- Northern Spirits: John Watson, George Grant, and Charles Taylor: Appropriations of Hegelian Political Thought
Northern Spirits is a set of reflections on various stages, both historical and present, of Canada's self-conception seen through the eyes of three of its most important thinkers. Given our national proclivity for navelgazing that often trots out the same platitudes about 'the Canadian identity,' Robert Sibley, a senior writer at the Ottawa Citizen, has provided us with a welcome addition to the discourse that enriches it by giving it temporal depth.
The objective of the book is to explore how three Canadian thinkers have drawn on Hegel's thought in working out both their descriptive [End Page 398] and normative ideas about their country. To lay the groundwork for his study, Sibley opens the book with a summary of Hegel, whose ambition is belied by its brevity - trying to cover the essential points in the Phenomenology of Spirit and the Philosophy of Right in twenty pages is a recipe for obscurity that would give Hegel a run for his money. Which is not to say it is impossible; but in peppering his discussion with citations from a panoply of secondary sources, Sibley fails to provide the reader with what is necessary for this kind of summary to be coherent: one based on his own assimilation of Hegel's thought.
The main sections of the book consist of three successive studies of John Watson, George Grant, and Charles Taylor. Sibley begins with Watson, a professor of philosophy at Queen's University from 1872 to 1924, whose 1919 treatise, The State in Peace and War, Sibley reconstructs and analyzes over the course of several chapters. There is scant secondary literature on Watson, so Sibley's study is beneficial. He shows how Watson's overarching concern was the nature of the relationship of individual and community. Self-interest was a dangerous basis for individual rights or public life for Watson; only an organic community (Hegel's Sittlichkeit is the model here) can ground them if fragmentation is to be avoided. Watson's book, both in its style and in many of its interpretations of figures in the history of philosophy, is quaintly Victorian. Some kind of historical corrective, therefore, has to be part of any treatment of his ideas; but in reading Sibley, one gets the impression that he is learning about Plato and Aristotle from Watson himself. (This is in fact the most serious shortcoming of the book: for a scholarly book of political philosophy, Sibley does not demonstrate the kind of intellectual background necessary for subjecting his three authors to sufficient philosophical scrutiny.)
Sibley's discussion of George Grant is largely based on Lament for a Nation and Philosophy in a Mass Age. Sibley recounts how Grant ultimately came to reject Hegel and his notion of historical progress in favour of a more Platonic conception of human beings' relationship to an unchanging cosmic order that serves as an ultimate standard of moral judgment. Sibley gives a detailed and fascinating discussion of the theological underpinnings - (historical) necessity and goodness cannot be identified as in Hegel - of Grant's mourning of the supposedly inevitable selling out of Canada by Lester B. Pearson and the Liberals to individualistic American capitalism and the concomitant loss of Canada's unique identity ('British traditions'), which had until then resisted the call of Mammon.
Sibley strangely subjects Watson's and Grant's ideas, and especially the latter's reading of Hegel, to precious little criticism. Charles Taylor, however, doesn't get off so lightly. Sibley does spend many pages reconstructing Taylor's historical account of the Western identity, his concepts of 'expressivism' and 'authenticity,' and his arguments for the importance [End Page 399] of cultural recognition. But Sibley consistently mischaracterizes some of Taylor's central ideas by failing to do justice to the full complexity of his thought. I can consider only one such example here. In several of his writings Taylor has tried to show how we inescapably become...