Wednesday, January 27, 2010

On Canadian intellectuals

One of the odder phenomena of the information age, if you think about it, is the public intellectual. Prior to the twentieth century, of course, many thinkers could gain a large public audience - one thinks of Kant, whose lectures at Königsberg were immensely popular and whose published writings attracted substantial interest in his lifetime - but the limitations of technology prevented them from achieving anything like the public cachet of a Foucault or a McLuhan. A public intellectual, in other words, needs an advanced information culture to distribute his ideas - access to mass publishing houses, to periodicals with large circulations, and to radio and television.

Yet at the same time, modern culture tends to be corrosive of the sort of broad-based learning required by the public intellectual. An advanced technological society, after all, requires a wide array of specialist-technicians in order to function properly - but specialist knowledge in itself is of no interest to an audience outside the field. A thinker doesn't find an audience simply by regurgitating information, but by placing it within a framework of values and ideals, a framework which is inevitably philosophical or theological. A specialist-technician with a particular talent for interpretation - a Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Jared Diamond, or Michael Pollan - may of course have an important role to play in popularizing his subject, but one would never go to them for advice on a political or moral dilemma. When such a person tries to overreach the bounds of his expertise, as in the recent work of Richard Dawkins, the result is an embarrassing train wreck. Specialist expertise is important, indeed essential, but can never explain the most important things in life.

The paradox of the public intellectual, then, is the combination of up-to-the-minute technology and the ancient tradition of liberal learning. In an educational system that alternately jams pupils full of facts like stuffed squash and encourages them to regard their uninformed prejudices as sacrosanct, the public intellectual tries to engage the life of the mind with the real world around around us, exemplifying the classical ideal of education as something that transforms the whole person. Such a thinker can have a transformative effect on society either for good or for ill, depending on your perspective; both C. S. Lewis and Bertrand Russell were prominent public intellectuals in midcentury Britain, but to accept the philosophy of one is to decisively reject the other.

Figures of this sort seem to come and go in waves. G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc carved out a substantial place for themselves in turn-of-the-century Britain, with a couple of hundred books between the two of them and the combined energy and fortitude of several steam locomotives; George Bernard Shaw, meanwhile, was carving out his own inimitable place in intellectual history. The culture of France was changed forever by such thinkers as Sartre, de Beavoir, Foucault, Derrida, Lévi-Strauss, and Aron, all of whom were highly visible during the 1960s. No Canadian thinkers are quite this famous, but a group of midcentury Toronto academics came the closest, led by Marshall McLuhan.

McLuhan's media theories are subtle and complex. They were never very well understood by his critics, and even less so by his supporters, who tried to turn a conservative Roman Catholic English professor into an Age of Aquarius prophet. He now enjoys the unenviable fate of being criticized both by contemporary media theorists, who see his ideas as old-fashioned, and by conservative social critics, who see him as a symbol of everything that was wrong with the '60s. (Neither group, of course, has actually read his work.) Usually lumped together with McLuhan, for no apparent reason, is the literary theorist Northrop Frye. Frye's project in his famous Anatomy of Criticism, once a standard textbook, is nothing less than a taxonomy of all literary genres, showing how all stories reflect certain narrative patterns and tropes that relate to the patterns of mythology. This approach is now condemned as ahistorical and prescriptivist and whatever, but it's hard not to be convinced by Frye's elegant writing style and encyclopedic knowledge of English literature. His The Educated Imagination, an infinitely wise, pocket-sized love letter to the art of fiction, is too little known; I read it almost every year.

Needless to say, I think McLuhan and Frye are due for reevaluation. But some of their contemporaries have fallen even further from the public eye. Harold Innis, a formative influence on McLuhan, was probably one of the most important figures in Canadian academic history; he shares his colleague's fascination with technology and communications, but not his maddeningly elusive writing style. And the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies brought a number of philosophers to Canada who deserve acknowledgment among a wider audience than us antiquarian recusants - notably Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson.

But I'd like to make a special case for George Grant, a writer I've recently unearthed. For many years a philosophy professor at McMaster, Grant's writings critique technological modernity from a conservative standpoint. (By "conservatism", of course, I don't mean today's individualist, free-market nonsense, but the defence of legitimate particularity against the abstract rationalism of modernity.) Grant was arguably the last true conservative to have any influence in Canadian politics, as all three of the major Canadian political parties now cooperate in Canada's ongoing economic and cultural integration with the United States. Grant's work will never be popular - his writing style is too starchy, and his tone too pessimistic, to appeal to a mass public - but for those who are intrigued by his ideas, Grant provides much that is remarkably prescient, and much that will reward careful study.

Expect more on this as I work through more of Grant's work. Agree with them or not, Grant and his contemporaries are important figures in Canadian history, and if we ignore them it is only to our loss.


M. Jordan Lichens said...

Very interesting post! I also appreciated your analysis of a public intellectual and technology.

As for Canadian public intellectuals, might I suggest reading philosopher Charles Taylor? His books are nothing short of remarkable and he's already garnering attention in many philosophical circles, especially with his latest book on Secularism. Personally, I found his book Sources of the Self to be a landmark book in the field. Cheers!

Osbert Parsley said...

Taylor is, of course, terrific. Sources of the Self is still on my to-read list, but I very much enjoyed his The Malaise of Modernity, which deals with some similar themes. I left him out of this post mostly because he's a different generation than Grant, McLuhan, Frye, et al. Any list of more current Canadian public intellectuals would also need to include people like John Ralston Saul, Mark Kingwell, and the late Jane Jacobs - and probably other I'm forgetting.

cburrell said...

I have George Grant's Lament for a Nation on my to-read shelf. This post gives me some encouragement to try to get to it sooner rather than later.