McLuhan’s Topic #3 – Richards and ontology

The chief weakness of our best criticism today is the pretence that fundamental matters can be profitably discussed without prolonged and technical thinking. (A.I. Richards, Coleridge on Imagination, 1934, 5)

As discussed in Autobiography — Richards and Empson, McLuhan first described I.A. Richards in a letter from January 16, 1935 as follows:

Richards is a humanist who regards all experience as relative to certain conditions of life. There are no permanent, ultimate, qualities such as Good, Love, Hope, etc., and yet he wishes to discover objective, ultimately permanent standards of criticism. He wants to discover those standards (what a hope!) in order to establish intellectualist culture as the only religion worthy [of] a rational being and in proportion to their taste for which all people are “full sensitive, harmonious personalities” or “disorganized, debased fragments of unrealized potentiality”. When I see how people swallow such ghastly atheistic nonsense, I could join a bomb-hurling society. (Letters, 50)

McLuhan heard Richards’ lectures on the ‘Philosophy of Rhetoric’ that same year and they were suggestive enough to exercise profound influence on him for the remainder of his life (as future posts will detail). But it is unlikely that the opinion of Richards expressed to his mother was based purely on personal experience. Instead, McLuhan probably had this impression mostly from Cambridge scuttlebutt, which, in turn, was based on Richards’ notorious anti-clericalism and on emphatic statements made by him like the following:

I write then as a Materialist trying to interpret before you the utterances of an extreme Idealist [Coleridge] and you, whatever you be by birth or training, Aristotelian or Platonist, Benthamite or Coleridgean, Materialist or Idealist, have to reinterpret my remarks again in your turn. (Coleridge on Imagination, 19)

As seen here, Richards sometimes had the idea that conflicting views needed to be reduced to a single one of them (“have to reinterpret … in your turn”) and it was in this mood that he identified himself as a materialist and a Benthamite. A clear statement of this sentiment may be seen in a footnote in Practical Criticism (1929):

I use “need” here to stand for [an imperative within] an imbalance mental or physical, a tendency, given suitable conditions, for a movement towards an end-state of equilibrium. A swinging pendulum might thus be said to be actuated by a “need” to come to rest, and to constantly overdo its movements towards that end. We are much more like pendulums than we think, though, of course, our imbalances are infinitely more intricate. (275n1, emphasis added)

In these terms, Richards could be said to have been “actuated by a ‘need’ to come to rest” and that he did so as a materialist. This was his “end-state of equilibriumBut elsewhere in Practical Criticism he resisted this sort of monolithic self-identification.  For example, when his thought was criticized as crassly utilitarian both by his friend T.S. Eliot and by Herbert Read, Richards rejoined:

Mr Eliot, reviewing Science and Poetry in The Dial, describes my ideal order as “Efficiency, a perfectly-working mental Roneo Steel Cabinet System“, and Mr Read performing a similar service for Principles [of Criticism] in [Eliot’s journal] The Criterion, seemed to understand that where I spoke of “the organisation of impulses” I meant that kind of deliberate planning and arrangement which the controllers of a good railway or large shop must carry out. But “organisation” for me stood for that kind of interdependence of parts which we allude to when we speak of living things as “organisms”; and the “order” which I make out to be so important is not tidiness. (285n1, emphasis added)

Now “organisms” as such complex (“interdependence of parts“) structures “need” not, in fact cannot, “come to rest” with one of them.  Applied to the above citation from Coleridge on Imagination, page 19, an “organic” view would be one in which Aristotelian and Platonist, Benthamite and Coleridgean, Materialist and Idealist would maintain themselves in an organic “kind of interdependence”In fact, still in Coleridge on Imagination, Richards himself put forward — in highly convoluted language, perhaps indicating that he had not been able to think through all the implications of his claim — something very like just this suggestion. Citing Coleridge’s question whether “ideas are regulative only, according to Aristotle and Kant; or likewise constitutive, and one with the power and life of nature, according to Plato and Plotinus” (Coleridge on Imagination,183-4) with Coleridge’s following observation that this “is the highest problem of philosophy, and not [merely] part of its nomenclature” (ibid), Richard wrote:

