I did my undergraduate degree in Toronto at Glendon College, York University. In 1965, when I graduated from high school in Toronto, Glendon was the only campus of the newly founded York University. Glendon advertised itself as a small liberal arts and bilingual campus. This appealed to me. Most of my high school peers were going to the University of Toronto. A few of these fellow students were good friends. But there were aspects of high school I disliked, and I wanted to distance myself from these memories.
My choice turned out to be a lucky one. I found Glendon intellectually exciting. Two professors, John Yolton and Ed Broadbent, were a great influence. Here is an obituary of John Yolton that gives a good account of his scholarly and university work. Here is an essay I wrote about Ed Broadbent as a professor to mark his 80th birthday.
In my second year at Glendon, I began a lifelong interest in the 17th century Jewish-Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. I wrote undergraduate and, later, graduate essays on Spinoza. I hope in the future to publish on Spinoza. A few years ago I delivered a conference paper on Spinoza’s concept of the individual and its relationship to his metaphysics.
During these early undergraduate years, I was introduced to the work of Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and John Stuart Mill. I knew then that I wanted to spend the rest of my life studying philosophy. Looking back, I see that these three philosophers, in distinct ways, became for me models of intellectual integrity. In a grim world, philosophy would give me a place to stand (or so I hoped).
In 1967 Mary Robertson, a fellow student, and I met. In 1969, after we graduated, Mary and I were married in the Rose Garden at Glendon. We were lucky to be married by Rabbi Abraham Feinberg, a person we both admired. He was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam war and an advocate of gay rights and other progressive issues. Feinberg had serious reservations about marrying us because Mary was not Jewish, and neither Mary nor I was interested in her converting. But over a series of conversations among the three of us, he decided to marry us. I tried to summarize my view of our conversations in a letter I wrote to him before the wedding. When I read this letter now, I see my 22 year old self attempting to think like a philosopher, especially as I try to clarify my attitude to my Jewish heritage.
My brother drove Feinberg, who was nearly blind, to and from the wedding ceremony. One of the things they talked about was Feinberg’s participation in John Lennon’s and Yoko Ono’s famous Bed-In-for-Peace at a Montreal hotel a few weeks earlier. Lennon and Ono had heard of Feinberg’s anti-war activities, and invited him to their hotel room to participate in the event. Feinberg arrived early, and found Lennon picking away at his guitar. Lennon told Feinberg he was trying to find a hook for a song he wanted for the Bed-In. As he and Feinberg talked, Feinberg casually said “If we’d just give peace a chance”. Lennon’s eyes lit up, and he reached for his pad and pen.
I did my graduate work at Balliol College, Oxford University, where I wrote my doctorate thesis on self-respect (after changing my topic at least three times). Balliol College, whose history stretches back over 750 years, was a stimulating, beautiful and supportive intellectual home for Mary and me over four years. Here is a picture of me in 2014 sitting outside the student common room.
My thesis supervisor was Jonathan Glover. Jonathan has had an enormous intellectual and personal influence on me. Here are some thoughts about him I wrote for a Festschrift I co-edited with Ann Davis and Jeff McMahan in Jonathan’s honour. Here is the preface I wrote (as amended by Jeff McMahan) for the Festschrift.
Jonathan went well beyond a supervisor’s duties when he agreed to pick up my thesis at Heathrow Airport and take it by taxi to Oxford so as to meet the deadline. I still marvel at my luck in having had Jonathan as my supervisor, and how close I came to missing the opportunity. When I first went to see him, he thought I was a hobo trying to get out of the weather. He invited me in, but was reluctant to take me on as a student. But we soon fell into a long and intense discussion of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and I found I had a supervisor.
Stuart Hampshire and Patrick Gardiner were my examiners. I had never met Hampshire or Gardiner, but I admired their work. In particular, Hampshire’s book on Spinoza was an inspiration when I was starting to study Spinoza. I was pleased finally to meet Hampshire, though I was slightly trepidatious when, not long before the three hour oral exam, I discovered he had been one of the main interrogators of captured Gestapo officers at the end of the Second World War. As it turned out, Hampshire and Gardiner were incisive but encouraging critics. The only time I felt fear was when Hampshire asked me to write down the page numbers of the four split infinitives in the thesis. Here is an interesting and wide-ranging obituary of Hampshire from The Guardian newspaper.
