Richard Keshen: ‘Reasonable Self-Esteem’ Revisited

Reasonable Self-Esteem by Richard Keshen, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Cape Breton University (CBU), was published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 1996 to critical acclaim, including laudatory reviews in major academic journals like Ethics and Mind.

The book sold out, not a frequent occurrence with academic works, and this year it has received a second edition, with a new introduction and new cover (the philosophically-charged dramatic black and red artwork of Richard Mueller replaced by a calmingly contemplative white and orange design by David Drummond).


Role of reason

Reasonable Self-Esteem makes a strong and often engaging case for the rational grounding of autonomous self-esteem and a social conscience for those in Keshen’s tradition – secular, humanist and Enlightenment-inspired. Keshen, who received his PhD from Oxford University, is an analytic philosopher, and the book proceeds through meticulous and detailed argument, largely aimed at an academic audience. He once said of Reasonable Self-Esteem, “My goal was to describe the central role of reason in a good life,” and Keshen is relentless in establishing the tightest arguments for his position and vigorously addressing possible counter-arguments.

As well as being a serious and conscientious thinker, however, Keshen is cultivated, broad-minded and a good writer, and Reasonable Self-Esteem is rich in ideas and insights into human behavior, spiced with pertinent quotations from writers like George Eliot, Tolstoy and Orwell. I particularly liked chapter two’s epigraph containing two entries from Virginia Woolf’s diaries. The 12 March 1937 entry finds Woolf luxuriating in the positive reviews of her new novel The Years:

Lit Sup … said it’s quite good . . . and Time and Tide says I’m a first rate novelist . . . I’m free, whole; round: can go full ahead.

Alas, bad reviews soon follow, and the entry for 2 April 1937 reports on naysayers who find:

The Years is dead and disappointing . . . All the lights sank; my reed bent to the ground. . . .so I’m found out and that odious rice pudding of a book is what I thought – a dank failure.

It’s a wonderfully vivid way to illustrate the hazards of depending on the opinions of others for our self-esteem, as well as the challenge of overcoming this need for external validation – for no one more than the artist (even the greatest ones).


Traditions & Attention

Portrait of Richard Keshen by Kellie White.

Another appealing strength of Keshen’s book is his willingness to sound the personal note on occasion, as in the outstanding section, in Chapter Six, on traditions and attention. It’s often said of our age that the capital vice is distraction; we are unable to forget about our increasingly impoverished selves and our personal concerns without the frivolous distractions of entertainment, chatter and now social media. More and more, we find it difficult to truly concentrate or just pay attention to the world apart from ourselves.

Being part of worthwhile traditions, Keshen writes, whether as a participant or an informed appreciator of those traditions can “enhance one’s capacity to attend to things: traditions such as painting, gardening, photography, and cooking.” What worthwhile traditions have in common is that they are intrinsically valuable; apart from whether or not they are useful, they are simply good in themselves. Keshen has a great respect for and love of the tradition of science:

As an amateur astronomer, for example, I can attest to how becoming skilled in astronomy engenders a deepening of pleasurable attention to the night sky. Partly it is a question of learning to notice things one would otherwise not notice. This noticing is deepened through learning astronomical names embedded in theories relating to distances and origins of sky objects.

A valuable lesson for everyone, and particularly essential for an artist: attend to the world, see without selfishness or egotism, learn to notice things one would otherwise ignore. Even readers from other ethical traditions than Keshen’s can learn much from this book, and may well come away from it a better person and a better practitioner of their own traditions.


Local scene

A couple of weeks ago, at Flavor on the Water, I met for lunch with Keshen, who was just back from a stay at Oxford, where he’s a member of the Common Room at Wolfson College. I was looking for a little philosophical guidance to help me better understand Reasonable Self-Esteem (guidance which I hope is somewhat reflected in my patchy comments on the book), but the conversation soon took a turn from the tradition of philosophy to that of the arts.

Keshen sees art, like science and philosophy, as a tradition valuable in itself and essential to a meaningful life and vibrant community, and has been an informed appreciator of the local arts scene, as audience member and critic, and a participant as a photographer.

He came to Cape Breton in the early 1970s by way of Toronto, where he’d grown up, and Oxford University, where he was completing his PhD at the time. Was he, a young Jewish urban intellectual, perhaps somewhat baffled by the place? He says he  immediately took a liking to the people and the island’s natural beauty, but:

The way I first came to really understand Cape Breton and its life style was through art, in particular, the short stories of Alistair MacLeod and the theater of the Rise and Follies.

