Monthly Archives: July 2015

McLuhan to Richards July 1968

In his 1968 book, So Much Nearer, I.A. Richards wrote of the “Principle of Complementarity”: “This immensely important topic— publicized recently by Marshall McLuhan…”.

McLuhan wrote to Richards on July 12, 1968 (Letters 355):

I want to mention at once my gratification at your kindly reference to me on page 63 of So Much Nearer. Naturally, I owe you an enormous debt since Cambridge days.

The extent of McLuhan’s “enormous debt” may be seen in multiple posts here.

The next sentence of the letter is probably an indication that one of Richards’ books McLuhan read at Cambridge was Coleridge on Imagination:

I also owe a great deal to S.T.C.1

McLuhan’s letter shows that he saw Richards as more than a professor and critic of English literature:

As the evolutionary process has shifted from biology to technology in the electric age, I am fascinated by your suggestion (on page three) of the possibility of a non-verbal language of macroscopic gesticulation, an interface of entire cultures. (…) Your wonderful word, ‘feedforward’, suggests to me the principle of the probe, the technique of the ‘suspended judgement’ which has been called the greatest discovery of the 20th century.2

McLuhan would see that the rigorous study of “macroscopic gesticulation” demands that its types (or elements or fundamental structures) be isolated and that this, in turn, demands free experimentation both objectively (seeing the investigated object differently) and subjectively (being the investigating subject differently3). Such free experimentation could be called the exercise of ‘feedforward’ or probing or the practice of ‘suspended judgement’.

  1. McLuhan had already studied Coleridge in some depth at the University of Manitoba. He is cited in his MA thesis on Meredith in regard to the types of human experience — a topic McLuhan was studying at the time with his Manitoba mentor, Rupert Lodge.
  2. “Feedforward” seems to have been coined by Richards for his 1951 Macy Cybernetics Conference lecture, “Communication Between Men: The Meaning of Language”.
  3. See Richards’ existential demand for documentation.

Richards on the media 5

Practical Criticism, p 339-340:

…a decline can be noticed in perhaps every department of literature, from the Epic to the ephemeral Magazine. The most probable reasons for this are the increased size of our ‘communities’ (if they can still be so called, when there remains so little in common), and
the mixtures of culture that the printed word has caused. Our everyday reading and speech now handles scraps from a score of different cultures. I am not referring here to the derivations of our words they have always been mixed but to the fashion in which we are forced to pass from ideas and feelings that took their form in Shakespeare’s time or Dr Johnson’s time to ideas and feelings of Edison’s time or Freud’s time and back again. More troubling still, our handling of these materials varies from column to column of the newspaper, descending from the scholar’s level to the kitchen-maid’s.
The result of this heterogeneity is that for all kinds of utterances our performances, both as speakers (or writers) and listeners (or readers), are worse than those of persons of similar natural ability, leisure and reflection a few generations ago. Worse in all four language functions, less faithful to the thought, less discriminating with the feeling, cruder in tone and more blurred in intention. We defend ourselves from the chaos that threatens us by stereotyping and standardising both our utterances and our interpretations. And this threat, it must be insisted, can only grow greater as world communications, through the wireless and otherwise, improve.

Here again there are many ideas which McLuhan would come to treat in his own fashion decades later:

– the complications of time — the increasing speed (or foreshortening of time) in modern communications forces different historical times together in the present: “we are forced to pass from ideas and feelings that took their form in Shakespeare’s time or Dr Johnson’s time to ideas and feelings of Edison’s time or Freud’s time and back again.”  In McLuhan’s terms, the accelerating speed of communications tends under electric conditions to “all-at-onceness”.

– the global village vs the global city — the world has become at once both bigger (“the increased size of our communities”) and smaller (“Our everyday […] now handles scraps from a score of different cultures”). But it has not learned how these fit together as a global city; instead, like a village subject to sudden instabilities, it has become increasingly subject to “heterogeneity” rather than “community”.

– the layout of the newspaper with “scraps from a score of different cultures” treated with widely different sensibilities (the “handling of these materials varies from column to column of the newspaper, descending from the scholar’s level to the kitchen-maid’s”) displays the modern global village situation in nuce.

Richards on the media 4

Practical Criticism, p 314:

If we wish for a population easy to control by suggestion we shall decide what repertory of suggestions it shall be susceptible to and encourage this tendency except in the few.

Richards describes here what has become of politics, commerce, entertainment and education today — what McLuhan called “the age of advertising”.  


Richards on the media 3

Practical Criticism, p 320:

It is arguable that mechanical inventions, with their social effects, and a too sudden diffusion of indigestible ideas, are disturbing throughout the world the whole order of human mentality, that our minds are, as it were, becoming of an inferior shape — thin, brittle and patchy, rather than controllable1  and coherent. It is possible that the burden of information and consciousness that a growing mind has now to carry may be too much for its natural strength. If it is not too much already, it may soon become so, for the situation is likely to grow worse before it is better. Therefore, if there be any means by which we may artificially strengthen our minds’ capacity to order themselves, we must avail ourselves of them. And of all possible means, Poetry, the unique, linguistic instrument by which our minds have ordered their thoughts, emotions, desires . . . in the past, seems to be the most serviceable. It may well be a matter of some urgency for us, in the interests of our standard of civilisation, to make this highest form of language more accessible.

  1. A central difference between Richards and McLuhan may be seen here.  Richards’ imagination of solutions to the present crisis derive from the Gutenberg Galaxy — he looks to what is simplified (‘Basic English’), “controllable” and some “means by which we may artificially strengthen our minds’ capacity to order”.

