About Kai Nielsen
Kai Nielsen is one of Canada’s most distinguished social and political philosophers. He has also written extensively on moral theory and about religion and the nature of philosophy.
After receiving his PhD from Duke University in 1959, he went on to hold academic appointments at Marshall College (WV), Amherst College (MA), New York University (NY), State University of New York at Binghamton (NY), University of Calgary (AB), Brooklyn College (NY), University of Ottawa (ON), and Concordia University (QC). He also held administrative positions at New York University, Brooklyn College and University of Calgary . He is a past president of the Canadian Philosophical Association and a Member of the Royal Society of Canada. He also extensively taught and/or lectured in Denmark, New Zealand, Norway, Iceland, Israel and South Africa.
In his academic career, spanning over 60 years, he has published 21 books and more than 400 articles in political philosophy, social philosophy, critical theory, ethics, metaphilosophy, and philosophy of religion. He has written extensively about Karl Marx and marxism, Jürgen Habermas, Isaiah Berlin, pragmatism, John Rawls, Gerald Allan Cohen, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Richard Rorty and Donald Davidson.
His work sheds light on many of the central debates and controversies of our time such as socialism, nationalism, cosmopolitism, nihilism and global justice. Some of his books and articles have been translated in French, Spanish, Greek, Chinese, and Polish.
Since retiring, Nielsen makes his home in Montreal, where he continues to write as a unique voice of the political left.
An Introduction to my Bibliography. Some Shocks
By Kai Nielsen
I have all my adult life sought to get a cogent grip on the human part of the world, to see and write things that manage to clearly articulate things that would have become a grip on how things are and, as far as that is possible, could come to obtain. Would be in a significant and decent way is on its way to be made a significant conception of life. A life that was meaningful and desirable. To have not just such a conception of such a world but to establish its fitting with reality would be a valuable thing. Something that it is now far from obtaining. I speak here of a conception of a flourishing world for all where there will be no poor. I want such a world. I seek again and again in various ways to clearly and in a non-evasive way to articulate what this world would be like and how it could be achieved.
In this endeavor my friend, partner and fellow philosopher Jocelyne Couture has been a firm help to me. Much that I have learned, said and written is indebted to her. She helped me to escape banality, superficiality and unclarity. She aided me in my efforts to understand and to look for how it could be achieved to make for human flourishment. Make for a kindlier, less evasive and less dominating world. She often corrected my sometimes muddled or vague view of things. For this I am deeply grateful.
In the few places noted in this bibliography where there are entries that are in French. They are either written by her and reflect and indeed constitute a joint operation. But the actual French writing was hers. She also helped me to see both the reasonableness and justifications for Québec sovereignty. It is something that Québec needs. I who have an ingrained dislike of nationalism had come to support Québec sovereignty. I hoped that it can be achieved without ugliness and ethnocentrism. But is this not keeping my faith while eating it? I have written in defense on Québec sovereignty and publicly spoke for it during the Québec referendum. But I do not think that there are or that should be any chosen people or some special people. Some have thought to be aubermenchen who will, as an elite, rule the world. There should be no such will to power.
I am a Québec sovereigntist while remaining a socialist and an analytical Marxian. Perhaps, as Marx thought and not unreasonably but perhaps mistakenly socialism will in time morph into communism in a worldwide dimension devoid of authoritarianism. Not a dictatorship of the proletariat but a proletarian rule. Though logically speaking it could be that. But our actual present world is the exact opposite of that. We get rule by big capital. We are not getting socialism let alone communism. We get instead a hellhole moving to self-destruction, a dictatorship not of the proletariat but instead an autoritarism of the 1 percent over the working class, educated or not, but the one percent of the world which is claimed by them to be democratic. Where it actually is an ideologically disguised control and typically an oppressive one at that. Some places even worse than others.
