Philosophy | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Philosophy, in its original Greek use, meant love of wisdom, both theoretical and practical.


Philosophy, in its original Greek use, meant love of wisdom, both theoretical and practical. On the theoretical side (sometimes called "natural philosophy") philosophers inquired into the origin, composition and structure of the universe, and into the nature of human beings and their place in the universe. On the practical side ("moral philosophy") they considered questions of conduct, such as the nature of the good life for individuals and how we should organize our dealings with each other, both in the private sphere and in public institutions such as the state. Sometimes philosophers were thought of as sages, persons of wisdom and good judgment who, perhaps, like the philosopher Socrates facing execution, show equanimity in the face of adversity - as when we accept a disappointment "philosophically."

Evolution of Philosophy as a Discipline
The original idea of philosophy has evolved. Much, but not all, of the theoretical inquiry has become the work of the special sciences such as physics, chemistry, biology and psychology. Formal philosophical inquiry, with which we will be primarily concerned here, has itself become an academic discipline that requires special training that can involve critical, reflective thinking about many other disciplines and about the basic categories or concepts of all thought. Much else that remains in philosophy has normative consequences, concerning how we ought to conduct ourselves in the various aspects of our lives, such as reasoning, believing and acting. (See ETHICS, SOCIAL AND POLITICAL.)

Philosophy Is Everybody's Business
Nevertheless, in spite of academic specialization, philosophy remains everyone's business in the sense that an individual may have a philosophy of life, even though it may not reach the standards of critical reflection required in professional philosophy. This may include a general view of the world and the place of individuals in it, a conception of the good life and the ideal society, as well as a life plan and a set of policies for belief and action. We may receive such a philosophy of life, perhaps without much reflection, from our traditional group, often a religious one. Philosophy is part of general culture. Canada's aboriginal peoples have one or more philosophies in this sense and may have special rights as a result of treaties. Various immigrant groups also brought their philosophies with them. More recently, immigrants from East and South Asia, the Middle East, the Caribbean and other parts of the world have injected new perspectives. Moreover, as a trading nation, Canadians have always been aware of and influenced by many of the currents of thought that arise in other parts of the world.

Canadian Pluralism
Canada is pluralistic in several different ways. Politically, it is a federation - one of the most decentralized in the world - with ten provinces and three territories, each with substantial powers. Unlike the United States with only two significant political parties, Canada has four represented in the Federal Parliament: Liberal, Conservative, New Democratic and le Bloc Québécois, with various other parties, such as the Green Party, competing for seats at various times.

Socially, Canada has been described as a "community of communities." At the federal level (and in New Brunswick) it is officially bilingual, where numbers warrant. Aboriginal peoples are described as "first nations." Quebec is recognized as a "nation within Canada." Officially, Canada is a "multicultural" country, and is sometimes described as a mosaic rather than a melting pot. (Some fear that an emphasis on civic rights in contrast to civic duties will make Canada a hotel rather than a home.) While capitalism with its individualism is the dominant economic system, this is attenuated by an infusion of some social democratic programs such as universal Medicare.

What binds the country as a polity and underlying civil society? (1) There is general acceptance of the principles of parliamentary democracy. (2) There is the Constitution including the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. (3) There is an economic union and a common foreign policy. (4) There is mutual aid in the form of national programs and transfer payments from "have" to "have-not" provinces. (5) There is tolerance of differences in religion, ethnicity, customs and traditions and the non-official languages spoken in various communities. But there is also to some extent, going beyond mere tolerance, understanding and mutual respect that develops into the degree of trust among individuals and communities that is necessary for the maintenance of a civil society.

These arrangements and practices could be said to reflect Canada's consensual social and political philosophy. However, because of Canada's democratic character and the Charter's guarantee of freedom of speech and opinion, dissent from even this philosophy is tolerated.

Philosophical pluralism

Not surprisingly, then, professional philosophers in Canada have held a wide variety of divergent views on the philosophical issues in the various specialized branches of the subject. Therefore, it is sometimes better to speak of "philosophy in Canada" rather than "Canadian philosophy." Nevertheless, from an historical perspective one can discern various traditions, movements, schools of thought or "isms" which have been prominent in the country at various times. Only the barest sketch of them is possible here.

For over 100 years until Québec's QUIET REVOLUTION - which was influenced by intellectual currents both inside and outside Québec - Thomism was dominant among the Roman Catholic population. At the end of the 19th century Objective Idealism was important, transcending other views, such as Scottish Commonsensism. In the 1930s and particularly after WW II, various movements from Europe entered into Canadian intellectual life. Of note would be various forms of Analytic Philosophy, such as Logical Empiricism and Ordinary Language Philosophy from the UK. Phenomenology spread from its origins in Germany. Existentialism, Post-Structuralism and Post-Modernism came mainly from France. In the 1960s and 1970s Neo-Marxism and Feminism became important. Feminism has been influential, both theoretically and practically, especially as more women have entered the ranks of professional philosophy.

Some of these schools of thought (eg, Logical Empiricism, Phenomenology) start out by declaring a radical departure from traditional philosophy. Most movements have a tendency to fracture into sub-groups with internal disputes. But none of these movements is entirely insular, so in the end there tends to be some critical discourse and mutual influences amongst them.

Overview of Articles on Philosophy in Canada
In describing philosophy in Canada it is convenient to divide it in three ways. First, we divide it into two periods, before 1950 and after 1950, because there were significant differences between these two periods. Second, for the period after 1950, we divide the subject into particular branches of philosophy to reflect the specialization that occurred. And third, we have separate contributions from French Canada and English Canada to reflect historical and social differences and as a mark of respect for the bilingual character of the country.

Before 1950 in French and English Canada

Philosophy in Canada before 1950 had some special characteristics. (See PHILOSOPHY: HISTORY BEFORE 1950.) There were few professional philosophers in Canada. They often worked in, or under the influence of, a denominational religious institution. They were separated by geography and sometimes language. These facts, together with the relative poverty of communications and institutional structures, kept them relatively isolated from each other. Most were primarily teachers of philosophy with heavy teaching loads, who were committed to preserving and transmitting, as part of intellectual culture, an historical overview of philosophy or a particular philosophical heritage. Nevertheless, in Canada during this period there were significant philosophical developments, and some philosophers were public figures who contributed to the intellectual life and specific culture of the country.

After 1950 in French and English Canada

Around 1950 Canada's growing wealth, a population boom and a new interest in culture and education led to significant changes. The REFUS GLOBAL in 1948 of Paul-Émile BORDUAS signalled a revolt against orthodoxy in Québec that eventually led to the Parent Commission of Enquiry on Education in Québec (appointed 1961) and sweeping secularization there. Federally, The Massey Royal Commission on NATIONAL DEVELOPMENT IN THE ARTS LETTERS AND SCIENCES (appointed in 1949) and the founding of the CANADA COUNCIL FOR THE ARTS (1957) were milestones that greatly increased the funding of higher education, science and the humanities across the country.

With the rapid growth of universities, the number of philosophers grew and they became increasingly professional and secular. They often devoted themselves to esoteric technical problems, considered themselves to be members of an international academy, rather than a national one, made no pretence of being sages, had little interest in local affairs, and communicated seldom with the general public.

But changes in communications and travel, the founding of professional associations (eg, the Canadian Philosophical Association, 1957), and later regional associations in Atlantic Canada, Western Canada, Québec and Ontario, as well as personal contacts at professional meetings such as the CPA Annual Congress, helped develop a national philosophical community. The founding of the journals Dialogue (1962) and The Canadian Journal of Philosophy (1971) was also important. The CPA policy of passive bilingualism and the rotation of offices between Anglophones and Francophones, as well as substantial common interests in philosophy, have created relative harmony and some fruitful interaction between the two linguistic groups. Thus they have learned to live together and to understand, if not always to agree with, each other.

Canadian philosophers today tend to have several affiliations: to an international informal academy devoted to the particular problems or school of thought that interests them, to their university department, and finally to a Canadian countrywide or regional community. Often the first of these is dominant, because many philosophers are immigrants with few local ties and because many consider philosophy to be a universal enterprise that transcends local concerns.

Nevertheless, three trends run counter to this. First, there is interest amongst historians and some philosophers in Canadian intellectual history. (See CANADIAN STUDIES.)

Second, Canada with its vast spaces had always had to face special problems of communication, which have been addressed by prominent communications theorists, such as Harold INNIS and Marshall MCLUHAN. New forms of electronic communication (eg, email and the World Wide Web) are helping to create international virtual communities. They are also helping philosophers to create regional and national ones, too. This may bring a new dimension to the idea of Canada as a community of communities.

Finally, there is a growing interest in applied philosophy, perhaps stimulated in part by demands for "public accountability." This movement may help draw professional philosophers and the general public closer together. This trend is clearest in ethics, particularly MEDICAL ETHICS. But applied philosophers have also addressed in an intelligible way some of the real problems facing other professions and the business community. Since early in the Twentieth Century Canada has provided a fertile field for work in political philosophy. (See John WATSON, George GRANT, and Charles TAYLOR.)

Branches of Philosophy

As already pointed out, after 1950 philosophy in Canada became a more specialized, technical discipline. It is therefore useful to consider its several branches or sub-disciplines. We will do so in terms of the questions posed, rather than the various answers given, in order to be inclusive rather than biased towards a particular view.

Social and Political Philosophy

Social and Political Philosophy is closely connected to ethics. What is a just society? What obligations do we have to each other? Must states be grounded in pre-existing civil societies, such as nations, peoples, tribes, clans or families? How is what is good for individuals related to what is good for their community? Are there both individual rights and group rights? If so, how should they be related? What political/legal regime should a country have? What should be the principles of its constitution? These questions are particularly acute in a bilingual/multicultural country such as Canada.


