With Daniel Weinstock, Professor in the Faculty of Law and member of the Research Group on Constitutional Studies
By Cynthia Lee
Philosopher Daniel Weinstock returns to McGill after a 30-year absence as a professor in the Faculty of Law, as one of the Principal Investigators of the Montreal Health Equity Consortium, and as a member of the Research Group on Constitutional Studies. A home-grown talent, Weinstock is a graduate of McGill and Oxford who studied under some of the 20th Century’s leading philosophers, including Charles Taylor and John Rawls. Prior to coming to McGill, Weinstock was a professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Montreal. His insight as a political philosopher, whose research centres, among other topics, on the politics of language and identity, democracy, citizenship and pluralism, is highly sought by the media and various institutions.
This fall, Weinstock will be teaching the course ‘Theories of Justice’ and a seminar in ‘Law and Health Care,’ which will examine the ways in which laws, ethics and public policy intersect at some of the most hotly debated issues in health policy.
Busy getting settled in at the start of term, Weinstock sat down with the McGill Reporter to talk about “crossing the mountain”, his legacy at UdeM, and what he hopes to bring to McGill.
You studied under the two greats – Charles Taylor and John Rawls, tell us about how that influenced you.
Certainly, Charles Taylor was the person whose example led me to do what I do now. What I found most inspiring about Taylor, after a quarter century of hindsight, was his ability to both reach to the highest realms of abstraction and to connect them down to what is happening in the real world. Not only in the classroom, but in his own life as well. As for John Rawls, though I only got to know him for a year when I was a visiting doctoral student at Harvard, he impressed me with his very great humanity and his lack of affectation.
In March of last year, you co-chaired a conference about Charles Taylor in his honor on the occasion of his 80th birthday. Tell me about that gathering.
I felt a debt of gratitude – Charles Taylor had an impact on the course of my career, and has been very generous with me. It was a good opportunity to take a step back and take stock of his body of work, and to this end we brought people in from all over the world to discuss his works.
Let’s discuss your career at UdeM.
I view my contribution as having built a kind of bridge between the English and French communities. At UdeM, because of my studies in the English-speaking world, I brought texts that students might otherwise not have had access to. I am proud of having helped to train a “relève” of young professors who have ended up in French speaking institutions, and who can move back and forth between the English and French intellectual worlds.
Institutionally, I built a Centre which thankfully survives my departure, called Le Centre de recherche en éthique de l’Université de Montréal (CREUM), soon to be celebrating its tenth anniversary, and which was built around the view that philosophy must help us think about institutions and how people interact in the real world. At a certain point, political philosophy and ethics have to become interdisciplinary pursuits. And so you must work collaboratively. CREUM was an attempt to create a space where people who are interested in the normative dimensions of public policy, could think collectively about issues of the common good in areas of health, economy, and education, to name a few. It is a thriving Centre, and a space where people come together when disciplines often pull them apart.
What brought you (back) to McGill?
Many things. One is that I feel that the law is a perfect place for me to be right now – because it is the point at which philosophies and institutions meet. Lawyers reason in ways that are very similar to moral and political philosophy. Lawyers argue by precedent; they argue about what is similar and different in different cases, and what principles should therefore be applied to them. The law is much more about institutions, constitutions, legal regulations, but it is an area that is deeply informed by philosophy, but that can also contribute to philosophical reasoning.
How does it feel coming back to McGill?
I was here from 1980-86 as an undergrad and then as a Masters student. When my appointment began on August 1 I got my office and I went to get my McGill I.D. card and it felt like coming home. I went through a lot of changes between 1980 when I started here at 17, unsure what I wanted to do to, and when I left in 1986 for Oxford for my PhD, quite certain I would become an academic. I associate McGill with those formative years in a very deep way. I can still recall having vivid discussions with colleagues, TAs and professors on the Redpath terrace. I have vivid memories arguing about what we did and talked about in our classrooms. It is very much where I belong, who I am today, so it does feels like something of a homecoming. When I got my McGill I.D. it was actually quite moving, that, here I was back again after over 30 years.
What inspires you?
My parents and my dad in particular were a great influence. And my kids who are ages 8, 12 and 17. When you become a parent, you want to do what you can to contribute to the world you give to them, rather than simply thinking about the one you inherited.
What was your first job?
I never had to do a “McJob” – I was extremely fortunate to be a TA during my studies and I had more than I needed to survive.
What do you do with your free time?
I do stuff with my kids; they allow me to indulge in things that you need kids to indulge in, like seeing the kinds of movies that a respectable academic might otherwise not go see. People refer to me as a “culture vulture” – I attend a lot of concerts and I love movies and TV.