Innis and McLuhan in 1936

Scholars have stipulated that “only in 1951 did he [McLuhan] begin reading anything by that great political economist [Harold Innis]”. So Babe. Theall concurs: “McLuhan first read Innis in 1951”. For many reasons this claim cannot be correct.1 The proper date must be 1949 at the latest and could have been, at least as regards McLuhan’s time at UT, as early as 1947 (when his long-time Winnipeg friend, Tom Easterbrook, came back to UT to work closely with Innis).

In fact, it is highly likely that McLuhan first read Innis fifteen years before 1951 — in 1936! While he was still in Cambridge!

Here is the cover of the Dalhousie Review from January 1936 with its table of contents: the ninth contribution is McLuhan’s ‘G.K. Chesterton: A Practical Mystic’; the second is Innis’ ‘Discussion in the Social Sciences’.2 

McLuhan’s very first scholarly paper appeared in the same issue of the Dalhousie Review as an important essay of Innis — one in which (as detailed below) his turn to communication is already visible.

There are good reasons to think that McLuhan read Innis’ essay as soon as he received a copy of the review.3 In the first place, of course, McLuhan must have taken great interest, and pride, in this issue of DR with his first paper (outside of University of Manitoba undergraduate publications). It is hardly imaginable that he failed to look into all its articles and to read the ones of interest to him.

In the second place, it is very likely that Innis’ essay, like McLuhan’s, came to The Dalhousie Review via Fr Gerald Phelan at UT.  Phelan was from Halifax, was an old friend of the DR editor, Herbert Leslie Stewart4 and was himself a contributor to DR5. Correspondence between McLuhan and his mother (April 12, 1936, Letters 82) shows that both knew Phelan and it was to him that McLuhan communicated his decision to convert (on November 26, 1936, Letters 93). A decade later Phelan, having been Hugh Kenner’s faculty adviser for his M.A. thesis on Chesterton, would secure publication for it (with an introduction by McLuhan). Although no correspondence has yet come to light regarding the publication of McLuhan’s Chesterton paper in DR, it is highly likely that Phelan did the same thing for him as he came to do a decade later for Kenner. Both were started on their academic careers by Phelan through publications on Chesterton and through jobs at Catholic schools (McLuhan at St Louis, Kenner at Assumption in Windsor). And both McLuhan and Kenner went on from Phelan’s assistance with their careers to become Catholic converts.

By 1936 Phelan and Innis had been colleagues in Toronto for more than a decade.6 Since Innis — unlike McLuhan at this time — had no need of help to publish a paper, his DR piece must have appeared there through some kind of special request from the side of DR. And this must have been mediated, if not originated, through Phelan.7 Whatever the details of the case may have been, it may be supposed that Phelan talked of Innis’ paper in the course of what must have been a great many exchanges with McLuhan about his Chesterton piece for DR and about his conversion (where Phelan played a, probably the, central role).

Thirdly, McLuhan’s close friend from Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba, Tom Easterbrook, was studying for his PhD with Innis at just this time in Toronto. It is probable that Innis’ essay was discussed in exchanges between the two Winnipeg friends — particularly in regard to Chesterton in whom also Easterbrook had a long-standing interest. Indeed, Easterbrook is said to have been the person who first suggested Chesterton to McLuhan’s attention. Further, this connection with Innis via Easterbrook may have been reinforced through the fact that McLuhan’s mother was now living in Toronto with his brother, Maurice, and both knew Easterbrook well from Winnipeg.  

In the fourth place, Innis’ paper (which was originally a lecture at UBC) would have interested McLuhan both in its content and in its style, especially its biting depreciation of the academy. As regards the latter, Innis at the very start of his remarks observes:

I am addressing a university audience interested in the pursuit of truth and in certain standards of intellectual integrity and honesty. This may be a bold assumption. (‘Discussion in the Social Sciences’ (= DSS below), Dalhousie Review, January 1936, 401-413, here, 401)

He goes on to describe academic conferences as follows:

Conferences subsidized (….) for the discussion of problems of the social sciences would become intolerable without the entertainment provided by a trained group of intellectuals designed to stimulate those anxious to think they are making important contributions to a solution of the world’s problems — and to amuse those who know better. The social sciences provide both the opiates and the stimulants to what passes for modem thought. The travelling comedians who masquerade as economists and prophets… (Ibid, 406)8

Innis scholars often criticize McLuhan’s sometimes disparaging style as if it were opposed to the supposedly more scholarly or responsible style of Innis.  But this is mistaken.  Innis could be just as direct, and just as politically incorrect, as McLuhan: 

academic freedom has become the great shelter of incompetence. The intellectual writes informatively for people who still believe they discuss the complex problems of society intelligently… (ibid, 405)

As regards content, Innis’ January 1936 DR paper was “intended as complementary to ‘The Role of Intelligence’ [in] The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, May 1935″ (ibid, 401n). The proximity of views held by McLuhan at this time to those of Innis (and perhaps influenced by Innis) may best be seen from this “complementary” article:

Innis: the social scientist is apt to develop strong vested interests in the prospects of an enterprise or of a group or of a society. He becomes concerned in many cases with the increasing profits and the increasing sale of products irrespective of the wants of the community, and acts largely in a predatory capacity. (…) A politician succeeds by detecting and using to his advantage the weakness of others. (‘The Role of Intelligence’, CJEPS, 1:2, 1935, 281; hereafter ‘The Role of Intelligence’ = ‘RI’.)