Richards on the media 2

From an interview with I.A. Richards1 from March 11, 1969:

Interviewer: When did television become an important part of your design for escape?

R: About the middle of the war, ’42 or ’43. It looked like the heaven-sent instrument. You could put pictures along with words and sentences. If you can get the eye and ear cooperating, you can do anything, I think. Television looked like the divinely appointed medium. (…) There’s more power to the eye and ear together than to either of them apart…

Earlier, in the introduction to his translation of the Iliad The Wrath of Achilles — Richards had written (already in the original 1950 edition?):

The reign of writing looks like it is drawing soon to a close. The radio may be restoring to the ear some of its original priority in ‘literature’. (12)

  1. ‘An Interview With I. A. Richards’, by B. Ambler Boucher and John Paul Russo,

Richards on the media 1

McLuhan seems to have read I.A. Richards’ Practical Criticism (1929) in 1934 during his first term at Cambridge.  In that same Michaelmas term (or the next Michaelmas term in the fall of 1935) he heard Richards lecture on ‘The Philosophy of Rhetoric’.

Page 248 of Practical Criticism reads:

We come by our ideas in three main fashions : by direct interaction with the things they represent, that is, by [direct] experience ; by suggestion from other people ; and by our own intellectual elaboration. Suggestion and elaboration [the second and third of these] have their evident dangers, but are indispensable means of increasing our range of ideas. It is necessary in practice to acquire ideas a great deal faster than we can possibly gain the corresponding experience, and suggestibility and elaboration, though we must make them responsible for our stock responses, are after all the capacities that divide us from the brutes. Suggestion, working primarily through language, hands down to us both a good and an evil heritage. Nine-tenths, at the least, of the ideas and the annexed emotional responses that are passed on by the cinema, the press, friends and relatives, teachers, the clergy (etc)  — to an average child of this century are (…) crude and vague rather than subtle or appropriate. But the very processes by which they are transmitted explain the result. Those who hand them on received them from their fellows. And there is always a loss in transmission which becomes more serious in proportion as what is transmitted is new, delicate and subtle, or departs in any way from what is expected. Ideas and responses which cost too much labour both at the distributing end and at the reception end both for writer and reader are not practicable, as every journalist knows. The economics of the profession do not permit their transmission ; and in any case it would be absurd to ask a million tired readers to sit down and work [at the interpretation of subtle ideas]. It is hard enough to get thirty tired children to sit up, behave and look bright.
A very simple application of the theory of communication shows, then, that any very widespread diffusion of ideas and responses tends towards standardisation, towards a levelling down.

There are many ideas here which McLuhan would come to treat in his own fashion decades later1:

– the rear-view mirror — “what is expected” is “responsible for our stock responses” and results in “a loss in transmission which becomes more serious in proportion as what is transmitted is new, delicate and subtle”.

– the medium is the message — “the very processes by which they* are transmitted explain the result.” (* “ideas and the annexed emotional responses…”) 

– all media have further media as their environmental context — “Ideas and responses which cost too much labour both at the distributing end and at the reception end both for writer and reader are not practicable, as every journalist knows. The economics of the profession do not permit their [more exacting] transmission; and in any case it would be absurd to ask a million tired readers to sit down and work [at interpretation].” Ideas in print in newspapers in economics…in a galaxy…

– the content of a medium is another medium — “Nine-tenths, at the least, of the ideas and the annexed emotional responses that are passed on (…) are (…) crude and vague rather than subtle or appropriate. (…) A very simple application of the theory of communication shows, then, that any very widespread diffusion of ideas and responses tends towards standardisation, towards a levelling down.”2 

– “the theory of communication” — must study human interaction “working primarily through language” in a range extending from individual experience with “friends and relatives, teachers, the clergy (etc)” to mass media like “the cinema [and] the press”.

–  the opposition of breadth and depth — The “means of increasing our range of ideas” and of acquir[ing] ideas a great deal faster than we can possibly gain the corresponding experience” entail “stock responses” at “both at the distributing end and at the reception end” of communication. Hence, the “widespread diffusion of ideas and responses tends towards standardisation”.

speed is fundamental to “the theory of communication” — In the diachronic unfolding of history, it becomes “necessary in practice to acquire ideas a great deal faster than we can possibly gain the corresponding experience”. This is enabled first of all through language and then through contact with wider and wider groups of people (itself enabled through advances in transportation, agriculture, industry, trade, etc), then through writing (and all of its associated consequences), then through printing (and all of its associated consequences), etc etc. This ever increasing speed of diffusion is the most important consideration in an investigation of the modalities of communication and their effects: “the very processes by which [ideas] are transmitted explain the result.” 


  1. This is not to claim that these ideas were unique to Richards or that McLuhan first found them in Richards. It is noteworthy, however, that these ideas are found together in Richards and that they form a kind of system in his thought in the general context of the rigorous criticism of English literature.
  2. Both the ‘exterior’ context (as seen in the previous point) and the ‘interior’ content of a medium are further media. This opens a ‘house of mirrors’ effect whose consideration is an unavoidable step in the investigation of the possibility of a science of criticism.

Autobiography 1967

The blurb from McCall’s magazine, December 1967, to McLuhan’s short piece (p 97 & 163), ‘A Glimpse of Christmas Future’:

Professor McLuhan, who holds a PhD from Cambridge, taught at the University of Toronto for twenty years and now holds the Albert Schweitzer Chair in Humanities at New York’s Fordham University.

