McLuhan’s realism 7: “training in moral sensibility”

As discussed in McLuhan’s realism 6: dialectics and erudition not enough, at Christmas 1945 McLuhan wrote to his Jesuit friend from their SLU days, Clement McNaspy, as follows:

Hutchins and Adler have part of the solution. But they are emotional illiterates. Dialectics and erudition are needed, but, without the sharp focusing of training in moral sensibility, futile. (Letters 180)

By “moral sensibility” McLuhan had in mind the myriad practical matters undertaken aside from academic “erudition”. He had long been clear that learning takes place, and is expressed, mostly beyond the “schoolroom”. As he already specified as a 22 year-old back in Winnipeg:

It is, of course, mistaken to suppose that education in any important sense is connected with the schoolroom. Education is the sum total of all those ideas and objects pressing in on the mind every hour of the waking day. (‘Public School Education’, The Manitoban, Oct 17,1933)

But just because he was talking with McNaspy about life beyond “dialectics and erudition” did not mean that he was not also making a series of points in principle.  These were:

  • dialectic has no right to consider itself as the sole first principle of things — just as little as does the ‘rhetorical’ or prudential consideration of momentary practicality
  • dialectic alone, indeed also rhetoric alone, is therefore “futile”: both together are implicated in all aspects of life
  • a third principle must thus be observed, namely that of the plurality and communal integrity of first principles
  • such a third principle of both together would contradict itself, however, if it strove to be singular and alone
  • it is essential to this third principle, therefore, to be at peace with rival principles that, in their striving to be singular and alone, desire only its destruction
  • this fundamental in-equality is what Jackson Knight termed “the main question” and McLuhan called by a great number of names like ‘grammar’, ‘complementarity’, ‘allatonceness’, ‘uttering/outering’, and so on
  • its most important name, however, was ‘communication’ since it is the unaccountable harmony of what is unequal that characterizes language (and all other media) as the made relation of sound (or other material) and meaning
  • such fundamental communication of the unequal is what enables the relation of human beings to God and the development of all the arts and sciences that humans invent on its basis
  • and it is this medium (of communication of the unequal) that above all else is the message

These points went back to McLuhan’s Nashe thesis which traced the history of the three disciplines of the trivium from pre-socratic Greece to 1600 (a good title of the thesis might have been ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Elizabethan England’).  The thesis, in turn, went back to McLuhan’s work at the University of Manitoba with Henry Wright and Rupert Lodge, both of whom in neo-Hegelian manner saw the working of three alternate first principles at work behind or below all human thought, action and experience. Two millennia before that, Plato had envisioned such a knotted ontology of three principles in the gigantomachia of the Sophist. And two millennia even before that, the Egyptians had contemplated such a complex interaction of first principles in the contendings and reconciliations of Horus and Seth.1

The fundamental factor at stake is God’s lack of jealousy.  Hegel (for whom McLuhan’s Meredith M.A. thesis shows an exceptional feel)2 put the crux of the matter as follows:

Plato and Aristotle teach that God is not jealous and does not withhold from human beings knowledge of God’s self and of the truth. What would it be but jealousy for God to deny to consciousness the knowledge of God? In so doing God would have denied to consciousness all truth, for God alone is the truth. Whatever else would be true and might seem somehow to exist in no connection to the divine, is only true to the extent that it is grounded in God and known from God; in other respects it is a disappearing [zeitliche] appearance. The cognition of God and of truth is the only thing that raises human beings above animals, that distinguishes them and makes them happy, or far rather, according to Plato and Aristotle as much as Christian doctrine, blessed. (‘Foreword’ to F.W. Hinrich, Religion in its Inner Relation to Science, 1822])3

McLuhan saw very early, in his early twenties, that the third principle of the harmony of rival first principles had gradually gone into eclipse over the last half millennium or so until it came to be generally believed either that truth existed only in singular isolation from the hubbub of the world or that it existed (if it existed at all) only in, or indeed only as, that hubbub itself. The great need was, therefore, to attempt to show, once again, how truth and hubbub, dialectic and rhetoric, idealism and realism, theory and action, word and thing, God and human beings — could belong together in their radical difference and insuperable inequality.

  1. The Egyptian elaboration of ontology as ontologies, situated at the very dawn of recorded history, points back into prehistory as if the matter had been contemplated forever. For discussion of the gigantomachia of ontologies in early Egyptian mythology see Mis-taking McLuhan (Kroker 2) and Assmann on the battle between Horus and Seth.
  2. “Hegel develops a most convincing thesis that we can understand reality only by taking it in all its concreteness. Reason is not an external criterion but exists only as embodied in the phenomena of experience. We have only to observe the facts of experience as they unfold, and detect, if we can, the laws involved in them. (…) His principal effort was aimed to show that truth was embodied in the actual and that, between thought and reality, between the ideal and the real, there is no separation.” (Meredith thesis, p72-73) “No separation” — but also no equality!
  3. “Platon und Aristoteles lehren, daß Gott nicht neidisch ist und die Erkenntnis seiner und der Wahrheit den Menschen nicht vorenthält. Was wäre es denn anders als Neid, wenn Gott das Wissen von Gott dem Bewußtsein versagte; er hätte demselben somit alle Wahrheit versagt, denn Gott ist allein das Wahre; was sonst wahr ist und etwa kein göttlicher Inhalt zu sein scheint, ist nur wahr, insofern es in ihm gegründet ist und aus ihm erkannt wird; das übrige daran ist zeitliche Erscheinung. Die Erkenntnis Gottes, der Wahrheit, ist allein das den Menschen über das Tier Erhebende, ihn Auszeichnende und ihn Beglückende oder vielmehr Beseligende, nach Platon und Aristoteles wie nach der christlichen Lehre.” (Hegel, ‘Vorrede zu Hinrichs Religionsphilosophie‘ = Friedrich Wilhelm Hinrich, Die Religion in inneren Verhältnisse zur Wissenschaft, 1822)