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.

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