Innis and Havelock – 1930 and beyond

In his October 1978 lecture, ‘Harold Innis: A Man of His Times’1 Eric Havelock described his first encounter with Innis.2 This apparently took place at the turn of the year, 1930-1931, a year after Havelock began his career at UT in 1929:

On November 17, 1930 (…) a small group assembled itself (…) in a room of Hart House [at the University of Toronto] (…) the initiative lay with several persons of whom I was one. (…) During the next 12 months, this little body (…) held seven or eight sessions, and then quietly expired. (…) During that existence, however, it had heard and discussed seven papers by invited speakers, on various political and economic subjects. (…) The second [of these papers] on January 12, 1931, covered the topic of Economic Conditions in Canada, and was delivered by Harold Innis. (…) I seem to recall a personal responsibility for inviting him and soliciting his support.3 It was at this point [apparently towards the end of 1930] that my personal acquaintance with him began. The substance of what he read and said appeared in a paper later read before the Canadian Political Science Association [in May 1931] with the title, “Transportation as a Factor in Canadian Economic History”4. As secretary of the [Hart House] group, I remember I arranged to have reprints of the paper circulated to the members. (…) It is possible that its author felt some appreciation for the fact that I had fostered its circulation outside the circle of professional economists. (‘Harold Innis: A Man of His Times’, ETC: A Review of General Semantics, 38:3, 243-245)

Havelock especially appreciated Innis’ understanding of the complexity of social relations:

The paper read before the [Hart House] group in effect could be interpreted as giving a picture, a summary of the economic factors and forces which had controlled the development of Canada as an independent entity among the family of nations. This of course was also true of such major works of his as the histories of the CPR and the Fur Trade. (…) [Innis was] never content to select only one or two elements in a complex situation in order to build a policy or program; [he was] far ranging enough in intellect to take in the whole sum of the factors, and comprehend their often contradictory effects. (…) His brand of nationalist piety was controlled by the complications of his country’s situation. (245, 251)

In the following 18 years at Toronto, Havelock would come to focus increasingly on the transition in the Greek world from an oral society to a literate one. Although his definitive statement on the subject would not be published until 1963 with Preface to Plato, his position was already well defined by the middle 1940s such that I.A. Richards could characterize it on October 5, 1947 in a BBC radio broadcast, ‘The Spoken and the Written Word’, as follows:

Professor Havelock has suggested that we may see in Plato’s rejections of Homer the revolt of the writing mind’s mode of apprehension against the pre-literate mind’s other, less abstract and intellectual, ways of ordering itself.5

What particularly characterized Havelock’s description of these contrasting states of mind was the attention he gave to their respective roles in constituting the evolving Greek world over the half millennium after 900 BC. The guess may be made that he took Innis’ complex analysis of economic, political and social relations as a model and then asked how orality or literacy functioned in Greek society in which they were, in turn, the means of information storage in it.

Outlining his theory in 1977, Havelock himself expressed this point as follows:

the classical culture of the Greeks was (…) already in existence before the invention [of the alphabet] took effect. That culture began its career as a nonliterate one and continued in this condition for a considerable period [even] after the invention, for civilizations can be nonliterate and yet possess their own specific forms of institution, art, and contrived language. In the case of the Greeks, these forms made their appearance in the institution of the polis, in geometric art, in early temple architecture, and in the poetry preserved in the Homeric hexameter. These were all functioning when Greece was nonliterate. (…) A nonliterate culture is not necessarily a primitive one, and the Greek was not primitive. Once this proposition is taken seriously, one has to ask: in the absence of documentation in a preliterate society, what was the mechanism available for the storage of such information — that is, for the continuous transmission of that body of religious, political, legal, and familial regulation which already constituted, before literacy, the Greek way of life?6

On Innis’ side, the parallel guess may be made that he took Havelock’s analysis of the fundamental role played by oral and literate capabilities in the constitution of Greek society and applied this idea of media as a formal cause universally. Here, too, Havelock may be cited in 1977 as describing the point Innis took from his work (and from others like Milman Parry) thirty years before:

The invention of the Greek alphabet, as opposed to all previous systems, including the Phoenician, constituted an event in the history of human culture, the importance of which has not as yet been fully grasped. Its appearance divides all pre-Greek civilizations from those that are post-Greek. (…) On this facility were built the foundations of those twin forms of knowledge: literature in the post-Greek sense and science, also in the post-Greek sense.7

Innis could see a whole series of such media revolutions stretching over the 5000 years of recorded history and would begin their delineation in Empire and Communications.

McLuhan, coming to the University of Toronto just as Havelock was leaving, and just as Innis was beginning his last fervent research period prior to his premature death, would be the heir to the insights of both men.


  1. Given at Innis College, University of Toronto, and published in ETC: A Review of General Semantics, 38:3,  242-254, October 1981. Reprinted in Harold A Innis: A Memoir (1982), 11-26.
  2. Havelock was the secretary of the small group which came to include Innis. Fifty years later in his Innis College lecture his secretarial notes from the time enabled him to describe this initial meeting with Innis in surprising detail.
  3. It is possible that Havelock made his approach to Innis based on the fact that both he and Mary Quayle Innis, Innis’s wife, were frequent contributors to The Canadian Forum. Innis began her short-story contributions to the Forum in 1927; Havelock contributed poetry and impression pieces beginning in 1929. Both had contributions in the January 1929 issue.
  4. Proceedings of the Canadian Political Science Association, 1931, 166-184 =  Problems of Staple Production in Canada, 1933, 1-17 = Essays in Canadian Economic History, 1956, 62-77
  5. Prof John Paul Russo has kindly provided the information that this talk was recorded on September 17, 1947. A transcript was published in The Listener, xxxviii:977, October 16, 1947, 669-670; a slightly revised version appeared twenty years later as ‘Literature, Oral-Aural and Optical’ in Complementarities, (ed) Russo, 1976, 201-208.
  6. ‘The Preliteracy of the Greeks’, New Literary History, 8:3, 1977; reprinted in The Literate Revolution in Greece and Its Cultural Consequences, 1982, p 186.
  7. ‘The Preliteracy of the Greeks’, New Literary History, 8:3, 1977; reprinted in The Literate Revolution in Greece and Its Cultural Consequences, 1982, p 185, emphasis added.

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