Philosophy: History Before 1950 | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Philosophy: History Before 1950

Philosophy in Canada followed close on the heels of settlement. The history of Canadian philosophy begins in French Canada in 1665; English Canadian philosophy begins with the founding of the universities in Nova Scotia and Ontario.

Philosophy: History Before 1950

Philosophy in Canada followed close on the heels of settlement. The history of Canadian philosophy begins in French Canada in 1665; English Canadian philosophy begins with the founding of the universities in Nova Scotia and Ontario.

French Canada
Before the Conquest
In New France, as elsewhere in the New World, the teaching of philosophy was initially the responsibility of the church. Philosophy was taught regularly from 1665 at the Jesuit College in Québec, which, like such colleges in France, followed the dictates of the Jesuit teaching philosophy as set out in the Ratio Studiorum. In 2 years the college's few students took a course in logic consisting of the second book of Aristotle's Organon, On Interpretation and the first 2 books of The Prior Analytics. The entirely Aristotelian physics program included the 8 books of the Physics, On the Heavens and the first book of On Coming to Be and Passing Away. Metaphysics was also Aristotelian and the ethics course followed The Nicomachean Ethics. As often as possible, professors made reference to medieval philosopher St Thomas Aquinas (c 1224-74). In the hierarchy of the liberal arts in the Middle Ages, philosophy was the servant of theology (ancilla theologiae). Until 1759 the same was true in Québec, where philosophy appeared in the program as a basic prerequisite to theology for students aspiring to the priesthood.

Philosophy and the Challenge to Faith

Interrupted by the British military conquest, the teaching of philosophy was resumed in 1770 in 5 colleges. This new start led to the 1835 publication of the first Canadian philosophy textbook, the Institutiones philosophicae ad usum studiosae juventutis, by Abbé Jérôme DEMERS of the SÉMINAIRE DE QUÉBEC. Professors, by then more numerous and mostly of Canadian origin, based their teaching on Charles Rollin's Traité des études (rev ed 1845), according to which the purpose of philosophy was to establish a moral structure and to forearm youth against unbelief. Unbelief was seen to stem from the Protestant Reformation, the writings of French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650), Denis Diderot's Encylopédie (1751-80) and the impact of the American and French revolutions (1775 and 1789) in a province where from 1764 printed material was becoming more widely available. The teaching of philosophy was therefore a controversial activity, and new ideas and new objections to those ideas appeared: the origin of ideas and of certainty, immortality of the soul and the existence of God, ATHEISM, the origins of political power and the highest form of government. After Descartes and the Enlightenment, one had either to accept or to oppose the rules of reason.

It was this challenge that lay at the root of a philosophical controversy (1833-34) centered on the French philosopher Félicité de Lamennais (1782-1854) and the publication of Abbé Demers's textbooks. At issue were the establishment of certainty against Cartesian doubt in the teaching of logic, refutation of the Enlightenment's atheism in metaphysics and moral philosophy, and the affirmation that political power came from God, not from the sovereignty of the people.

Catholic Philosophy

Limited to objection and refutation until around 1840, the teaching of philosophy was subsequently characterized by a quest for affirmative philosophical theses, and by a frantic search for an authority and for a "Catholic philosophy" that found its ultimate expression in Pope Leo XIII's encyclical, Aeterni Patris (1879), on the restoration of Christian philosophy. It was in this context that Thomism appeared, so long to be considered synonymous with French Canadian philosophy. By 1879 the philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas had provided solutions to the basic, traditional problems in the teaching of philosophy. Certainty was henceforth the product of reason based on faith and no longer troubled by doubt. In ethics the hierarchy of purposes justified God's priority over man, the spiritual over the temporal and church over state, thus providing the philosophical basis of the ULTRAMONTANISM that dominated French Canadian society.

Thereafter the teaching of philosophy was rigidly standardized by means of a single baccalaureate examination at the end of the classical course in all colleges, and a single philosophy textbook was used in all colleges. The philosophical uniformity of this instruction by manual was disrupted at the beginning of the century by the "social question." Industrialization (capital, labour, strikes) and urbanization confronted the Thomist world with new problems (see SOCIAL DOCTRINE) and often justified the preparation and adoption of new manuals.

