restricted access Philosophy and the Canadian Public: Which Philosphy? Which Public? Why Canada?
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Philosophy and the Canadian Public:
Which Philosphy? Which Public? Why Canada?
In the Agora: The Public Face of Canadian Philosophy. Ed. Andrew D. Irvine and John S. Russell. Foreword by John Ralston Saul. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006. 352 pp. $79.00 (cloth). ISBN 978-0-8020-3895-1. 486 + xxvi pp. $35.95 (paper). ISBN 978-0-8020-3817-3.

When I began to read this book I hoped to like it. As a Canadian nationalist, as someone who has made philosophy her life, and as a believer in making academic writing available outside academia, I thought this anthology could play an important role in promoting the accessibility and appreciation of Canadian philosophy’s contributions beyond the university.

The book offers 96 articles, plus an introduction and a foreword. It is divided into 12 general sections, ranging from “Free Speech” and “The Contemporary World” to “Life and Death.” Most of the individual articles are brief—three or four pages in length—and most, though not all, are thought-provoking, without resorting to mind-numbing jargon or requiring a vast background in the history of philosophy. John Ralston Saul, who wrote the foreword, neatly describes the book as “thinking in public” (2006, xv). The book’s mandate is succinctly defined by its subtitle, The Public Face of Canadian Philosophy. In the Agora raises questions about what philosophy is, what makes some philosophy Canadian, and the nature of public philosophy. I will begin with the last of these, then proceed to the second and first.

Public Philosophy and Its Audience

When I tell people that I am a philosophy professor, I am often greeted with a groan: “Oh, I did so badly in first-year philosophy,” they say. They assure me that philosophy is highly abstract, remote from everyday life, and always quite difficult.

I regret that impression very much. My own view is that everyone, if not suffering from brain damage, can engage in philosophy. It is a quintessentially human activity to think about our existence, our place in the world, our obligations, and the nature of our knowledge. Even children philosophize, provided they [End Page 208] are not ignored or made fun of when they attempt to raise proto-philosophical questions.

Perhaps the negative impression of philosophy, of its distant and esoteric nature, is the result of philosophy’s failure, for at least the last century, to be sufficiently public. Philosophy needs to have a community face. As John Woods points out in his contribution to In the Agora, “citizens of Canada must be ready with opinions (not by any means final opinions) about overpopulation, poverty, and ecological stresses in general; about ideological strife, racial discord, and separatism; about a national energy policy, tax reform, and the shape of the nation’s economy; about the very structure of contemporary government itself; about life and death as devices of social policy; and about much else besides” (2006, 109).

Unfortunately, some topics one might expect in a book like In the Agora are missing. For example, it lacks much discussion of race, and there is no exploration of immigration policies or ethical and social policy issues related to Native peoples. These omissions are particularly odd given that the cover of the paperback version of the book is decorated with pictures of parts of the faces of six different visible minority persons. There is no section on sexuality issues (sexual identities, prostitution and other sex work, sex and marriage), and none on reproduction (pregnancy and birth, reproductive technologies, the treatment of premature infants), although there is an article on cloning. There is nothing on punishment, the use of torture, civil disobedience, peace-making, the role of the arts, or the place of business in society.

In the Agora includes papers by many of the usual suspects in public philosophy: Will Kymlicka, Arthur Schafer, Charles Taylor, John Ralston Saul, and Mark Kingwell. It also includes the work of philosophers such as Paul Churchland and Ian Hacking, who are well-known to philosophers but perhaps not household names outside the university.

What is surprising, however, is the very low representation of women. The anthology incorporates the work of only 5...


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