Canada’s Hegel

I.

Five years ago, a New York law journal sponsored a symposium on Hegel and law. Charles Taylor, the Montreal philosopher, gave the keynote address. Taylor argued that liberal theory needs to be supplemented with a communitarian view, inspired by Hegel’s political philosophy. Reviewing an edited version of the symposium, Hegel and Legal Theory, a British academic complained that nearly every contributor doffed a cap toward Taylor’s position. “One begins to get the impression,” the reviewer wrote bitterly, “that the German was somehow the author of a book on the Canadian philosopher, rather than the other way around.”

G.W.F. Hegel, who died in 1831, was last in the great line of German idealists which included Fichte, Kant, and Schelling. For reasons I want to explore in this essay, Hegel also looms large in Canada. Certain broad Hegelian principles are perennial in the northern landscape. Some are actually founded in the commonsense tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment—that “Hotbed of Genius” that followed that Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707, and reached its peak from 1730 to 1790. Scottish thinkers like David Hume, Adam Smith, and Sir James Steuart had a defining impact on Hegel. They and their descendents also left “a mysterious element of Scottishness in the Canadian psyche.” The strength of that tradition is affirmed by a well-known Caledonian immigrant, who, incidentally, has made her own contribution to it. Arriving in Renfrew, Ontario in 1949, former Supreme Court Justice Bertha Wilson “felt that the country to which I had come was more Scottish than the one I left behind!”

Thanks to the Scottish influence, belief in community and in the identity of language and action are key features of Hegel’s thought—and of Canadian intellectual life. Perhaps Hegel’s influence is to be expected in a nation where communication comes just below cleanliness as a unique mode of access to the heavenly kingdom. We would sooner talk on a cellular phone than fight.

For Hegel, freedom and equality are primary achievements of states rather than markets—Adam Smith notwithstanding, another Scottish borrowing. This view suits a nation that favours “peace, order, and good government” over the U.S. credo, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Here, motorcycle riders are required to wear helmets, and motorists must fasten their seatbelts. If injured, they can expect state-provided medical care. In many U.S. states, motorcyclists can let their hair blow in the wind, and car occupants need not buckle up. But the government will not be there for them if they get squashed in an accident.

So far as I am aware, no observer of Canadian politics has remarked on the close resemblance between John Diefenbaker’s scowling visage and the beaked head of Hegel’s famed Owl of Minerva, which flies only at dusk. But if George Grant was right in his 1960s classic, Lament for a Nation, Diefenbaker’s owl signalled oncoming gloom for Canadian nationalism, at least in its Tory version.

By contrast, ex-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s unconscious fealty to Hegelian precepts is well-known. In Pledge of Allegiance: the Americanization of Canada in the Mulroney Years, for example, Lawrence Martin quotes David Crombie along these lines. The tiny perfect Toronto waterfront czar remarked that Brian Mulroney “wears the clothes of the day, and that’s not necessarily such a bad thing for a politician. There’s a line from Hegel about the wind of God in the trees. You catch it and hang on. So what he saw was Thatcher and Reagan as heroes of the day. And I have a feeling that if fishermen got to the head of the line tomorrow, Mulroney would have rubber boots on. And I don’t mean that in a phoney way.”

Thankfully, Hegel’s wind of God has blown Mulroney out of Sussex Drive, but the German philosopher remains in place; and tempting as it is to dismiss Charles Taylor’s international reputation as a singular anomaly, Canuck thinkers with a special interest in Hegel have reached a world audience many times in the last century. This forms a key argument in Leslie Armour’s and Elizabeth Trott’s powerful history of Canadian thought,The Faces of Reason. Interestingly, Taylor’s reputation in the cloudy empyrean of Hegel studies is easily eclipsed by Toronto’s (and Victoria’s) Henry S. Harris, Hegel’s biographer, and matched by Emile Fackenheim, a Toronto philosopher now retired in Israel.

