Innis and “the conditions of freedom of thought”

Science, technology and the mechanisation of knowledge are in grave danger of destroying the conditions of freedom of thought, and, in destroying the conditions of freedom of thought, bringing about the collapse of what we like to think of as western civilisation. (‘A Critical Review’, The Bias  of Communication, 190)

In 1948 Harold Innis gave a presentation at a conference of commonwealth universities in Oxford.1 In it he averred:

My bias is with the oral tradition, particularly as it has been reflected in Greek civilisation, [and] with the necessity of recapturing something of its spirit. For that purpose we should try to understand something of the importance of [the] life or of the living tradition which is peculiar to the oral as against the mechanised tradition…

Fundamental questions were implicated: What exactly characterizes an “oral tradition” vs a “mechanised” one?  Could classical Greece, for example, be said to be “mechanised” once it was no longer only “oral”?  If not, where and how to draw the line between the two?2 And just what is the “spirit” or the “life” of a civilisation or a tradition — how is this knot of questions to be approached?

Innis gestured in the direction of questions like these when he spoke of the need “to make some critical survey” and to render “a critical review” (the name he gave to his remarks when they were printed). But for a “systematic overhauling” of this sort, it was necessary to establish “a common point of view”.  And to achieve “a common point of view” it was necessary to recognize its absence in a time of “the pervasive influence of discontinuity”:

Knowledge has been divided in the modern world to the extent that it is apparently hopeless to expect a common point of view. (…) Western civilisation has reached the point that a conference largely composed of University administrators [like ourselves] should unconsciously assume division in points of view in the field of learning and (…) should have been so far concerned with political representation as to forget the [cultural] problem of unity in Western civilisation; or, to put it in a general way, (…) all of us here together seem [ourselves] to be [just] what is wrong with Western civilisation.

How had this come about?

The impact of science on cultural development has been evident in its contribution to technological advance, notably in communication and in the dissemination of knowledge. In turn it has been evident in the types of knowledge disseminated, that is to say, science lives its own life not only in the mechanism which is provided to distribute knowledge but also in the sort of knowledge which will be distributed.3 (…) We are compelled to recognise the significance of mechanised knowledge as a source of power and [the associated] subjection [of education] to the demands of force through the instrument of the State. The Universities are in danger of becoming a branch of the military arm. The [critical] problem of Universities in the British Commonwealth is to appreciate [the] implications [of this fact] and to attack in a determined fashion the problems created by a neglect of the position of culture in Western civilisation. Centralisation in education in the interests of political organisation has disastrous implications.

Innis had a great deal of practical experience dealing with this situation in the concrete, sometimes criticizing government interference in university affairs, sometimes criticizing academics for their myopia and for their failure to address the deep cultural problems of “Western civilisation”. But he did not have a solution in theory to the problem of establishing “a common point of view”.4  It is just here where McLuhan’s contribution must be assessed.5


  1.  Report of Proceedings of the Sixth Congress of the Universities of the Commonwealth, 1948; also: ‘Appendix’ to Minerva’s Owl (1948); also: Bias  of Communication, 1951, 190-195; also: ‘The Mechanization of Knowledge’, in Staples, Markets and Cultural Change, 1995, 350-355.
  2. The Gutenberg Galaxy may be read as addressing this question.
  3. “The mechanism (…) to distribute knowledge” shapes “the sort of knowledge which will be distributed”: the medium is the message.
  4. Innis could not see his way to “a common point of view” on account of his twin convictions that “it is impossible for (the economic historian) to avoid the bias of the period in which he writes” and that the current period is characterized by “fundamental solipsism”. For references and discussion of these points, see Innis, McLuhan and “the “power of metamorphosis”.
  5. McLuhan noted to Gerald Stearn that “(Sigfried) Giedion influenced me profoundly — (reading) Space, Time and Architecture was one of the great events of my lifetime.”  Now in Space, Time and Architecture one of the central points that caught McLuhan’s attention was the following chain of thought: “Historians quite generally distrust absorption into contemporary ways of thinking and feeling as a menace to their scientific detachment, dignity, and breadth of outlook. But one can be thoroughly the creature of one’s own period, embued with its methods, without sacrificing these qualities (of scientific detachment, dignity, and breadth of outlook). Indeed, the historian in every field must be united with his own time by as widespread a system of roots as possible. The world of history, like the world of nature, explains itself only to those who ask the right questions, raise the right problems. The historian must be intimately a part of his own period to know what questions concerning the past are significant  to it.” (6) With Giedion, McLuhan would deny both of Innis’ convictions that there is no escape from one’s period and that the present period implicates a “fundamental solipsism”. For discussion, see Innis, McLuhan and “the “power of metamorphosis”