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The professor and the philosopher (Part Two)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted May 14, 2012

George Grant had thought deeply about these issues of the problem of subjectivity in late modernity. He had somehow retained a belief in a transcendent God, as Professor William Christian reminds us, in his March 18, 1992, "Feedback" piece ("The philosopher, the vacuum cleaner and the perfection of God.") in The Globe and Mail.

Although both George Grant and Thomas Hurka are arguably grounded in what is ultimately a similar epistemology (i.e., one recognizing the possibility of a discernible, objective standard), George Grant is extremely aware of the dangers and near-dystopic nature of late modernity. He does not repose -- over-sanguine, content, unalienated, and without serious reflection -- in the bosom of this late modernity. George Parkin Grant can be understood as a person who, confronting the near-insanity and surreal texture of life in our period, the repudiation of nearly all hitherto-existing notions of the good in the Twentieth Century, chose to anchor his hopes on the idea of an absolute, transcendent standard in the heavens, which he called "God."

Other possible positions of resistance are some types of "immanentism," which see something like human nature -- as understood by the thinker -- itself constituting a standard; some types of "historicism," which see human history and the rooted communities derived therefrom, as a standard; or "existentialism," which, while it realizes that there are no ultimate standards, makes the struggle a choice of will, and of commitment to one's own posited humanity and genuine inner freedom. There are, as well, the attempts to change the nature of the intra-philosophical discourse, for example by shifting from a metaphysical to an ontological focus. All these come back once again to the problem of finding a grounding for one's philosophical position and its ethical dimension, in this period of late modernity.

The notion that contemporary society is in some way "inclusive" or "pluralistic" -- that it does not strive to impose a single, ultimately narrow vision of the good on everyone -- is a misapprehension. One should note that in this way it differs from no other society, although one might perceive the "model" it offers as ultimately negative; as well as perceiving the quasi-totalitarian tightness of this attempted conditioning -- certainly in terms of normative as opposed to highly coercive controls. This tendency to thoroughgoing and total indoctrination into prevailing norms arguably goes beyond that attempted by the Inquisition (which was more concerned with formal obedience to external authority than innermost belief, and which also never claimed it was exercising a beneficent tolerance), because the prelates had no mass-marketing, mass-media, mass-education and state-therapeutic systems to supersaturate a person with their views from the ages of two to eighteen, after which -- theoretically at least -- they are given "the right to make their own choices."

And, although we can typically make any number of choices in sexual practices, luxury foods, market-labels, retirement options, or conventional entertainments and amusements -- which is often mistaken for "pluralism" – it is very difficult to voice and fight for any notion of the good that antedates this period of late modernity.

George Grant does not believe that in a hyper-technological society, values can be formed apart from technology. Professor Hurka believes that in one system (contemporary liberalism) technology can be used in what could be considered a "positive" way. The whole point of Grant's ideas is that the development of modern technology, however initially attractive, is ultimately destructive of people's humanity.

George Grant argues furthermore that "liberalism is the perfect ideology for capitalism," i.e., that there is a powerful nexus between the development of a certain type of liberalism and the development of a hyper-technological economy. Social liberalism (basically coterminous with increasing consumption) and the economic conservatism of the corporations go hand in hand. Herbert Marcuse (or Timothy Leary) and the chairman of General Motors are travelling on the same road to Aldous Huxley's "liberated" Brave New World, a metaphor of which is the never-ending orgy where "all of our various orifices are incessantly satisfied," but of course everything of real human worth and meaning has been lost.

As modern Western technology encroaches upon the world, our fate is most likely one of three alternatives: the relatively near-term extinction of human beings through some massive technologically-derived and/or ecological disaster; the extinction of human beings over the next few hundred years in grotesque satiation (if technology does indeed "solve" all of our problems, but without our ability to set any kind of limits on it); or the annihilation of the West and choking off of technological over-development by more vital, prolific peoples possessing a greater measure of life-instinct. The possibilities of Western social renewal, and of the West's own taming of its technology, now seem rather unlikely.

In a world of genetic experimentation (for example, the attempt to map out or "sequence" the entire human genetic code) -- of carrots with genes of mice; of flies engineered with eyes in places where they never naturally occur; of mice with genetically human blood (which can be seen as some of today's  violations of the orders of nature) -- and with the enormous "other realm" of electronics and media, now nibbling on the edges of ultimately post-human, infinitely malleable "virtual reality" -- Professor Hurka's criticism of George Grant seems petty.

It is only by maintaining some degree of reflection concerning technology and about the way the world is going (even as we are all forced to participate in it, to a greater or lesser extent) that anything recognizably human can be salvaged from the wreck to come. Professor Thomas Hurka is actively attacking an authentic thinker who gives these issues the most serious consideration.

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

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