The use of the simple past tense here — taught at the University of Toronto for twenty years — is interesting.  McLuhan may originally have envisaged staying at Fordham (before the state grant for his chair became embroiled in controversy and before his brain tumor operation).

Hopkins: peace allows the death of it

In Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, Peace1, “pure peace” is questioned as follows:

What pure peace allows,
Alarms of wars, the daunting wars, the death of it? 

It would seem that true peace, peace that is foundational, is not “pure”, but is utterly complicated by “alarms of wars, the daunting wars” and therefore seems to hide itself and even to allow “the death of it[self]”. 

Foundational peace is not “pure”, but impure. It is what is termed “true strength” in the I Ching in a passage cited by McLuhan in TT (22):

[true strength] does indeed guide all happenings, but it never behaves outwardly as the leader. Thus true strength is that strength which, mobile as it is hidden, concentrates on the work without being outwardly visible. 

The expression of such “peace” and “strength” manifests itself in letting go — even to its own “death”. But the genitive here (of such “peace” and “strength”) is dual, both objective and subjective. Such peace and strength do not merely lose themselves in creative expression, since creative expression is what they are

This is why they are not abolished in not being “outwardly visible”, even to “the death of it”.  

And this is why McLuhan notes that “pouring [out] is also fulfillment, is not emptying but filling. There’s a complementarity here.”

  1. I.A. Richards cites the poem in full in ‘Gerard Hopkins’ (1926), reprinted in Complementaries (1976).

Richards and McLuhan: essential differences

There is no question but that I.A Richards influenced McLuhan in multiple respects, lifelong. But the great lesson to be drawn from their relationship concerns their fundamental differences.

These regard:

1. Time: for Richards, time is singular and diachronic; for McLuhan, time is plural and both diachronic and synchronic ‘at the same time’.

2. Ambiguity, synaesthesis, complementarity: for Richards these are results, something produced; for McLuhan these are original — the pro-ducing.

3. Light: for Richards light is thrown on things by human activity; for McLuhan humans are illuminated by light which comes through things to them. 

4. Finitude: for Richards, finitude precludes grasp of (gen obj) the whole; for McLuhan, finitude is the sign of the grasp of (gen subj) the whole.

5. Language: for Richards, language is a human invention and tool; for McLuhan, language is the environment within which human existence unfolds.

Examples can be found in both Richards and McLuhan which would seem to fall on the side of the other (as defined above).  Whenever this is found to occur, the prediction here is that the example will prove to be secondary — something subject to deeper explanation in terms of the above differences.


Richards and McLuhan – The Windhover

I.A. Richards was one of the first to comment on the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins after they were posthumously issued in an edition by Robert Bridges in 1918.  Richards’ essay ‘Gerard Hopkins’ was published in The Dial in 1926.1

In this short (8 page) piece, Richards cites The Windhover, complete, and quotes a letter from Hopkins to Bridges in his explication of it:

Indeed, when, on somebody’s returning me [The Loss of] the Eurydice2,  I opened and read some lines, as one commonly reads, whether prose or verse, with the eyes, so to say, only, it struck me aghast with a kind of raw nakedness and unmitigated violence I was unprepared for: but take breath and read it with the ears, as I always wish to be read, and my verse becomes all right.

One of McLuhan’s  first published literary essays, ‘The Analogical Mirrors’ (Kenyon Review, 1944, reprinted in The Interior Landscape) is a detailed consideration of The Windhover. And Hopkins’ letter to Bridges is cited in GG, p83.

Richards ends his essay with the suggestive sentences:

He did not need other beliefs than those he held. Like the rest of us, whatever our beliefs, he needed a change in belief, the mental attitude, itself.

Absent the penultimate sentence, the last would seem to equate “belief” with “the mental attitude, itself” and to indicate the “need” in Hopkins for a “change” of it. Given the penultimate sentence, however, as well as the qualifying phrase “like the rest of us”, this reading can be ruled out. Instead, Richards must be equating “the mental attitude, itself” with the “need” for “change”, as if it were the essence of the exercise of mind to deploy itself freely on a kind of fulcrum, across an open gap in different possible experiential takes. Richards may have been suggesting that Hopkins misconceived his (and our) “need” — whereas he thought he “needed” “beliefs”, what he really “needed” was appreciation of our potential to effect “a change in belief, the mental attitude, itself”. Hence Richards’ intense preoccupation with ambiguity, multiple definition and the meanings, plural, of meaning — and even with that which is “between truth and truth” (the title of a 1931 essay3 by Richards).

For McLuhan this “gap  is where the action is” and is first of all ontological — and then, because ontological, therefore operative in all human experience. Its transitivity is what enables perception, thus also the learning and use of language, thus all the distinctively human occupations in the arts and sciences.

Between Richards and McLuhan, then, the central difference is not that Richards values human freedom as fundamental and McLuhan does not. Instead, both value human freedom as fundamental, but draw very different consequences from this.  For Richards, freedom undercuts perception and especially ontological perception, precisely because it could be different (if not possibly different, then not possibly free); for McLuhan, freedom enables perception and especially ontological perception, precisely because this opens a new relationship with the environment (one that a plant or an animal lacks) on the basis of which something like language (and so, truth and value) first becomes possible.



  1. ‘Gerard Hopkins’ was reissued by Richards in his “uncollected essays”, Complementaries (1976).
  2. HMS Eurydice went down in a storm in 1878 with the loss of 317 lives. Hopkins’ poem on the catastrophe is available online here.
  3. Reprinted in Complementaries (1976).

