Susan M. Dodd and Neil G. Robertson eds., Hegel and Canada: Unity of Opposites? Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018; 408 pp. ISBN: 978-1442644472.

Reviewed by Robert Burch, University of Alberta.

This volume consists of fifteen essays by English Canadian scholars and philosophers, constituting collectively a mosaic of Anglophone perspectives on the relation between Hegel and Canada. The book is divided into two parts: “Hegel and Canadian Political Philosophy,” and “Hegel in Canadian Politics.” Roughly speaking, the essays grouped under the former consider the Hegelianism of “Canada’s nation-building ethos in the second half of the twentieth century” (3) as “self-assuredly asserting the triumph of the modern state” as a “reconciliation of liberty and community.” (22-23) The latter essays consider “Canadian politics in practice,” principally “through the interpretative lenses,” of “five focal Hegelian scholars” (26): Emil Fackenheim, James Doull, George Grant, Charles Taylor, and Henry S. Harris. This division is more for editorial expedience than it is a strict topical divide, as material relevant to both topics can be gleaned from essays throughout the volume. Moreover, in the background of both parts is the need to rethink issues of unity and opposition in the Canadian polity from now on, in light of the results and recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Although one ought not to judge a book by its cover, the cover of this volume (its text and artwork together) prefigures both its basic problematic and its ostensive conclusion. The cover text connects “Hegel and Canada” in the main title to an underlying question in its subtitle—“unity of opposites?” This question can be posed abstractly for each of the conjuncts in the main title.

The unity of opposites is the central problematic of the Hegelian system. Its promise is to demonstrate such unity as the absolute synthesis of history and eternity, of finite contingent particularity and substantial universality, not merely as congruent, but as internally interconnected. That requires a thinking that is radically open to contingent particularity, yet passes through it and, in doing so, encompasses it essentially into one true all-comprehensive system of thought. A brief reminder of some Hegelian essentials will indicate, at least in principle, how this demonstration is supposed to work. Human beings are what they do, and what they do essentially is to realise reason, not just abstractly and theoretically at the pinnacle of reason’s trajectory, but concretely in various ways and at different ascending levels of rational mediation throughout the length and breadth of human experience. In all finite forms of this rational self-activity, contingent particularity is genuinely other, serving as a situating limit that enters into and structures that activity. But Hegel claims that there exists, actually in life—not timelessly, but in life in his own time—, an infinite form of rational self-activity in and for which all situating otherness has been absolutely mediated by reason. Otherness still exists, to be sure; but insofar as it no longer enters into and structures rational self-activity, it is inessential to our self-being.

Among Hegel interpreters, however, this claim to absolute synthesis has split into left- and right-wing versions, where “left” and “right” designate opposing sides with respect to the question of absolute synthesis as the question of the Hegelian middle. The former preserves finite historical movement and full openness to particularity and difference as always in some way inescapably structuring our rational self-activity, so as not to admit an absolute synthesis in life or in thought. What is thereby gained in the acceptance of contingent difference in itself would seem to be lost in the universal rational determination of what differences are essential and thus concretely universal in and for ethical life as a whole. That leaves open to question how the lines of mutual recognition across contingent differences can serve rationally to constitute an effective unity of ethical life, rather than a grudging modus operandi among opposites that have little, if anything, but contingent differences in common. The right-wing version preserves the circle of closed conceptual universality as comprehensive of the truth of the consciousness of freedom as it has been realized in principle in the modern world—that all human beings as such are free and have unconditioned worth. What is thereby gained in the understanding of the rational grounding of the truth of universal freedom (as the ground of unity) is potentially lost in closing off the possibility that there could be significant difference in ethical life that does not ultimately reduce all otherness essentially to rational self-sameness.

For two related reasons, then, Hegelian thought cannot be readily applied in the abstract to the actuality of Canada. The left- and right-wing split leaves it open to question what remains true of Hegelian thought in and for itself as a unity of opposites. Yet more significantly, whatever may be determined to be the truth of Hegelian thought, it cannot be established by imposing a predetermined theoretical framework ab extra onto a subject matter. Rather, in order to be demonstrably the truth, it must be worked out in essential relation to the subject matter that is to be understood. The true relation of Hegelian thinking to the Canadian actuality is no exception.

The actuality of the Canadian polity in and for itself is also a question of the unity of opposites. A form of that question was inscribed at the inception of Canada in the tension between sections 91 and 92 of the British North America Act of 1867. Thus, it is not whether the Canadian polity understands itself in some way or other as a unity of opposites, but how the question of that unity has been and in the future will be posed and answered, in a way that does justice both to the diverse constituencies in themselves and to the overreaching sense of the ethical life that constitutes the Canadian polity as such and as a whole.

I suspect that for most of the intended readers of this volume, a vibrant Canadian tradition of philosophical interest in Hegel can be traced back to the late 1940s, when Emil Fackenheim offered the first graduate courses on Hegel and German idealism at the University of Toronto. Over the years, these courses attracted increasing numbers of graduate students, many of whom went on to teach their own courses on Hegel elsewhere, with new teaching appointments in the area being established at other institutions. From this philosophical interest in Hegel arose interpretations and internecine debates that were not merely a local pre-occupation, but insofar as they involved an immanent engagement with Hegel on his own terms, came to have a significant influence on the reading of Hegel in general. Not only do the current competing Hegelian understandings of the actuality of Canada have their source in this tradition and its debates, but also with a few exceptions, each of the contributors to this volume can in one way or another trace a lineage back to it.