Proportionately, Canada may produce more original work on Hegel than any other nation. And this is not only due to the Big Three: Harris, Taylor and Fackenheim. Pioneering feminist renderings of Hegel such as The Politics of Reproduction by Mary O’Brien and the article “Hegel and ‘The Woman Question': Recognition and Intersubjectivity” by Patricia Mills are legendary. University of Washington scholar John Toews, who wrote the key study of Hegelianism and won a MacArthur Prize in the bargain, seems to be an exception to the Canuck rule; but it turns out he hails from Mennonite country in Manitoba. Still, perhaps country and western great, “Stompin'” Tom Connors, would be skeptical of the latter two entrants. As he said of Hank Snow, “What’s the use of being a Canadian if you don’t live here?”

Hegel’s thought is primarily about self-consciousness and the politics of recognition. A people so sensitive about these issues could do no better than embrace his lesson that the dialectic of master and slave leads to freedom for the underdog. In Canada, Hegel’s master-slave contest becomes a series of spiritual wrestling matches with colonial masters, from France to Britain to the United States. It speaks to French-Canada’s striving for language and culture, and illuminates the contemporary struggle of native peoples and Canadian workers against an arrogant and distracted ruling class in love with Wall Street.

The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel’s best-known work, is about the ascent of consciousness to self-discovery, a journey fueled by conflict and contradiction. Many have noted the startling reversals and incomprehensible plot twists in Hegel’s masterpiece. Not the least of these, as Carleton political scientist Tom Darby has shown in his book The Feast, is that consciousness is a combination of female and male, an androgyne. Canada’s thirty-year battle to create a constitution may be the closest national parallel to the complicated voyage of the Phenomenology. Undoubtedly, as a romance of national consciousness, complete with midnight faxes, gorgeous scenery, and nefarious characters, nothing could equal Deborah Coyne’s rivetting Roll of the Dice: Working with Clyde Wells during the Meech Lake Negotiations. Absent from Coyne’s text, Hegel’s spirit is never far away.

Writing before Meech Lake, American philosopher Hugh McCumber speculated that the “unparallelled … flowering of Hegelian thought” in Canada might be due to an opening of the two solitudes that have defined the Canadian psyche. Certainly, Hegelians may be found on either side of the English-Canadian reaction to the Meech fiasco. One such is Calgary political scientist Barry Cooper, who pronounced The End of History almost a decade before the U.S. celebrity-scholar Francis Fukuyama. A right-Hegelian influenced by the Russian-French philosopher Kojève, Cooper has bidden “good-bye and good luck” to Quebec (shorn of its northern territories and the south bank of the St. Lawrence) in Deconfederation: Canada without Quebec. He and co-author David Bercuson would unload Crombie’s Toronto Harbourfront domain to private investors for $100 million. Their vision of Canada is the ultimate deficit-cutting device: auction a province.

Charles Taylor, by contrast, plugs away at the left-Hegelian position, in which recognition of the collective rights of Québécois nationalists would help “to build a new country … a more decentralized Canada.” In Taylor’s vision—outlined in Reconciling the Two Solitudes, which anticipated the Charlottetown Agreement—Quebec would have “powers over labour, communications, agriculture and fisheries” among others. Naturally, Canada would sheepishly continue to lard the Quebec pork barrel, or, as the Montreal philosopher delicately puts it, maintain “a system of equalization between the regions.” With the Bloc Québécois now the Official Opposition this Hegelian vision is beginning to look like reality.

Taylor’s NDP challenge to Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s 1965 run in Mount Royal may not have been a world-historical event, but in Canadian terms it must rank with Hegel’s sighting of Napoleon on horseback after the French defeated Prussia at the 1806 battle of Jena. “I saw the Emperor,” Hegel wrote to a friend at the time. “I saw the Emperor—this world-soul—riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, reaches out over the world and masters it.” P.E. Trudeau never conquered the world, but he did bring down the “master black-mailers'” Charlottetown Agreement with a brief talk after a Chinese dinner in Montreal. At least, so argues John F. Conway in his splendid left-Hegelian account of Canadian constitutional history, Debts to Pay: English Canada and Quebec from the Conquest to the Referendum.

Incidentally, the Meech-Charlottetown imbroglio led to some strange reversals. In a 1970s piece (republished in Reconciling the Two Solitudes: Essays on Canadian Federalism and Nationalism), for example, Charles Taylor dismissed “Trudeaumania” as an American copycat operation, more form than substance. Trudeau would never “rattle the teacups” of the establishment, the philosopher claimed. Twenty years later Taylor would accept the invitation of the Business Council for National Issues to trash “Meech rejectors” and other wayward souls while Trudeau’s principled opposition to the Meech-Charlottetown garroting of Canada would upset the teacups of bankers and corporate leaders across the country. A disciple of British idealist T. H. Green, Trudeau may actually be Canada’s best Hegelian, as we shall see below.

