Havelock on the interpretation of all epochs

What we have to defend today is not the values developed in any particular culture or by any one mode of communication. Modern technology presumes to attempt a total transformation of man and his environment. This calls in turn for an inspection and defense of all human values. And so far as merely human aid goes, the citadel of this defense must be located in analytical awareness of the nature of the creative process involved in human cognition. For it is in this citadel that science and technology have already established themselves in their manipulation of the new media. (McLuhan, ‘Sight, Sound, and Fury’, Commonweal, April 1954)

this process of arrest and retracing, which has been consciously followed by poets since the end of the eighteenth century (…) provides the very technique of empathy which permits intimate insight into the processes and impulses behind products utterly alien to our own immediate experience. In fact, the Coleridgean awareness of the modes of the imagination as producer [of human experience and so of all art and science] represents an enormous extension of the bonds of human sympathy and understanding, socially and historically. (…) This has more than a neo-Platonic doctrinal interest at the present time when the instantaneity of communication between all parts of the world has brought into involuntary juxtaposition the whole diversity of human cultures. (McLuhan, ‘Coleridge As Artist’, 1957)1

In 1987, less than a year before his death, Eric Havelock presented a lecture on “The oral-literate equation: a formula for the modern mind”. Here he noted:

The gifts of Greece on which I have sought to place an accent concern technology and the social and political sciences rather than the realm of metaphysical and moral values — [an accent] not on beauty, truth, and goodness of the Platonic model but on the nuts and bolts of linguistic communication. (Literacy and Orality, 19)2

To understand what Havelock meant here, and also what he did not mean, it is helpful to go back 50 years to his review of John Dewey’s work in 1939.3

On the one hand, Havelock approved of Dewey’s practical approach:

Here is the philosopher of the machine age, the modern Socrates who has striven to call down philosophy from heaven to earth. For a generation he has proclaimed (…) that the proper object of philosophic inquiry is the day’s work, that man’s significance is to be discovered not in cloistered concentration of thought, but in his daily attempt to control his material environment, with plough and test tube and  machine tool. (121)

…conditioned by the American scene, Dewey turns upon the classic philosophies of the old world and attacks them for divorcing “knowing” from “doing,” for failing to come to terms with the machine age. “They brought with them the idea of a higher realm of fixed reality, of which alone true science is possible, and of an inferior world of changing things with which experience and practical matters are concerned. They glorified the invariant at the expense of change (…). They bequested the notion, which has ruled philosophy since the time of the Greeks, that its office is to uncover the antecedently real, rather than, as is the case with our practical judgements, to gain the kind of understanding which is necessary to deal with problems as they arise.” (121)

Dewey’s turn against “the classic philosophies of the old world” could not, however, keep him from re-enacting them:4

He represents in modern times that same revolt against metaphysics, and against the separation of [universal] ends from [particular] means, which the Epicureans represented in antiquity. But he no more than they can really solve the dilemma of directing the activity of human life by [particular] ends which on his premises are to be inferred from the very activity [or means] which is to be directed. (123)

The convoluted implications of this passage will be treated in future posts.5 Suffice it to note here only that Havelock presents the view in it that the forms of human experience are both plural and recurrent. As he observed in his contemporary monograph, The Lyric Genius of Catullus (1939):

true originality is to be found not in new form, but in a powerful spirit; (…) new wine is ever poured into old bottles. (135)

That is, the forms of human expression constitute an ideal order (comparable to the ideal order of the table of chemical elements) that is always available: the store of “old bottles”. It is the office of a “complete” or “powerful spirit” to confront the possibilities and puzzles of that plurality:

If the complete philosopher — and history has admittedly produced few such — is one prepared to accept the full paradox of man’s life, steeping himself in the flux of vital activity and manipulation of men and things only to fly from the flux again in order to separate his formulas, contemplate them in detachment. and ask, What of permanence is here? then Dewey is not a complete philosopher. His very “realism” has had the effect of making him the prophet of one particular historical epoch rather than the interpreter of all epochs. (123)

Interpreting epochs in their fundamental plurality, instead of being the mouthpiece of “one particular historical epoch”, is the deep intent of Havelock’s focus on “the nuts and bolts of linguistic communication” (1987 lecture).  His thinking may be seen in terms of passage he cites from Dewey:  

“The significant difference is that of two types of possible operation, material and symbolic. This distinction when frozen into the dogma of two orders of being, existence and essence, gives rise to the notion that there are two types of logic (…), the formal and the material, of which the formal is higher and the more fundamental. In truth, the formal development is a specialized offshoot of material thinking. It is derived ultimately from acts performed and constitutes an extension of such acts…” (122-123)

Havelock could not endorse this view as stated by Dewey without an important qualification to the penultimate sentence of the passage as follows:

“In truth, the formal development is a specialized offshoot of [some particular type of] material thinking.”

