The Faces of Reason: An Essay on Philosophy and Culture in English Canada, 1850-1950

By Leslie Armour; Elizabeth Trott | Go to book overview
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EIGHT
REASON AS CONSTITUTIVE OF KNOWLEDGE AND REALITY

John Watson--Part II

TWO THEMES ARE seldom absent from Watson's writings. One of them has to do with scepticism, its challenge to conventional understandings of reason, and the need to show that it can be refuted. The other has to do with the relation of reason and experience as constitutive of the nature of reality.

Beyond these two themes lies the controversy of science and religion, and the attempt to excuse human failure and feebleness as the natural outcome of a world in which certainty is impossible.

In this chapter, we shall try to bring them together--to show how Watson's account of reality grows out of his consideration of the sceptic's case, how he thought new understandings of reason could reconcile experience and rationality and make religion reasonable.

Along the way, we shall encounter William Caldwell, the McGill philosopher who sought to mediate between the Canadian idealists and the American pragmatists, and James Edwin Creighton, who was editor of the Philosophical Review.

From the beginning to the end of his career, Watson invariably insisted that he was a "speculative idealist." We have already seen something of the background and development of this view. Its motives lie in Watson's long wrestling match with scepticism. He believes that knowledge is possible, but only if reality meets certain criteria. He believes he has a reason to think that reality does meet those criteria and those reasons are his reasons for being a speculative idealist.

Idealism, however, is, on the whole, somewhat out of fashion. To be sure, there are great contemporary idealists--Blanshard and Errol Harris amongst them. But even they are just a little uneasy about the word itself and, when someone like Watson announces that he is an idealist, it becomes crucially important to try to be precise and to specify just what this does and, more importantly, does not mean.

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