Theater was to become more important to Keshen when he eventually began teaching at the Xavier Junior College in Sydney. At the invitation of Harry and Liz Boardmore, he became a member of the theater awards committee, and later, at CBU, he adjudicated plays, wrote reviews, and (I thankfully recall) was an intelligent and knowledgeable supporter of the Boardmore Theatre. It’s one of the reasons he is grateful for his time at CBU:

I would have been more passive and not someone who got involved to the extent I did in a bigger place. Sydney let me develop interests that I perhaps wouldn’t have elsewhere.


Visual Arts

One of the interests he developed was the visual arts and one of the first close friendships he made here was with Richard Mueller, an artist who lived in rural Cape Breton in the ’70s, and whose work Keshen greatly admires. “Mueller’s art is self-consciously philosophical,” Keshen says, “and deals with central philosophical questions.” At the time, Mueller was working on his series of Descartes paintings, which, Keshen notes in the catalog for the Mueller retrospective at Dalhousie Art Gallery, “explored reason as the source of Faustian technology, misplaced mechanistic models, efficiency thinking, and as a stifler of the imagination.”

It is a testament to Keshen’s intellectual confidence and playful openness to contrary views that one of the Descartes paintings became the cover for the first edition of Reasonable Self-Esteem.

Another artist friend was the enigmatic figure Jack Siegel (1915-2007). Originally from Romania, Siegel lived a solitary life in many large cities before settling in Toronto, where Keshen and his wife Mary met him. Siegel dedicated his life to his art and, whatever city he was in, he usually spent his days on the street sketching. Apart from street sketching, two of his favorite subjects were the Russian ballet and Yiddish theater:

As I understand it, he would go backstage at the ballet or theater, and simply ask to sketch the dancer and the actors. This was in the ’40s and ’50s in New York, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. Mary and I have a sketch Jack did of John Gielgud signed by him.

Siegel, Keshen says, “was extremely secretive and mostly kept to himself,” but Keshen and Mary became close friends with this somewhat difficult and mercurial individual. They liked Siegal and they liked his art, and after he died they purchased trunks of his sketchbooks and watercolors. The Keshens mounted a show of Siegel’s work at their home on Rosemont Drive, which was followed by a retrospective at CBU Art Gallery in 2009.

Keshen had a show of his own in 2007 at the CBU Art Gallery, the Urban Grunge Exhibition. This consisted of photos he took with a disposable camera on the spur of the moment (and in less than an hour), while out for a walk in Sydney. Keshen walks regularly, and he appreciates the town’s waterfront, parks and trails, but wanted to pay tribute, he says, in his notes for the Exhibition, to Sydney’s “grungy scenes, which, when looked at in the right way, have a beauty of their own.”

Pole position (Photo by Richard Keshen)

Pole position (Photo by Richard Keshen)

Anyone who truly loves cities, big or small, loves the grunge in the landscape, and will appreciate these photos. Pole Position, featuring an old haunt of mine, the Blockbuster video store on Prince Street, shortly before it closed down, is a favorite of mine. The titles are integral to the photos, and together with the pictures’ witty narrative set-up, they capture the strange, gritty appeal of urban street life.


Down East

After lunch, we walked over the boardwalk and, as I accompanied Keshen part of the way to his house, I asked him what he has coming up. He told me he’s working on his next book, as yet untitled, on Canadian political philosophy. As well, he’s giving two lectures this fall at Princeton. “The first lecture is about the difference between the way psychology and philosophy treat self-esteem.” The second lecture, based on material from the new book he is writing, is about “the way a nation’s history can properly or improperly enter into our sense of national identification.”

The other day, I ran into Keshen while he was taking one of his urban walks. After so many years in Sydney, he is as much a Cape Bretoner as a cosmopolitan, and standing outside the McConnell Library put him in mind of a story: it began in Toronto when, as a young man needing a break from working on his doctoral thesis, he’d decided it was time for an adventure. Everyone was heading west to Vancouver, so he went  east, boarding a bus to a place he’d never been.

I got off at the old Bentinck street bus terminal and the first thing I saw was a library across the street and I immediately went in to start my job search.

He soon found work at the Cape Breton Post, which he says was one of the most memorable experiences of his life, where he met great people, chain-smoking journalists of the old school, who taught him a lot about professional work and Cape Breton fun. Soon after he finished his doctoral thesis at Oxford, he returned to Sydney and began his career as a philosophy professor at CBU.

Keshen is a fascinating character himself: an ivory tower scholar and an engaged participant in his community, a great teacher as testified by his former students, a careful and cautious thinker drawn to the drama and passion of good art. Cape Breton was lucky he decided to get on that bus going east.


Ken Jessome


Arts reporter Ken Jessome was born and raised in Whitney Pier. His latest play, The Girl Out Back, was presented at this year’s Boardmore One-Act Festival in March, where it won four awards, including best script.





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