In any event, Hegelianism and the national question go together. Germany in Hegel’s time was awash with constitutional issues, and, like our own constitutional sages, he submitted a few solutions of his own. Germany was not a united country but a collection of many independent states. Hegel’s move to Berlin in 1818 reflected the magnetic force of Prussia, which was soon to pull together the German nation; despite the popular myth, however, he was never a fan of the Prussian monarchy. His last work, a powerful analysis of electoral changes in the 1831 English Reform Bill, was banned in part by the Kaiser.

II.

Hegel is often misrepresented as a lover of big government, a philosopher with “a tendency to fetishize the state,” as Philip Resnick suggests in his otherwise valuable The Masks of Proteus: Canadian Reflections on the State. But recent research has established Hegel’s deep commitment to individual rights. This scholarship has revived the concepts of British idealism, and especially those of the Canadian, John Watson, who loomed large in Anglo-American thought at the turn of the century. Watson was the first to claim that Canada was Hegel’s true home, since the Germans had long since abandoned his philosophy.

In Hegel’s perspective, the locus of individual right is found in the right to property; a conjunction also insisted upon by C.B. Macpherson, who noted inThe Rise and Fall of Economic Justice, that the original meaning of property referred to “a property in one’s person, one’s life and liberty, as well as one’s worldly goods.”

Hegel’s individual, unlike John Locke’s, is profoundly social. Her destiny lies not just in the competitive marketplace, but also in the overarching reality of the state, on one hand, and the personal fulfilment of family life, on the other. As Leslie Armour declares in The Idea of Canada and the Crisis of Community, the foremost Canadian philosophers have similarly emphasized the notion of community whenever they spoke of individuals; and the concept of community itself is usually seen by them in pluralistic terms.

Hegel’s conception of the individual provides plenty of room for collective goals, and thus validates Charles Taylor’s model of a decentralized Canada (as well as Trudeau’s bilingualism project). Yet, Taylor’s understanding of recognition, the centrepoint of Hegelian individualism, is peculiarly lacking in the social element Hegel insisted upon. For Taylor—who seems unaware of a similar argument by Canadian expatriate sociologist, Erving Goffman—recognition boils down to the simple human need each of us has to be acknowledged by another. Thus, you feel affronted if someone fails to return a greeting you offer on the street. On a larger scale, says Taylor, this explains Quebec’s anger when the rest of Canada rejected the “distinct society” clause in the Meech Lake accord, and, as a result, refused recognition to the Quebec nation.

Taylor submits that the need for recognition is misunderstood by feminists, black activists, and others, as the illegitimate exercise of power—as exploitation and coercion—on the part of those who withhold recognition. A simple need for tolerance of diversity is transformed, he says, into a struggle for justice. As I understand it, however, Hegel’s point is that withdrawal of recognition amounts to precisely an act of violence, of exploitation. The master’s failure to recognize the slave is not simply a denial of diversity, any more than our eating of an apple is grounded in some cosmic lack of shared values between human and fruit. The person who is unrecognized does not exist for the other as human, and this facilitates an entire social mechanism of exploitation and violence. For Hegel, the capitalist marketplace—in which the worker’s right to a job, property, good health, and a decent future for her family are constantly in jeopardy—is primarily a mechanism of non-recognition, of exploitation.

Something like this was Trudeau’s message in the famous Maison Egg Roll speech in Montreal, “A Mess that Deserves a Big NO.” The Charlottetown Consensus meant more than open acceptance of the French fact, Trudeau warned. It also proposed withdrawal of recognition, of democratic rights, from particular groups of individuals, and a hierarchy of rights for others. Dismantling federal power meant exposing each citizen to corporate tyranny. “When each citizen is not equal to all other citizens in a state, we are faced with a dictatorship, which arranges citizens in a hierarchy according to their beliefs. And when a person lives under the reign of unbridled capitalism, it is not sharing and justice that prevail, but rather the law of supply and demand. The implacable market decides how wealth is distributed.”