In fact, the relation between Canada and Hegel had an earlier beginning; namely, in what one contributor (Elizabeth Trott) calls the “Hegelian adaptations” (163) of Queen’s philosophy professor John Watson (1872-1924), and in the post-WWI constitutional rulings of the British jurist, Viscount Haldane, a “self-proclaimed ‘Hegelian’.” (26) (Haldane ruled on more than 50 Canadian constitutional appeals during his tenure as an ex officio member of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council of Britain which, until 1949, was Canada’s ultimate court of appeal.) Co-editor Susan Dodd writes in her Introduction that Watson “transformed” the Hegelianism of his mentor, Edward Caird, “into a liberal openness grounded in a robust ethical culture committed to ‘peace, order, and good government’.” (27) Another contributor (Robert Sibley) argues that Watson’s “liberal openness” lent itself rather too readily to a “liberal imperialism” of a WASPish sort. In this regard, the case of Viscount Haldane is even more telling. As he wore his Hegelian mantle in his Canadian rulings, Haldane tended to favour one-sidedly the provinces’ demands for an independent exercise of powers against the authority granted the federal government under the “peace order and good government” proviso of the BNA Act. Yet, wearing his Hegelian mantle at home, Haldane was a staunch defender of the sovereign authority of the United Kingdom against all partisan interests, including those of the Celtic minorities. This duality of Hegelianism in Haldane the man is a rough analogue for Canada’s persistent Hegelian dilemma.

The cover art of this volume is a reproduction of John Hartman’s 2006, oil on linen, “The Narrows,” placed directly under the cover-text, as if in answer to its sub-titular question. Yet, far from depicting a readily discernible unity of opposites, Hartman’s impressionist rendering of Halifax harbour aesthetically evokes a tenuous unity as a matter of bridges built, seemingly ad hoc, across a contingent motley divide. In just this way, the painting graphically reveals the basic Hegelian problematic that is this volume’s animating theme. For, collectively, its essays do not furnish a systematic clarification of a determinate Hegel-Canada relation, neither as an actuality to be retrospectively thought through, nor as the actual ethical demand by which the institutions of current Canadian political life are organized and judged. Instead, the volume provides, as it were, a multi-chromatic overview of the Hegel-Canada relation as the site of a complex problem set, embodied still in the very life of the Canadian polity.

The unifying sense of that overview is provided by the editors. Susan Dodd’s “Introduction: Unity of Opposites? Hegel and Canada,” outlines the volume’s structure and themes, introducing the key Hegelian voices involved and the key Canadian issues at stake. Neil G. Robertson’s “Conclusion: Canada and the Unity of Opposites?” summarizes what collectively might be gleaned from the essays in this volume from their very opposition. Not surprisingly, he concludes that what we learn is that “without [Canadian Hegelianism]…we are incomprehensible to ourselves.” (375)

This conclusion is teasingly ambiguous. Robertson does not claim that in virtue of Canadian Hegelianism we are comprehensible to ourselves once and for all, but says only that “without it” we are “incomprehensible to ourselves,” as we have come to be. Moreover, what we learn of Canadian Hegelianism from the volume itself is that even among the most competent of Canadian interpreters, there is no single definitive understanding of the truth of Hegelian thought upon which all interpreters agree, nor is there any single definitive Hegelian understanding of the Canadian polity as an unity of opposites. Ostensibly, then, the volume concludes as it begins, with the question of an Hegelian understanding of the actuality of Canada as unity of opposites still in question.

However, the real profit of this volume is that it allows us, from the variety of its essays, to pose the question more pointedly. In the light of it, one could now ask whether and in what sense the existent Canadian polity “in our time” is truly the actuality of the rational as a unity of opposites that can be “raised to the level of thought” (vii) in Hegelian terms, and whether the Canadian polity is thereby confirmed to be the rationality of the actual. To ask that question is to ask what in our time constitutes, for the Canadian polity, significant difference that needs to be recognized and reconciled in its ethical life, and whether that recognition and reconciliation has a rational basis that allows for effective unity. Amid such questions, what seems to remain Hegelian in the Canadian self-understanding is the basic conviction that modern freedom is only truly realized by individuals as they relate to each other in various communities and constituencies at various levels of experience, as these serve as effective centres of interest and activity. It is in virtue of such relations that freedom as rational self-determination has its meaning in the first place, and is likewise able to open concretely upon ever more expansive shared worlds, coming to fulfillment in the unity of ethical life as a whole. Yet, as Hegel well knew in his own time, such is the abstractive power of the understanding (Verstehen) against the universal integrative power of the self-activity of reason (Vernunft)—that one’s partisan commitments to partial communities and constituencies, instead of being the finite loci of a freedom that rationally integrates itself into the universality of ethical life, devolve into angry parochial prisons.