There is no contradiction or even incompatibility between my socialism and my commitment to Québec sovereignty. But there is plenty of room as well as a need for clarification and amplification. Ethnic nationalism is plainly not a virtue. Perhaps no nationalism is. But there should be plenty of respect and acknowledgment of people as they are as well as they should be is in order. Respect and acknowledgment of people as they are as well as they should be is in order. Though it is unfortunately routinely in reality ignored. Even a Hitler should not be shot as a mad dog in the street. But even a Hitler-like beast must receive a trial. Something that is fairly carried out will still result in a harsh judgment. I am not saying that punishment should not in such circumstances be very harsh. But I do not speak of the death penalty or torture. Both are to be banished. All human life evil or not is to be respected for their very humanness but, of course, nor for their evilness. That, of course, must be thoroughly opposed.
Still we have not only plenty of bad apples around and indeed even a few rotten cabbages. Sometimes even such people will gain a lot of public support. That is lots of support from populists. People who get voted into offices in rigged elections or sometime invalid elections. Trump and the current (2018) big honcho in the Philippines are striking examples. Does my approach here mean that I have given up on democracy? That I have Nietzschean contempt for it? No! But what I have said about these two leaders I stick with. They should be impeached. As human beings, though they are remarkably far from decency. They still, as human beings should be respected. Respected as such, though they are indeed sadistic and brutal. And even though they both have considerable support from large numbers of their communities while a considerable number of others, me included, despise them. Such is how the state of affairs is, both in the US and in the Philippines. That does not mean that I have given up on democracy. But it does mean that I have come to see sadly and bitterly that is becoming in many places very shaky. Both in the US and in Brazil, and in some places in Europe (Hungary, Austria and Poland). We not only have incompetence as we had with Reagan and Diefenbaker. But outright brutishness and evil beyond being philistine along with it, of course.
To shift a bit, I support Québec sovereignty, but I also aspire to be a “citizen of the world”. I put the latter in scare quote because actually there cannot at least now literally be such a thing. But it is not a bit of nonsense, it is a fortunate metaphor. However, unfortunately these two ideas do not always go together let alone fit together. But it can be what it is to respect people. While negating the Trumpian horror and absurdity we must with honest and explicit cognitivity resist the Trumpian establishment gaining a habitation and a home. Its adherence is diluted but also dangerous.
As I grow aged, I hear with inherent disgust the noises that come from Trump. And ignorant plainly philistine pull throes yappers. A vulgar philistine eruption. Trump is a megalomaniac but is also crafty. But not in a way that aids the commonweal. He is certainly not anything like an FDR. He tweets away ignorantly.
He has his adherents all right. He clearly in numerous places has his loyalists. To my sadness and disgust. It is not something that makes me jump with joy. Ignorant and uninformed as his tweeting is, it is not just a blowing in the wind. It is a voice all right. But often it is a dangerous one.
His “USA First” or, as he has it falsely, “America First” is misleading. For the USA is not America but a part of America. It is in America but not America. It is just a part of North America, as Trump surely knows. But trump blast on about America as if there were such a thing. Moreover, that US is the natural leader of Americas is an illusion. For to believe such an illusion is an arrogant bit of ideology. There should be no “USA First”.
When I see or hear Trump’s supporters mindlessly cheering on his post-election propaganda events, I am both angered and saddened. And rightly so for both. They are deluded people—usually losers—who are not to be blamed or held responsible for their cheering him on. They usually and irrationally doing their thing often bitterly concerning their place in the world. But given their inculturation they are not to blame. That is something they just inherited and do not deliberately choose. They are innocently ignorant losers clapping away at what is actually to their detriment. What the development of capitalism has forced on them they ignorantly are capitalists’ supporters. But these peoples as all people should have respectful treatment. That should go with their very humanness. Bad eggs or not. But that does not mean that we should not try to stop their evil or bad doings. Respect should go with being human. Even Saddam Hussein should not have been mocked by his executioners when he was saying his prayers at the time of his execution even if he should have been executed.