Philosophy Enters the Universities

Philosophy took new strides after 1920 when it was introduced into the universities. A faculty of philosophy was founded in 1921 at the Université de Montréal; Dominican monk Ceslas-Marie Forest was dean there from 1926 to 1952. In Québec City, the École supérieure de philosophie (founded 1926) of Université Laval became a faculty in 1935, with the Belgian Charles DE KONINCK as director from 1939 to 1956.

The early development of the teaching of philosophy in the universities drew support from the general expansion of the universities and the increasing importance of philosophical studies in Rome and Louvain. Its real development occurred, however, following another papal pronouncement, Deus Scientiarum (1931), which favoured science as the bastion of faith and resulted in a reorganization of faculties of philosophy. At Laval the faculty had an equally Aristotelian and Thomist approach, as may be seen from professors' publications and the subjects of theses and articles in Laval théologique et philosophique (1945- ). In Montréal, Latin was abandoned as the language of instruction in 1936, and day courses established in 1942 doubled in number by 1948. Theses incorporated a Thomist approach until around 1948, whereas the history of philosophy was predominant as the faculty was becoming more secularized.

Franciscans and Dominicans

French Canadian studies in medieval history and philosophy were probably the most important international contributions made in those fields until around 1950. The exceptional contribution made by Franciscans was belittled and in 1927 even became the subject of a heated debate in Thomist circles between the future Cardinal VILLENEUVE and the great Franciscan medievalist, Father Ephrem LONGPRÉ. In Ottawa in 1930 the Dominicans founded the Institute of Mediaeval Studies, which moved to Montréal in 1943. It was affiliated with Université de Montréal. There was much philosophical activity and discussion after 1930 with the publications of Charles de Koninck, Hermas Bastien, Fathers Louis-Marie RÉGIS, Louis LACHANCE, Patrice Robert, Julien Péghaire and Arcade Monette, and with the organization of philosophical societies such as La Société de philosophie de Montréal (founded 1924) and the extremely formal Académie canadienne Saint Thomas d'Aquin (1930-45).

After 1930 a new generation that included Étienne Gilson (in Toronto) and Jacques Maritain took over from the old guard and moved into the editorial ranks of new journals and of the Journées thomistes (1935 and 1936) organized for the young generation. Between the 1929 crash and the 1948 REFUS GLOBAL, Maritain, the catalyst in philosophical debates (with de Koninck) and ideological controversies (over Pétainism), became an important source of inspiration before the arrival of Emmanuel Mounier, Christian and atheistic existentialism and phenomenology.


English Canada

Theological Roots
Philosophy took root in English Canada with the founding of the first universities in Nova Scotia and what is now Ontario. (By 1860 Canada, with a population of less than 2 million, had 12 universities.) Most philosophers teaching at these universities came from Britain, especially Scotland. They were trained primarily as clergymen, but philosophy comprised a large part of their education.

In Scotland philosophy and theology merged in the Sunday sermon. The Scottish sermon was the vehicle of debate and rational inquiry, especially concerning the dramatic challenges to traditional theology posed by Darwinism. In Canada the theologues and academics from Scotland faced even greater challenges - a rapidly diversifying student population and climatic conditions that one suspected not even the Almighty would have chosen willingly.

Because of ever-present hardships, many students from rural backgrounds were beginning to suspect claims made about God as saviour and protector. The students would then have to be persuaded through reason and sound argument that moral behaviour was preferable to amoral behaviour; that the individual had a place in this new wild land; that nature could be productive and still be protected; that advanced scientific and evolutionary theories could take their place alongside theology and the idea of God; that religion could make sense in the face of natural disasters; and that in a town with many religious factions, a clergyman could give a sermon that offended no one and offered meaning and purpose to tired and harassed parishioners. The philosophers who faced these formidable tasks adjusted to the demands of the environment and tirelessly undertook to educate the future clergy, teachers, circuit preachers and civil servants of Canada.

