Canada has always had a vital tradition of philosophy since the earliest days and has been as open to the currents of European thought as they ebbed and flowed as any other modern nation. The earliest period of her history was absorbed with the question of reform in the political and constitutional arena, so she drank of Benthamite Utilitarianism with her mother’s milk one might say. If Locke is America’s philosopher then it is perhaps not unreasonable to suggest that John Stuart Mill is Canada’s. But both Canada and European philosophy was evolving and so British Idealism came to Canada in the mid-19th Century in the form of John Watson of Queen’s University. In Canada as elsewhere Utilitarianism was followed by Hegelian Critical Idealism which in turn was followed by Positivism, Pragmatism, Marxism and Postmodernism or various blends and compounds of any number of these currents.
Charles Taylor (1931-) is a Canadian philosopher who has reached a wide audience through his civic and political engagements most recently in co-chairing the “Bouchard-Taylor Committee on Accommodation of Minorities in Quebec.” Taylor has also cut a large international profile due to his philosophical work over many decades.
For his part, George Grant (1918-1988) had a particular focus on religious faith, Canadian politics, technology and liberal education. Grant is one Canadian philosopher who stands out as having a very public profile via CBC interviews, Massey Lectures and so forth. His work has generated a considerable of commentary and scholarship since his death in 1982 indicating the breadth of his interests and the extent of his appeal. His work is has more of a specialized Canadian appeal in comparison with Taylor’s international reach, but both philosophers have contributed mightily to both Canadian public and intellectual life.
A great variety of opinions have always characterized Canadian politics and the roots of these opinions are to be found in an array of political and theological principles. Such “isms” as liberalism, conservatism, socialism, nationalism, progressivism, anti-Americanism, Imperialism, federalism, constitutionalism have all played their part in influencing the Canadian public debate. This becomes evident if we take the time to study various important figures in the tradition of Canadian political theory and practice ranging from Bishop Strachan, William Lyon Mackenzie, Egerton Ryerson, Lord Durham, Sir John A. Macdonald, Stephen Leacock and Frank Underhill on the one hand, to George Grant, Northrop Frye, Marshall McLuhan, Charles Taylor and Jane Jacobs on the other. These names almost symbolize the contending arguments and competing ideological perspectives in over two hundred years of Canadian public debate. Over the decades the prevailing status quo has never been the automatic option for many participants in the Canadian debate and demands for change and reform have been heard from the beginning of Canada’s national life.