McLuhan: What sort of motive, what complexion of intelligence is likely to be concerned with the output and control of Little Men? For almost a century now, the intelligence of the ablest men has been systematically bought and set to work to exploit the weakness and stupidity of the rest of mankind. This is the exact reverse of the traditional procedure of all civilizations. Hitherto the ablest men have been selected to govern, to educate, rather than to exploit, the others. (‘Peter or Peter Pan’, Fleur de Lis, 37:4, 1938)

Further, Innis’s DR paper indicates the direction in which McLuhan (along with Eric Havelock and, indeed, Innis himself) would head in the following decades:

…the possibilities of discussion have increased immeasurably. The character of discussion (…) has been tremendously influenced by recent industrialism and inventions (…) the development of the printing press, economic expansion and the growth of literacy (…) improvements in facilities for discussion, particularly the radio (…) the intellectual has failed to realize the significance of the change which has so profoundly influenced discussion. He remains as a vestige of an era of discussion which has passed.  (DSS 403, 404, 405)

All this is encapsulated in Innis’ bald formulation:

The pulp and paper industry is a fundamental development.9 (DSS 403)

That is: continuing “development of the printing press, economic expansion and the growth of literacy”, along with new inventions (“particularly the radio”), have “increased immeasurably” the amount and speed of information exchange (“possibilities of discussion”) and have thereby closed one “era of discussion” and opened another.  With this closure and opening has come a revolution in “the character” and “the significance” of “discussion” — aka of communication.10

Innis could see with his friend and mentor, E.J. Urwick, his predecessor as the chair of the Department of Political Economy, that these developments implied, or at least served fully to expose, “fundamental limitations” (RI 284) in the findings of the social sciences.  These had to do, on the one hand, with what Innis took to be “the contradiction in terms” of “introspection” investigating “introspection”:

the impossibility  of building a science on a basis on which the observer becomes the observed (…) the social scientist cannot be “scientific” or “objective” because of the contradiction in terms (…) “Introspection” is a contradiction, but what is meant by the word is the foremost limit of scientific investigation in a range extending back to geological time (…) [“scientific” or “objective”] organized discussion [in the social sciences] is a contradiction in terms…(RI 281, 283, 284)

This “contradiction” was the old worry that any introspection of introspection initiated an unstoppable infinite regress. For also such investigative introspection as a subjective act could and should become the object of a further subjective act of introspection in its turn. And so on “in a range extending back to geological time”.

On the other hand, Innis could also sense (with implications he could at this time only vaguely fear, but that Havelock would unfold step by step in the introduction to his 1950 Prometheus book)11 that this “contradiction” left humans enclosed in themselves with no purchase on “reality”:

The never-ending shell of life suggested in the persistent character of bias… (RI 283)

As Nietzsche had detailed a half century before, human thought encased in a “never-ending shell” cannot come into genuine contact (genuine contact!) with objective reality — not even, or especially not, with the ‘ objective reality’ of “human thought” in its “never-ending shell”.  As Nietzsche put it: “With the true world we have also abolished the apparent one!”.  The result was exactly that nihilism which has since manifestly engulfed the planet.  And both Innis and McLuhan would go to their graves wrestling with this spectre.

But meantime a series of deep questions were precipitated from Innis’ 1935-1936 essays which Havelock and McLuhan and Innis himself would all take up in their different ways (thereby defining the ‘Toronto school of communications’):

  • what exactly is “the character” of “an era of discussion”?  How is “an era” to be recognized as such and differentiated from another?
  • if “the nineteenth century, with the development of the printing press, economic expansion and the growth of literacy”, together with later “improvements in facilities for discussion, particularly the radio”, precipitated a new “era of discussion” in the twentieth century, when and where have such eras arisen in the past and what could their study tell us about the course of history and about our present situation?
  • If all human experience is ineluctably limited or biased by the “era of discussion” in which it occurs, might the social sciences be reoriented and revivified through focus on this figure-ground relationship (experience/era of discussion) as on some kind of elementary structure?

In his RI essay Innis repeatedly broaches this latter possibility:

The innumerable difficulties of the social scientist are paradoxically his only salvation. (…) The ‘sediment of  experience’ provides the basis for scientific investigation. The never-ending shell of life suggested in the persistent character of bias provides possibilities of intensive study of the limitations of life and its probable direction. (RI 283)

the habits or biases of individuals which permit prediction are reinforced in the cumulative bias of institutions and constitute the chief interest of the social scientist. (RI 283)

The fundamental limitations outlined by Professor Urwick involve the salvation and the despair of the social sciences. Habits and institutions, even stupidity, are the assets of the social scientist. (RI 284)

But it may be that Innis himself never resolved the question of whether ineluctable bias is “the salvation [or] the despair of the social sciences”, whether “the persistent character of bias provides possibilities of intensive study” or wrecks itself on the unavoidable reef of “the limitations of life”. The great issue may be put in terms of Innis’ use of the word ‘fundamental’:

The pulp and paper industry is a fundamental development. (DSS 403)

The fundamental limitations outlined by Professor Urwick… (RI 284)

Was the “fundamental development” of “the pulp and paper industry” (standing in for all those innovations which have served to define “discussion” aka “communication” in terms of mass consumption) “fundamental” in the sense of providing a “basis for scientific investigation” (RI 283)? Or did it entail “fundamental limitations” that disabled any such “basis” exactly because they were “fundamental” and so insuperable?

In 1936, at least, Innis leaned toward the view that “the social scientist cannot be ‘scientific’ or ‘objective’ because of the contradiction in terms” (RI 283) implied by the attempt to make a study of bias that would itself inevitably be biased:

There are fewer and fewer people who will admit that they do not know, or who have the courage to say that they have not solved the problem. And yet that is what the social scientist must continually keep saying if he hopes to maintain any hold on intellectual life. (DSS 408)

If not a science, then, perhaps the social sciences could function as some kind of art? But no! Even this proves illusory. ‘Discussion in the Social Sciences’ ends abruptly with the resigned assessment:

Discussion runs riot and ceases even to be artistic. (DSS 413)

A decade later Innis would come to speak of”

the fundamental solipsism of Western civilization (in Empire of Communications).


  1. As set out in McLuhan on first meeting Innis, it is certainly not the case that “McLuhan first read Innis in 1951”. He commented on Empire and Communications in his March 1951 “rewrite” of his letter to Innis which was first composed either at the end of 1950 or very early in 1951. So McLuhan must have read Empire and Communications in 1950, the year of its publication. But McLuhan recorded that the first thing he read from Innis was ‘Minerva’s Owl’  (published by UTP in 1948) which would accord with his participation with Innis in the Values Discussion Group of 1949.
  2. Reissued as ‘The Intellectual in History’ in the collection of Innis papers, Staples Markets and Cultural Change, ed Drache, 446-458, published more than 40 years after Innis’ death, in 1995.
  3. McLuhan may also have looked up a related Innis essay that had appeared the year before. A footnote to the title of Innis’ 1936 DR piece reads: “A paper read before a meeting of the summer session of the University of British Columbia; 1935, and intended as complementary to ‘The Role of Intelligence’, The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, May 1935, 280-7.”
  4. Phelan and Stewart were among the small handful of teachers of philosophy in Halifax after WWI (Stewart at Dalhousie, Phelan at St Mary’s — but Phelan was active also at Dalhousie where he founded its Newman Club and lectured on ethics) and had a mutual interest, originating with Stewart, in the relation of philosophy to psychology. (Stewart’s book Questions of the Day in Philosophy and Psychology was published in 1912, immediately before he began his long career at Dalhousie.) Phelan would go on from Halifax to do advanced graduate work in philosophical psychology in Europe (he was based in Louvain from 1922 to 1925) and became a recognized expert in the field.
  5. The first item in the January 1936 issue of DR, immediately before Innis’ paper, was ‘Fifteen Years Of The Review‘ by the editor, H.L. Stewart. In it he observes that the review’s “catholicity of interest is illustrated by the appearance, within a short space, of critical papers on Bertrand Russell and Cardinal Mercier”. The Mercier article (DR 6:1, 1926, 9-17) was one of Phelan’s contributions. A more recent Phelan article was ‘The Lateran Treaty‘ in DR 9:4, 1930, 427-438.
  6. Innis started at UT in 1920, Phelan in 1925.
  7. It is not impossible that Innis sought out a ‘remote’ publication for his rather acerbic essay. But if so, and if he thought DR appropriately remote, approach to Stewart would have taken place through Phelan.  It is more likely, however, that the impetus came from the DR side and that Stewart and/or Phelan wanted a piece from UT’s rising star. But here again, Phelan was the natural person to approach Innis.
  8. Innis’ punctuation has been slightly altered here in the service of clarity. Compare Innis’ “travelling comedians who masquerade as economists and prophets” to Rabelais in Gargantua and Pantagruel: when a company from the University of Paris in their academic robes comes to Gargantua wishing to retrieve the bells of Notre Dame he has made off with, “seeing them so disguised, (he) thought they had been some masquers out of their wits, which moved him to inquire of one of the said artless masters what this mummery meant.” Rabelais’ “said artless masters” were, of course “artless masters” of arts.
  9. See here for discussion of Irene (Biss) Spry’s view that Innis’s “work on the pulp and paper industry (…) was leading him into his later work on communications.”
  10. Importantly, where the subject of Innis’ 1936 DR essay is called ‘discussion’ (even in its title), his 1937 Encyclopedia of Canada article on the ‘Pulp-and-Paper Industry’ replaces that term with ‘communication’: “Expansion of press services and of advertising agencies has accompanied the marked improvements in communication and in the distribution of newspapers”.
  11. First published as The Crucifixion of Intellectual Man. See The bubble of life in Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Havelock and Innis.