Canada has always nurtured many cultures. Often we identify a culture by the meanings it associates with events and institutions. Where there is more than one set of attitudes and responses to a basic systemic concept (for example, family, the police, the role of government) there is more than one culture. The early philosophers knew that a single set of meanings could not easily be imposed upon groups of people spread far apart, at least not peacefully imposed. Many Canadians had immigrated to escape from rigid, state-controlled ideas. If freedom of thought was to have meaning, then the conceptual core of Canadian culture had to provide from multiple cultures to co-exist. The philosophers focused on reason as the ground of multiple meanings.

Through reason we assign meanings to events and defend ourselves from encroachment on meanings around which we structure our lives. Canadian philosophers were not alone in their concern with the nature and uses of reason, but their interpretations gave a distinctive base for a unifying cultural identity. A kind of philosophical federalism gradually emerged as a recognizable theme in their writings.

Basic Themes

Three basic themes concerned the first philosophers in English Canada: the philosophical basis of religion, the idea of nature, and the philosophical examination of political ideas and systems. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some scholars, such as John WATSON at Queen's University, published on all 3 themes. George John BLEWETT, at the University of Toronto, concerned himself with the idea of nature and its relation to God. However, philosophy in Canada was not confined to these themes. Richard Maurice BUCKE, a psychiatrist in London, Ont, wrote about evolutionary spirituality. John Macdonald, of the University of Alberta, published on the philosophy of education. Herbert Leslie STEWART at Dalhousie had interests ranging from CALVINISM to the work of German philosopher Nietzsche.

Rupert LODGE, a Plato scholar at the University of Manitoba, tackled questions about ethics, business and education. He believed that there may never be a right answer to a question and that any problem exists in a context. Although his writings seem biased towards idealism and the importance of preserving valued ideas, not just progressing materially at any price, he still presented the viewpoints of the pragmatist and the realist on any problem he approached in his later books. The seeds of respect, tolerance and a commitment to explore all sides of a problem before suggesting solutions were truly being sown by Canadian philosophers such as Lodge.

At U of T, George Sidney BRETT emphasized the importance of history in understanding man's nature and spearheaded the "Toronto school of intellectual history," which dominated philosophy there until the late 1950s. John IRVING, U of T, turned that historical vision upon the first 100 years of philosophy in Canada and published the first assessment of "Canadian" philosophy in 1952, Philosophy of Canada: A Symposium. His book Science and Values (1952) predicted the closer integration of philosophy with practical problems in Canada. Philosophers would address education, economics, politics and social welfare as the culture adapted to the rapidly changing world. His prediction has been accurate, as evidenced by growing numbers of publications and research centres in various fields of applied ethics and human rights. Major centres today can be found at the Universtiy of British Columbia, the University of Western Ontario, York University, the University of Toronto, Ryerson Polytechnic University and McGill University.

Religion and Science

For philosophers, the need to come to grips with religious claims and the advance of science was pressing. Industrialism, increased control over nature and continued progress in the creation and distribution of wealth seemed to have given humans many powers previously associated with God. The geographical circumstances and the diverse population of Canada worked against the likelihood of there being an established church (see ANGLICANISM), which might provide interpretations of the rapid changes. Catholic philosophers sought solutions in the writings of Aquinas. The establishment in Toronto of the Institute of Mediaeval Studies (1929; papal charter 1939, when it became the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies) was testimony to the devotion and scholarship of these pioneers in Catholic thought. (Another separate Institute of Mediaeval Studies was founded by the Dominicans in Ottawa in 1930.)

For Protestants there was no clear strategy. The first philosophy book written in English Canada was Elements of Natural Theology (1850) by James BEAVEN. In his efforts to connect religion with scientific developments, Beaven focused on law, order and structure in the universe as evidence of a rational being, or God. The universe is intelligible as a whole because the laws of the universe work together. If "God" is what we mean by the source of intelligibility, argued Beaven, then the close relation between man and God remains intact.

Major works of philosophy and religion were published by John WATSON, an acknowledged expert on German philosopher Immanuel Kant. In Outline of Philosophy (1908) and The Interpretation of Religious Experience (1910-12), Watson examined thoroughly the historical arguments for and against God's existence, and he proposed a metaphysical system to explain existence that drew correlations between reason, God and a concept from idealism, developed by German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, called the "Absolute." In "The Invisible Church," a chapter in The Interpretation of Religious Experience, Watson anticipated the uniquely Canadian UNITED CHURCH and foresaw its ultimate integration into Canadian life as a social agency of rational morality. He published 8 books and over 200 articles, and his sophisticated work was well known in the US and Britain.

