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Monday, April 1, 2002

REMEMBRANCE OF THOUGHTS PAST Canadian Thinkers Victorian, Tory and Grumpy

April 1, 2002,  Books in Canada

A Disciplined Intelligence:
Critical Inquiry and Canadian Thought in the Victorian Era
A. B. McKillop
McGill-Queen's University Press
ISBN: 0-7735-2141-0

Canadian Intellectuals, the Tory Tradition,
and the Challenge of Modernity, 1939-1970
Philip Massolin
University of Toronto Press
ISBN: 0-8020-3509-4

Intellectual history demands a precise grasp of the ideas under study and their development and a judicious assessment of the extent to which they reflect or influence their times. A clear focus is essential or intellectual history becomes a blur.

Ideas can have a history of their own. The deepest and most important thinking may be eccentric and marginal in its time. Its influence may come generations later. Its importance may be its truth rather than its representativeness. The ideas that hold sway at any particular time may be commonplaces best found in the popular media or political speeches. What intellectuals write may be of secondary importance. In Canada intellectuals have seldom been a major influence. Even when they were famous - perhaps Marshall McLuhan was the most famous - their significance was more as objects of national pride than in any impact on the life of the country.

These two books open doors onto Canadian thinking in two periods in the past. They fail to shed much light on it.

Brian McKillop's A Disciplined Intelligence is a seminal work. First published in 1979 it is now reissued with a new introduction and an updated bibliography. At the time McKillop was working on the thesis that became the book Carl Berger's The Sense of Power: Studies in the Ideas of Canadian Imperialism 1867-1914 (University of Toronto Press, 1970) was practically the only book on the Canadian intellectual history shelf. It is still perhaps the best. In his new introduction and bibliography McKillop is able to note upwards of a dozen later books in the field, many directly influenced by him.

McKillop deals with little more than a handful of thinkers in Protestant English Canada from roughly 1850 to 1920. Most were philosophy professors. They were often also clergymen or scientists or both. By the 1860's they were wrestling with the impact of Darwin. Before that they seemed to have found a happy orthodoxy combining Protestant theology, Scottish Common Sense Philosophy and William Paley's argument from design, under which every new scientific discovery could be taken as fresh evidence of God's ingenuity and benevolence.

It is well to be reminded, when all public education is atheist, that English Canada's universities at their foundation were all Christian establishments. Their faculty were practically all British educated, if not British born, and very often Scottish. Scottish Common Sense Philosophy, though now reduced in the history of philosophy to a minor school, was big in Britain.

McKillop disparages it as little more than an ideology convenient for its compatibility with Christian theology. He finds it guilty of dualism, as if this were an elementary error now behind us. Dualism is a perennial problem of philosophy. Many philosophers who claim to overcome it have been accused of lapsing into it. Others who are expressly dualist accommodate it in ways that seem to transcend it.

McKillop gives the impression that universities were in the grip of a stifling dogmatism like that of dialectical materialism in the old Soviet Bloc. One would not suspect from McKillop that undergraduates at King's College in Toronto in the 1840's were required to study Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, condemned by the Common Sense school as a wrong turning.

19th century students were not free to pick and choose their courses as students do now. They got prescribed doses of Christianity and philosophy. Philosophy was probably more important to the tiny minority of young people who went to university then than it is to the host of young people who go to university now, among whom an even tinier minority study philosophy. But 19th century students also studied Classics, English and European literature, history, mathematics and the sciences. Compared to today's conventional mix of political correctness, trendy reading and lip service to critical thinking it was probably quite a broadening curriculum.

McKillop never studied philosophy, put off he says by a University of Manitoba department interested only in Wittgenstein and A. J. Ayer. For a book catalogued under "philosophy" this might be a bit of a handicap. But A Disciplined Intelligence is not a work of philosophy even if most of its subjects taught philosophy. Its treatment of Common Sense Philosophy and Hegelian idealism as transmitted by Edward Caird of Glasgow University to John Watson and expounded by him for fifty years at Queen's University is superficial. A little training in the precision and clarity of analytic philosophy might have helped McKillop to bring the thought of his subjects into better focus.

