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Today is July 1st, which is also Canada Day, marking the country’s 155th birthday. Fittingly enough, our next session of “How Should We Live? Answers from the Modern World” will examine the work of a Canadian philosopher, Bernard Suits. In a quirky and much-beloved book called The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia, Suits rigorously develops and then defends a definition of playing a game—and then argues that game playing provides a model for the ideal life.
Suits is just one of a number of Canadians to have featured in courses I’ve led. In “‘Know Thyself’: Knowledge and Self-Knowledge in Literature and Philosophy,” we read a short story by acclaimed Canadian writer Alice Munro. Last summer’s course, “The Philosophy of Love and Friendship,” featured Canadian philosophers Troy Jollimore and Vida Yao. And my recent weekend intensive course, “The Story of Your Life: Life and Narrative,” included readings from Canadian philosophers Charles Taylor and Kathy Behrendt.
And we’re not done with Canada yet. At the end of this summer’s course, I’m excited to discuss an Indigenous Canadian author for the first time. We’ll read and discuss a chapter of a book written by Umeek, or E. Richard Atleo, a hereditary chief of the Ahousaht First Nation.
In addition to the online teaching, I had a rewarding offline philosophy experience in the middle of the month. I was invited by the CFA Society Vancouver to lead a workshop and discussion on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. We spent a Saturday morning thinking with Aristotle about virtue and the good life. I prepared a video lecture on Aristotle ahead of the meeting, which you can view online.
A long and rainy spring in Vancouver is slowly giving way to summer and I’ve been enjoying the outdoors more. The highlight of the month was unquestionably a weekend on Quadra Island in the company of some lovely hosts and some stunning scenery.
So what are we celebrating when we celebrate Canada Day? What is a country? Every patch of land on the planet besides Antarctica is claimed by at least one national entity (with one small exception). But the familiar patchwork world map of nation-states belies how indefinite and contested some of these national claims are.
Some instances of overlapping claims to sovereignty are well-known, like Taiwan or the Palestinian Territories—and now Russia’s violent contestation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. There are less well-known entities that nevertheless claim the status of independent statehood, like Somaliland and Northern Cyprus (both of which I’ve visited!). Canada is just one state whose claim to national sovereignty comes at the expense of indigenous groups whose claim to the land predates European settler-colonialism by thousands of years.
Farther down the scale of geopolitical importance are various so-called micronations, which, in sometimes earnest and sometimes whimsical fashion, challenge preconceptions about what makes for national sovereignty. Some years ago, I wrote a short article about Talossa, a micronation established in a Milwaukee teenager’s bedroom.
So what is a country, then? I’ve put this question to students before by proposing that we replicate the Talossa experiment. What would be required, I ask, for us to establish the classroom as an independent state? We could declare ourselves independent, but what difference would that make? Control over the territory we claim, and the ability to defend it against foreign incursions, is important. Another touchstone is recognition by other independent states. But why does it matter to our own independence that other states recognize us? Presumably what’s really important is that we not compromise our own sovereign integrity by recognizing the right of any other state over our land. (One micronational on American-claimed land dodged the issue of taxation by declaring independence and then vouchsafing “foreign aid” to the IRS each year.)
This exercise prompts reflection on the nature of institutions like statehood. Humans have the seemingly magical power to conjure institutions into being from nothing. Institutions—from global superpowers to book clubs—have no physical being. I can’t touch Canada the way I can touch a rock or a tree. I can touch many physical things that are in Canada—indeed, I’m doing that right now—but I can’t touch Canada itself. Rather than existing in a physical sense, institutions exist in a normative sense. They have what the philosopher John Searle calls “deontic powers.” They regulate what people may, must, or must not do.
Although you can’t see an institution directly, the way you might see a rock or a tree, you can see it indirectly in the ways that it regulates people’s behaviour. You can “see” a book club in the way that its members set aside time to read an agreed-upon book before an agreed-upon meeting time. Membership in the book club makes a difference to what these people do, and to what they feel they ought to do. Belonging to a book club gives you a reason for acting in a certain way.
That also means that the book club only exists for as long as its members recognize its regulative authority. If people stop reading the books and showing up to the meetings, the book club vanishes. We bring institutions into being by recognizing their deontic powers and we dissolve them by ignoring those powers.
One difference between a state and a book club is that no book club (at least, none that I know of) commands an army. If I stop showing up to the book club, the worst that will happen to me is I’ll get some light scolding. If I violate Canadian law, the consequences could be much worse. The Canadian government demands my continued recognition of its deontic powers and it can back up that demand with the threat of force.
Max Weber famously defines a state as a social institution (well, a Gemeinschaft—I’m cutting a few corners here) that has a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force or violence. Representatives of the state—the police or military—are licensed to use physical force in the name of the state and in accordance with its laws. But any non-state actor using coercive violence is liable to get into trouble with the authorities. It’s precisely when non-state actors do exercise significant physical force with impunity that we start talking about failed states.
The exercise of declaring a classroom to be an independent state feels idle and mildly comical because the exercise is normatively idle. It doesn’t make any significant change in what any of us does. But it also highlights the strange fragility of human institutions. Because they have no physical being, they only exist so long as we believe in them. (Sensitivity to this fragility might explain why states often create physical emblems of their existence, like crowns and sceptres.) Institutions as mighty as the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact collapsed within a couple of years largely because people stopped believing in them.
Sending tanks into the street can be an effective short-term method for compelling the continued recognition of a state. But the threat of physical force is just the crudest of many possible means of securing recognition. It was through overwhelming force of arms that the British, French, and later independent Canadian governments wrested control over this vast territory from the First Nations who had a prior claim to it. But—slowly and haltingly—the Canadian government is starting to recognize some First Nations land claims. The government is compelled to do this not by a plausible threat of violence from indigenous groups but from a deeper motive for recognition: that of justice.