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Reviewed by:
  • In the Agora: The Public Face of Canadian Philosophy
  • Anthony Skelton (bio)
Andrew D. Irvine and John S. Russell, editors. In the Agora: The Public Face of Canadian Philosophy. University of Toronto Press. 2006. 352. €39.95

In the Agora: The Public Face of Canadian Philosophy is a collection of essays written by Canadian philosophers addressing issues of social and political importance. It contains many compelling and readable contributions by some of Canada's most influential academic philosophers, including Charles Taylor, Ian Hacking, Susan Sherwin, and Will Kymlicka. It exhibits the power and utility of applying philosophical thinking to pressing practical problems.

The anthology is divided into twelve chapters, each of which is devoted to a particular topic. These are science and the environment; mind, intelligence, and the new technologies; education and culture; the contemporary world; authority and the individual; free speech; reverse discrimination; life and death; national unity; 9/11 and after; happiness and morality; and the changing university. This review discusses articles in chapters 3, 6, and 8, some of which seem to represent the best in philosophical thinking on hard but enduring social issues.

The essays in 'Education and Culture' share a deep commitment to the value of a liberal education. Each in its own way makes a unique case. Of note is John Woods's contribution in which he argues that what makes an education liberal is its freedom from religious dogmatism and political interference in the curriculum. Its benefits are many and various. However, among the most important are 'literacy and articulateness, acumen and discernment, sensitivity and judgement and exposure to the best that has been written and thought.' The chapter entitled 'Free Speech' contains two excellent articles by John Dixon, in which he defends a liberal view of freedom of expression. In the context of his defence of pornography he discusses the importance of women's voices to the fight against censorship. He is right. But it is a pity that this [End Page 244] section did not let women speak for themselves and that the editors did not include articles by Canadian feminist philosophers advocating more and less friendly attitudes to pornography and hate speech. This would have helped the reader see the contours of the debate about free speech more clearly and more philosophically.

The chapter 'Life and Death' also contains some first-rate contributions. The articles by Susan Sherwin on feminism and cancer treatment, Arthur Schafer on the ethics of the use of human embryonic stem cells in medical research, and Eike-Henner W. Kluge on children and informed consent stand out as noteworthy. The power of these pieces lies in the fact that they employ philosophical tools to facilitate our understanding and critical evaluation of public policies regulating the matters under discussion, thereby demonstrating the important practical results that flow from keen philosophical analysis. The chapter's other contributions are good, but most lack this sort of close engagement with public policies. The editors could have selected pieces more closely focussed on Canadian policy, especially on the issue of abortion, a matter about which several good Canadian philosophers have written (including Sherwin).

A majority of contributions to this volume were previously published in periodicals and newspapers, such as Scientific American, the Globe and Mail, and the Winnipeg Free Press. A smaller number of articles have been excerpted from academic monographs or journal articles written for scholarly audiences, and still others were commissioned for the volume. This approach provided the editors with considerable latitude as to whom they could draw on and which topics they could have addressed. It is unfortunate that they did not use these mechanisms to produce a volume containing a greater number of women (of the thirty-seven authors, only five are women) and an ethnically more diverse set of authors. This is difficult to do in philosophy, which has attracted fewer women and minorities than it ought to. It is nonetheless a shame that the only ethnically diverse element of this book is the ethnic-looking faces on its rather striking cover. One should not judge this book by its cover. Or perhaps one should!

Anthony Skelton

Anthony Skelton, Department of Philosophy, University of...


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pp. 244-245
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