What by and in it [“the whole soul of man”] we know [what we know] is certainly not [merely] a part of philosophy’s nomenclature. But what we say about it — whether we say that it is the mode of (…) our knowledge (ideas are regulative) or that it is [all of] what we know (ideas are constitutive) — must be said (…) in a vocabulary. And I have tried to make the position acceptable that these rival doctrines here derive from different arrangements of our vocabularies and are only seeming alternatives, that each pressed far enough includes the other, and that the Ultimate Unabstracted and Unrepresentable View that thus results is something we are familiar and at home with in the concrete fact of the mind. If this were so, the problems of criticism would no longer abut [ie, conflict in sterile fashion], as they so often did for Coleridge, on this problem of Reality; they would be freed for (…) inexhaustible inquiry… (Coleridge on Imagination, 184, emphasis added)

Relatedly in Mencius on the Mind: Experiments in Multiple Definition (1932):

can we maintain two systems of thinking in our minds without reciprocal infection and yet in some way mediate between them? And does not such mediation require yet a third system of thought general enough and comprehensive enough to include them both? And how are we to prevent this third system from being only our own familiar, established tradition of thinking rigged out in some fresh terminology or other disguise ? There is nothing new about the problem, that is obvious. What would run some risk of novelty would be an attempt to discuss it explicitly, to bring it out of the realm of midnight dubiosities and initial misgivings into the field of arguable methodology or technique. The problem seems to grow still more formidable as we realize that it concerns not only incommensurable concepts but also comparisons between concepts and items which may not be concepts at all. (87)

A series of points grow out of these considerations which are important both in general and for an understanding of McLuhan’s project in particular.


Richards studied philosophy under G. E. Moore at Cambridge. And Moore, like the three other world famous philosophers at Cambridge in the first decades of the twentieth century, Russell, Whitehead and Wittgenstein, thought that it might be possible to solve philosophical problems via their reformulation in some special language (like the logics proposed in the Principia Mathematica and in the Tractatus) or in ordinary language (as suggested by Moore and by the later Wittgenstein). Richards applied this search for a better understanding of language1 to the “criticism” of literature, but hoped for similarly broad results as regards (eg) the “problem of Reality”.2 Here communication would be both the means and the goal of solving problems (or dissolving them, as Wittgenstein had it) through, as Richards put it, the dialogue of “inexhaustible inquiry”. 

McLuhan brought forward these ideas in new ways. On the one hand, he took a more historical approach than the Cambridge philosophers or Richards by asking how language was used and considered at different times and in different societies.3 Within this approach, he suggested that focus on the disciplines of the trivium or on the senses (including the sensus communis), or on the canons of rhetoric, or on the material means of communication (like writing or radio or TV) or on the hemispheres of the brain (etc etc) could enable the required comparative study.4 As with Richards, the intended result would be to isolate possibilities “we are familiar and at home with in the concrete fact of the mind”, not because we are conscious of being so, but because these have shown themselves as organizing forms of experience in people with whom we can imaginatively identify today thanks to developments in anthropology, psychology, sociology and the arts — as well as in transportation and the media.5 These possibilities could then not only be studied as possibilities with testable qualities; they could also be ‘tried on’ by investigators to see if they might solve problems which were intractable in our usual perspectives.6 This sort of experiential dynamism and resulting research is exactly what McLuhan learned at Cambridge (see Autobiography – encountering Shakespeare) and is what he would come to call “probing” resulting in “perception”.

Commenting on “Coleridge’s conversion from Hartley to Kant”, Richards nicely specifies the point:

The two systems (or set of assumptions), violently opposed though they seemed to him, may each — to a Coleridge — be ways of surveying our mind. In the final theory what he had learned from each came together. A later inquirer, for whom materialist associationism and transcendental idealism are usually systems to be thought of rather than to be thought with, is not likely to learn so much either through or about either. (Coleridge on Imagination, 17, emphasis in the original)

On the other hand, McLuhan took nihilism as a theoretical and practical problem of great moment (in a way few academics have done, including the greats in the Cambridge philosophy and english schools). If other approaches to experience could solve problems that twentieth century experience could not, and if they did not lead to nihilism, as it did, and if they could account for nihilism, as it could not, then these rival modes would recommend themselves, not (or not only) for our comparative study, but for personal adoption.7