McLuhan’s Topic #4: the secret songs that orchestrate the universe

McLuhan frequently identifies “existence” or “being itself” as his topic:

To the alerted eye, the front page of a newspaper is a superficial chaos which can lead the mind to attend to cosmic harmonies of a very high order. (The Mechanical Bride, 4)

We are suddenly eager to have things and people declare their beings totally. There is a deep faith to be found in this new attitude — a faith that concerns the ultimate harmony of all being. Such is the faith in which this book has been written. UM (1964) 

I have a deep and abiding belief in man’s potential to grow and learn, to plumb the depths of his own being and to learn the secret songs that orchestrate the universe. We live in a transitional era of profound pain and tragic identity quest, but the agony of our age is the labor pain of rebirth. Playboy Interview (1969)

Here is a chronological sampling of the “sense of Being” (dual genitive) in his work:

Whereas the ethical world of Ulysses is presented in terms of well-defined human types the more metaphysical world of the Wake speaks and moves before us with the gestures of being itself. It is a nightworld and, literally, as Joyce reiterates, is “abcedminded”. Letters (“every letter is a godsend”), the frozen, formalized gestures of remote ages of collective experience, move before us in solemn morrice1. They are the representatives of age-old adequation of mind and things, enacting the drama of the endless adjustment of the interior acts and dispositions of the mind to the outer world. The drama of cognition itself. For it is in the drama of cognition, the stages of apprehension, that Joyce found the archetype of poetic imitation. He seems to have been the first to see that the dance of being, the nature imitated by the arts, has its primary analogue in the activity of the exterior and interior senses. James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial (1953)

In ordinary perception men perform the miracle of recreating within themselves — in their interior faculties — the exterior world. This miracle is the work of the Nous Poietikos or of the agent intellect — that is, the poetic or creative process. The exterior world in every instant of perception is interiorized and recreated in a new matter. Ourselves. And in this creative work that is perception and cognition, we experience immediately that dance of Being within our faculties which provides the incessant intuition of Being. I can only regard the movie as the mechanization and distortion of this cognitive miracle by which we recreate within ourselves the exterior world. But whereas cognition provides that dance of the intellect which is the analogical sense of Being, the mechanical medium has tended to provide merely a dream world which is a substitute for reality rather than a means of proving reality. Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters (1954)

The interval is the means of epiphany or revelation. It is the release which Hopkins called Sprung Rhythm. It is the instrument of analogical intuition of BeingVerbi-Voco-Visual Explorations (1957)

it was not till the pre-Raphaelites and Hopkins that a deliberate campaign for Saxon tactile values in language was to begin in English. Yet tactility is the mode of interplay and of being rather than of separation and of lineal sequence. GG (1962)

For with the isolation of the visual, the feeling of interplay and of light through the mesh of being yields, and “Human thought no longer feels itself a part of things.” GG (1962)

symbolism strove to recover the unified field of being once more… GG (1962)

Just before an airplane breaks the sound barrier, sound waves become visible on the wings of the plane. The sudden visibility of sound just as sound ends is an apt instance of that great pattern of being that reveals new and opposite forms just as the earlier forms reach their peak performance. UM (1964)

we’re standing on the threshold of a liberating and exhilarating world in which the human tribe can become truly one family and man’s consciousness can be freed from the shackles of mechanical culture and enabled to roam the cosmos. I have a deep and abiding belief in man’s potential to grow and learn, to plumb the depths of his own being and to learn the secret songs that orchestrate the universe. We live in a transitional era of profound pain and tragic identity quest, but the agony of our age is the labor pain of rebirth. Playboy Interview (1969)

the word medium in Aquinas refers to the gap or interval, the emptiness between matter and form as such, i.e., the hidden ground of Being, and in every sense, it is the message. MM to Fr Gerald Pocock (May 7, 1976)

There is [for an oral tradition] no past or future, only the essence of being that exists now. GV (posthumous)

the uttered logos (…) embedded in things animate and inanimate which structures and informs them and provides the formal principles of their being…  GV (posthumous)  

  1. “Morrice” is ‘moorish dance’. Cf, Milton, Comus: “The Sounds and Seas with all their finny drove / Now to the Moon in wavering Morris move”; and Wordsworth, To the Daisy: “In shoals and bands, a morrice train / Thou greet’st the traveller in the lane”. McLuhan’s “gestures (…) move before us in solemn morrice” seems to have come from Ulysses 2.155: “the symbols moved in grave morrice”.

Richards – the trivium, the eddy and the 2 sides of the mirror

Rhetoric, Grammar, and Logic — the first three liberal Arts, the three ways to intelligence and a command of the mind that met in the Trivium, meet here again. (Interpretation in Teaching, 3)

It may be that McLuhan’s career must be seen as a kind of convoluted flip from, or counter movement to, the work of I.A. Richards.

