McLuhan’s realism 9: Where Chesterton Comes In

‘Where Chesterton Comes In’,1 McLuhan’s 1948 introduction to Hugh Kenner’s Paradox in Chesterton, presented him with an opportunity to update the evaluation he had made in his first published paper in 1936:  ‘G. K. Chesterton: A Practical Mystic’.

The new Chesterton piece took up where the previous one concluded: “the meaning and effect of Mr. Chesterton”, he had said then, lay in his “tireless vigilance in examining current fashion and fatalism”. Similarly, more than a decade later, but with “fashion and fatalism” now advanced to “chaos” after the intervening WW2:

The specific contemporary relevance of Chesterton is this, that his metaphysical intuition of being was always in the service of the search for moral and political order in the current chaos.

He (…) directed his intellectual gaze not to the schoolmen [of the middle ages] but to the heart of the chaos of our time.

That is where Chesterton comes in. His unfailing sense of relevance and of the location of the heart of the contemporary chaos carried him at all times to attack the problem of morals and psychology (…) the most confused issues of our age.

But McLuhan’s interest extended now to the question of how this chaos in psychology and in the moral and political order had come about. His broached this answer:

By the early seventeenth century Descartes could rally enthusiastic support for the proposition that since no philosopher had ever been convinced by the dialectical or metaphysical proofs of other philosophers for the truth of anything, therefore the time had come to introduce a kind of proof which which all men could accept — namely, mathematical proof. What Descartes really did was to make explicit the fact which had been prepared by centuries of decadent scholastic rationalism: the fact that a complete divorce had been achieved between abstract intellectual and specifically psychological order.  Henceforth men would seek intellectually only for the kind of order they could readily achieve by rationalistic means: a mathematical and mechanistic order which precludes [application to or even the idea of] a human and psychological order.2

As a result of this “rationalistic” turn, McLuhan conceded, “a high degree of abstract mechanical order has been achieved” and “great discoveries (…) made”. At the same time, however:

human moral, psychological, and political chaos has steadily developed, with its concurrent crop of fear and anger and hate. The rational efforts of men have been wholly diverted from the ordering of appetite and emotion, so that any effort to introduce or to discover order in man’s psychological life has been left entirely to the artist.

In England, even most artists, including “the Toby-jug Chesterton of a particular literary epoch”, had participated in this drift away from the desperate need to establish “order in man’s psychological  life”. There had been “an evasion of that world of adult horror into which [European artists like] Baudelaire gazed with intense suffering and humility”.

It was the distinction of Wyndham Lewis (as McLuhan had already begun to specify in his 1944 essay ‘Lemuel in Lilliput’) that he had seen this horror early on and had been probing its forms and causes for four decades already — mostly in an uncomprehending obscurity.3 

But again: how had this state of society and of the individual soul come about with such catastrophic consequence? How had an entire civilization become so enamoured with a certain kind of fateful certainty that it was willing, even eager, to destroy itself for it? What could account for the mass transformation of human beings into suicidal lemmings and murderous monsters?

McLuhan did not have an answer to this question which might be stated in so many words — an ambition that would in any case be self-contradictory since reflecting the very “abstract mechanical order” that demanded investigation and not merely, as would be represented by such a facile answer, the further replication of itself.  But what he did have was the recommendation made at the end of his ‘Ancient Quarrel’ essay from 1946 (originally a talk from 1944) and even initiated to some extent in his 1943 Nashe thesis (written in 1941 and 1942): “knowledge of the history of the present dispute would serve to diminish the fog and the passions aroused at present, and would substitute some light for much heat”. If, this was to say, “the kind of order [we humans] could readily achieve by rationalistic means” but “which precludes a human and psychological order”, if this kind of “mechanistic” order is not the only option for our thought and action, what other options for rival orders are open to us such that they might be said to be in a “dispute” or “quarrel” with it?

At this point in 1948 there were many aspects of this question McLuhan had yet to consider: when does this “dispute” take place if it is always ongoing between these perennial options for order?  if this “present ” time is not the same time as that of “the [chronological] history of the (…) dispute”, what is the relation of these times?  how do media relate to these times, both as deriving from them (like everything human) and as fostering this or that (necessarily temporary) advantage of one option over the others? and how do perception and art relate to this “dispute” of options and of times, both as a matter of the genesis of perception and art, and of their potential contributions to investigations in this new field (or fields)?

All these questions lay in the future.  But what McLuhan could already see clearly, and was able to specify here in his second Chesterton essay, was that a potential solution to “the chaos of our time” lay in a realist position that yet recognized “every kind of reasonableness” in its inevitable multiplicity.  A peculiar kind of idealistic realism was envisioned:

Catholics have failed to understand or utilize Vico. Vico’s great discovery of a psychological method for interpreting historical periods and cultural patterns is rooted in his perception that the condition of man is never the same but his nature is unchanging. (…) Vico was not a Thomist, and so he has been abandoned to the sceptics; but he invented an instrument of historical and cultural analysis of the utmost use for the discovery of psychological and moral unity in the practical order.