When I see and hear all these deluded people clapping and cheering at one of Trump’s propaganda events, I remember accounts of Hitler’s rallies. They are birds of a feather. Though Trump, as bad as he is, is not Hitler. These deluded are two different people. Both should be respected as people but not for what they do or believe. They know not what they do, they should be halted, but still respected as human beings.
The world is a hideous complex place. These deluded people are just ignorantly stuck in a certain dreadful inculturation. Something that is not of their choosing. They should never be subjected to contempt nor under a Nietzschean conception of being just herd animals with a slave morality to be whipped into order when necessary. But their evil doing and even their willing harmful being are results of their inheritance. Restraint is necessary but it should also be accompanied by a kindlier acculturation. We must struggle to make it a kindlier world. Something it evidently isn’t. Do I exaggerate when I said it was a hideous place? But it is not everywhere. Sweden is not Syria. But this does not mean or entail that the beliefs or attitude of these losers have any substantial or even desirable substance. Or any coherent rationale. They know not what they do. Their beliefs are often irrational or sometimes incoherent. But as I have said, these beliefs are not their fault. But of their enculturation and circumstances, the circumstances of their lives. We must not confuse it with desert.
Those of us who were lucky enough to be free of such delusion are indeed lucky. Lucky enough in our inculturation and circumstances. But we should not go on about our desert. It is not a matter of desert. We should be fallibilist not absolutist claiming certainty. We should realize that we can never escape contingency. We should also take repeatedly in our heads and hearts that we have just lucked out as only a few do. Most do not. Those losers in life are usually losers through no fault of their own. Often losers form early on because of circumstances not of their own choosing. It may start even before their birth while still in their mother’s wombs.
Yet my disgust and bitterness remain. Yet these deluded people as all people should be respected. There is no morally tolerable exception to that. That is a moral remark not empirically grounded or groundable claim. Respect these losers as humans but their ways of seeing and doing must be rigorously resisted. These losers must be respected but not their ways of seeing and conceiving. Again, this is a difficult tightrope to walk.
We must find a humanistic way of doing things here, but we must not let ourselves be crushed by any authoritarianism populists or no. But this indeed is a terrible tightrope to walk. The chances of falling off are great. Perhaps now we need an authoritarianism concerning global warming disaster given the pervasive denial concerning it. But our dear Trump is pushing vigorously in the other direction. Perhaps there is authoritarism and authoritarism. They are not all the same. We are indeed caught in a horrible world.
Every people should in some significant respect at least have their sovereignty acknowledge and accepted. Catalonia as much as Switzerland or New Zealand. But sovereignty should not be unconditional. What kind, if any, for example should be accepted. The Faroese Islands for example off the coast of Denmark? But still with a different language or at least a different home language, many Faroese wish for independence from Denmark. Should they have it? Can they even reasonably and fruitfully be a sovereign nation? The Faroese are not Icelanders or New Zealanders. For Feroese matters are problematic as they are for Prince Edward Island if they wish to be an independent nation. An independent people. Yet Iceland is very small, but it does very well.
However, matters are very different for Palestinians in Gaza with their relation with Israel. There they have a very good case for sovereignty. To be free from Israel’s domination and brutality and killing.
No one and particularly no people should be treated as an independent other. And no nation should be treated, to quote Hilary Clinton, as the “indispensable nation”. No one, particularly a nation, should be treated as a dependent other. But is this categorical? Think again of the Faroese? Matters are difficult. Sovereignty needs a pragmatic treatment but how? Again, we do not escape fallibilism.
All human beings in their very humanness need a morally informed and a reflective non-evasive kindly oriented treatment. Even the ignorant must be respected. They must not, pace Nietzsche, be treated as herd animals. To speak of the human animal is all right but not of the “herd animal”. No one should be so treated or even so characterized. Though in actual reality there are many that are so treated. They are treated as a herd animal with a slave morality. This is the way of the world. This is pervasive but not everyone is so treated in such a dreadful matter. But a lot are.
