excerpt from Professor William Christian’s review of Northern Spirits in Canadian Historical Review:

Robert Sibley’s book is not limited to Grant, but to three Canadian Hegelians: John Watson of Queen’s, Grant, and Charles Taylor. Kantianism has often been taken as the founding philosophy of Canada, but Sibley makes a strong case for the importance of Hegelianism.

His argument is interesting and provocative in Grant’s case. Grant never denied that he was a Hegelian when he taught at Dalhousie in the 1950s. In fact, he explicitly expressed the belief that Hegel had reconciled the best of ancient thought with modern thought. It was Strauss, he said, who had taught him that that was not true, and he left Dalhousie to escape the influence of James Doull and his powerful Hegelian intellectual influence.

Northern Spirits is Robert Sibley’s revised doctoral dissertation from Carleton, but since he’s a writer for the Ottawa Citizen you would never guess at its origins: It is cogently and elegantly written. Sibley argues that Grant’s Hegelianism lasted significantly beyond his Dalhousie period. He expressed a belief that Canada was fated to disappear into a universal and homogeneous state. The concept of the universal and homogeneous state was an idea that the French Hegelian Alexandre Kojeve had articulated in the 1930s and whose thesis formed the core of a debate between Strauss and Kojeve, which was the basis of one of Grant’s most important articles ...

Sibley’s stimulating essay shows that Watson, Grant, and Taylor all read Hegel in different but insightful ways. He makes a strong case that Hegel is a philosopher of continuing relevance to Canada.