At McGill University, John Clark Murray, in A Handbook of Psychology (1885) and An Introduction to Ethics (1891), pursued metaphysical problems in order to give both man's increasing power and God's will places in the rational explication of what exists. Murray spent many hours giving public lectures and writing newspaper articles about the plight of the working class, and he was energetic and fearless as Canada's earliest philosophical feminist. Murray was not Canada's only public philosopher: both Herbert Leslie Stewart and John Allan IRVING later became lecturers on CBC Radio.

At U of T George Paxton YOUNG, who wrote occasional pieces on metaphysics, ethics and mathematics, openly challenged the doctrines of his church. In 1864 he decided he could not subscribe to the terms of the Confession of the Anglican Church, left Knox College at U of T and occupied an office across campus at University College. Young was a popular teacher, and had been active in his church. His abandonment of all church duties and his solemn march across campus from religious to secular college were documented in public pamphlets and witnessed by his devoted following of students, which hearty contingent soon rapidly increased.

The relation between God and man was highlighted by Dalhousie's William LYALL in Intellect, the Emotions, and the Moral Nature (1855). Man is a part of nature, argued Lyall, and to violate nature is indirectly to violate man.

George John Blewett, a farm boy from southern Ontario, wrote The Study of Nature and the Vision of God (1907) and The Christian View of the World (1912), concluding even then that the environment was in danger from man's waste and neglect. Blewett also believed reason to be the basis of all possible experience and all freedom, and he argued that a notion of a community of rational spirits was more fundamental than one of individual beings. The idea of community as the key to survival was becoming well entrenched in a developing, but still mainly rural, Canadian society.

Political Philosophy

There are 2 distinctive features of Canadian society as a political entity. One is its many-faceted pluralism in language, culture, religion, geography, educational theory and values. The other is a strong commitment to tradition among its diverse communities. The French and Scots brought with them centuries-old patterns of social organization. LOYALISTS came firmly committed to old ways, having rejected new political experiments in the US. Philosophers interested in political theory had to find ways to create a conceptual basis for politics while surrounded by distinct and occasionally warring factions. Once again they focused on reason as a mediator and discovery tool.

Watson's The State in Peace and War (1919) emphasized the need to see progress in a historical context. New social orders could not be invented willy-nilly. People progress from experience to experience, and reason must interpret the present in relation to the past. Mistakes would be inevitable in the gradual move from theoretical to real equality. Watson was undoubtedly conservative. G.S. Brett was equally reserved. In The Government of Man (1913) he emphasized the need for historical understanding of problems more than the need for solutions. Still, neither philosopher believed that the state was rational and beyond challenge.

John Clark MURRAY faced the Industrial Revolution and concomitant social disruptions directly. In 1887 he completed The Industrial Kingdom of God (published posthumously, 1981), in which he openly discussed Karl Marx and Henry George, communal planning, strikes and the advantages and disadvantages of capitalism. Its Victorian prose did not hide its radical elements, a fact that may have had something to do with its remaining in manuscript form for almost 100 years. Murray believed that rational assessment of existing institutions would lead to positive change. His innovative ideas proposing arbitration courts to ward off union antagonism are still timely.

If political philosophy in Canada leaned to the left, it did so with reserve. The philosophers believed that men would be changed, not by rational assault but by rational exchange. It would be a slow, arduous task to create the just society, but along the way society would be more stable, less violent, less prone to fall prey to radical innovations and quick solutions. Government, if not always loved, needed at least to be understood. Dissension would be inevitable, but the dismantling of creditable institutions as an alternative would result in much more stress and disruption. The role of reason, as interpreter and key to compromise, was critical to Canada's philosophers; what they envisaged was much like the Canada we know today: orderly and reticent, but an international example of the value of discussion, tolerance and democracy. The philosophers in English and French Canada were scholars first. But a thorough examination of their works reveals as much about the national character of Canadians and Canadian culture as about the eternal questions of philosophy.


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