For the Glover Festschrift, I wrote an essay called The Strains of Dialogue. In the early 1990’s, I had read a book consisting of a debate between an American Palestinian and an American Jew. Both men were peace-loving, intelligent, and deeply informed about the Israel-Palestine dispute, and both wanted to reach common ground. By the end of their discussion, however, the distance between them was palpable and fraught with antagonism. I found this depressing. How could two reasonable, good-willed people, I asked myself, end up further apart after a discussion overseen by an impartial referee? This experience became the basis for “The Strains of Dialogue”.
I was at Oxford as a graduate student between 1969 and 1973. In 1970 Mary and I met fellow Canadians Stanley and Rosalind Godlovitch who were the centre of a small group of 10 or so people (mainly graduate students) interested in the moral status of animals. In 1971, Stan and Ros co-edited with John M. Harris a revolutionary book on animal rights called Animals, Men and Morals. In 1972, I published a review of this book. The review is here.
Peter and Renata Singer were also part of our group. Peter, too, wrote a review (The New York Review of Books, 1973), and then in 1975 published his great philosophical manifesto Animal Liberation. To have been part of this group, and then to witness its continuing effect on the world, I count as one of the great events of my life. Here are two later items of mine on animal rights: Zoopolis Review and Radio Interview.
Part way through my fourth year as a graduate student, I became frustrated with the progress on my thesis. Mary and I decided to take a break from academic life and England. We were 26, and had no debts. I knew I could return to Oxford after a year and continue my scholarship for another half year. We decided to go to a part of Canada we didn’t know, and to seek non-academic work. After some deliberation, and a degree of arbitrariness, we hit upon Cape Breton and the city of Sydney.
Our first year in Cape Breton was a great adventure. We loved to hike, and Mary got a job writing a book on hiking trails. She was paid to walk all over the Island, and I tagged along. The book that came out of her work was the popular and influential Walk Cape Breton (published in 1974).
There was no SPCA in Cape Breton, and we called a public meeting to see if there was interest in starting one. Many people showed up, and, after much fund-raising and politicking, and over a period of four years, an SPCA with a proper animal shelter and education programme was established (Mary was its first president). We met some wonderful people through this endeavour.
Meanwhile, I got a job at the Cape Breton Post as a journalist and then as district editor. I wrote articles, editorials, and some longer pieces. My year at the Cape Breton Post was enriching and a welcome break from my thesis. I liked my colleagues, found the hub-bub of the newsroom absorbing, and formed a life-long fascination with the newspaper business in Canada (Roy Thomson, the media magnate, had bought the Post from a Cape Breton family just before I arrived and I was there to witness the transition).
Near the end of my time at the Post, I wrote a series of articles on Canada’s foreign aid policy. Later, when I was a professor, I co-wrote with one of my students, Kent MacAskill, an academic article, “I told you so”, on the dangers of corporate control of newspapers in Canada. This article has been anthologized and referenced in parliamentary debates.
As much as I enjoyed the newspaper world, I knew it could not be a career for me. I never doubted that I would return to Oxford to finish my doctorate, and I did. Meanwhile, I had met various professors at Xavier College in Sydney. A number of the philosophers invited me to give guest lectures. When I finished my doctorate (in 1976), Xavier was in the process of separating from its mother university, St. Francis Xavier, which is on Nova Scotia’s mainland. The new and evolving institution needed another philosopher. An ad went out, I applied, and was chosen.
Two professors in my department were especially welcoming to me, Greg MacLeod and Charles MacDonald, both Catholic priests. As the years went by, I came to admire them not only for the role they played in building an independent university on Cape Breton Island, but for their other achievements. After they retired, I did interviews with each of them and circulated the interviews to the rest of the faculty. Here are the interviews: 1) Greg MacLeod ; 2) Charles MacDonald. Jordan and Joan Bishop were also good friends to Mary and me when we were starting out in Cape Breton.
I have spent my working life at what was first Xavier College, then College of Cape Breton, then University College of Cape Breton, and finally Cape Breton University (CBU). I was active through much of the intense deliberations and politicking that these name changes imply. As we evolved towards full university status, I had the opportunity to influence the curriculum in both the Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degrees.
When I was at Glendon, students had been required to take a core curriculum. One of the core courses was on the history and philosophy of science. The course was called Natural Science and was taught by T.H. Leith. The idea was that any educated person should have an understanding of science and its impact on society and humanity’s self-image. I learnt a great deal from this course, and thought it important.