Logic studies principles for correct reasoning and inference, whether deductive, inductive or informal and rhetorical. Under what conditions do the premises of an argument entail its conclusion (ie, are such that if the premises are true, the conclusion is certain to be true)? Under what conditions do premises support, with probability if not certainty, the conclusion? What are the features that make an argument or inference a good one rather than a bad one? Logic has become in many respects very technical even quasi-mathematical dealing, for example, with deductive axiomatic systems, the probability calculus and the intricacies of the syntactics, semantics and pragmatics of language. Logicians in Canada, as elsewhere, have engaged in fruitful collaborations with computer scientists and mathematicians.


Epistemology (theory of knowledge) studies standards for the evaluation of evidence, for reasonable belief and the attainment of truth. What is truth? What are the criteria or tests for truth? It raises questions about knowledge: What is knowledge? Can we really know anything? What can we know? How can we know (ie, what are the sources of knowledge)? What is justified belief? What role do Reason, Experience, Intuition, Faith, etc. play in the justification of belief? The focus is usually on the normative - what we ought to believe or have a right to believe - but the issues may be considered against the background, from psychology and other sciences, of evidence about our cognitive powers and practices.


Metaphysics was traditionally concerned with ontology (What sorts of things exist or are real?) and cosmology (What is the origin, development and end of the universe?). In some large measure these questions have been taken over by the special sciences, such as astrophysics. But questions remain: What is Being as such? What do we mean when we say that something exists? Or is real? Is there a difference between these two? Is the mode of existence of human beings different from that of other things? If so, what implications might that have? Metaphysics raises questions about appearance and reality, and about general order in the universe (Does every event have a cause?) and freedom (Do we have free will?). Metaphysics has always been concerned with the most general, abstract and basic categories of objects (or at least objects of thought), such as thing, person, property, relation, event, space, time, action, mind or spirit and necessity/possibility/actuality.


Normative ethics asks: What is good? What is ultimately good or valuable, and what is only derivatively or instrumentally good? What is the good life for human beings? What makes a person virtuous? What actions are right and wrong? What rights and duties do we have? What is justice? How should benefits and burdens, rights and duties, be fairly distributed amongst a population? Theoretical ethics (sometimes called "meta-ethics") asks critical and reflective questions about these normative issues, using principles from other branches of philosophy. Logic: What are the correct principles for ethical reasoning? Epistemology: Are there ethical truths? If so, how can we know them? Metaphysics: What, if anything, must we presuppose about the nature of the universe to ground or justify ethical claims? Are they mere matters of social convention? Or are they founded on Nature or Reason or the dictates of God or something else?

Synoptic Philosophy

Synoptic philosophy consists in various attempts to provide some systematic, overarching, coherent set of answers to philosophical questions. Such a philosophy may have a metaphysical theory - a set of basic categories, an ontology and cosmology, and a theory of reality that accounts for and explains the world as it appears to us. It may draw upon and incorporate the sciences of the day. It may have a logic that sets standards and limits for the correct use of reason and it may have a theory of knowledge that lays out what can be known and how it can be known. It may have a philosophical anthropology (perhaps based on empirical anthropology as known at the time) that defines human nature and our place in the universe. From this it may propose a set of norms for the good life, our rights and obligations and a just society. Some such philosophies have been "handmaidens" to a religion. Others have been "debunkers" that reject religion, and some (perhaps logical empiricism and phenomenology) discard the traditional questions of philosophy altogether and try to set up the subject on a new foundation. Often such a philosophy is associated with a particular thinker, such as Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Husserl or Heidegger, or a "school" of philosophy, such as ordinary language philosophy or existentialism.

Philosophies of X

Philosophies of X - where X can be science, religion, history, art, education, mind, language, etc. - are critical, reflective studies of a particular subject matter in which questions are raised about the logical, epistemological, metaphysical and ethical presuppositions of that subject. Many such questions can be raised: What is distinctive about scientific knowledge? Is it superior to other forms of knowledge, perhaps the only form of reliable knowledge? Are religious beliefs a matter of reason or faith or experience or something else? Are historical explanations different from scientific ones? Must art have a moral purpose? What should be the aims of education? Is there a special form of reasoning used in the law? Should the law enforce morals? Is there a basic difference between mind and matter? Are mental events dependent on, perhaps even identical with, brain events? What is a person and what constitutes personal identity? How do arbitrary symbols (such as words) acquire meaning and perhaps reference to what is possible but not actual? How important is some sort of language to being human? Much modern philosophy in Canada has been "piecemeal philosophy" devoted to trying to answer such particular questions as these.

History of Philosophy

History of philosophy seems to be more important to philosophy than, say, history of physics is to physics. The synoptic philosophies of a group or age - or at least proposed solutions to specific problems - are important cultural artefacts. Some philosophers regard themselves as guardians of culture, ie, as preserving, adapting and transmitting a philosophy that is historically rooted. They may believe that there is a perennial philosophy, good for all times and places, or at least good for a particular people. Others do history because they believe there are instructive errors made in the past from which we can learn. In any case, much of the teaching of philosophy has been devoted to understanding, interpreting, adapting, transmitting and criticising the views of particular philosophers or schools of philosophy. This attention is warranted, as these views are, at least, important parts of intellectual culture.


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