McLuhan’s realism was focused on moral and political order as against a merely intellectual order. He rejected out of hand the sort of response to “the present chaos” that he had found in Catholic universities like SLU and Assumption and now again at St Michael’s at UT:

The Catholic teaching of philosophy and the arts tends to be catechetical. It seeks precisely that Cartesian pseudo-certitude which it officially deplores, and divorces itself from the complex life of philosophy and the arts. This is only to say that the Catholic colleges are just like non-Catholic colleges.

But he yet saw the foundation of moral and political order as lying in a “psychological method” that was able to investigate the varying conditions of humans (which are “never the same”) within a unified theory. Central to this idea was that our “connatural” realistic access to the world is not restricted to things in the exterior landscape, but includes as well the full panorama of “the interior landscape”. This sort of ‘interior realism’ was the key to McLuhan’s whole contribution because no one then or now would deny the potential value of the scientific study of human options — if only such study were possible! But the whole world has staked literally everything on the certainty of its impossibility!

In McLuhan’s analysis, we continue to “seek intellectually only for the kind of order [we] could readily achieve by rationalistic means: a mathematical and mechanistic order which precludes [application to or even the idea of] a human and psychological order”. A certain kind of certainty dominates us and the only way out of the cul de sac is to recognize the existing “dispute” or “quarrel” concerning such certainty in “the interior landscape” — and then to investigate it as we do all things in the exterior one. Only this could provide, once more, “a human and psychological order”.

The basis of McLuhan’s idea was that this sort of research is not only not impossible, but that it is so possible (so to speak) that it is actually always taking place already — or always has taken place already — in our every perception.  Even perception, “the first stage of apprehension”4 takes place only insofar as the interior “dispute” has been witnessed and decided in favor of one of its possibilities. The great need is therefore for us to remember or to “retrace” (as McLuhan usually has it) what we are already witnessing and deciding in this way at every moment, but somehow leave in utter obscurity.  And how is this? The reason seems to be that it takes place in the interior landscape, not the external one, and our natural realistic access to things is not believed to extend to the former as it does to the latter. We are only exterior realists.

McLuhan saw comparable potential to Vico’s “psychological method for interpreting historical periods and cultural patterns” in

Chesterton’s powerful intrusion into every kind of confused moral and psychological issue of our time. For he seems never to have reached any position by dialectic or doctrine, but to have enjoyed a kind of connaturality with every kind of reasonableness.

Here was McLuhan’s ‘interior realism’ in a nutshell.  He was fundamentally against “reach[ing] any position by dialectic or doctrine”. A “catechetical” understanding of life was of no interest to him whatsoever. For this would implicate an “evasion” of the communication we always already have with the world around us and within us “connaturally”. A kind of “rationalistic” detour would be taken in an attempt to get where we already are.5 Decisively, however, that world to which we have such natural access included for McLuhan different kinds of understanding (aka, different kinds of “reasonableness”) in different people (especially considered over widely separated times and spaces) as well as the different options for understanding that are always in “dispute” in each one of us in every moment. (It is the resources of the latter interior panoply, of course, that gives potential understanding of the former exterior one.)

It was in this context that McLuhan staked his claim to be a true Thomist:

whereas St. Thomas was a great abstract synthesizer facing a unified psychological world, the modern Thomist has an abstract synthesis of human knowledge with which to face a psychological chaos. Who then is the true Thomist? The man who contemplates an already achieved intellectual synthesis, or the man who, sustained by that synthesis, plunges into the heart of the chaos?


  1. All citations below, unless otherwise noted, come from ‘Where Chesterton Comes In’, McLuhan’s introduction to Hugh Kenner, Paradox in Chesterton, 1948. Kenner’s book was developed out of his M.A. thesis at UT, on which his adviser was Gerald Phelan.
  2. McLuhan probably took this reading of Descartes from Etienne Gilson.  In his essay, ‘The Future of Augustinian Metaphysics’, in A Monument to Augustine (1930), Gilson writes: “Descartes is essentially a man who attempted and carried through an experiment on the following notion: What happens to metaphysics, if we apply to it the mathematical method? In our opinion, what happens to it is that you destroy it. Descartes did not hold that view; on the contrary, he believed himself to be the first to save it (…) But as soon as he universalizes his method and decides to apply it to the totality of reality, Descartes entangles himself in singular difficulties. To start with, he wagers, without a shadow of possible justification, that there is nothing (…) that escapes mathematical method; then, bound to model reality on his ideas, instead of modeling his ideas on reality, he is driven to recover things only through concepts and to have no other starting point but thought.” The translation here of ‘things’, doubtless for ‘les choses’, is too literal.  What Gilson had in mind “that escapes mathematical method” was exactly not bare ‘things’ but, as McLuhan put it, things of the “human and psychological order”.
  3. The obscurity in which Lewis had long worked despite the outpouring of his energy in multiple media was perfectly symbolized by his exile in Toronto during WW2.
  4. McLuhan to Pound, July 24, 1951, Letters 228.
  5. “For first principles are not sought, since they are present and to hand; and if what is present is sought for, it becomes hidden and lost.” (al Ghazali, Deliverance from Error, ca 1108, §ii)