Richards can be seen in the passages given above to instigate (or to be subject to the instigation of) a kind of quarrel with himself.  One side of him thinks that in a situation of “imbalance” between “rival doctrines” there is “a need to come to rest” in “an end-state of equilibrium”. But the other side of him thinks that “organisation” may be thought as a “kind of interdependence of parts” where “rival doctrines” may be seen as “only seeming alternatives” such that “each pressed far enough includes the other”.  This would “require yet a third system of thought general enough and comprehensive enough to include them both”.  But each time Richards attempted to state one of these sides, the other came out as well.  So when he identified himself as a Materialist, he is instantly aware that the person he is addressed by, namely Coleridge, is instead “an extreme Idealist”, and that those persons whom he, in turn, addressed himself to were “Aristotelian or Platonist, Benthamite or Coleridgean, Materialist or Idealist”. The situation was such that the quarrel of these “rival doctrines” not only did not end when Richards declared himself for one or the other, but was rather further incited. Similarly, so soon as Richards put forward the organic view for which “rival doctrines” are interdependent “parts” and “only seeming alternatives”, he somehow came to sum up this position in starkly monolithic terms: “the Ultimate Unabstracted and Unrepresentable View [singular] that thus results”! Supposedly fundamental plurality suddenly showed itself as an Unsurpassable Singularity! In caps!

What is to be witnessed here within Richards himself is the “ancient quarrel” that McLuhan would describe in terms of the trivium in his PhD thesis and in his programmatic essay, ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’.  This was an essay which was first delivered as a talk in 1944, then published in 1946 (in The Classical Journal, 41:4, January 1946, 156-162) and finally republished in The Interior Landscape, almost 25 years later, as its final chapter. It is noteworthy that the essay therefore brackets in time, before and after, nearly all the work for which McLuhan is known.

‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’ concludes with this summation:

Between the speculative dialectician and scientist who says that “the glory of man is to know the truth by my methods,” and the eloquent moralist who says that “the bliss of man is good government carried on by copiously eloquent and wise citizens,” there need be no conflict. Conflict, however, will inevitably arise between these parties when either attempts to capture the entire education of an age or a country. It would seem to be a matter of distributing time for these studies.

“The speculative dialectician” here is Richards’ “Platonist (…) or Coleridgean (…) or Idealist”, while “the eloquent moralist” is Richards’ “Aristotelian or (…) Benthamite or (…) Materialist”. McLuhan takes the “organic” view of them that “these rival doctrines (…) are only seeming alternatives, that each pressed far enough includes the other”. He therefore says that between them

there need be no conflict. Conflict, however, will inevitably arise between these parties when either attempts to capture the entire education of an age or a country.

Taken not in terms of pragmatic education policy, but in terms of ontology  or, as Richards has it, of “Reality”, it is, however, exactly the essential activity of each of these parties that it “attempts to capture the entire education of an age or a country”, indeed their entire being. In this case, if “the speculative dialectician” did not make a monolithic ontological claim, it would not be “the speculative dialectician” at all; it would be a third “organic” view instead, a view approvingly relating itself to difference.  Similarly with “the eloquent moralist”. All three “doctrines” make universal claim to constitute “Reality” and it is precisely in this that the corresponding magnitude of their “quarrel” consists. The “quarrel” at stake concerns, indeed enacts, “Reality” itself.8 It is therefore not a “quarrel” that can ever be brought to resolution (through some kind of historical development, say) but must instead be active in its fundamental plurality always. It is “ancient”, then, not only diachronically, but synchronically as well as being ‘before’ (or “ancient” to) all experience at every moment. (See McLuhan and Plato 2 – When is myth?)

That this “quarrel” is ground or “being itself” (as McLuhan sometimes put it9) is well illustrated in Richards.  When he attempts to settle the quarrel and “to come to rest” with one of its contestants (by taking either a materialist view or an organic one), the other “parts” immediately assert themselves against it.  It is not Richards who grounds the quarrel, then, but the quarrel that grounds Richards. No matter what he argues, he is always only some or other figure of it. While it remains constant (but in its dynamic struggle), he shows himself (or is himself shown) now as this, now as that, derivative aspect of it.


Richards’ work illustrates the laws of what Plato called “1,2,3”. The matter at stake is the number that applies to ontology.

One of these laws is that reality must be 1 or 3 and cannot be 2. When Richards writes of “Aristotelian or Platonist, Benthamite or Coleridgean, Materialist or Idealist”, he is aware that these pairs are either exclusive or inclusive.  If they are exclusive in the sense of not being equally fundamental, there is a “need” or imperative “for a movement towards an end-state (…) a ‘need’ to come to rest” on one of the sides or the other — whichever is more real.  If they are not equally fundamental, this is to say, one of them (1 or 2)  must be more real than the other and we ourselves must, in the end, be oriented by it, indeed  we ourselves must ultimately be it. It is in this “exclusive” mode that Richards declares himself to be a Materialist and Benthamite. Here 1 or 2 (ie, Materialist or Idealist) implies a decided 1.

