restricted access Once upon a Time in the West: The Making of the Western Canadian Philosophical Association 1963-2004 (review)
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Reviewed by
Béla Szabados. Once upon a Time in the West: The Making of the Western Canadian Philosophical Association, 1963–2004 Academic Printing and Publishing. x, 146. $18.95

At the close of the meetings of the Canadian Philosophical Association (CPA) at Laval University in June 1963, a small group of philosophers teaching at universities in Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan met for drinks in the hotel room of Professor Terence Penelhum to compare their reactions to the sessions that had just finished. They agreed that the sessions they had attended had been disappointing. There had been no real discussion of the issues raised by the speakers, largely because the [End Page 611] structure of the sessions, with a chairman, a formal paper, an equally formal commentary, and then a period in which the chairman took questions and comments from the audience, stifled lively discussion. They resolved to arrange for meetings in their geographical area which would avoid these defects. Thus was born the Western Philosophical Colloquium; in 1969 it was renamed the Western Canadian Philosophical Association (WCPA). It is important to note that this association is not a branch of the CPA, the national organization founded five years earlier. It is entirely independent. A curious feature of the WCPA is that its members are the various departments of philosophy in the western provinces and not individual philosophers. The reason for this, we are told, has to do with applications to various official bodies for funding.

The author elects to tell the story by soliciting letters from many of those who have been active in the WCPA. He began his research by asking those who were at the founding meeting at Laval for their recollections and then expanded his list to include several others with long memories of the annual meetings. All of these letters – five from the founders and ten from senior participants – are reproduced in full, including the salutation and complimentary closings. He then recounts the story of the organization drawing on these letters and adds his own recollections. This way of structuring the book leads to a good deal of repetition, even though this part of the book is short: it occupies only sixty-one pages. Tucked in on unnumbered pages are portraits of eight important members of the WCPA. The rest of the volume includes biographical sketches of several of the participants, a list of all the meeting places, a list of all the invited speakers, and finally, reproductions of all of the programs from 1964 through 2004. These programs are just reprints of those handed out at the meetings, giving times, titles of talks, speakers' names and university affiliation. In later ones the names of commentators are included. The seventy-three pages devoted to programs might have been better used to flesh out the earlier very abbreviated history.

Perhaps the most important point made in this little volume is that all scholarly organizations tend to develop in the same way. The first few meetings of the WCPA deliberately tried to avoid the pitfalls the founders had seen in the CPA meetings. Instead of reading papers a participant would get up and propose some topic for discussion and all those present would vie with one another to get their points across. It was a free-for-all, with no director to ensure fairness. Organizers even went to the length of listing topics for discussion with no one listed to open the talk. But within a very few years people started to come with written papers, which they read before discussion was allowed. Then it was found necessary to appoint chairs to keep order, and then, of course, to expand participation, the next step was to appoint commentators ahead of time. The last step was to institute blind reviewing to determine which papers were worthy of [End Page 612] inclusion on the association's program. In short, the WCPA evolved into a smaller version of the CPA. The printed programs document this evolution.

John G. Slater

John G. Slater, Department of Philosophy, University of Toronto