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A little taste of Canadian philosophy: why define this country's big questioners so narrowly?

In the Agora: The Public Face of Canadian Philosophy Andrew D. Irvine and John S. Russell, editors University of Toronto Press 480 pages ISBN 0802038956, hardcover ISBN 0802074, softcover

Philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon says you taste some books, swallow others and, a very few, chew and digest. In Bacon's scale of ingestion, In the Agora: The Public Face of Canadian Philosophy merits tasting.

Editors Andrew D. Irvine and John S. Russell give readers a drive-by reading experience of Timbits, tasty enough morsels but not deeply satisfying. Most of the articles, previously published in Canadian newspapers or journals, are topical and bite-size. They seem intended for an audience of mildly hungry undergraduates with short attention spans in a first-year cultural studies or philosophy course.

The editors have compiled a wide-ranging anthology of philosophic journalism from the internationally recognized Ian Hacking, John Ralston Saul and Charles Taylor to continental voices such as Mark Kingwell, a frequent contributor to Harper's Magazine, to those professors of philosophy unknown to all but their students and colleagues. Writers make at least two or three contributions and, in the case of the editors and Thomas Hurka, more than ten contributions each. The topics cover education, Canadian politics, animal rights, science and the environment, intelligence and the new technologies as well as free speech, happiness, morality and September 11. Wouldn't it be better to treat fewer topics thoroughly than so many thinly?

In their introduction, the editors issue a broad invitation for all to come to philosophy's banquet. They remind us that "philosophy concerns itself with abstract and often technical issues ... of interest only to the specialist" but that it "also discusses a broad range of questions that are of interest to almost everyone." Since the word philosophy derives from the Greek words philia, meaning love, and sophia, meaning wisdom, then it follows according to the editors that "anyone who is a lover of wisdom is in some sense a philosopher." After all, Socrates, one of philosophy's founding fathers, used to sit in the agora, Athens' central marketplace, engaged "in conversation with anyone who would join him."

Despite this open invitation, the editors scare off as many as they welcome. To the questions "who speaks for philosophy?" and "who is a philosopher?", the editors by their selections answer restrictively: someone with a PhD in philosophy who teaches philosophy at a university. John Ralston Saul, who does not teach philosophy, and Stan Persky, who does not teach it at a university, are two exceptions to their rule. In such a straitjacket, a contemporary Socrates might be able to sound off in the agora but he would not be published by an academic press.

Canadian generalist Malcolm Gladwell, who has thought provocatively on thought in Blink and The Tipping Point, and B.W. Powe, who has thought imaginatively on Canadian politics in Toward a Canada of Light and The Solitary Outlaw, are similarly bypassed. Excerpts from Ronald Wright's Massey lectures on the rise and fall of civilizations don't have a place in the book. Neither do Don McKay's profound burrowings into the concept of place and wilderness in Vis-a-Vis: Fieldnotes on Poetry and Wilderness and Deactivated West 100.

With such restrictive criteria governing philosophic utterance, it is not surprising that Michael Ignatieff does not find a home in this book. A new George Grant or Marshall McLuhan would also be excluded from the family of Canadian philosophers. Grant wrote his doctorate on a Scottish theologian and taught for most of his career in religious studies. McLuhan had his doctorate in English and taught communications and media.

The editors miss out on postmodern theorist Arthur Kroker's insights into the reconfiguration of the human psyche through technology and metallurgist Ursula Franklin's deep probe into technology as a mindset as well as an organizational structure. These Canadian thinkers are non-philosophers who, on occasion, write philosophically. Neither belongs to a philosophy department. And yet I would argue that they belong in an anthology purporting to be the "public" face of Canadian philosophy.

The editors also lose out on the wisdom of scientist David Suzuki's explorations into ecology and the amphibious Anne Carson's brilliant intermingling of poetry and philosophy to pour the wine of the ancient Greeks into the new bottles of modernity. Is it not possible to write philosophy, or at least occasionally write a philosophic essay, and not be a professional, credentialled teacher of philosophy? Did the mathematician Plato have his PhD in philosophy? Did Socrates teach in the academy?

Specific advice: Skip the section on Canadian politics. There is more in Jeffrey Simpson's regular column in The Globe and Mail. Skip the articles on the new technologies. There is more in any five pages of Marshall McLuhan or in any chapter from any work by Arthur Kroker. Skip the environment. There is more in Suzuki. Skip education and the university. Pick up Peter C. Emberley on the decline of liberal education or an old George Grant essay on the multiversity instead.