Contrariwise, if they are inclusive or equally fundamental, there must also be a third possibility that would account for such a fundamental balance of 1 and 2. Here these “rival doctrines (…) are only seeming alternatives, [such] that each pressed far enough includes the other”.  Here 1 and 2 implies an “organic” 3.

Either way, if 1 and 2 are or are not equally fundamental, “Reality” must be 1 or 3 and not 2.

Another law is that each of 1,2,3 requires the others in order to be itself. Each side of the oppositional pairs of “Aristotelian or Platonist, Benthamite or Coleridgean, Materialist or Idealist” is what it is in not being the other side.  As Richards put the point by citing Chaucer in the epigraph to Mencius:

By his contrarie is every thyng declared. (Troilus and Criseyde, Bk 1)

Absent such an other (in these cases, absent such an absolute other, since these oppositions concern the nature of “Reality”), the remaining singularity would be more like Richards’ “Ultimate Unabstracted and Unrepresentable View” than any distinct side — which is to say that any such side would cease to be itself.  More, since these oppositional pairs “need” their absolute other in this way, they also need that third kind of organicism through which “rival doctrines are only seeming alternatives”.

1 cannot be 1 without 2 (just as 2 cannot be 2 without 1) and 1 and 2 cannot be together without 3.

In a comparable way, an “organic” third is impossible without 1 and 2. Alone, 3 would be a singularity — Richards’ “Ultimate Unabstracted and Unrepresentable View” — that would not only not be 1 or 2 (as just seen), it would in particular not be 3 as the unity of “parts” that are at once independent — and interdependent. 

At the fundamental level of “Reality” that is at stake here, “parts” cannot be subject to some kind of supposedly deeper resolution in an “Ultimate Unabstracted and Unrepresentable” third since there is no deeper level — “Reality” is as deep as it gets. Here “parts” must be absolute in their independent difference and it is only through some third that is equally deep with them that they can both be equally and ultimately real and — therefore — also interdependent (exactly in that fundamental equality). It is just the absolute difference of 1 and 2 from each other, then, and of both 1 and 2 from 3, that is “needed” by the “organism” of 3 in order to be a third. Such a 3 cannot be 3 at the level of “Reality” without 1 and 2 as absolutely independent “parts”.10


The “ancient quarrel” is a “quarrel” because it ‘is’ the irreducible plurality of absolute forms. And such absolute forms cannot not contest since each asserts itself universally.

And it is “ancient” both as having an original time in the perpetually on-going ontological quarrel itself and as some or other a priori (prior, ancient) form from that contest as expressed in every moment of our changing historical times. (See McLuhan and Plato 2 – When is myth?)

Now just as Richards shows himself to be subject to a fundamental ambiguity between 1 (the “endstate” of Materialism) and 3 (“organisation”), so is he subject to an isomorphic ambiguity between diachrony and synchrony.  He argues for the latter against Quiller-Couch’s quip that “systems of philosophy are perhaps the most fugacious of all human toys” (cited at Coleridge on Imagination, 8):

But we may regard philosophers in another way; and then they will not seem so fugaciousNo careful, acute and resolute piece of thinking ever loses it value  (…) every good philosopher stands with Plato and Aristotle; his work remains permanently as an aid in exploring the possibilities of our meanings.  (Coleridge on Imagination, 9-10, emphasis added)

Further on the same page, however, Richards plumps for an over-riding diachrony:

And here is the modern reader’s difficulty with Coleridge; that neither as theology (…) nor as symbol, is this fabric satisfactory, or even intelligible, to him. Coleridge constantly presents it as though it were the matrix out of which he obtained his critical theories. But the critical theories can be obtained from the psychology without complication with the philosophical matter. They can be given all the powers that Coleridge found for them, without the use either literally, or symbolically, of the other doctrines. The psychology and the metaphysics (and theology) are independent. For Coleridge’s own thought, they were not; they probably could not be; to a later reader they may, and, as a rule, will be. (Coleridge on Imagination, 10-11, emphasis added) 