On the one hand, McLuhan fundamentally disagreed1 with Richards from his first exposure to him in 1934 (through his reading of Practical Criticism, from 1929, and from attending Richards’ lectures on the Philosophy of Rhetoric). Although McLuhan would always disagree with Richards in these fundamental regards, his different projects represent various ways of expressing that disagreement and of attempting to demonstrate his side of it. For example, it seems clear that McLuhan’s PhD topic of the history of the trivium received its initial impetus from Richards’ 1938 Interpretation in Teaching, whose three parts were organized according to the trivium’s three disciplines, Rhetoric, Grammar and Dialectic.  But where Richards was antagonistic to Grammar relative to Rhetoric and Dialectic,2 McLuhan would relatively champion it. Underlying these differing takes on Grammar were more profound differences having to do with ontology, time and religion. From the start, McLuhan knew that these differences existed. But what he did not then know, and what his work would attempt to accomplish over the next 45 years, was how to articulate these differences for testing and for social application.3

On the other hand, McLuhan received from Richards such a wealth of recommended reading to figures who were unknown to him in 1934 (especially Hopkins, Eliot and Pound), of central problems (the meaning of meaning, the necessity of interpretation for all human experience, the need for a general theory of language, the imperative to understand and to improve communication, the fundamental nature of “complementarity”, the possibility of a science of criticism, the central role of metaphor, etc etc) and of particular topics for the further investigation of these problems (eg, the trivium, the eddy — or maelstrom — and the 2 sides of the mirror), that his work simply cannot be understood, nor his contributions properly identified, aside from a consideration of Richards work in the background.

The Trivium

When he returned to Cambridge in 1939 with his new wife, it is highly likely that one of the first things McLuhan read was Richards’ latest book, Interpretation in Teaching, which had just been published at the end of 1938. The title of the book named McLuhan’s two great interests and it addressed itself to a problem he knew all too well from first-hand experience: “the cruel waste of effort (for teacher and pupil alike) our present courses entail” (vi).

The book does not have a regular Table of Contents but instead offers an ‘Analytic Contents’ stretching over some 11 pages. The first sentence of this extended precis reads: “Rhetoric, Grammar and Logic, the first three Liberal Arts, need to be restored.” And Richards divided his book into three Parts named in turn after each of these three disciplines of the trivium.

Here are some excerpts from Richards’ ‘Analytic’:

Rhetoric is ‘the art by which discourse is adapted to its end’ (…) Logic [is] the critical examination of likenesses and unlikenesses, the study of our sortings and their manipulation (…) A reflective awareness of how we are sorting, and why, is the aim of Logic, which is prevented from taking its proper place in education mainly by misunderstandings and historical accidents, which have separated it unduly from the general study of Language. (…) Grammar [is] the study of the co-operations of words with one another in their contexts — [it] equally loses its power to help when separated [from the general study of Language].

Part One: Rhetoric (…) The theory of metaphor is an attempt to take critical account of skills we already possess (…) Its difficulty [is] not a matter of shortage of technical terms, but of our universal and inevitable use of metaphor in thinking (…) Thought is itself metaphoric (…) Love and the Motor Car (…) The expected satisfaction controls the supplied settings and thus the interpretation (…) aberrations in interpretation mostly come from disordered appetitions (…) The conduct of language has always ulterior motives, e.g. self-esteem (…) Our business is to restore helpful self-criticism (…) the need for detailed studies of misinterpretation [and to] pool experience in place of principles (…) The survival of the playworld (…) Metaphor always at least double (…) Is metaphor in its own nature untranslatable? (…) Any translation expresses only part of the original meaning (…) The main ambiguity of ‘metaphor’ is supported by all the ambiguities of ‘meaning’ and its synonyms (…) What is the whole of an analogy? (…) Different writers called different things ‘definite’ and meant different things by the word  (…) To plot the shifts of this landmark is helpful with many confusions  (…)  Our use of ‘definite’ is not simple, but plays with likenesses, differences, and implications (…) Three senses in which things may be definite (…) senses in which some representation, idea, expression or desire of or for something may be definite (…) Important not to state these in terms of correspondence (…) confusions (…) imperil our civilization (…) The gap between theory and practice is bridged by studying it

Part Two: Grammar (…) The need for a fresh start (…) The deadening notion of usage (…) ‘Law’ as ukase (…) How far does the Usage control go? (…) The forms of extant languages do not correspond to the forms of thought 

Part Three: Logic (…) The Principle of Grammatical Freedom in Analysis (…) Versatility of  IS (…) The ear behind the eye (…) Three interpretations of this IS (…) Asking language to do for us what we must do for language (…) We have to avoid questions bred by miscegenation of logic and grammar (…) Three aims of an improved logic (…) Rhetoric, Grammar, and Logic are interdependent and their three central problems inseparable  (xi-xxii)

The first page of Interpretation in Teaching sets out the aim of the book as follows:

Less by design than from the nature, history, and life of its subject, this treatise has grown into three parts which correspond roughly to ancient provinces of thought. Rhetoric, Grammar, and Logic — the first three liberal Arts, the three ways to intelligence and a command of the mind that met in the Trivium, meet here again. And though each is for us today cumbered with much deadfall and much obsolete technical tackle which we must shift from the path, neither the general problem nor the plan of attack can be new. To orientate, to equip, to prepare, to encourage, to provoke, a mental traveller to advance by his own energies in whatever region may be his to explore; to make him think for himself and make him able to do so sanely and successfully, has always been the aim of a civilizing education. How to hand back the gains of the more experienced to the less experienced in the least hampering and most available form is the general problem. And, since language must be the medium, the three traditional modes of the study of language keep or renew their importance. They meet and mingle incessantly; they cannot, as we shall see in detail, be separated without frustration, and separation has historically been the most frequent cause of failure. But still, Rhetoric, Grammar and Logic, if we set aside their repulsive terminologies and associations, are the headings under which to arrange what the student we hope to help needs most to study. (3-4)

McLuhan’s historical approach to the trivium in his thesis would be very different from that of Richards. Especially he would not follow Richards’ view that it was replete with “repulsive terminologies and associations”. But the initial suggestion of the trivium as the background topic for his doctoral thesis on Thomas Nashe surely came to McLuhan from Richards’ 1938 investigation. 

