Grant, George

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Philosopher and Canadian nationalist, George Grant (1918–1988), born in Toronto, Ontario on November 13, rose to prominence in the 1960s through his concern that the homogenizing nature of modern technology would lead to the destruction of Canadian independence. He came from a family of prominent Canadian educators. A Rhodes scholar, Grant taught at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. His meditations on the character of technology led to election to the Royal Society of Canada, several honorary degrees, and an appointment to the Order of Canada.

Grant saw the origins of the Western predicament as follows: Natural law philosophers such as philosopher and religious Thomas Aquinas (c.1225–1274), following the tradition of antiquity, taught that there were moral laws beyond space and time that were absolutely and universally binding on all human beings. In the seventeenth century a British philosopher, Francis Bacon (1561–1626), envisaged a radically new scientific project equally binding: In the future, science was to make human beings the masters of nature. Their moral authority for this dominion was enhanced by the eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), who maintained that the essential characteristic of human beings was their freedom and that they were bound only by moral rules to which they had freely assented. Aquinas, Bacon, and Kant together had forged the modern world.

Each of their positions seemed, by itself, true and necessary for human well-being. Yet they were, in principle and in practice, incompatible. Grant's philosophical contribution was to reveal the implications of these contradictions and alert his contemporaries to the need for a resolution. Grant was genuinely perplexed. As his early writings show, he understood technology as the dominance over human nature, but the tools it developed—the automobile, the washing machine, penicillin—led to genuine improvements in the human condition and in human freedom. Yet the same technology also brought the holocaust and the atomic bomb. He laid out these contradictions in his first important work, Philosophy in the Mass Age (1958), but offered no resolution.

Grant's View of Technology

One quality of modern technology, Grant came to understand, lay in its tendency to impose uniformity. The French philosopher Alexander Kojève (1902–1968) theorized that the whole world was moving relentlessly toward a universal and homogeneous state. For Kojève such an outcome was desirable, since it was a prelude to a universal peace where war between classes or nations no longer existed. In the work that made him famous throughout Canada, Lament for a Nation (1965), Grant accepted this understanding of the impact of technology, but for him it was not a cause to rejoice. He maintained that Canada's geographical position next to the dynamic center of technological modernity, the United States, would lead to its eventual disappearance as a independent country, since Canadians and Americans shared the same commitment to technological modernity. "Our culture floundered on the aspirations of the age of progress." (Grant 1965, p. 54)

In Technology and Empire (1969), Grant's concerns about the dangers of technology became more intense. Science, he now argued, no longer limited itself to the domination over non-human nature; it now increasingly attempted domination over human nature as well. Some critics of technology believed that it was something out there that people could control should they so choose. Grant rejected this view. For him technology was not something outside of people that they could choose to use for good or ill. Human beings lived in a society (and increasingly a world) in which technology determined all existence. "For it is clear that the systematic interference with chance was not simply undertaken for its own sake but for the realisation of freedom … [but] how do we know what is worth doing with that freedom?" (Grant 1969, p. 138).

The predicament of modernity was that those men and women who were the driving forces behind technological modernity believe that their project promotes "the liberation of mankind" (Grant 1969, p. 27). The older tradition of Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas held that there were some things that it was absolutely wrong to do and perhaps even wrong to contemplate. By contrast Grant often attributed to J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904–1967) the view that, in modern science, no matter how terrible the possible outcome of an experiment might be, if you see that something is technically balanced, you do it.

When asked whether computers were neutral instruments, Grant observed that their existence required the work of chemists, metallurgists, and mine and factory workers; the use of algebra and other mathematics, Newtonian and other physics, and electricity; as well as a society in which there are many large corporations. Such a society contains an elite trained to think in a particular way and excludes other forms of society. Technology can never be neutral because of its historical, social, and conceptual preconditions.

Technology for Grant, then, was not just a way of making things or even a way of doing business. It was a way of thinking and it was becoming a way of being. So when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its historic decision in Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), an abortion case, Grant was profoundly worried. The account of justice given there, influenced as he thought by technological modernity, seemed to put into question what it was to be a person. Consequently modern liberalism seemed unable to answer the question: "What is it about any members of our species that makes the liberal rights of justice their due?" (Grant 1998, p. 78).

Grant never denied that science had delivered the dominance over nature it promised, but it failed in a much more important way. "Brilliant scientists have laid before us an account of how things are, and in that account nothing can be said about justice." (Grant 1986, p. 60) But above all justice mattered. In his last book, Technology and Justice (1986), he argued that the technological understanding of the world was fundamentally flawed. Love was a primary fact of human existence; modern human beings "cannot hold in unity the love they experience with what they are being taught in technological science" (Grant 1986, p. 67).

Grant's writings still actively influence Canadian politicians, political scientists, theologians, and scholars interested in technology. Most philosophers are indifferent or hostile.


SEE ALSO Ellul, Jacques; Heidegger, Martin; Justice.


Athanasiadis, Harris. (2001). George Grant and the Theology of the Cross: The Christian Foundations of His Thought. Toronto: University Of Toronto Press. Grant's critique of technology was rooted in a sincere and original theological vision. This work examines Grant's philosophy in relation to his understanding of Martin Luther.

Christian, William. (1993). George Grant: A Biography. Toronto: Univeristy of Toronto Press. A comprehensive scholarly biography of Grant that made extensive use of archival sources, letters, and personal interviews.

Grant, George. (1965). Lament for a Nation. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart. Grant's masterpiece, a complex interweaving of politics, philosophy, and religion that made him a nationally known figure. It explored the idea that technological modernity would lead inexorably to the destruction of Canadian independence.

Grant, George. (1969). Technology and Empire. Toronto: House of Anansi. The collection of essays that contained Grant's most concentrated meditations on technological modernity. In these essays Grant came increasingly to see technology in metaphysical terms. He saw it as darkness that prevented human beings from being aware of the absence of divine light in the world.

Grant, George. (1986). Technology and Justice. Toronto: House of Anansi. Grant's last collection of essays and his most positive affirmation that Simone Weil's understanding of love shows human beings an alternative to technological modernity.

Grant, George. (1995). Philosophy in the Mass Age, ed. William Christian. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Grant's first book, originally a series of radio lectures, explored the problems of technology as they were arising in the aftermath of the second world war and the new materialism of the 1950s.

Grant, George. (1998). English-Speaking Justice. Toronto: House of Anansi. After the Roe v. Wade decision, Grant worried that technology threatened the very idea of what it was to be human. This work, written in the mid-1970s, attempts an examination of implication of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling.