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.

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