John Watson’s heritage in political economics and communications

During an invited lecture given at the University of Toronto in 1938, [W.A.] Mackintosh paid homage to his fellow economist, Harold Innis: “If we ever come to the time when Who’s Who includes the intellectual pedigrees of scholars, there will appear an item: ‘Innis, H.A., by [Thorstein] Veblen, out of [Adam] Shortt‘.” In this spirit, a second entry would surely read: ‘Mackintosh, W.A., by [O.D.] Skelton, out of Shortt’. The teaching of political economy in Canada began in 1878, when John Watson lectured on the topic as part of the moral philosophy curriculum at Queen’s. (…) Nonetheless, it was not until [Watson’s pupil and colleague] Adam Shortt was appointed as lecturer at Queen’s in 1887 that the subject received systematic treatment. (Hugh Grant, W.A. Mackintosh: The Life of a Canadian Economist, 2015, p 6)

Innis (b 1894) at UT, and Mackintosh (b 1895) at Queen’s, 160 miles east of Toronto, were close contemporaries and were responsible for the introduction of the ‘staples thesis’ into Canadian economics and political theory. Mackintosh broached the topic explicitly in his 1923 article ‘Economic Factors in Canadian History’.1

As described by Hugh Grant in the head citation above, both were influenced in their broad view of political economics by Adam Shortt.  And Shortt, in turn, was a student and later colleague of Watson at Queen’s.

While attention (often of dubious quality however) has been paid to Watson’s lasting influence on philosophy in Canada, especially on George Grant and Charles Taylor, little to no attention has been paid to Watson’s influence on Innis, through Shortt, and on McLuhan, through Innis. Moreover, McLuhan’s most influential teachers when he was an undergraduate at the University of Manitoba, Henry Wright and Rupert Lodge, were two of the contributors (out of 11) to the Festschrift volume he received on the occasion of his 50th anniversary (1872-1922) teaching at Queen’s: Philosophical Essays Presented to John Watson.  Further still, another of the contributors was Fr Henry Carr whose indirect influence on McLuhan (especially by bringing Bernard Phelan and Etienne Gilson to St Michael’s) was massive.

In short, Watson’s influence on Canadian life and thought, through his students and through further generations of students beyond them, was far greater than is generally known. Many of these like Shortt and Skelton eventually left the academy for work in the public service in Ottawa. And others, while still in the academy, like Carr or McLuhan, were active in areas and subjects far afield from Watson’s.  But what all received from Watson, directly or (mostly) indirectly, was the notion — now largely lost — that human reason, while ineluctably finite, can and does know truth in any domain to which it freely applies itself.



  1.  Canadian Historical Review, March 1923, 12-25.