Monday, April 12, 2010

Lessons from History, Or When Not to Read Too Closely

I was reflecting on last Tuesday’s John Ralston Saul talk at McMaster this weekend, and another idea occurred to me. The actual subject of his talk was understanding Canada as a Métis nation, a life grown of pluralism that was founded in the historical situation in the country for many years, where the indigenous peoples and the English and French settlers were on a level playing field. This shifted, he said, in the nineteenth century, as European philosophies of racial nationhood took hold. But he said that Canada had a very special essence in this founding atmosphere of pluralism and multiple identities.

I found Saul’s talk very intriguing and useful. But my social scientist, cultural theorist, and historian friends thought differently. They raised questions and commented to me that Saul’s theory was naive. They raised the valid point that his romanticizing the early indigenous-settler relationships as a creative multiplicity of identity and lifestyle (and it was quite romanticized) papered over the genuine terrifying harm that settler-descended people had done to the indigenous. They argued that history was much messier than Saul’s simple story, and I agreed with them.

But I hold firm that Saul’s talk was intriguing and useful - as philosophy. As history, it missed major complications that made a mockery of his account of the Canadian story. Of course, the complications of history as it actually occurred always make a mockery of any simple story. The point of a simple story is not to be an accurate retelling of events, and anyone who thinks that is the point doesn’t understand the messy muddiness of how history works.

A story like Saul’s is told not to recount the past, but to create the future. A plural Canada whose people embrace contradiction and multiplicity in their national and personal identity is a Canada where I would love to live. Saul told a just-so story to explain his philosophy of identity (because that’s what it was, not a genuine historical account). Such a philosophy is connected with Canadian history to give its audience an anchor in their own lives, a tool to apply the concept to their own lives, taking it out of the abstract and into actual application.

The problem with just-so stories that are delivered as interpretations of historical events is that they gloss over the events that don’t jive with the story. So those in the audience with a better mind for history than philosophy will dismiss the concept as poor history and leave it at that. It’s a long-standing problem for creative philosophers to find ways to articulate their concepts in a manner that people can latch onto them and incorporate them into their own lives. It can be tough to get our ideas out of the abstract.


Dusto said...

Nice assessment Adam. I have a hell of a time with the cultural studies crowd for this exact reason. Anyone from that side of the campus who has read Saul and knows his motivation should be utterly sympathetic towards most things he has to say, even if glossed for a one hour presentation. Seemingly, the wide spread post-modernization of the humanities/social-sciences have rendered progress impotent and knowledge unattainable. Thankfully philosophy is grounded enough to have only accepted it in limited circles or accepted the tenets endorsed by that side that pose legitimate problems. Unfortunately, most other disciplines haven't been so discerning it would seem. I appreciate your thoughts on the Raul's talk.

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