Refusing Conversation


I will not give you a penny more than you deserve
I don’t know why you bother asking anymore
All of your charm couldn’t make me change my mind
I will not give you a penny more than you deserve
…Whoa, for a lover, no one compares to you.
            The Skydiggers, “A Penny More

The hard Canadian
He don’t have much to say
But he hurts your feelings
Almost every single day
            Gordon Downie and the Country of Miracles, “The Hard Canadian

The Quebec government would like to have a conversation about the place of Quebec in Canada. They’ve published a document, Québécois : Notre façon d’être Canadiens / Quebecers: Our Way of Being Canadian, about their thinking and they’d like to hear back.

Not everyone’s open to this, however. “Vous connaissez mon opinion sur la Constitution,” replied the prime minister before the document was even released, “on n’ouvre pas la Constitution.” And if that’s too curt for you, here’s the sadly predictable conclusion of Andrew Coyne’s latest opinion piece in the National Post: “The same debates, the same fallacies, the same doubletalk, and all of it just as pointless and unnecessary as ever. There is no problem these proposals would solve, no power Quebec needs it does not already have. There is only the inexhaustible self-importance of its political class. How about we just don’t?”

Are these men clear about what’s being asked? There’s no “couteau sur la gorge” this time, nor even the suggestion, such as the one made by the wise but frustrated Charles Taylor in 1992, that Quebec issue an “ultimatum” should the conversation fail, that it “would signify the end of the country” (Taylor called for coupling this with “an expression of openness” so as to avoid “damaging the interlocutor.” As if). Some fellow Canadians are merely expressing a desire to talk. They’re dissatisfied about something and they want to see if we can work it out. Isn’t it the obligation of every good citizen to at least listen to them with an open mind?

Yes, there appears to be little new in the document (though I haven’t finished reading it yet). But what is new – and this is a major difference from the past – is not only the way it’s being presented but also the context. There’s no referendum on the horizon. The forces of sovereignty are extremely weak. Coyne, and evidently Trudeau, take this to mean not that we have an opportune moment here but that the issues raised can be dismissed, if not ignored outright. They’re wrong. We have a duty to respond – critically, if need be, but constructively.

More to come.

Isaiah Berlin and the Enlightenment

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Here’s the description provided of the book edited by Laurence Brockliss and Ritchie Robertson, Isaiah Berlin and the Enlightenment (Oxford University Press, 2016): “Isaiah Berlin (1909-97) was recognized as Britain’s most distinguished historian of ideas. Many of his essays discussed thinkers of what this book calls the ‘long Enlightenment’ (from Vico in the eighteenth century to Marx and Mill in the nineteenth, with Machiavelli as a precursor). Yet he is particularly associated with the concept of the ‘Counter-Enlightenment’, comprising those thinkers (Herder, Hamann, and even Kant) who in Berlin’s view reacted against the Enlightenment’s naive rationalism, scientism and progressivism, its assumption that human beings were basically homogeneous and could be rendered happy by the remorseless application of scientific reason. Berlin’s ‘Counter-Enlightenment’ has received critical attention, but no-one has yet analysed the understanding of the Enlightenment on which it rests. Isaiah Berlin and the Enlightenment explores the development of Berlin’s conception of the Enlightenment, noting its curious narrowness, its ambivalence, and its indebtedness to a specific German intellectual tradition. Contributors to the book examine his comments on individual writers, showing how they were inflected by his questionable assumptions, and arguing that some of the writers he assigned to the ‘Counter-Enlightenment’ have closer affinities to the Enlightenment than he recognized. By locating Berlin in the history of Enlightenment studies, this book also makes a contribution to defining the historical place of his work and to evaluating his intellectual legacy.”

Replique (from the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews)

The fox, it seems, was wrong about many things. Isaiah Berlin’s accounts of Marx are “all flawed in non-trivial ways,” writes David Leopold (p. 23). And “there is no doubt that he penned a few [falsehoods] about Hume,” asserts P.J.E. Kail (p. 69). Karen O’Brien tells us that “Berlin does not provide anything resembling an accurate or rounded account of Montesquieu’s thought,” while Christopher Brooke complains that “Berlin never seems to have felt that he really had to engage with Rousseau as a serious theorist” (pp. 79, 93). Marian Hobson concludes that Berlin is mistaken to think that either Diderot or Hamann “fit into a simple category” (p. 112). Ritchie Robertson insists that Berlin would have recognized how Machiavelli is part of an alternative, minority branch of the Enlightenment if not for his “at best incomplete” account of it (p. 139). John Robertson declares Berlin’s portrayal of Vico “historically incoherent” (p. 159). And Kevin Hilliard feels a need to note that he is “certainly not claiming that Berlin was all wrong” when it comes to his account of Herder (p. 174). Lastly, we hear from Ken Koltun-Fromm that Berlin’s description of Moses Hess is more or less “seriously flawed and misguided,” and from Derek Offord that Berlin is “very partial” about the members of the Russian intelligentsia, indeed so much so that he takes us outside “the realm of scholarship, as we tend to conceive of it in early twenty-first-century academe, and in the direction of apology” (pp. 177, 199). … Continue reading

Une proposition de réconciliation

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Sorry, this entry is only available in French. For the sake of viewer convenience, the content is shown below in the alternative language. You may click the link to switch the active language.