At CBU I argued, along with others, that something like the Natural Science course I had taken at Glendon should be a required course in both the Arts and the Science degrees. We were successful, and decided that the course should be taught by a philosopher and a scientist together. The core curriculum has now fallen away at CBU, but for many years I taught Natural Science with Jim Foulds, a biologist. For both Jim and me, teaching Natural Science, and teaching it with each other, was a highly satisfying intellectual and teaching experience.
One side-effect of making Natural Science a core course was that we needed more philosophers. Eventually, we had a department of 6 philosophers. I had a key role in the hiring, and I am proud of department I helped to build. Some members of the department and I have become close friends, and my connection to them both as colleagues and friends has meant a great deal to my life in Cape Breton.
As faculty strove to define the kind of post-secondary institution we wanted CBU to be, there were many disagreements between administration and faculty. At one point, in 2000, a low point was reached that culminated in a six week strike in the dead of the winter. Here is a picture of me on the picket line with my friend and colleague, Andrew Reynolds. Faculty won that strike, and I believe this was a turning point in the history of the institution. Michael Manson, an English professor, led the Faculty union during the strike, and was key to our victory. Here is a picture of Michael leading a march. Here is an extensive interview I conducted with Michael that covers the history of the strike. The interview was circulated widely, both to faculty, administrators and board members.
After the strike, a group of us thought it important to keep the momentum going that had been established during the strike. To this end, we started a faculty magazine called Our University. The magazine continued through several years, and published 6 issues. Though it’s life was brief, it had a significant impact.
One of the topics we took up was a debate on dropping the word “college” from our name (we were then called “University College of Cape Breton”). The debate was long and acrimonious, and the acrimony spread to the community. Here is one of the essays I wrote for Our University on the topic. In the end, we succeeded in achieving the name change, and so became Cape Breton University.
At one point, it seemed the administration was going to abolish the teaching of Religious Studies. A group of us sponsored a seminar on the role of Religious Studies in the university. Here is my report for Our University on the seminar and also a satirical take on the topic directed at the administration.
One function of Our University was to use the magazine to focus and enhance the common intellectual life of the university. To this end, we encouraged essays about university education and also book reviews on a wide range of topics. Here is a review I wrote on Philip Roth’s The Human Stain
From the beginning of my time at Cape Breton University, I found students I delighted to teach and colleagues I respected. I could say a great deal about some of my fine students. For now: here is a picture of one of my favourite classes (the class was in political philosophy). Here are a few items I wrote for the student newspaper. Here is an article that grew out of my teaching.
Eleftherios Hadjisterkotis, a Cypriot refugee, appeared in my philosophy class in the mid-seventies. After several years taking courses in Philosophy and Biology in Sydney, Eleftherios went on to do a MSc. at Acadia and PhD in wildlife biology at McGill. Eventually, he returned to Cyprus, and established himself as an important and prolific wildlife biologist. Twenty-five years after he left CBU, Eleftherios got in touch with me and said he’d like to finish a BA in philosophy. We spent several years working through the required courses, via email, capped by a senior thesis on environmental ethics. Here is a picture of Eleftherios and me outside the Natural History museum in Oxford. Here is a an article we published together.
The philosophers I taught–Plato, Spinoza, Wittgenstein, and John Rawls, for example–were the same thinkers being taught at Canada’s older and more august universities. I recognized there would be advantages to living in a big city and teaching at a more prestigious university, but I also saw advantages to living in Cape Breton and teaching at a small, new university.
I am convinced that it is possible to provide as high a quality undergraduate education at a small university as at a big one. In addressing the faculty and students at Athabasca University in northern Alberta (also then a new university as remote from “the centre” as Cape Breton University) the literary scholar Northrop Frye said “There are no peripheries in scholarship and learning”. I believe Frye’s sentiment expresses a legitimate and realizable ideal.
(Northrop Frye is a thinker and person I admire. I sometimes lecture on Frye. Here is a student handout for a lecture based around Frye’s ideas. Some of Frye’s ideas are central to the book I am now writing on Canadian political philosophy.)
For many years MacLean’s magazine has published an annual ranking of Canadian universities. From the beginning, I thought MacLean’s ranking was methodologically and morally flawed. After the second ranking came out, I wrote the following critical article . I submitted it to the Globe and Mail, but it was not published. The article, however, was later circulated, and found its way to MacLean’s.
After I finished my doctorate thesis (in 1976), I set out to revise it for publication. Our children were born in 1976 (Aaron) and 1979 (Colin), and family life became a focus as well as my book. In the end, the the book went through many revisions and changes, and became a very different entity from the thesis. Finally, Reasonable Self-Esteem was published in 1996. It received good reviews , and it seems over the years slowly to have garnered some attention. In 2017, a second edition appeared. The book I am now working on, which focuses on Canadian political philosophy, builds on the themes of Reasonable Self-Esteem.
