Canada's Hegel

written by

David MacGregor, PhD


Published in Literary Review of Canada , June, 1994


Chapter One

Recently, 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. A British reviewer of an edited version of the symposium, Hegel and Legal Theory, complained that nearly every contributor mentioned 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 is also a very important figure in Canada. Certain broad Hegelian principles are perennial in the northern landscape. Some are actually founded in the commonsense tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment. Due to the influence of the Scots on Hegel, belief in community and in the identity of language and action are key features of his thought. 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. This view suits a nation that favors "peace, order, and good government" over "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Here, motorbike riders are required to wear helmets, and passengers in motor vehicles must fasten their seatbelts. If injured, they can expect free medical care. In most U.S. states, adult motorcyclists can let their hair blow in the wind, and drivers are free to ignore seatbelt laws. But the government will not be therefor 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 Hegelian-tinted 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 anomoly, 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 Torontonian expatriate 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 high-profile personalities already mentioned. Pioneering feminist renderings of Hegel by Mary O'Brien (1981; 1989) and Patricia Mills (1979; 1986) are legendary. University of Washington scholar John Toews, who wrote the key study of Hegelianism (1985) and won a MacArthur Prize in the bargain, seems to be an exception tothe 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. And it also 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, is that the consciousness traveller 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. Cooper-a right-Hegelian influenced by the Russian-French philosopher Kojeve-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. Cooper 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, inwhich recognition of the collective rights of Quebecois nationalists would help "to build a new country . . . a more decentralized Canada." In Taylor's vision, 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."

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 embroglio led to some strange reversals. In the 1970s, 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.

[ Go to chapter 2 ]

Go Back To Published Works

Maintained by: David MacGregor <>
Last Update: 2000-10-31