Intellectual History | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Intellectual History

Intellectual History is a record of the thought of groups and individuals who may or may not be academics or "intellectuals.
Groulx, Lionel
Groulx kept posing the worrisome question of French and Catholic survival in an urban, industrial, Anglo-Saxon environment (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-16657).
Northrop Frye, writer
Frye's enormous influence derived from his insistence that literary criticism is a symbolically co-ordinated discipline that outlines the shape of the human imagination itself (photo by Andrew Danson).

Intellectual History

Intellectual History is a record of the thought of groups and individuals who may or may not be academics or "intellectuals." The study of intellectual history often includes the treatment of sensibilities, emotions and ideological or cultural preoccupations as well as systematic thought, and touches on the concerns of historians in areas such as SCIENCE, POLITICS, EDUCATION, ECONOMICS PHILOSOPHY, RELIGION, LITERATURE and JOURNALISM.

French Canada

Intellectual history in Québec, somewhat unfocused before 1760, became more distinctive after the CONQUEST. Its development was marked by the establishment of printing (1764) and was strongly affected by local political events (establishment of a house of assembly) and international ones (American Revolution, 1775-83, and French Revolution, 1789). Intellectual debate focused on civic or political issues; the press - The Quebec Mercury (1805), Québec's Le Canadien (1806), Montréal's La Minerve (1826) - was the most important medium of expression of the new liberalism. After about 1820, schooling led to increasingly polarized ideological stands, with a rising bourgeoisie in the liberal professions pitted against a still somewhat disorganized Roman Catholic Church preoccupied by its educational responsibility. At the time of the Lower Canada REBELLIONS OF 1837, a time of economic crises and parliamentary impasses, anglophone cultural institutions were particularly active.

During the Union period (1841-67) the gazettes were intellectually lively, and cultural institutions were increasingly polarized between an ultramontane Catholic Church consolidating its position and a bourgeoisie weakened by the rebellion. The long search for a "national" literature began in the 1840s, and gained momentum with the publication of HISTOIRE DU CANADA (1845-48) by François-Xavier GARNEAU. New papers kept appearing. There was a proliferation of voluntary associations, such as the liberal INSTITUT CANADIEN, where members could read local and foreign newspapers, borrow library books or take part in rhetoric-laden discussions. The generation of 1845 had access to a much larger network of schools under the new Surintendant de l'instruction publique (1841), to classical colleges and to UNIVERSITÉ LAVAL (fd 1852).

The entire 19th century was marked by the ideology of a church inclined toward Rome, supporting the priority of church over state, justifying thereby its intervention in intellectual, academic and social domains. Post-1870 liberal thinkers failed to implant the values of the bourgeois revolutions: respect for the freedoms of conscience, opinion, speech and association, and the idea of the separation of church and state. Wilfrid LAURIER was the first (in 1877) to attempt a courageous public distinction between political liberalism - that of the Liberal Party - and Catholic liberalism, condemned by a church closely linked with the Conservative Party.

After 1867 political life and especially partisan politics dominated. The public torpor was shaken by the 1885 hanging of Louis RIEL, the defeat of French minorities on the school question in Manitoba, New Brunswick, Keewatin and Ontario, and the sharp awareness that the French language - and "race" - were threatened, even in Québec. Henri BOURASSA clashed with Laurier over IMPERIALISM and NATIONALISM. Bourassa became the rallying point for a new nonpartisan political awareness. With Olivar Asselin, founder of Le Nationaliste (1904), and Jules Fournier, Bourassa founded LE DEVOIR (1910), the first exception to the rule of a partisan and "servile" press. A new linguistic awareness set the tone for the establishment (1902) of the Société du parler français, the first Congrès de la langue française (1912) and the creation of the Ligue des droits du français (1913). A new religious awareness among young people led to CATHOLIC ACTION, realized in the nationalist Association catholique de la jeunesse canadienne-française (1903-04).

The great intellectual movement of 1917-28 was ACTION FRANÇAISE, which, according to its guiding light, Abbé Lionel GROULX, was to synthesize the scattered ideas of nationalist thinkers. This "intellectual action" was also the uneasy response to transformations in Québec society caused by urbanization, industrialization, Americanization and conscription. These social phenomena had preoccupied Action française and concerned workers' unions and then legislators before the church finally put together a Catholic SOCIAL DOCTRINE. The church's hesitant involvement in social issues is the key to intellectual history after the Great Depression. It brought the church closer to working-class circles and provided training for young lay people to learn the elements of political action. But until the mid-1930s, all these "actions" - Catholic, intellectual, social or national - were ideologically continuous with the 19th century, when the church had dominated the educational and social fields.

Evidence of a growing state role in cultural life was the new dynamism of the provincial secretariat, where Athanase David directed, 1919-36, an "intellectual action." In this context discussions took place about the existence of a unique French-Canadian literature. Modern social patterns received little examination but nevertheless were felt in a lifestyle whose pace was set by movies, automobiles and new household technologies. Modernism was already present in painting in 1928, the year painter Paul-Émile BORDUAS left to study in France.