In a long review in Canadian Historical Review (June 1999) McKillop was harshly critical of Jack Granatstein's Who Killed Canadian History? (Harper-Collins, 1998). He fairly argued that there is more to Canadian history than politics and war. But if history is to include conditions of domestic service and academic writing in Victorian Canada it must still make the connection between these fields and the life of the country. Rather obscurely the thought McKillop chronicles finally issued in the Social Gospel, whose impact on the life of Canadians in the early 20th century was important. But until that development the place of Victorian thought in the life of the country is not explained.

In neither of these books is it supposed that the ideas treated might have any value in themselves. They are simply expressions of attitudes and interests that rise up and fade away and can have now only a kind of archaeological interest. For McKillop the ideas of his subjects are simply the period attire of a continuing struggle to "to reach a modus vivendi between intellectual inquiry and conventional wisdom, between individual autonomy and the social good, between the myth of freedom and the myth of concern.". The last antithesis is a patriotic borrowing of language of Northrop Frye, which may have been useful in his own writing but only adds to the vagueness of McKillop's.

A source frequently relied on by McKillop is university addresses consisting of edifying platitudes. Anyone who tried to understand what goes on in universities today by reading the addresses of university presidents would be in deep trouble.

The title of Philip Massolin's Canadian Intellectuals, the Tory Tradition, and the Challenge of Modernity, 1939-1970 promises a more precise subject and a more carefully circumscribed period. There is a particular Canadian Tory tradition and it has had some significant intellectual exponents. Unfortunately it is a poor book, reworking a particularly pedestrian thesis. It is largely clumsy paraphrases of a disparate selection of writers who are united not in being Tory but in being grumpy. The platitudinous moaning about the decline of culture and civilisation is tediously repetitive. The same quotations recur in different chapters. Massolin writes badly and pretentiously. He is almost comically fond of the verb "aver". There is quite a lot of mundane university history, the amounts of government grants, the political troubles of Frank Underhill, no Tory he.

Of the writers dealt with only Donald Creighton, W. L. Morton and George P. Grant can surely be called Tory. Harold Innis shared some of his great friend Creighton's ideas but his important writings are too idiosyncratic to bear any label. Northrop Frye was occasionally grumpy about developments in the university but never a Tory. Marshall McLuhan still less. He ended up a kind of post-modern guru. And what are Walter Lippman and Malcolm Muggeridge doing in a book about the Tory tradition in Canada?

Massolin advances only two doubtful ideas of his own and then simply pronounces the Tory Tradition dead. He suggests that the grumpiness he reports was simply an interested reaction of arts professors to declining relative salaries and prestige in the period he covers. He does not make out the case that there was such a decline. He could not explain by it anything specifically Tory when liberal and left-wing academics were in the same boat. Moreover, declining salaries and prestige hardly affected Vincent Massey, who is extensively quoted.

He is on to something when he describes the co-option of the Tory nationalist tradition by the left in the 1960's and after. But he misses a key part of the phenomenon. It is itself an American influence, the overflow of young America's reaction against its country in the 1960's. Often American immigrants were the carriers of the new nationalism.

The Tories Massolin describes are all dead. The Tory Tradition is not dead. It is simply obscured, as it has been for eighty years, under the Liberal hegemony.

The productivity of Canada's university presses is a mixed blessing. Massolin's book will be an obstacle in the way of graduate students required to read the literature. McKillop's book succeeds in exposing some of the forgotten thinking of Victorian Canada. But McKillop's best service has probably been in republishing some of the writings of William Dawson LeSueur in A Critical Spirit: The Thought of William Dawson LeSueur (McLelland And Stewart, 1972). We should do best to dig out what these people wrote and read them ourselves with an open mind, believing their ideas still have something to teach us. History is not progress. Dusty tomes from the 19th century have far better to offer us than John Ralston Saul and Michael Ignatieff, both commended by McKillop in his introduction.

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