A vital part of the connection between Hegel and Canada may be our underdog status relative to the United States. In many ways, this was also the relation of Germany to England in the mid-nineteenth century—not to mention that between Scotland and England as well. “Why,” ask Armour and Trott, “should we find our Kants and Hegels on the fringe of European civilization and not in Paris, Rome, or London?” Canada’s marginality, says Charles Taylor, brings with it a tendency to look for universal truth outside our borders. “We then think of ourselves as provincials chasing after magic recipes concocted in major centres.” The situation was similar in Hegel’s Germany.

The Germans envied and admired their English cousins. The stability of the British crown under monarchs of German descent, and the unrivalled prominence of the English aristocracy were objects of German wonder. Hegel’s contemporaries were enthralled by the English free market system, and the lively democracy that accompanied it. Thus, it was impossible for Hegel to develop a theory of modern society that did not take into account the English experience. As a result, his political theory was elaborated at second hand; more than anything else, Hegel was a discerning observer of the English scene. Marx’s own fascination with the English experience, as documented in Capital , was precisely a product of Hegel’s influence.

The significance for the Canadian connection is that Hegel was constructing a model for an ideal government against the backdrop of England’s rampant civil society. In the same way, I think Canadian scholars are creating a vision of the ideal society that takes into account the experience of Canada’s noisy southern neighbour. Since Hegel’s time, world economic and cultural leadership has swung across the Atlantic from England to the United States. This has given Canada an excellent vantage point from which to view the activities of the latest world-historical nation. Granted, however, that the distancing effect of language and the English Channel for Hegel’s Germany is not available to Anglo-Canadians, who have only a porous border—the longest in the world—and the highly dubious comfort of the North American Free Trade Agreement, to protect us from our American cousins.

Like Hegel 150 years ago, most Canadians see America still as “the land of the future.” Yet we are more skeptical than Europeans about the American dream, a skepticism shared by the German philosopher. Protection of private property, relative immunity from public service, commercial profit and gain are the main themes of life in the U.S.A., Hegel wrote. On one hand, the Protestant religion provided the American people with general confidence and trust in others, and focused their efforts on the world of work. On the other, respect for law in this violent society was merely formal; and since Protestantism exalted mere feeling as the most important element of faith, the result was a multitude of sects. These factors, Hegel observed, have produced “unseemly varieties of caprice” in the national character.

Trudeau said that living next to the United States was like sleeping with an elephant. He might have added, with Hegel, that this was an elephant with a personality problem. “The … principle [of] America,” Hegel mused, is “incompleteness or constant non-fulfilment.” Sharing a bed with an unfulfilled elephant has its own terrors, as a series of Canadian prime ministers, from Diefenbaker to Mulroney, have learned to their cost.

III.

Linda Hutcheon, in Splitting Images: Contemporary Canadian Ironies, observes that irony underlies the English-Canadian pysche, and is a unique feature of Canadian art and literature. She expressly excludes romantic irony from her discussion, which—with its emphasis on anarchic self-consciousness—is more characteristic of American culture. Interestingly, Hegel in the Aesthetics found romantic irony with its focus on indecision and alienation, inadequate to the creation of genuine art. Yet I think Hegel was the most ironic of philosophers, and this explains his peculiar attraction for Canadians. After all, as Irving Layton suggests, “A Canadian is a born sucker for anything that will tie [her] up in knots.”

Concerning weather, politics, geography, or whatever, Canada is a country of doubleness. We have the French-English question, the federal-provincial issue, the hot-cold dilemma, and the urban-wilderness dichotomy. And doubleness—as Linda Hutcheon avers—is a chief characteristic of irony. “Irony depends on some significant difference: a disparity, contrast, opposition, contradiction or incompatibility.”

For Hutcheon, the ironic stance is an aspect of marginality, a condition we have seen was as relevant to Hegel as to Canadian thinkers today. She contends that irony is simultaneously subversive and authorizing, undercutting and excluding. It “disrupts any notions of meaning as single, stable, decidable, complete, closed, innocent, or transparent.” All this relates to Hegel, whose writings are notoriously open to interpretation, fluid, self-referring, circular, and so forth. The Philosophy of Right, for example, can be seen as a text authorizing the Prussian regime—as Karl Popper saw it. Alternatively, it can be interpreted as a revolutionary critique of the existing system, as Jay Drydyk, a Carleton University philosopher, has suggested in a series of articles. Hegel was writing for many audiences, a primary one being the Prussian secret police—and this official audience in particular had a defining effect on Hegel’s prose style, imbuing it with many levels of irony.