The Depression deeply disturbed the generation then coming of age, whose search for a program of social, economic and spiritual recovery was taken up by the new ACTION LIBÉRALE NATIONALE (1934) and in movements and journals (JEUNE-CANADA, L'ACTION NATIONALE, LA RELÈVE). This generation was the last to believe in "the primacy of the spiritual." The social situation finally undermined the ULTRAMONTANISM of a church increasingly mocked by the Depression. All who participated from the early 1940s in the lay action movements - Catholic, student, worker or rural - lived through the near paralysis of spiritual values as those values were overwhelmed by temporal and material life. The "social" church cracked during the ASBESTOS STRIKE (1949) and finally broke at the end of the 1950s. The shock of the Depression also served to root the university in reality as its faculties of applied sciences multiplied and the social sciences started to develop.

The Depression also created an uneasiness about the future, which led intellectuals toward a new subjectivity expressed by the poets, eg, Hector de Saint-Denys GARNEAU and Alain GRANDBOIS, at the time of the war. In painting, the move from figurative to abstract around the end of the 1930s, eg, by Borduas and Alfred PELLAN, was as radical an intellectual break as the social challenge of the REFUS GLOBAL manifesto published in August 1948.

The intellectual and cultural landscape of Québec at the start of the 1950s was radically altered by postwar prosperity and consumption, movies, radio, the automobile, and the arrival of television in September 1952 - the later QUIET REVOLUTION would reveal a monument already virtually in place. The first writings seriously examining the intellectual history of Québec had appeared at the end of WWII. In 1945, amid works by Benjamin Sulte, Claude de Bonnault, Robert de Roquebrune, Séraphin Marion and Auguste Viatte, Marcel Trudel published L'Influence de Voltaire au Canada.

The writers of intellectual history began to focus on precise topics: the cultural significance of the Conquest (Claude Galarneau); the reverberations of the French Revolution in Québec and the state of subsequent cultural relations with France (Mason Wade, Michel Brunet, Gustave Lanctot and, after 1960, Jean-Pierre Wallot, John Hare and Philippe Sylvain); the start of a printing industry and the beginning of NEWSPAPERS (Wade, Brunet and Lanctot); and, in the 1970s and 1980s, liberalism and ultramontanism (Sylvain, Pierre Savard, Jean-Paul Bernard, Nadia Eid, Yvan Lamonde and Marcel Lajeunesse).

A passion to defend the liberals of 1837 and thereafter coincided with the beginnings of the Quiet Revolution, that great "collective undertaking" that was to inspire new research into ideologies; this trend, publicized in Recherches sociographiques, first peaked in 1969 with a special issue, "Idéologies au Canada français 1850-1900." Other publications about the ideologies of the 19th and 20th centuries followed. This research, based on accounts of major figures, groups and movements, soon revealed its limitation: a privileged position for the written word. Intellectual history thus found itself challenged to include those who had no voice. In the 1980s Québec's intellectual history was at this point in the debate: Is there a satisfactory intellectual or cultural history which is not first of all a SOCIAL HISTORY.


English Canada

Much of Anglo-Canadian thought in the first century after the Conquest in 1760 attempted to preserve British and Christian values in a colonial environment, or to establish some acceptable middle ground between a European heritage and an American geographical circumstance. Some of the first such exercises were in the form of humorous social satires (see HUMOROUS WRITING), such as Thomas MCCULLOCH's "Letters of Mephibosheth Stepsure" (1821-23) and Thomas Chandler HALIBURTON's THE CLOCKMAKER (1836). McCulloch helped initiate a tradition of moralistic social criticism present in English-Canadian intellectual history since 1820.

McCulloch was a Presbyterian minister and, as founder of Pictou Academy and first principal of DALHOUSIE UNIVERSITY, a major Canadian educator. Elsewhere in English Canada, serious intellectual effort also arose at the pulpit and the lectern. Between 1850 and 1900 many intellectuals were preoccupied with the apparent conflict between science and religion, especially with regard to the implications of evolutionary theory (see EVOLUTION; SOCIAL DARWINISM) and HIGHER CRITICISM. Clerics and professors sought to defend social and religious orthodoxy against an increasingly materialistic science by upholding the premises and conclusions of the Scottish "common sense" school of philosophy, the antispeculative Baconian method in science and an evangelical pietism in religion.

From 1870 to WWI there appeared accommodation to the philosophy of evolution, most noticeably through a Hegelian idealism professed by philosophers such as George Paxton YOUNG and John WATSON. This idealism dominated academic thought and writing in English Canada into the 20th century, for it appeared to reconcile religious and scientific claims by subsuming the latter within the former. The ROYAL SOCIETY OF CANADA facilitated the development of a national academic community. New publishing ventures, most notably the Canadian Monthly and National Review (1872), The Week (1888), QUEEN'S QUARTERLY (1893) and University Magazine (1907), provided creative outlets for social critics, including William Dawson LESUEUR, Goldwin SMITH, Agnes Maule MACHAR and Andrew MACPHAIL. While differing in emphasis and audience, these magazines reflected a consensus of values marked by a broadly conservative social philosophy set within an acceptance (sometimes an uneasy one) of the workings of a capitalist market economy.