The Eddy

Probably no two images appear more often in McLuhan than the vortex and the maelstrom. Although George Meredith may have supplied a first exposure with his recourse to Scylla (the rock shoal) and Charybdis (the whirlpool) — a figure in Meredith which is cited repeatedly by McLuhan in his MA thesis — it may have been Richards who brought home to McLuhan the importance of this image (or image family).

In Coleridge on Imagination (1934)  Richards reverts to the image of the eddy several times over. The first instance occurs in a citation from Dryden’s Annus Mirabilis (1667):

The foe approach’d, and one for his bold sin
Was sunk; as he that touch’d the ark was slain:
The wild waves master’d him and suck’d him in,
And smiling eddies dimpled on the main. (Coleridge on Imagination, 95)

Later, in regard to some lines from Coleridge’s Dejection (1802) 

To thee do all things live from pole to pole
Their life the eddying of thy living soul.

Richards comments:

Eddying is one of Coleridge’s greatest imaginative triumphs. An eddy is (…) a conspicuous example of a balance of forces. This ambiguity (or rather, completeness) in Coleridge’s thought here (…) give[s] us a concrete example of that self-knowledge, which (…) was (…) the principle of all his thinking.  (Coleridge on Imagination, 152)

 The Two Sides of the Mirror

If any image appears as frequently in McLuhan’s work as the vortex/maelstrom, it is that of Alice going Through the Looking-Glass. Here again the initial exposure may have come from Richards. In Mencius (1932) he writes:

The problem, put briefly, is this. Can we, in attempting to understand and translate a work which belongs to a very different tradition from our own do more than read our own conceptions into it? Can we make it more than a mirror of our own minds, or are we inevitably in this understanding trying to be on both sides of the looking-glass at once? To understand Mencius, for example, must we efface our whole tradition of thinking and learn another; and when we have done this, if it be possible, will we be any nearer being able to translate the one set of mental operations into the other? Is such translation, at best, only an ingenious deformation… (86)

Several thoughts in the passage came from a letter written to Richards by T S Eliot several years earlier concerning his own experience with Sanskrit:

I shall be very much interested in any results of your study of Chinese abstractions. I dare say it is likely to be more profitable than my attempt, so many years ago, at studying Indian metaphysics in Sanskrit. The conclusion I came to then (after it is true only a couple of years’ struggle with the language) was that it seemed impossible to be on both sides of the looking-glass at once.4 That is, it made me think how much more dependent one was than one had suspected, upon a particular tradition of thought from Thales down, so that I came to wonder how much understanding anything (a term, a system etc.) meant merely being used to it. And it seemed to me that all I was trying to do and that any of the pundits had succeeded in doing, was to attempt to translate one terminology with a long tradition into another; and that however cleverly one did it, one would never produce anything better than an ingenious deformation… (TSE to IAR, Aug 9, 1930)5

In a later essay, ‘Mencius through the looking glass’, Richards recalled:

The odd title of this essay comes from T. S. Eliot. When I was working in Peking at Mencius on the Mind about 1930, he wrote to me (…) that reading in a remote text is like trying to be on both sides of a mirror at once. A vivid and a suitably bewildering image. (So Much Nearer, 1968, 202)

  1. See Autobiography — Richards and Empson and McLuhan’s Topic #3 – Richards and ontology.
  2. Interpretation in Teaching is a grammarian’s funeral.” I. A. Richards: His Life and Work, J.P. Russo, 413.
  3. McLuhan might well be seen in this regard as practicing Richards’ own methods against him. For it was central to Richards that the analysis of mistakes in interpretation and communication (ie, “practical criticism”) was the key to their correction and to the discovery, thereby, of improved theory.
  4. It is possible that Eliot’s image of the sides of the looking glass here was suggested in turn by Richards.  In Practical Criticism (published the year before Eliot’s letter) Richards had written: “to imagine that a mirror stands between us and other people is certainly the most reliable means of studying ourselves.” (247)
  5. The Letters of T. S. Eliot: Volume 5: 1930-1931.

Comparative philosophy – Masson-Oursel and Crookshank

In 1923 Paul Masson-Oursel (1882–1956) published La Philosophie Comparée, which was issued in English translation in 1926 as Comparative Philosophy in the International Library of Philosophy (later The International Library of Psychology, Philosophy and Scientific Method), founded and edited by I.A. Richards’ friend and frequent collaborator, C.K. Ogden.  F.G. Crookshank wrote an introduction to the translation which first appeared the year before (1925) in Ogden’s journal Psyche.  Two years before that, in 1923, Crookshank had contributed a ‘supplement’ to The Meaning of Meaning by Ogden and Richards: ‘The importance of a theory of signs and a critique of language in the study of medicine’.1

Crookshank’s introduction to Comparative Philosophy made a series of points that McLuhan would later come to assert himself and to extend2:

Masson-Oursel, in the domain of philosophy, insists that we should always consider the “fact” in relation to its “milieu” or context, and that comparisons be made, not between isolated facts, but between one and another fact; each fact being considered only in relation to its context. “The comparability of two facts is a function of the comparability of their contexts.” If only such comparisons as these are engaged, fructuous analogies result (…) Only when in comparison or analogy four factors are involved, do we draw near to positivity.3

Here is McLuhan to Ezra Pound a quarter century later:

the principle of metaphor and analogy [is] the basic fact that as A is to B so is C to D. AB:CD (…) relations in four terms (…) I am trying to devise a way of stating this (…) Until [the principle of metaphor and analogy is] stated and publicly recognized for what it is, poetry and the arts can’t exist. (December 21, 1948, Letters 207)

Crookshank again:

M. Masson-Oursel’s method is one which may be said, without any desire to play upon words, to be designed to attain the positive by way of the comparative, for he would secure objectivity by the due appreciation of relativity. He tacitly admits that both science and philosophy are concerned, in every case, with what is a function of two variables: and so he is more concerned to establish some kind of a positive ratio between the two variables than, following a will-o’-the-wisp, to give a positive value to one variable in terms of an assumed positive value of another.