That is, “material thinking” is no singular. If formality is to be understood as the correlate of material behavior, then material behavior, in turn, must be understood in its fundamental plurality. And it is just this that Havelock proposed to do by investigating “the nuts and bolts of linguistic communication”. Hence the significance of Havelock’s comment in his lecture:

Observing (…) that Plato’s text contained an explicit rejection of both Homer and Greek drama as unsuitable for the curriculum of higher education that his academy was designed to offer, I concluded that a great divide in Greek culture had begun to occur, perhaps at the time when Plato was born [c. 425 BC] or a little earlier, which separated an oralist society relying mainly on metrical and recited literature for the content of its cultural knowledge to a literate society that was to rely in the future on prose as the vehicle of serious reflection, research, and record.  (Literacy and Orality, 23)

By “the nuts and bolts of linguistic communication” Havelock did not mean only the grammar, vocabulary, phonology etc of a certain place and time (though he certainly did not consider these unimportant), but how language was used in carrying out the full range of social functions (schooling, worshiping, entertaining, commercial trading, ruling, warring, etc) in their material particularity. The divide between oral and literate Greece emerged when the full spectra of these functions were compared over time.

Prerequisite to such analysis was, on the one hand, acknowledgement of the material differences between societies in space and time as manifested in them by “the nuts and bolts of linguistic communication”. No such acknowledgement, no appreciation of their individual particularity.  On the other hand, however, there must be communication across such divides if comparative analysis of them is to be possible. It is with intimations of just such inter-cultural communication that Havelock concludes his Dewey review using, however, the rubrics of “pessimism” and “failure”:

In American capitalist society during its expanding period, the interaction of ends and means, of ideas and functions, seemed automatic, but as man progressively extends scientific technique to the purpose of dominating his fellow men, the activities of totalitarian communities are going to force the thoughtful to turn with renewed attention to that old fashioned question. What after all is the chief end of man? Put in this form Mr. Dewey would probably deny that the question has much relevance. His philosophy has grappled more completely than any other with the analysis of daily habit and operation. But it lacks that dash of pessimism, that sense of failure in the midst of success, which has turned many a thinker since Plato towards the notion that the good for man cannot be fully comprehended within the span of his mortal life. (123)

Such “pessimism” and “failure” have to do with the inevitable lack of “success” of any “one particular historical epoch”, or any one “span of (…) mortal life”, measured against against the immensity of cosmic space and time.  Or even against the full range of potential human experience.  Or even against what the each of us could and should have done — but failed to do. Havelock would examine this question at length in 1950 and would call its dawning realization the “crucifixion of intellectual man”.

But for Havelock — and, indeed for Innis and McLuhan as well (and it is just here where the knot of their complicated relations must above all be illuminated) — consciousness of limit and of the resulting relativity of all human experience was not debilitating and depressing, but enabling and energizing. For once “the  great divide” between forms of particular material life were exposed and appreciation exercised for each of them across the divide, it became possible for the first time to correlate the effects of human action, especially war and other sorts of strife, with their causes in those forms. (It is just this new possibility in human culture that McLuhan called the movement from the ivory tower to the control tower.) 

The requirement, as Havelock put it, was to abdicate being “the prophet of one particular historical epoch rather than the interpreter of all epochs”. And the key to this, in turn, was awareness of the “great divide” that both limits all the forms of particular human life and enables their comprehensive study.

If such study may well be called “communication”, namely across the “great divide” between the forms of human life, the ground is exposed for the idea that it is exactly some particular type of communication that structures every material culture and even every moment of every individual human life. Exactly because communication is ground in this way, deeper than all the forms of human life, and so both linking and delimiting them, so does it figure in their “nuts and bolts”. Innis (b 1894), Havelock (b 1903) and McLuhan (b 1911) shared this fundamental determination.


  1. Reprinted in The Interior Landscape, 1969, 115-133, here  116.
  2. Compare Havelock already in a book review in 1941: “Conforming to the demands of a historical interpretation, the author very properly devotes well over half his work to establishing Plato’s context in the unfolding process of Greek society, a process conditioned by economic forces and determined by deep underlying class conflicts. (…) This account of Plato and his times has one great merit: it is synoptic, and at the same time dynamic. Greek history is presented not as a series of (separate) events (linked only by their chronology), but as an organic process in which Plato’s philosophy appears not as an isolated creation, but as part of a pattern of Greek behavior.” (‘The Riddle of Plato’s Politics’, The Canadian Forum, April 1941, 15-19, here 15, 16)
  3. ‘The Philosophy of John Dewey’, review of Intelligence in the Modern World, (an anthology of) John Dewey’s Philosophy, edited by Joseph Ratner, Canadian Forum 19:22, 121-123, July 1939.  All page references below, unless otherwise noted, are to this review.
  4. The same point both is central to McLuhan’s 1943 Nashe thesis and to his 1946 (originally 1944) ‘Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’.
  5. Nietzsche showed already in the 1880s that the reduction of ends to means abolished not only ends but means as well: “With the true world we have also abolished the apparent one!”.

Leave a Reply