Lodge, Richards and Schiller’s Aesthetic Letters

Here is McLuhan’s mentor at the university of Manitoba, Rupert Lodge, at the beginning of his ‘Comparative Method in Philosophy’:1

Human knowledge is the product of two factors, sensation and intelligence. From sensation we derive the ultimate constituents of experience, its elementary qualities, its reds and blues, louds and softs, roughs, smooths, and the rest. These are not invented or originated by us, but are pure discoveries, sought after by us with interest, as gifts from the hand of nature which we may learn to use wisely and with discrimination. From the intellect with its spontaneous demand for unity, order, and system, we derive the formal patterns of logic and mathematics, in terms of which we seek to compare, distinguish. and arrange the sensory content of experience in such elementary relationships as apart or together, before or after, larger or smaller, more or less intense, to the right or to the left of, etc. These two factors are not found in complete isolation from one another, separated as if with a hatchet. In the simplest sensory experience there is at least a minimum of inference, as when we “separate” and “contrast” red and blue and “identify” this or that quality as belonging to the visual or auditory “system”. So, too, intellectual elaboration occurs only on the occasion of some stimulus which is sensory in origin and in its associations. Yet, since they differ in function, the one factor being essentially receptive and the other essentially originative, it is convenient as well as usual to regard them as distinct. While both are present in concrete knowing, each of these factors shows a considerable range of variation. At the one extreme it is possible for the sensory factor so to predominate as completely to overshadow the presence of intellectual factors. (…) At the other extreme it is possible for the intelligence (…) to predominate…


McLuhan’s library preserved at the University of Toronto does not have Ogden and Richards’ 1922 Foundations Of Aesthetics, which they co-authored with the painter James Wood. But he would certainly have read it at Cambridge along with its closely related Meaning of Meaning (Ogden and Richards, 1923), which McLuhan’s library has in a first edition copy with his marginal annotations. Given his training with Rupert Lodge at the University of Manitoba, immediately before his studies at Cambridge with Richards, he would have found the discussion of Schiller in the Foundations of great interest. For Lodge’s method, which set the program for McLuhan’s entire career, was a variation on Schiller’s as described in the Aesthetische Briefe of 1794.2

Here are Ogden and Richards on Schiller in The Foundations Of Aesthetics:

it was Kant’s view of the relations of Art and Play which led Schiller in his Briefe Uber die Aesthetische Erziehung der Menschen to elaborate a theory of harmonious activity in which a balance or equipoise is maintained. There are, according to Schiller (Letter 2), two opposing demands in man — that of the sense-impulse, and that of the form-impulse.3 (…) Harmony can be attained without diminution of either. And here the function of Play is introduced. The object of the sense-impulse is life, the object of the form-impulse, shape (Letter 15). The object of the play-impulse, expressed in a general proposition, can then be called living shape, or in its widest signification, Beauty.

Beauty, then (Letter 16), results from the reciprocity of two opposite impulses, and from the union of the opposite principles: we must seek its highest ideal in the most perfect possible equipoise.

“The scales of a balance stand poised”, he proceeds (Letter 20), “when they are empty; but also when they contain equal weights. Thus the mind passes from perception to reflection by an intermediate state (Stimmung) in which sense and reason are active at the same time, but thus mutually destroy their [one-sided] determining power and effect a [potentially positive] negation through an opposition [in which mere opposition is countered by relation] (…) if we call the condition of sensuous determination the physical, and that of reflective determination the logical and moral condition, we must call the condition of real and active [mutual] determinableness [Bestimmbarkeit]4 the aesthetic condition.”5

Modernity for Schiller, and then for Nietzsche a century later, and the Toronto school a half century later again, is the time when the balanced pans of a scale before a weighing (the precondition of any trustworthy weighing) are perceived as being only empty; and the difference between the two pans is perceived only as an antagonism. The great question posed by them all was how to restore perception, as McLuhan put it over and over again (including to the Ontario Dental Association), that “the gap is where the action is”.

It is here in the precondition of balance, and in the precondition of balance alone, that the play of the Spieltrieb is to be found already at work.


  1. In Manitoba Essays, ed Lodge, 405-432, 1937. For further citation and discussion, see The Comparative Method of Rupert Lodge and Rupert Lodge: Synthesis or Comparison?
  2. Schiller is mentioned by Lodge, but only in an off-hand manner, and seems never to have been discussed (or considered?) by him in detail. But this makes the parallels between them that much more remarkable.
  3. John Paul Russo in his detailed study of Richards has pointed out that the treatment of Schiller in The Foundations of Aesthetics is not entirely fair (I.A. Richards: His Life and Work, 106-107, but cf 712n62).  Indeed, it is particularly misleading to suggest, as Ogden and Richards do at this point in Foundations, that Schiller attributed “antagonism” to a prevalence of the sensuous drive over the rational one: “Whenever the form-impulse prevails (Letter 12) ‘there is the highest amplitude of being’. But if we subordinate (Letter 13) the sensuous to the rational, we get mere antagonism and no harmony.” Instead, Schiller was clear that “antagonism” results from the prevalence of either drive over against the other. “Antagonism” is exactly the absence, or at least the diminution, of mutual “play”. Ogden and Richards apparently did not see in this context how Schiller played off “highest amplitude” with “subordinate”: that is, in essential contrast to Heraclitus’ way up and down — “play” — he took “antagonism” to be the way up or down.  Schiller put this crucial point in the same Letter 13 cited by Ogden and Richards as follows: “The office of culture is to watch over them (the sensuous and rational drives) and to secure to each one its proper limits; therefore culture has to give equal justice to both, and to defend not only the rational impulsion against the sensuous, but also the latter against the former. Hence she has to act a twofold part: first, to protect sense against the attacks of freedom; secondly, to secure personality (“freedom”) against the power of sensations.”
  4. Schiller here plays off his earlier Stimmung (translated as “intermediate state” by Ogden and Richards, but in German has meanings ranging from ‘mood’ to ‘tuning’ and could even be ‘medium’ in this context) with Bestimmbarkeit. While it is not entirely mistaken to offer ‘determinableness’ as a translation of Bestimmbarkeit, the key move made by Schiller with his use of this term is to suggest that Stimmung is inherently plural such that any example of it has undergone a process of limitation and definition and only so has become distinct (bestimmt in German). The conclusion follows that any attempt to understand the role of play and beauty in human life, hence the role of any medium at all, must first of all be to assess that plurality and the ways in which it can become particularized. The same point concerning essential plurality is made by Schiller’s repeated use of the word ‘Gemüth’ (disposition) in this letter: ‘müth’ is cognate with English ‘mood’ and ‘Ge’ marks a collective.
  5. Die Schalen einer Wage stehen gleich, wenn sie leer sind; sie stehen aber auch gleich, wenn sie gleiche Gewichte enthalten. Das Gemüth geht also von der Empfindung zum Gedanken durch eine mittlere Stimmung über, in welcher Sinnlichkeit und Vernunft zugleich thätig sind, eben deswegen aber ihre bestimmende Gewalt gegenseitig aufheben und durch eine Entgegensetzung eine Negation bewirken. (…) wenn man den Zustand sinnlicher Bestimmung den physischen, den Zustand vernünftiger Bestimmung aber den logischen und moralischen nennt, so muß man diesen Zustand der realen und aktiven Bestimmbarkeit den ästhetischen heißen.”