Un désaccord vient de surgir entre Gérard Bouchard et Charles Taylor, auteurs du rapport sur les accommodements raisonnables au Québec. Taylor n’est plus d’accord qu’il faut interdire le port des signes religieux par ceux qui exercent les fonctions dites « coercitives » de l’État, c’est-à-dire les juges et les policiers. Premièrement, la distinction entre ceux qui exercent ces fonctions et les autres n’a pas eu l’influence désirée pour le public visé. Et deuxièmement, le contexte au Québec à changer : l’interdiction proposée contribue à la stigmatisation des communautés d’où venaient les personnes visées.


Je veux suggérer une façon de concilier les deux auteurs. Je crains toutefois qu’ils ne l’acceptent pas. Pour commencer, il faut se rappeler que la recommandation qu’il faut interdire le port des signes religieux fait suite à une remarque dans le rapport qui regarde d’un bon oeil la proposition du Bloc québécois suggérant que l’interdiction s’applique à tous ceux et celles qui incarnent l’État et sa neutralité. Il me semble pourtant y avoir ici confusion entre neutralité et impartialité. Après tout, si un intimé musulman s’interroge sur l’impartialité d’un juge juif portant une kippa, il n’aura moins des raisons de le faire face non seulement à un juge chrétien portant une croix non ostentatoire, mais aussi si le Juif remplace sa kippa par une plus petite, non ostentatoire, et aussi si tous les deux cachent leur confession en enlevant leurs symboles religieux complètement. Alors que, puisqu’il fait partie de la description de poste des juges d’avoir un bon jugement, pourquoi pas simplement leur faire confiance pour se récuser quand il y a un doute sur leur impartialité? On n’a pas besoin d’une loi. … Continue reading

Some Exceptionalism Please, We’re Canadian

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Mark Kingwell begins “No exceptionalism please, we’re Canadian” by questioning the claim that Canada is extraordinary because it is post-national, has an especially secure banking system, an impeccable public health care system, and, above all, an open-minded, tolerant immigration policy. Kingwell used to believe these things but, today, even though he’s friends with some who do believe them and have published articles explaining why (for we’re “a small country. Maybe that’s the true exceptionalism in play here?”), he doubts any and all stories about how special we are. Indeed, they remind him of the philosopher Leibniz’s theodicy, his “sad, evil idea” that God made this the best of all possible worlds. It was rightly lampooned by Voltaire because it’s obvious that the world can be improved. In any case, Americans are the ones who tend to think that they’re exceptional and it makes them impervious to criticism. Even worse is how self-congratulatory it is. Better to recognize that Canada “is not the best of all possible countries, as recent arrivals and indigenous peoples will certainly attest. We are as rife as anyone else in intolerance, bigotry and ignorance…Sorry, friends.”


“Alright that’s it. I’m voting for Kellie Leitch.” … Continue reading

Adversarialism in Philosophy: A Prosecution

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In “Adversarialism in Philosophy: A Defence,” Joseph Heath endorses the adversarial disciplinary culture in which philosophers “tear apart” their colleagues’ arguments. Not that they should be assholes about it, which is apparently how surgeons are, since they tend to yell and swear at each other (although not during research talks; rather, they wait until people are out in the hallway to declare that what they’ve just heard is “a piece-of-shit” and so on). Heath wants to uphold the distinction between being an adversary and being an asshole, although he admits that there are a fair number of the latter in philosophy as well. He also wants to claim that philosophy is fundamentally about problem-creating rather than problem-solving, and so he contrasts what Socrates and philosophical sceptics get up to with the constructive work of economists. Philosophers need to try and prove their colleagues wrong since they are subject as much as anyone else to biases that confirm their hypotheses. Indeed, adversarialism is essential if philosophy is to maintain itself as an academic discipline instead of devolving into quackery, conspiracy theories, and claims to have seen Jesus in one’s toast. “I really think,” concludes Heath, “that the only thing keeping us tethered to the world is the disciplinary culture, and the fact that we have to defend ourselves, in a room full of people who have spent decades listening to arguments and identifying bad ones.” … Continue reading