Hegel wrote about Canada just once, in the Lectures on the Philosophy of History, and what he said comes down to: mostly harmless. His main concern in that passage is the future power of the United States; having noted that the poor organization of the American colonies prevented them from conquering Canada, he then adds that Canada and Mexico “present no serious threat” to the US, and then moves on. It is scarcely more consideration than Voltaire’s dismissal of Canada as “a few acres of snow”; like the fictional Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy discussing Earth, Hegel pauses on Canada only long enough to say “you don’t need to worry about it.”
And yet, as Robert Sibley notes in beginning his fascinating Northern Spirits, English Canadian philosophers have had a deep, abiding and continuing interest in Hegel, unrequited as it may be – an interest not generally shared by other countries in the anglophone West. Canadian Hegelianism turns out to be its own philosophical tradition – one that’s played a significant role in my own philosophical formation. It is only in the 21st century that people like Sibley have started writing about this Canadian Hegelianism, but it’s been around for longer.
The earliest major figure in Canadian Hegelianism is John Watson (1847-1939). Watson’s interest in Hegel was not unusual for his day: he inherited his Hegelianism directly from his teacher Edward Caird, one of the British Idealists in vogue in the late 19th century. Watson also corresponded with the St. Louis Hegelians and published in their journal. (Did you know there were St. Louis Hegelians?)
Watson taught at Queen’s University, a stone’s throw from my childhood home, and left his mark on it as the head of the philosophy department for nearly fifty years; the main building for humanities and philosophy at Queen’s is named after him to this day. But his ideas lay dormant for a while, and perhaps for good reason. I certainly find Watson’s views rather unsympathetic; he took up Hegel’s holism to argue that Canada had its proper role as a part of the whole that was the British Empire, rather than an independent “little Canada” that could stand on its own. To me he is most interesting as a part of the philosophical culture in the place where I grew up.
The lack of interest in Watson’s ideas after his death reflected a general trend in the first half of the 20th century. The analytic movement in anglophone philosophy tended to discredit Hegel and his followers; thus the British Idealists and St. Louis Hegelians left no real heirs. Even in Canada, there were few significant Hegelian thinkers in the mid-20th century, the one exception being the Hegelian Marxism of C.B. Macpherson. Up to that point, I think, Canadian philosophy’s relationship to Hegel was fairly standard for the English-speaking world.
It is in the late twentieth century that something different started to happen. From about the 1970s onward, arguably the three most important thinkers in Canadian phliosophy all had deep Hegelian influences. This was bucking a global trend. The mainstream of anglophone philosophy around the world remained staunchly dedicated to the analytical approach. In the UK and especially the US, the “continental” dissidents tended to favour the French postmodernism of Derrida and Foucault, defining itself with Heidegger and against Hegel. It’s in the past half-century that Canadian Hegelianism really came to distinguish itself.
The three Canadian thinkers in question are Charles Taylor, George Grant, and James Doull. Taylor likely needs little introduction to a philosophical audience: he is one of the most important philosophers thinking through qualitative individualism (which he calls the ethics of authenticity), as well as the politics of multicultural societies. Grant is not very well known outside of Canada, but within Canada he was one of the leading public intellectuals of the late 20th century, as his Lament for a Nation spoke directly to the perennial English Canadian worry about what exactly Canada is and means.
Doull – a friend of Grant’s – is the least well known of the three, because he wrote very little; his influence carries on above all through his students, a third generation of whom includes the chair of Doull’s old department and the founder of a new university in Georgia. Indirectly he’s also left his stamp on me: before I found Buddhism, my philosophy had been largely Hegelian, in ways that owe a great deal to my lifelong friend who studied in Doull’s department. I would probably be much less of a Hegelian if I were not Canadian.
Taylor, Grant and Doull share a deep Hegelian inheritance with Watson and Macpherson. Taylor began his scholarly career with a book on Hegel that remains one of the best introductions to Hegel’s thought, and came back to Hegel in various ways throughout that career. Doull, always a classicist, focused on Hegel’s oft-neglected classical inheritance, drawing out the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and the Neoplatonists in Hegelian terms; the journals Animus and Dionysius carry on his Hegelian approach to the classics. Grant ultimately came to reject Hegel in favour of a more Straussian Platonism, but his early works are deeply Hegelian, in a way reflecting Watson’s direct influence: his grandfather George Monro Grant was the principal of Queen’s University at the time when Watson’s influence there was at its height. And he maintained a continuing interest in Hegel through his friendship with Doull.
Like Watson, all three are concerned with the nature of Canada and its role in the world, and Hegel helps them think this through. Grant takes up Watson’s view that Canada distinguishes itself through being a part of the British Commonwealth, and is pessimistic that in the 20th century Canada largely given this up by becoming closer to the United States. (In that, Watson and Grant have an interesting kinship with the Uruguayan philosopher José Enrique Rodó, who feared the influence of the USA and admired the British monarchy as a bulwark against it.) Doull has the more optimistic view that both Canada and the US still hew to Hegel’s ideal of civic (rather than ethnic) nationalism, Canada managing particularly well by including two founding nations within it. Taylor’s bilingual and bicultural Québec upbringing leads him to think philosophically through Québec nationalism; his concept for doing so is “the politics of recognition“, which he gets from Hegel’s Lordship and Bondage section. In a very Hegelian manner, the three all think about the idea of Canada in ways whose implications go well beyond Canada itself. And this century’s spate of new Canadian books reflecting on Canadian Hegelianism, not just by Sibley but by Robert Meynell, Ian Angus, and Susan Dodd and Neil Robertson, suggest that Canadian Hegelian tradition will continue to flourish in the years ahead.
EDIT (6 Dec 2022): The original version of this post said that Rousseau had called Canada “a few acres of snow”. I meant Voltaire.