Modes of Thought


In 1988 I broadcast a series of programs called “Literacy: The Medium and the Message”which I have already posted on this site. The series explored the latest scholarship on a theme first broached at the University of Toronto by Harold Innis: how the techniques by which we communicate shape the way we think about the world. It was recorded at a conference organized by two University of Toronto professors, David Olson and Derrick de Kerckhove, and held at the University of Toronto in 1987. Five years later David Olson organized a two-day workshop which posed the topic of modes of thought, or mentalities, in more general terms - looking not just at the cognitive implications of orality and literacy but at all the ways in which our styles and habits of thought are formed. He assembled psychologists, anthropologists, historians and philosopher interested in this question, and, knowing of my continuing interest in the subject, he again invited me to observe and report on the proceeedings. The result was a book called Modes of Thought, edited by David and Nancy Torrance, which was published by Cambridge in 1996, and a series of four radio programs, also called “Modes of Thought” which I broadcast in 1995. Their theme, to say the least, remains current. The participants are as follows:

Part One: David Olson, Brian Stock, and Myron Tuman

Part Two: Jerome Bruner, Carole Feldman, and Keith Oatley

Part Three: Geoffrey Lloyd, Paul Thagard, and Deanna Kuhn

Part Four: Scott Attran and Ian Hacking

Justice as Sanctuary

Herman Bianchi (1924-2015)

Herman Bianchi (1924-2015)

In 1992, as a result of an introduction from Ivan Illich, I visited Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie in Oslo and recorded several days of interviews that would be broadcast the following year as “Crime Control as Industry.” This set off an unexpected chain of consequences which kept me for a nearly a decade preoccupied with the question of crime and punishment. A number of series already posted on this site reflect this interest. They include, as well as the aforementioned “Crime Control as Industry,” “Prison and Its Alternatives” (1996), “To Hurt and To Heal,” (2000") and “In Search of Security” (2004). One of the most interesting books I came across during these amateur forays into criminology was Justice as Sanctuary by Dutch criminologist Herman Bianchi. It was first published in English in 1994 and has, happily, been kept in print by Wipf and Stock who republished it in 2010. At the time the book appeared in the English-speaking world, Bianchi was one of many thinkers who were then questioning the cruelty and irrationality of modern criminal justice “systems.” What I found striking in his work was his recuperation of Biblical concepts of justice and mercy, and his pointing out that monolithic conceptions of law are of relatively recent date. William Blackstone, for example, writing in his 18th Century Commentaries on the Laws of England says that ten different bodies of law were then in force in England, each exerting distinct but overlapping jurisdictions. The types of law he mentions range from the “divine law” to the “law merchant.” The right of sanctuary from which Bianchi’s book takes its title is a case in point. Churches afforded sanctuary because within their walls the divine law applied, not the criminal law. From such a sanctuary someone who had committed a wrong could attempt to negotiate restitution and settlement. The contemporary offender stands in the dock without initiative or dignity. The fact that he or she has committed a personal wrong that might in some way be remedied hardly matters - it is “society” and its monolithic law that must be satisfied.

I was fascinated by Bianchi’s book, and, in the spring of 1997, I arranged to interview him. He received me, very hospitably, in his snug converted farmhouse in Friesland, a northern province of The Netherlands. There over two days as his guest I recorded the interviews that make up this series. It was broadcast in the fall of that year. Herman Bianchi died in 2015. I never met him again and never really found out what he thought of the programs I made. It seems to me that they remain as interesting and challenging today as they were twenty years ago.

C.B. Macpherson: A Retropspective


I had not been a reader of C.B. Macpherson up until the time of his death in September of 1987, but I knew enough of his reputation, and the scale of his influence within political science in Canada and around the world to think that Ideas should pay tribute to someone who had clearly been one of the outstanding scholars and thinkers of his generation.  One of the pleasures of preparing the series was reading Macpherson - at last - and coming to share the assessment of so many of his contemporaries and students.  One of them, Ed Broadbent, then the federal leader of the New Democratic Party, thought of him "one of the great thinkers in the democratic tradition" - not just one of the great Canadian thinkers, Broadbent added, but a contributor to the great tradition  of political thought "stretching from Marx and Mill up to the present."   Doing the interviews,  once I had boned up on my Macpherson, was an equal pleasure.  So many people acknowledged and appreciated Macpherson as an interpreter of modern political thought that I easily found enthusiastic interlocutors.  Their tributes follow...

History and the New Age

history new age.1.jpg
history new age.2.jpg

In Between Two Ages, the first long series I did for Ideas in early 1981, I began to explore the unique character of our historical moment, and to advance the idea that only a radical change of mind could respond to its demands.  Three years later, I got a chance to follow up that initial effort with the present series.  Its organizing image or paradigm is the idea of a new age – the way in which I then spoke about my dawning recognition that received social and political forms are quite unable to grasp humanity’s new situation.  The intervening thirty-four years have made me more tentative, but, if you take away a certain brash, post-1960's confidence that a reconciliation between men and women, modernity and tradition, humanity and nature was on the horizon, there is much in that way of looking at things that I would still affirm today.  Certainly the sparkling cast I managed to assemble makes this series worth revisiting.  Among its luminaries are Northrop Frye, Raimundo Panikkar, Robert J. Lifton, Father Thomas Berry and many others, whose names I have listed below.

One of the characteristic features of the documentary form, as I’ve observed when re-introducing other old series as well, is that many different points of view are made to align and march, more or less, in the same direction.  A few years later, I would have treated the many thinkers represented here separately, and tried to understand what was distinctive in each one’s approach.  I don’t mean I have papered over their differences here, or that there was anything promiscuous about the way I assembled these particular people.  Each one was, in some way, a teacher to me, and each one’s work bore on  the themes that I wanted to develop.  I mean only that, once one has interviewed so many people, the challenge of integrating them all into a more or less coherent structure, leaves little room for the contextualization of each speaker, or for consideration of all the ways in which they differ from one another, and from the consenus, however rough, that  I was imposing on them by smushing them all together in one program. 

That said, I still find that these shows make interesting listening.  The dramatis personae is as follows:  

Part One: Dhyane Ywahoo, Northrop Frye, Joseph Brown, Raimundo Panikkar, Derrick de Kerckhove, Thomas Berry, Ewart Cousins

Part Two: Dhyani Ywahoo, Joseph Brown, Richard Lee, Ashley Montagu, Stanley Diamond, Joseph Campbell

Part Three: Walter Odajnyk, Robert J. Lifton, Ira Progroff, Jean Houston, Richard Moss

Part Four: David Spangler, Northrop Frye, Raimundo Panikkar, Ewart Cousins,  Thomas Berry, Matthew Fox