George Grant: Technology, Liberalism and Nietzsche

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George Parkin Grant is one of the most perspicacious thinkers Canada has ever produced. Grant’s language is prima facie deceptively simple if compared with thinkers like Harold Innis or Marshall McLuhan. As I began to delve further, however, I discovered that beneath the almost poetic simplicity lay an elaborate, deeply profound system of thought, a multivalent commentary on the western experience. I should add at this point that much of the criticism of Grant, directed primarily at Lament for a Nation, has been grievously unfair. And although this essay will not be taking issue with these criticisms I feel they are the result of piecemeal reading. There is this tendency to jump on passionate thinkers especially those who write in such a way that they can be reduced to catch phrases i.e. Nietzsche: “God is dead”. The first lesson learnt as a student of philosophy is to hold off on criticism until you have begun to grasp the thinker and his thought as a whole. Any philosopher worth his mettle will be working within a dynamic but defined system and it is this system which one should come to terms with. There is an organic unity which is always “debased”1 (to use Grants term interpreted oversimplification) if catch phrases are interpreted out of context. For example, there is the complexity of the term technology, a term we all know and feel we understand. Technology is a term which Grant interpreted within the modern western experience and thus, as all great thinkers are wont to do, made it his own. The complexity of this term is such that coming to understand it is one doorway into the thought processes of Grant. For even as “media” was a term McLuhan carried well beyond its conventionally recognized denotation, so too did Grant appropriate technology and add to it a world of connotation.

From the very particular perspective of an English-Canadian Grant looked outward to view the latter as within the western tradition. Grant felt he was watching the inevitable disintegration of morality, that which is most human in humanity. Grant felt that technological progress and its offspring, modern liberalism, were bringin about the destruction of western man and any others who might choose to embrace their attractive but pernicious vision of man’s destiny. With evident sadness Grant saw that carried within the consciousness created by technology were the seeds of destruction for modern liberalism, the last stronghold of morality in our age, and that Nietzsche’s society of amoral last men and those who will, for will’s sake, the nihilists, might be coming to fruition in our modern technological era.

Morality in the Western, tradition is identified by Grant with our sense of justice. In North America, with its strong liberal tradition, justice is defined according to the “principle of liberty and equality”2. It is this “public conception of good”3 which has undergone significant revision as a result of changes in technology and in politics. This position will be gradually elucidated during the course of the essay.

At the core of this term is the understanding that “technology” is an artifice of man and hence a derivation of our reason. In one sense technology refers to the “means” which our reason has constructed to achieve results, to improve our “quality of life”5. Further on he defines technology as the process in which man devalues everything, turning “the world into potential raw material”6, by appraising according to the relative use of a thing, “at the disposal of our creative wills”7. It is the world which this rationally based technology creates that is referred to by Grant as the modern technological era. This era carries with it its own consciousness, social, moral, cultural, economic, political, and so on. Whence Grant’s observation: “Technology is the ontology of the age”8.

Technological progress is equated with mans increasing mastery over nature. This “dynamism of technology”9 is the guiding purpose, says Grant,...
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