Irony involves secrets, and hidden meanings suddenly revealed. Much commentary on Hegel—and not only that by Canadians—reflects on his cryptic, mysterious style. The first serious study of Hegel in English, for example, a work by the Scottish philosopher J.H. Stirling, published 130 years ago, was called The Secret of Hegel. The noted French Hegel scholar Jacques D’Hondt claimed recently in Hegel in His Time that Hegel is still in hiding. According to Trent University philosopher, John Burbidge in his Hegel on Logic and Religion, Hegel’s enigmatic prose allows interpreters an especially satisfying form of wish-fulfillment: “Each writer sees in Hegel a version of his own image.”

Hutcheon quotes Gaile McGregor’s definition of irony in The Wacousta Syndrome. “Nothing is ironic,” writes McGregor, “unless it is juxtaposed with a countering ideal or at least set against a relatively preferable state of affairs” which does not have to be explicit but “does have to be accessible in terms of the work itself.” Canadian commentary on Hegel emphasizes the ideal aspect of his politics, not as a reactionary identification of the ideal with the real, but rather as the posing of a better form of life, which contrasts with, and grows from, the existing system.

This interpretation of Hegel bears an interesting similarity with Canada’s development. As Hutcheon observes, “the country’s very evolution into nationhood, unlike that of the United States, occurred within British institutions. Is this how,” she asks, “Canadians came to learn the subversive double-voicing that speaks the language of tradition but implies a second level of meaning that can alter tradition from within?”

IV.

The centrality of public servants in the Canadian fabric is another aspect of this country’s Hegel craze. For if Marx was the prophet of the proletariat, Hegel is the prophet of what Alvin Gouldner called the New Class. This is the class of education and government employment; the class in which language and thought, as opposed to the market principle, dominate.

Canadian intellectuals enjoy an intense association with the state unmatched in the United States, and—at least since Thatcher—in Britain as well. Pierre Trudeau, after all, was a professor of constitutional law, and Ex-Prime Minister Kim Campbell griped about not getting tenure at UBC. Because of the close relationship of the Canadian state with culture, even some of our greatest artists have doubled as bureaucrats. As Bertha Wilson points out, this is an old Scottish tradition also: Robbie Burns worked as an Excise Officer, and considered the job a great inspiration for his art. Every other major figure in the Scottish Enlightenment trained and worked as a lawyer or judge. It may not be entirely irrelevant that Canadian expatriate John Kenneth Galbraith is practically the only major voice in the United States pitched against the dominant trend to denigrate government bureaucrats, especially those who—as he writes in The Culture of Contentment—work “in the departments of government concerned with regulatory activity, tax collection and especially with welfare services.”

George Grant marked it as one of Diefenbaker’s major failings that he misunderstood and quarelled with the Canadian public service, and even went so far as to place a corporate head in charge of remodelling the Ottawa bureaucracy. “In such an uncertain country as Canada,” Grant opined, “the civil service is perhaps the essential instrument by which nationhood is preserved.” Lawrence Martin makes clear that one of the most poisonous legacies of the Mulroney years was the deliberate weakening of the Ottawa bureaucracy, a policy closely related to North American Free Trade. The attack on Ottawa accelerated during the Kim Campbell interregnum, with the abrupt termination of almost 20 percent of the top rung of the public service, under the direction of convicted drunk driver, super minister Bernard Valcourt. With loud applause from editorialists and press pundits, the firings have been carried out in the cruellest manner possible, and without the due process promised under the Public Service Act. The hysterical Tory scorched earth policy in Ottawa was the best indicator that the neoconservative era had reached its end.

Hegel was a New Class figure himself—as was Marx, of course. Yet unlike Marx, who fled Germany for the freedom of England’s civil society, Hegel remained an academic, making the inevitable compromises that are part of the life of a tenured professor. These compromises bought him time to create the most profound theoretical system we have; and also help explain his favourable reception in this nation of compromises, our own Canada.