As also discussed in footnote #3 below, the great question seen by Crookshank as implicated in Masson-Oursel’s study is that of the relation (or lack of relation) of truth (“attain the positive […] secure objectivity”) to “relativity”.  And the decisive suggestion is recorded that truth can be attained, and attained only, “by way of the comparative” aka “by the due appreciation of relativity”. From this vantage, nihilism, as the reign of the “will-o’-the-wisp”, results from “assumed positive value” (of, say, ‘the apparent world’4) rather than (as it thinks) from the absence of any such value. Hence the way to truth would be through the dissolution of all “assumed positive value” in the “positivity” of “the comparative” — through, this is to say, investigation of the complete spectrum of all possible “positive values” in their utter “relativity”.

McLuhan’s later animus against archetypes had its basis in the point that analogy “is a function of two variables” and that as soon as one of them is assigned “an assumed positive value” (as buttress for the other) and thereby loses its variability, the analogy is lost — because rendered secondary to the assumed valuation. Cliché in McLuhan’s vocabulary recaptures Masson-Oursel’s ‘variable’ and represents “the due appreciation of relativity”.

Crookshank once more:

Now this method of comparison, whereof the adoption does seem to relieve us of the scandalous necessity of “cooking facts to suit theories, and theories to suit facts” (as well as of pretending that we are measuring something by an objective standard when we are stating in terms of our own personal co-efficient) is one that, although nowhere generally acknowledged and formally stated, has yet been utilized, empirically at least, by certain workers in certain departments of science. By others it has been avoided, as inconsciently as definitely, just as by the man-in-the-street: who compares what is unfamiliar only with what is familiar: who inconsciently holds that what is familiar is what should be: to whom what is unfamiliar offends by what, in ultimate analysis, is but unfamiliarity ; and who never stops to consider whether what is familiar has any claim to acceptance other than [its] familiarity. 

This is just McLuhan’s critique of the ‘rear-view mirror’ and of “assumed positive value”.  

When he came to Cambridge in 1934, McLuhan was jolted awake by the notion, common across a whole spectrum extending from artists to scientists through literary critics, anthropologists and economists, that rigorous definition is necessarily “impersonal” (aka without “assumed positive value”).  As he described in a contemporary letter:

until I came to the Cambridge English School, my principal qualification was a boundless enthusiasm for great books, great events, and great men. Dr. Richards and Dr. Leavis have proved to be a useful supplement and corrective to that attitude. (McLuhan to E.K. Brown, December 12, 1935, Letters 79)

On this model, “great men” are able to create “great books” and “great events” exactly by giving “a positive value to one variable”, namely the lives and circumstances of less-than-great-men, “in terms of an assumed positive value of another”, namely through their “great” lives and books.  The difference between the great and the less-than-great here is just that the “assumed positive value” of the former means something while that of the latter does not —  except in relation to the former. A spectrum of value is envisaged stretching from “great” value at one pole to the absence of value at the other and where all of the intermediary positions receive what value they have from their relation to the plenary pole.

In the early 1950s McLuhan turned against the ideas on ‘value’ that he had taken over from F.R. Leavis and that he now saw represented the “assumed positive value” of a single tradition (whose “great man” was Gutenberg). He came to see that all valuation represented a selection (conscious or unconscious) from another sort of spectrum (often called by him “language itself” or “the unconscious”) and that it was through engagement with this full spectrum of all possibilities of valuation, and through this alone, that values might be grounded in a new way and thereby saved.


The late Dr. [W.H.R.] Rivers, when writing the lectures afterwards published in his Magic, Medicine, and Religion [another volume published in Ogden’s International Library of Psychology, Philosophy and Scientific Method] was impelled to declare that the systems of therapeutics and of diagnosis adopted by certain “ savage’’ peoples are no less coherent and logical than our own are supposed to be, and that (…) their [medical] practice flows naturally from what must be called the philosophical and metaphysical beliefs held by them concerning the nature and causation of disease. Of course [every variety of] Medicine (…) everywhere reflects, and has always reflected, not positive truth, but the mentality, the metaphysics, the philosophy, and the religion — or its lack — of those who have professed it. And (…) the Art of Medicine — the habit, not in respect of things to be known, but in respect of things to be done — is, in every milieu, partly derived from experiences common to all mankind and partly from special, local, and temporal experiences, (…) the psychical no less than the physical environments, in which it has been practised.

In turning against Leavis and the idea that the literary tradition had some intrinsic value (aka “positive truth”), McLuhan reverted to the idea that non-literary values “are no less coherent and logical than our own are supposed to be” — once they were appreciated in the context of “the mentality, the metaphysics, the philosophy, and the religion”, in short “the psychical (…) environment”, of those holding them.

