The Professor versus the Philosopher
by Mark Wegierski
In recent years, the Canadian establishment media have relentlessly criticized George Parkin Grant (1918-1988), one of Canada’s pre-eminent thinkers. Some years ago, an editorial article in Saturday Night, at that time a leading magazine, decried the supposed prevalence of “the Creighton-Grant nationalist thesis.” Donald Creighton was 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 literary figure, Robert Fulford, wrote a snide review “Re-evaluating praise for George Grant.” (The Globe and Mail, September 11, 1996), in which he expressed surprise at Grant’s religious beliefs. Thomas Hurka’s column of March 17, 1992, also in The Globe and Mail– entitled “Thomas Hurka laments George Grant’s ideas on the morality of technology”, was another pointed example of this harping against Grant. It seems to have become a Canadian “tradition” to deride Canada’s genuine achievers — from philosophers and literary critics, such as Northrop Frye, to business people and even pop-stars (such as Bryan Adams) – while elevating “politically-correct” mediocrities.
Professor Hurka’s by-line states 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, he seems unaware of certain developments in modern philosophy.
The latter is now 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 However, the paradigm of scholarship Hurka describes in his last piece appears outdated. Much of modern philosophy has abandoned the goal of attaining pure objectivity, and no longer posits that it is readily accessible to the practitioner.
The academy is in no way immune from the passions of political polemic which Hurka thinks confined to the worlds of journalism, business, and conventional politics. Indeed, university professors are renowned for their hair-splitting quarrels, their Machiavellian intrigues to advance their status and their willingness to damn to scholarly oblivion anyone who diverges from their various pet-theories. Today, it is widely considered that all arguments outside the purest “hard sciences” are in fact “interested” and “clouded” by subjective and emotional responses. The 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 that the philosopher must admit to being a sort of polemicist. 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” — is arguably the central issue of modern philosophy.
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. A sharp line of distinction between behaviour motivated by human reason and behaviour motivated by human desire cannot be established. The notion of an objective external ethical absolute is arguably a 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 conditioning and biological make-up, as well as other, less discernible and perhaps unknowable factors.
Professor Hurka’s triumphalist “trouncing” of George Grant as a philosopher can be viewed as an appeal to Hurka’s own “authority” as a paragon of Western Aristotelian logic, and also on his prestige as someone who teaches philosophy at a prestigious university, and writes a newspaper column.
In regard to modern technology, which Hurka says we choose to construct in a way which serves human purposes, Grant would riposte that it 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 ultimately imposes on us the ways in which it will be used — and these are frequently maleficent directions!
Although both Grant and Hurka espoused a similar epistemology (one that recognised the possibility of a discernible, objective standard), Grant had thought deeply about the problem of subjectivity in late modernity. He had 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.
Moreover, Grant was aware of the dystopic nature of late modernity. He did not repose — over-sanguine, content, unalienated, and without serious reflection — in the bosom of this late modernity. George Parkin Grant was 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, anchored 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; also, 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.
The notion that contemporary society is “inclusive” or “pluralistic” — that it does not strive to impose a single, ultimately narrow vision of the good on everyone — is a delusion. Mass-marketing, mass-media, mass-education and state-therapeutic systems have conferred an unprecedented power to supersaturate a person with their views. And although we are ostensibly free to make choices concerning sexual practices, luxury foods, market-labels, retirement options, or conventional entertainments and amusements — which is often mistaken for “pluralism” – it is increasingly difficult to articulate any alternative notion of the good.
Professor Hurka believes that in the liberal order, technology can be used in a “positive” way. Grant’s thesis, in contrast, is that the development of modern technology, however initially attractive, is ultimately destructive of people’s humanity. George Grant argued 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 and the chairman of General Motors are travelling on the same road to Huxley’s “liberated” Brave New World. The apposite metaphor here is a never-ending orgy in which “all of our various orifices are incessantly satisfied,” but 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 remote.
In a world of genetic experimentation, of carrots with the genes of mice, of flies engineered with eyes in places where they never naturally occur, of mice with genetically human blood, all of which are violations of the natural order, Professor Hurka’s criticism of George Grant is petty.
Only by reflecting on technology and about the way the world is going can anything recognizably human be salvaged from the wreck to come. George Grant was a brave and authentic thinker who gave to these issues the most serious consideration.
Sociologist Mark Wegierski writes from Toronto
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