The anthology does include the exciting poet and philosopher Jan Zwicky, but not her interesting stuff. She has written a hilarious stylistic parody of Heidegger, for example. Why not include it? She has two mind-opening works of philosophy, Lyric Philosophy and Wisdom and Metaphor. Why not include an excerpt? Does philosophy have to be pedestrian? Why can't it have the playfulness of a Derrida at his best?

There are some very good individual pieces in Agora, including Charles Taylor's engaging "Three Malaises" and Peter Loptson's insightful "Humanism and Its Role in the Contemporary World." Mark Kingwell's reflection on intimacy also stands out. Kingwell has a knack for being topical and timeless, playful and profound; he can chase you back to the Greeks or to Star Trek; he can reference The X-Files or Neil Postman; he can play a very culturally literate pop guru or a scholarly etymologist.

In "The Future of Intimacy," Kingwell informs us that our word "intimacy" derives from the Latin intimus, meaning inmost. "In this sense, 'intimate' captures the strange opacity of individual consciousness, that irreducible first-personal character of identity which at some level is impenetrable by anyone outside." English also has the verb "intimate" from the Latin intimare, which is pronounced differently from the noun and means to announce. "We intimate things and hope, thereby, to become intimate: to join our private lives together in the public space that lies between us, where meaning resides."

Kingwell thinks well, and writes well. His opening sentence would be the envy of any writer in the country: "There is a quality of early morning light in Vancouver that you don't find in the rest of the country, a Turneresque wash of greys and blues that suffuses English Bay in romantic obscurity and makes the nearby Coastal Range look like a pod of humpback whales moving out to sea with infinitesimal slowness." A little long perhaps, but very beautiful. Doesn't the best of philosophic writing all the way back to Plato's dialogues have an element of beauty? Doesn't George Grant remain an important Canadian philosopher as much for the elegance of his sentences as for the power of his thought? Can't a philosopher be a stylist?

I want to copy some Kingwell sentences into my notebook. This one, for example: "Our machines will always change, often in ways that technological cheerleaders will choose to call progress, but beneath the faster and better wiring, our longing for connection will remain the same." Maybe another definition of philosophy is that field in which thinkers and writers ask questions that don't go away. To steal a line from a philosophic poet, maybe philosophy's task is to make "news that stays news."

Trudy Govier is a new discovery for me. On the strength of her essays on kindness (a paean to the generous people of Gander, Newfoundland, and their quick reaction to grounded American airline passengers) and vulnerability (a diagnosis of North America's state of terror on September 11), I want to read more. She does what Parabola magazine does: she isolates a single idea and develops it in loving detail. She has interesting things to say in an appealing voice; she wears her learning lightly. On her post-September 11 reflections, for instance, she takes us back to Epictetus and the Stoics and reminds us that they too lived in dangerous, vulnerable times when acts of kindness made life a little easier.

If Govier is single-minded and concentrated, John Ralston Saul is multi-minded and diffuse. He writes perceptively about the concept of equilibrium (an excerpt from his book), but his ideas are often entangled in excessive reference and quotation. To move from Plato to Polanyi, Jean Moulin to Vico, Tarzan to Saint Francis, Abd El-Kader to Northrop Frye dazzles perhaps but also confounds. One desires a little more Saul and a little less everybody else. I appreciate his clear definition of philosophy, however: "Philosophy is a commentary on the nature of our existence and so on the qualities all of us share in some way."

The above gems give you an inkling of what this anthology might have been if the editors had been freer about whom they call philosopher and more open on what constitutes philosophic utterance. One can only imagine what an anthology by Jan Zwicky--or Trudy Govier--might look like. I suspect something much more interesting and provocative than what we have here. The public face of Canadian philosophy in the right mix of voices can be as strange and playful and wondrous as the best philosophy currently written in the world.

J.S. Porter is a reader of philosophy and literature. He is also author of Spirit Book Word: An Inquiry into Literature and Spirituality (Novalis, 2001).
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Title Annotation:In the Agora: The Public Face of Canadian Philosophy
Author:Porter, J.S.
Publication:Literary Review of Canada
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2006
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