Just as much, this represented a decisive turn from Richards, Ogden and Malinowski and their common assumption that human understanding is geared to diachronic progression.  Like Crookshank , these three all insisted that “the meaning of meaning” depends upon an appreciation of context or situation,  As Malinowski put it:

language is essentially rooted in the reality of the culture, the tribal life and customs of a people, and (…) it cannot be explained without constant reference to these broader contexts.  (The Meaning of Meaning, 305)

Meaning (…) does not come to Primitive Man from contemplation of things, or analysis of occurrences, but in practical and active acquaintance with relevant situations. The real knowledge of a word comes through the practice of appropriately using it within a certain situation.  (The Meaning of Meaning, 325)

But Richards, Ogden and Malinowski also insisted that past (and to some extent also present) contexts or situations were “magical”, “childish” and “primitive”.  Here is Malinowski again:

The various structural peculiarities of a modern, civilized language carry, as shown by Ogden and Richards, an enormous dead weight of archaic use, of magical superstition and of mystical vagueness.  (The Meaning of Meaning, 328)

To sum up, we can say that the fundamental grammatical categories, universal to all human languages, can be understood only with reference to the pragmatic Weltanschauung of primitive man, and that, through the use of Language, (…) barbarous primitive categories (…) have deeply influenced the later philosophies of mankind.  (Ibid.)

Meaning is fundamentally contextual, in this view, but contexts are themselves subject to historical progress. Richards, Ogden and Malinowski situated themselves as agents of this progress.

For fifteen years (roughly 1935-1950), beginning with his first years of study in Cambridge, McLuhan had shared Leavis’ inversion of this notion, namely, that while meaning is indeed fundamentally contextual, contexts are themselves subject to historical deterioration and loss. McLuhan had therefore situated himself, against the progressive orientation of Richards, Ogden and Malinowski, as an agent of restoration.

But then, around 1950, chiefly through his work on the French symbolists and on Eliot, Pound and Joyce — but reflecting as well McLuhan’s ever-optimistic temper — he came to understand that the contexts which structure meaning in human experience form a primary synchronic order that is only secondarily diachronic.  From now on he would cite, over and over and over again, Eliot’s account of “auditory imagination” from his Norton lectures at Harvard in 1932-1933:

What I call this “auditory imagination” is the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word; sinking to the most primitive and forgotten, returning to the origin and bringing something back, seeking the beginning and the end. It works through meanings, certainly, or not without meanings in the ordinary sense, and fuses the old and obliterated and the trite, the current, and the new and surprising, the most ancient and the most civilized mentality. (The Use of Poetry and The Use of Criticism, 111)5 



  1. Another ‘supplement’ included in The Meaning of Meaning came from Bronisław Malinowski: ‘The Problem Of Meaning In Primitive Languages’ (discussed below).
  2. It is not the intent of this post to argue that McLuhan read Masson-Oursel or Crookshank’s introduction to Masson-Oursel’s book. He may or may not have. But the ideas at stake in this post were very much in the air in Cambridge in the 1920s and 1930s.
  3. Crookshank leads off his Introduction with the assertion that Masson-Oursel’s study is “designed for the advancement of philosophy to the high level of positivity.” Now “positivity” is the range over which the “positive” extends — “positivity” is the domain of  the “positive”.  The “positive” in this sense goes back to Lessing and Kant and Hume in the late eighteenth century and designates that component of religion or law or economics which is purely factual, which is present as a matter of fact and not as a matter of rational design and decision. Hence Crookshank’s description of “positive value” as “what is familiar” or “assumed”, as what is held in place “in terms of our own personal co-efficient”. The “positive” in this sense is a factor in all individual and social life and the question arises how it is to be related to theory and enlightenment, on the one hand, and to the free self-development on the other. The great question (once waged between conservatives and liberals, before conservatives became arch-liberals) is whether the positive has an intrinsic value simply as existing fact (the position of, say, Burke) or whether it must be subjected to such tests as ‘is it true?’ or ‘what is its social value?’ (the position of, say, Bentham and of the reformers of all stripes). Hegel understood that these alternatives ultimately lead to repression (the imposition of fact) or nihilism (the dissolution of fact) and therefore must be rethought in a way that would relate positive fact both to theory and to free self-development. The Cambridge English School never got clear about these fundamental questions (as future posts will show in discussions of Richards and Leavis, but which may already be seen in Richards’ Benthamite materialism) and it is at just this juncture where McLuhan made his advance on it. For related discussion see Pouring out is also fulfillment, not emptying but filling”.
  4. For discussion see here.
  5. Leaving aside McLuhan’s many bare references to “auditory imagination”, this passage from Eliot is cited in all of the following essays and books: ‘Coleridge As Artist’ (1957), ‘Environment As Programmed Happening’ (1968), From Cliche to Archetype (1970), Culture is Our Business (1970), Take Today (1972), ‘Media Ad-vice: An Introduction’ (1973), ‘Liturgy and Media’ (1973), ‘The Implications of Cultural Uniformity’ (1973), ‘The Medieval Environment’ (1974), ‘English Literature as Control Tower in Communication Study’ (1974), ‘At the Flip Point of Time’ (1975), ‘Empedocles and T. S. Eliot’ (1976), ‘Pound, Eliot, and the Rhetoric of The Waste Land’ (1979). The preponderance of citations falling in the last decade of McLuhan’s life doubtless reflects his growing awareness then that the nub of his work had to do with time and in particular with the relationship of synchronic and diachronic times.