Richards reverts to the advance beyond philosophy again, a few pages later:

the problems and methods of metaphysics and morals which Coleridge’s theory of poetry could supersede are in fact those that have most exercised most philosophers; and (…) they would be superseded not by being taken into the theory and there solved but by being shown to be, as problems, artificial, and, as methods, inadequate.  (Coleridge on Imagination, 20, emphasis added)

Synchrony and diachrony are opposed in these passages as metaphysics to psychology or as idealism to materialism or as 1 to 2. Absent a 3 (despite his arguments everywhere for its necessity), Richards had a resulting “need” or imperative “for a movement towards an end-state” in one or the other.  He came down on modernity.  His fundamental problem may thus be seen to have been an inability to think and to live the irreducible plurality of time as times.

Here again Richards may be taken to reveal, against himself, a background “quarrel” of which he is figure to its ground.  It is by beginning with it, and not with him, that it may be seen how right he was in observing “that to ask about the meanings of words is to ask about everything.” (Coleridge on Imagination, xxi) Not, or not only, as Richards intended, that a deeper study of words is the way to study “everything” in a rigorous way; far rather, instead, that the rigorous study of “the meanings of words” must first of all focus on what take they have on “everything” — on the ontological ground they figure. 11

  1. ‘Language’ understood broadly to include all the modes of logos, hence also logic.
  2. Cf Richards in his preface to Mencius: “these linguistic situations have an interest that spreads beyond the field of English-Chinese translations. A theory which could handle them would have direct bearing upon the whole range of our language purposes from the practice of the most elementary education up to the more abstruse enterprises of comparative criticism and philosophy.” (xi-xii)
  3. McLuhan was again following Richards’ lead here, since Richards championed Malinowski’s pioneering anthropology with its emphasis on primitive languages and “phatic communication”, himself repeatedly visited the far east and published on Mencius. What distinguished McLuhan from Richards was the greater flexibility of his approach such that conversion was possible to (indeed mandatory in the constitution of) any position (as it was not for Richards for anything that smacked of organized religion). To be noted in this connection are McLuhan’s opening remarks in ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ (1954): “For 2,000 years, wrote Theodore Haecker, Western man has been pre-eminent because it has been possible for him to understand all other men through his Catholic faith.”
  4. McLuhan may not have found a satisfactory way to characterize different “modes of experience” and therefore kept trying new ones. Or he may have known very well how to characterize such modes (“the ‘meaning of meaning’ is relationship.” Take Today, 3), but may not have found a satisfactory way to communicate this finding — and therefore kept trying new ones.
  5. These developments might enable the required sympathetic identification, but in the main they seem not to.  We continue to exterminate cultures, languages, customs and mythologies at an astonishing pace.
  6. Cf Richards in a letter to a Cambridge colleague, Raffaello Piccoli, during his first teaching assignment in China in 1929: “Students very able and incredibly charming but moving so much in another medium of thought and language from ours that they feel nearly as far off as fishes in a tank.” (Cited in Mencius on the Mind, 2001 edition, ‘Editorial Introduction’ by  John Constable, xii, emphasis added.) Richards’ study of Mencius was presumably an attempt to “put on”, as McLuhan would say, this rival medium.
  7. Something like this took place, of course, with McLuhan’s conversion to Catholicism. He begins ‘The Medieval Environment’ (1974) as follows: “I want to explore a theme concerning a new inter-relationship of past and present. (…) The electric age, by virtue of its simultaneity, has created a universal “acoustic” environment. Having left the Middle Ages by the visual route, we are returning to full medieval awareness by the acoustic route.”
  8. See McLuhan and Plato 8 – Gigantomachia
  9. See McLuhan’s Topic #4 on Being itself.
  10. The importance of absolute ontological difference cannot be overstated.  If nihilism (for example) is to be subject to account, without essential distortion, this is possible only within an economy that has no “need” for ultimate singularity and that can, or must, recognize absolute difference.
  11. This post will be updated with at least two further points beyond the four in its concluding section.  One will consider how criticism might unfold if it were “freed for (…) inexhaustible inquiry”, in Richards’ suggestive phrase; the other will describe the abysmal gaps implicated in an ontology of 1,2,3 — both between its own “parts” and (as a result) between the parts of historical (ontic) events grounded in that ontology. Such iconic isomorphicism between the two realms, in turn, holding them both together and apart, is generated as a re-play of “the fecund interval” already dis-played in the ontological quarrel between its contesting parties.

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