Wednesday, September 14, 2016

George Grant

This announcement arrived in one of my email inboxes yesterday:

(I have redacted the name of the group and the place the meeting will be held as it is not open to the public - but i cannot attend anyway)

George Grant was a Canadian philosopher, professor, and political commentator. He is best known for his nationalism, political conservatism, and his views on technology, pacifism and Christian faith. He was one of Canada's most original thinkers. Join us for a series of presentations and a panel discussion on Grant’s English-Speaking Justice, originally delivered as a lecture at Mount Allison University on the meaning of justice in a society dominated by technology. This little book sums up much that is central to his thought, including a critique of modern liberalism, an analysis of John Rawl’s Theory of Justice, and other insights into the Western philosophical tradition.

For a George Grant primer, see this inteview from the CBC archives he gave in 1973 that includes comments on liberalism and technology, topics covered in the book we will be studying:

9:00am   Welcome: Dcn. Charles Fernandes, St. John's, Dundalk (Moderator)
9:05am   Introduction to George Grant: Prof. Norman Klassen, St. Jerome's University
9:15am-10:00am    Part I. Fr. Mark Morley, Pastor, Sacred Heart Parish, Rockwood and Chaplain, University of Guelph
10:00am-10:45am   Part II. Prof. Nikolaj "Nick" Zunic, St. Jerome's University
10:45am-11:00am   Break
11:00am-11:45am   Part III. Stephen Jones, Managing Editor of The Conrad Grebel Review
11:45pm-12:30pm   Part IV. Richard V. Marchak, Criminal Lawyer
12:30pm-1:00pm    Moderated Open Discussion

Some time ago, a TV interview show - The Agenda with Steve Paikin -   did a piece on Grant, where as I recall most of the panel were only vaguely knowledgable about his thought - one panel member even admitting that he had skimmed through Lament for a Nation the night before, not having read anything other of Grant's ever, and not having read this for many years. 

This is sad to me. A number of years ago when I still taught in the classroom at the University of Guelph, I was packing up after a class in the Mackinnon Building, when another prof and his class came in - I was in a good mood, my class having gone reasonably well (not always a given for me) and asked what the course was. William Christian, a political scientist at Guelph, answered that it was his course on George Grant. I was pleasantly surprised that the university had such a course and said that no student should graduate in the Humanities or Social Sciences from a Canadian university without having had to grapple with the ideas of George Grant. Prof. Christian asked me to say that to his class before I left - I did, while noticing there were probably only about 20 students. Well, better than none, I thought. William Christian is, of course, George Grant's biographer.

The above invitation included a link to a TV interview of Grant done in 1973 as a refresher because Grant is largely forgotten and has always been misunderstood, the latter being perhaps a worse fate than the former. The interviewer was Ramsay Cook, an historian who specialized in Qu├ębec and was a big name at the time and was still required reading on PhD syllabuses in the 1990s, so the interview was intelligent - but still it required some knowledge of what Grant had to say in order to make sense of the interview.

The introduction to the meeting I pasted from my inbox reflects both an acquaintance with Grant's thought and a misunderstanding at the same time.

The essence of Grant's thinking is contained in the word technique not technology. The other aspects of his thinking: his nationalism, his critique of both the United States and of Marxism alike, his understanding of conservatism, his pacifism and his deep Christian faith are entangled in his use of this word technique.

By technique Grant means not technology - the understanding and manipulation of machines and tools in a technical sense - but the impact on our understanding of reality, of life, of materiality and of truth that a civilization worshipping objects and the technical manipulation of objects (and now of living organisms including human beings) has. 

He was saying as early as the publication of Lament for a Nation and in all his subsequent writing that we view reality as an object to be manipulated. Technology is the means; technique is the mental attitude and mental habits that drive all other understandings of reality to the periphery. 

His critique of the United States was just that, a critique, not a criticism simply because in his lifetime the United States and the Soviet Union and China were enmeshed in technique and as such had more in common than not. He saw that Canada, or Britain or any other part of the world had little chance of genuinely adhering to a different view of reality because of the juggernaut of technique, to which they also assented. 

By conservatism he did not mean what is today considered conservative. I would say that both conservatism and liberalism as currently defined are merely two sides of the same coin called technique. They merely have different paths to the veneration and worship of the material world. Today a conservative is defined as someone who believes in small government, low taxes, and local social traditions being maintained. For Grant, a conservative was not primarily a fiscal policy. It was a philosophy that desired the retention of local customs and traditions, but most importantly conservatism meant a society where the general good was over and above individual rights. If you read the thought of conservatives on the ground so to speak in the 19th and earlier centuries you will see a concern for the common good and an abhorrence of what they called license. They did not mean society received a permit of some kind, but rather this use of the word is related to the English word licentious. Licentious today means sexually promiscuous or unprincipled sexually - but its older meaning was 'disregarding accepted conventions'. Well today increasingly there are no accepted conventions in society in general and virtually none in human sexuality - other than a general rule that what gives physical pleasure must be good and true. 

I think if George Grant were alive today he would not be surprised by the world of today. You might think too that he would approve of protest movements against technology such as pipeline protests or those who refuse to drive cars. I do not think this, however. I think he would see that we have become ever more deeply part of technique, whether you support of oppose pipelines. The argument is over how you manipulate objects for maximum human physical comfort and pleasure, not whether the manipulation of objects is the primary goal of human existence. Do we ride bicycles or drive cars to put it plainly:  both automobiles and bicycles are high tech objects requiring sophisticated technology and the love of sophisticated technology that is implicit in the term technique.

George Grant too would not be surprised by the status of faith in this world of today. Faith, whether you be Christian or Hindu or Muslim or a Druid requires the individual and more importantly, a society to place something other than objects at the centre of life.

This is most difficult for us today, especially if you have no connection to a time where religion was at the centre of life, not materiality. This mentality does not require the rejection of technology; it does require the rejection of technique. I used to debate someone who claimed to reject materiality by saying he did not like computers (and tellingly, he used computers) that technology is an inescapable part of being human ever since the first person to take a stick to root under a rock to get the choicest bugs to eat. That too is technology, but not technique   The problem was and is the worship of technology and the worship of science, that methodology that perfects technology. We, as humans, are tool users and tool devisers, but we have not always worshipped our machines and worshipped those who delve into the mysteries of material objects. 

This, I propose, is the essence of what George Grant was saying in all his work.

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