These years also saw the emergence of a preoccupation by English Canadians with the nature and implications of nationalism. By the turn of the century this took the form of an intense debate between those such as George PARKIN and G.M. GRANT who placed Canadian nationalism within the context of the British Empire, and those such as Goldwin Smith and John S. EWART who insisted that nationalism was hollow unless it pointed towards constitutional autonomy and away from colonial status. For the half century following WWI, English Canadian thought was thus beset with competing forms of nationalism, one based on sentiment and the other on rationalism. In this respect, historians Harold INNIS and Donald Creighton may be seen as intellectual heirs of Parkin and Grant, just as F.H. UNDERHILL and Ramsay COOK follow Smith and Ewart.

The emergence of the professional writing of history was testimony to the increasing importance of the university in shaping the direction of English-Canadian thought (see HISTORIOGRAPHY). By the 1920s, the University of Toronto had begun to dominate academic affairs, particularly in the humanities and social sciences; McGill University maintained its high status in medical and scientific research; and Queen's University established a tradition - largely inspired by the example of Adam SHORTT and O.D. SKELTON, but derived from the idealist heritage - of commitment by intellectuals to public service in government agencies. This latter trend was paralleled in religious affairs by the Protestant SOCIAL GOSPEL movement, which held an organic view of society, a belief in the immanence of God and a desire to achieve the Kingdom of God on Earth. One result was a further erosion of traditional denominational commitment and the creation in 1925 of the UNITED CHURCH OF CANADA, which committed itself to Christian engagement in the activities of secular social agencies. Implicit in the Social Gospel was a criticism of Canadian society, a criticism that took the form of a Christian socialism typified in the careers of J.S. WOODSWORTH and Salem BLAND.

Between the wars, research in the emerging social sciences, particularly political economy and history, became more empirical - if not materialistic - in causal inference. Writing in the humanities tended to bear witness to the continued importance of idealism. But some intellectuals became actively engaged in public social issues, particularly during the Great Depression of the 1930s. By the mid-1930s the LEAGUE FOR SOCIAL RECONSTRUCTION, consisting largely of progressive university academics such as Eugene FORSEY and F.R. SCOTT, had in the collectively written Social Planning for Canada formulated a major critique of Canadian society and public affairs. Such social concern, together with the considerable intellectual effort that undergirded the federal Royal Commission on DOMINION-PROVINCIAL RELATIONS (reported 1940), pointed toward a major redirection of social assumption and constitutional arrangement after 1945.

Directions in English Canadian intellectual life after WWII were largely derived from a recognition of the American domination of world affairs. The Royal Commission on NATIONAL DEVELOPMENT IN THE ARTS, LETTERS AND SCIENCES (the "Massey Commission," reported 1951) warned of the threat to Canadian cultural life by American-dominated mass media. Throughout the 1950s, as a result, a vigorous cultural nationalism was given forceful expression by a number of social commentators, especially Hilda NEATBY, historian and member of the Massey Commission, who in So Little for the Mind (1953) criticized the Canadian educational system for accepting the American values implicit in the "progressive education" movement.

The creation of the CANADA COUNCIL in 1957 reflected this enlarged concern for the future of Canadian cultural traditions. But by 1957 nationalist thought was beginning to shift from cultural to economic matters. Walter GORDON's Royal Commission on CANADA'S ECONOMIC PROSPECTS (reported 1957) was a strong statement of the need for ECONOMIC NATIONALISM.

Throughout the 1960s a lively and productive debate took place on the merits of national industrial policy and on the problems - political, sociological and philosophical - inherent in a technology of mass communications dominated by the US. Was it possible to maintain real autonomy in the era of the "universal and homogeneous State"? This question was posed in different forms by philosopher and critic George P. GRANT, most forcefully in LAMENT FOR A NATION (1965). Economic, political and historical writing during these years by Mel Watkins, Abraham Rotstein, Donald CREIGHTON, W.L. MORTON, Ramsay Cook and others provided abundant fuel for animated debate both in the academic community and before the public.

The intellectual efflorescence of the 1960s, coupled with a vast expansion of the country's university system, bore much fruit in the 1970s. The work of Marshall MCLUHAN, himself inspired by Harold Innis, helped assure that Canadians would pay attention to the theory and technology of communication; that of Northrop FRYE nourished a self-confident generation of novelists, poets and critics whose work fused intellect and imagination. The greater division of labour afforded by larger university faculties vastly increased the quality and quantity of scholarly "production." With this specialization, however, also came a more tentative approach to large-scale generalization in all academic fields. In history, for example, the older theme of "nation-building" as fundamental to the thematic ordering of scholarship broke down in the face of intensive research based on newly discovered regional, thematic and ideological "realities."

Canadian scholarship has entered an age of analysis rather than synthesis. Still concerned with questions of nationalism, English Canadians also seek to establish degrees of limitation in social identity and to articulate the cultural differences imposed on the nation by region and ethnicity. This more cautious approach to reflections on national life holds true in the realms of the intellect, the imagination and public affairs.


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