During the period I was working on Reasonable Self-Esteem, I wrote articles, book reviews, and conference papers. If you consult the menu of this website, you will see a selection of these writings. One topic that preoccupied me was the issue of euthanasia, and in particular the case of Robert and Tracey Latimer. Here are two talks and a radio interview I gave on this topic. Growing out of my interest in the Latimer case, I became interested in the way juries can exercise their conscience to nullify what would otherwise, in law, be a conviction of guilt. I gave some talks on the issue of jury nullification. Here is one such talk.
In 1998, I became a visiting scholar at Wolfson College, Oxford University. This appointment began a continuing relationship with Wolfson, and in 2006 I became a Member of the Common Room. This opportunity meant that Mary and I could return to Oxford and live for months at a time at a price we could afford. Our connection to Wolfson, to Oxford and to friends in London, especially the Glovers and the Samuels, have been an important part of our lives over the past 20 years. That Wolfson’s founding president was Isaiah Berlin, a philosopher I greatly admire, adds to the warmth of this relationship on my part.
I have been pulled into many activities at Cape Breton University and in the wider community, activities I believe would not have engaged me so deeply if I had been in a bigger centre.
There were debates at a variety of venues, especially the Philosophy Café. Freedom-and-constraint is an article I published based on my side of a debate on whether seat-belts should be mandatory. Here is my side of a debate on capitalism, hosted by the Philosophy Café. And there were many other debates and talks in which I participated.
Mary and I have been supporters of the Cape Breton University Art Gallery. Our connection to the visual arts has been deepened through our friendship with the artists Richard Mueller and Jack Siegel. Here is an essay I wrote about our friendship with Richard Mueller.
When Jack Siegel died, Mary and I acquired much of his work, and have made various attempts to enhance his legacy. We had an exhibit at our house and then at the Cape Breton University’s Art Gallery. Here is some material from these exhibits.
Mark Silverberg is a poet and professor of English Literature at Cape Breton University. Mark was inspired by Jack’s drawings to write a set of poems that were published as a book along with the Siegel drawings that inspired them. The name of the book is Believing the Line (2014, Breton Books). It is a fine tribute to Jack. Here is the front cover of the book.
Sean Howard is a poet, scholar, and peace activist. Sean became interested in Jack’s work, and has published a moving poetic interpretation of some of the letters Jack wrote to Mary and me.
One year I even displayed some quirky photographs of my own taken around Sydney. I called the exhibit, affectionately, Urban Grunge.
When Mary and I first came to Cape Breton, we were drawn into the burgeoning theatre scene in Sydney and at the university. Under the leadership of Liz and Harry Boardmore, two English professors, theatre thrived and grew. Liz and Harry introduced students and the Cape Breton public to some of the most demanding modern playwrights, and at the same time set high performance standards. Mary and I participated in award committees and adjudications. I wrote a number of reviews, and gave a talk on Harold Pinter as part of an event to honour Harry Boardmore.
Recently, the Cape Breton Spectator published a profile of me by Cape Breton playwright Ken Jessome. As well as marking the publication of the second edition of Reasonable Self-Esteem, the article focuses on some of my connections to the visual arts and the theatre. Here is the article.
All of my adult life, I have been listening to the music of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Their music has been a sustaining force through high and low points. I sometimes incorporated Dylan and Cohen songs into my philosophy classes. I have also given public talks on their songs. Here is some of the material related to these classes and presentations: Cohen ; Dylan.
On my first day at Glendon College in 1965, the president of York University, Murray Ross, gave a talk to welcome new students. He spoke about the value of a liberal education. In the course of his talk, Ross mentioned the word “intellectual” and cited a passage from George Eliot’s Middlemarch. No doubt the word “intellectual” sometimes has a whiff of the pretentious. Nevertheless, Ross’s words triggered a powerful emotional response in my 18 year old self, and in those few seconds I knew that “being an intellectual” lay in my future if I were to be fulfilled. What I didn’t realize then was that for this hope to be realized I would need people and communities to help me along the way. As readers of this website can see, I have been lucky enough to find these people and communities.
Note to my grandchildren:
Emma, Isaac, Daphne, Sadie, and whoever comes after, it is one of my deepest hopes that you discover your own life-fulfilling passions, and the luck to find people and communities to help you realize these passions.