However, this is not the way the world is. Remember Gaddafi and his enslavement of Blacks, in indenture labor. Even after Kaddafi in Libya many people still live in such horror. It is very pervasive there for Blacks.
How do we “prove” that people should not be so treated? Is there any cognitive way of establishing that people—all people—in some way have to be respected? Is it a bare commitment devoid of a cognitive warrant? Is that clearly not establishable? It is not like “There is a forest fire in California”. That is empirically establishable. Is there any other way that something substantive can be established? To say of the many horrors in our world that they are religiously or metaphysically established is just arm waving. Talk without intelligibility or at least coherence.
“People should be respected¨ is not a conceptual truth. It is not like “2 + 2 = 4” or “there are no round square”? Is there anything that is deep and important that people cannot articulate that is all the same deeply important for human lives?
Perhaps I am blinkered here? But I see no way to rationally or reasonably refute or undo a naysayer to what I have said about respect for people. I am skeptical of anyone who claims they can. I think anyone who seeks clearmindedly to understand where justification comes to an end. Concerning such matters take a non-cognitivism turn. We should be non-cognitivist over such moral or normative matters. Taking a subtle form of emotive theory in the way it was taken by someone like Charles Stevenson or Axel Hägerstrom.
The road to be taken in my life’s writing has gone in various ways including at various times contrariwise to what I have been claiming here. But this emotive non-cognitive way is where I now go. It has for a long time gone with me. That is where for me such matters end but it no ‘boo-hurrah’ account.
Does this go with my attempt to take leave from philosophy? To articulate instead a critical social theory? What I have just been saying is itself a bit of philosophy. But for me, a philosophical anti philosophy. Here is where we need an understanding of Wittgenstein. We need a therapeutic naysaying. These are places, as he put it, where our spades are turned. This noncognitive way might be one of them. If not his at least mine.
A reader of this might remark, ‘You Nielsen, you old atheist, finally have religion catching up with you’. In reality, if not in name, the critic might claim, you, in your ancienhood, with your respect for humanity-taking are taking implicitly a religious path. Such a stress, the reader claims, is religious or at least religiose. That is what you expect all humanity in actuality comes to. Such respect for all people including the evil doers is redolent with religious attitude. You are being self-deceitful if you deny that. Such attitude toward people can be a religious attitude. But it is not always so.
Such a caring does not commit me to religion or to religious attitudes. Or even push me in that direction. It goes as well with an utter non-religiosity. I am utterly devoid of any impulse toward transcendence. That is an embodiment of religion. I regard that as an incoherent category. It’s very intelligibility is at best tottering. I would even not understand how to have such an impulse toward transcendence.
Such zero inclination toward religion or spirituality of any kind does not lessen my commitment to humanity or my respect for all persons. That has no religious or religiose danglers.
People can well live without an impulse to transcendence or spirituality or any inclination to transcend fallibilism or contingency. But they cannot be religious without an impulse to transcendence. I go in for utter secularity and utter recognition and acceptance of it without any sense that there is no meaning in life. That our lives need not be meaningless without religion and as well as there can be a life well lived and unfortunately as a life ill lived without any religious inclination at all. I have no impulse toward transcendence or even a sense a life without it. It just seems to me mumbo-jumbo. I do not feel somehow at lost without it. People can and do live well without it. But they cannot be religious without a conception of transcendence. Just pseudo-religious or as some people with what they call spirituality. My naysaying does not make me an ‘evangelical atheist’. But that does come to an attempt to telling it like it is. But even if I became skeptical here it would not make me skeptical of atheism. Though spirituality will still seem to me itself a form of mumbo-jumbo.
This website, created in collaboration with Kai Nielsen and Jocelyne Couture, aims to make the work of this important philosopher freely available to both researchers and the general public.