On the “necessary conjoint” of Platonists and Aristotelians

In his 1934 University of Manitoba M.A. thesis on George Meredith, McLuhan, then 22, defined the problem to which he would dedicate himself for the rest of his life: 

In his table talk, Coleridge noted that all men (…) are born either Platonists or Aristotelians. There are similarly, in all times and places, definite types of temperament displaying consistency of conformation. The literary or artistic expression of such temperaments has properly the same validity as has the philosophizing of the Idealist and the Realist.1

This was a topic — that “there are (…), in all times and places, definite types of temperament displaying consistency of conformation” — which McLuhan would develop at length ten years later in his 1943 Cambridge Ph.D. thesis on Thomas Nashe. In it he would characterize three fundamental types of temperament as dialectic, rhetoric and grammar from the classical trivium and describe the “ancient quarrel” they enact “in all times and places”.2

These two theses at Manitoba and Cambridge were submitted for English degrees, but both reflected the deep influence of Rupert Lodge in the Manitoba philosophy department. Looking for a university teaching job before his last term in Cambridge, McLuhan wrote to E.K Brown, then the new chair of the Manitoba English Department, on  December 12, 1935:

I wish merely to introduce myself as one of the products of some of the leanest years of the Manitoba English Department. The last year was somewhat relieved by the presence of Dr. Wheeler3, but I had directed my energies to philosophy, and did my best work for Professor Lodge. (Letters 79) 

For the rest of his life McLuhan would gnaw away at the question of temperaments — aka media4 — which he located as much in “artistic expression” as in “the philosophizing of the Idealist and the Realist”.

In the fall of 1934, beginning his two years in Cambridge, McLuhan encountered closely comparable views to those he would later set out in his Meredith thesis in the work of I.A. Richards. Richards’ Coleridge on Imagination was published that same year. In it, Richards cited John Stuart Mill from his 1840 essay on Coleridge:

Whoever could master the principles and combine the methods of both [Bentham and Coleridge] would possess the entire English philosophy of his age. Coleridge used to say that everyone is born either a Platonist or an Aristotelian: it may similarly be affirmed that every Englishman of the present day is by implication either a Benthamite or a Coleridgean; [that he or she] holds views of human affairs which can only be proved true on the principles either of Bentham or of Coleridge.

Richards elaborated on this passage as follows:

What Mill says is still true — though we might change the labels again and say, that a person is either a Materialist or an Idealist. It may be argued that these two opposite-seeming types of outlook are complementary to one another: that, in the history of thought they have been dependent upon one another so that the death of one would lead by inanition to the death of the other; that as expiration is only one phase in breathing [with inspiration], so the two [Materialist and Idealist] philosophies in their endless antagonism are a necessary conjoint self-critical process. (18-19)

McLuhan would have immediately recognized a familiar pattern here. For his mentor in Manitoba, Lodge, characterized his ‘comparative method’ as founded on the notion of three fundamental views of reality, Materialist (or Realist), Idealist and Pragmatist — with the latter being some kind of “conjoint” of the first two that would attempt to “avoid all [such] abstract and one-sided theorizings”:

How many philosophical alternatives are there? Theoretically it looks as though the number of -isms [realism, idealism, etc] might be infinite. (…) The history of such speculation, however, (…) indicates that philosophical theorizings (…) flow in one of three well-defined channels. (…) Realism interprets experience as a kind of being, idealism as a kind of knowing. It is easy to see that, as indicated, both realism and idealism are one-sided. Experience has been split up into two aspects, and then the whole has been interpreted exclusively in terms of one of its aspects. It is all nature, or all mind. The extreme forms of these views have always invited criticism. To interpret the whole in terms of one of its parts, whichever part we take as fundamental, can hardly be sound. Obviously the only sound method is to interpret the whole in terms of the whole. Consequently a third type of philosophy has tended to develop: a philosophy which tries to be true to experience, and to avoid all abstract and one-sided theorizings. This attempt at interpretation has taken many forms. One of the best known is called “pragmatism”.5

Remarkably, however, Richards’ development of this view was exactly contrary to Lodge’s ever-repeated admonition that “to interpret the whole in terms of one of its parts, whichever part we take as fundamental, can hardly be sound.” For he, Richards, unaccountably continued his observation that  “as expiration is only one phase in breathing [with inspiration], so the two philosophies in their endless antagonism are a necessar[ily] conjoint (…) process”, as follows:

But, since to hold neither [one of “these two opposite-seeming types of outlook”] is to have no view [at all] to offer, exposition requires a temporary choice between them. I write then as a Materialist trying to interpret before you the utterances of an extreme Idealist [Coleridge] and you, whatever you be by birth or training, Aristotelian or Platonist, Benthamite or Coleridgean, Materialist or Idealist, have to reinterpret my remarks again in your turn. (19)

Lodge denied in principle that such a choice was required in order to have an informed view. In fact his method was exactly to ‘mind the gap’ between equally valorized views in a fundamental pluralism where even a position attempting “to avoid all abstract and one-sided theorizings”, like “pragmatism”, was treated only as a view among other possible ones. As discussed further in Rupert Lodge: Synthesis or Comparison? the heart of Lodge’s method lay in this admonition:

Comparative philosophy preserves, in its original purity, each of the three schools. (…) Comparison is not synthesis. What it objects to is the negation of any school, whether by (…) external condemnation, or by some form of synthesis which would radically emasculate all three.6

In a January 18, 1935 letter, at the end of his first term in Cambridge, McLuhan complained to his mother about Richards’ materialism:

Richards is a humanist who regards all experience as relative to certain conditions of life. There are no permanent, ultimate, qualities such as Good, Love, Hope, etc., and yet he wishes to discover objective, ultimately permanent standards of criticism. He wants to discover those standards (what a hope!) in order to establish intellectualist culture as the only religion worthy [of] a rational being and in proportion to their taste for which all people are “full sensitive, harmonious personalities” or “disorganized, debased fragments of unrealized potentiality”. When I see how people swallow such ghastly atheistic nonsense, I could join a bomb-hurling society.7

But McLuhan’s problem was not only that Richards did not see with Chesterton and Eliot how “a rational being” could and should hold to traditional religion. He objected at the same time that Richards had no account for the possibility of what Richards himself had described so well:

these two opposite-seeming types of outlook are complementary to one another (…) in the history of thought they have been dependent upon one another so that the death of one would lead by inanition to the death of the other (…) as expiration is only one phase in breathing [with inspiration], so the two philosophies in their endless antagonism are [just as much] a necessar[ily] conjoint (…) process.

Richards had no account for this complementarity in “the history of thought”, only for the “endless antagonism” somehow linked with it. For he argued that, whatever might be the silent possibility of complementarity in history, humans had no access to it — in their case “exposition requires a (…) choice” between “the two philosophies”. He saw no third possibility. If there were a “necessary conjoint (…) process” between the two that was omnipresent in history, like a complementary breathing in and breathing out, this was apparently not a possibility an individual human being might activate. While history did not need to choose between them, or could not, every human being apparently did. As a result, a gulf was opened between humans and their larger historical environment which McLuhan saw as deeply implicated in Richards’ irreligion.

In contrast to Richards’ twofold either-or which obligated a fundamental singularity, Lodge’s threefold ‘comparative method’ supplied a “complementary” ontology that was fully compatible with McLuhan’s religion. At the same time it provided a framework for historical, social, psychological — even media — analysis. Going far beyond Lodge, but decidedly in tune with his ‘comparative method’, McLuhan would work for the rest of his life to understand its vast implications.

Strangely, Richards himself seems to have well understood this thrust in McLuhan’s work.  In his 1967 book, So Much Nearer, he would write:

Principle [!] of Complementarity: This immensely important topic— publicized recently by Marshall McLuhan… (63)8

  1. McLuhan’s usual concern with the contrast of ‘Platonists’ and ‘Aristotelians’ had to do with what might be called the theory of types in human experience, a concern which eventuated in the project of ‘understanding media’ beginning in 1960. But he also knew that such discussions invariably falsified Plato and Aristotle themselves. Hence, in his early (1940) review of Mortimer Adler’s Art and Prudence: “This view (of Adler) is upheld on the assumption that historically all confusion between the practical intellectual virtues of art and prudence is Platonist, whereas true discernment of their radical difference is Aristotelian. That so flagrant an historicism should be foisted off as plausible is understandable in the light of Mr. Adler’s bold streamlining of history. For the historical portion of the work does real violence to the issues.” (‘Review of Art and Prudence‘, Fleur de Lis40:1, October 1940)
  2. The Nashe thesis covered the 2000 year period from 400 B.C to 1600 A.D. A paper published early in 1946 (based on a 1944 lecture), ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’, brought the narrative into the present. The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) then extended it backwards from 400 B.C. to the presocratics, Homer and the ancient near east.
  3. Lloyd Wheeler was a junior member of the Manitoba English department and a good friend of McLuhan. The two remained in touch when McLuhan left Manitoba for Cambridge and it was Wheeler who helped McLuhan to his first teaching position at the University of Wisconsin, Wheeler’s alma mater.
  4. As indicated by McLuhan’s early statement that “in all times and places, definite types of temperament display consistency of conformation”, he never considered “types of temperament” as belonging to subjects; instead, subjects belonged to them. Similarly with media, in what is often styled McLuhan’s ‘technological determinism’. In both cases, McLuhan’s demand was that we come to understand just what temperaments/media are and how we come to embody them.
  5. See The Comparative Method of Rupert Lodge for references and discussion.
  6. ‘Synthesis or Comparison?’, The Journal of Philosophy, 35:16, 1938, 432-440, here 440.
  7. Letters 50-51.
  8. In a letter to Richards dated July 12, 1968, McLuhan thanked Richards for mentioning his work in So Much Nearer and for the stimulation Richards had given him in Cambridge and “since”. For discussion, see McLuhan to Richards July 1968. Notably, McLuhan directly associated Richards and Coleridge, presumably via Richards’ Coleridge on Imagination which was published as McLuhan heard Richards lecture: “I owe you an enormous debt since Cambridge days. I also owe a great deal to S.T.C.”