The Toronto school and Schiller

The relevance of Schiller to an investigation of the Toronto school does not have to do with its consideration of his work. There was no such consideration. Instead, the relevance has to do with the fact that Schiller, particularly in his Aesthetische Briefe, took up themes — and investigated those themes deeply — which the Toronto school would later also do. On the one hand, this gives an indication of a tradition within which the Toronto school participated, consciously or unconsciously1; on the other, Schiller’s work supplies clues for ways in which the Toronto school may usefully be examined. It is often the case in intellectual history, or always, that what can be found in a particular work or collective movement depends upon what is first of all brought to it.2

Here is Schiller in the sixth of the Aesthetische Briefe:3

Die mannigfaltigen Anlagen im Menschen zu entwickeln, war kein anderes Mittel, als sie einander entgegen zu setzen. Dieser Antagonism der Kräfte ist das große Instrument der Kultur, aber auch nur das Instrument; denn so lange derselbe dauert, ist man erst auf dem Wege zu dieser. Dadurch allein, daß in dem Menschen einzelne Kräfte sich isolieren und einer ausschließenden Gesetzgebung anmaßen, gerathen sie in Widerstreit mit der Wahrheit der Dinge und nöthigen den Gemeinsinn, der sonst mit träger Genügsamkeit auf der äußern Erscheinung ruht, in die Tiefen der Objekte zu dringen. Indem der reine Verstand eine Autorität in der Sinnenwelt usurpiert und der empirische [Verstand] beschäftigt ist, ihn den Bedingungen der Erfahrung zu unterwerfen, bilden beide Anlagen sich zu möglichster Reife aus und erschöpfen den ganzen Umfang ihrer Sphäre. (…) Sollte uns die Natur durch ihre Zwecke eine Vollkommenheit rauben können, welche uns die Vernunft durch die ihrigen [Zwecke] vorschreibt? Es muß also falsch sein, daß die Ausbildung der einzelnen Kräfte das Opfer ihrer Totalität nothwendig macht; oder wenn auch das Gesetz der Natur noch so sehr dahin strebte, so muß es bei uns stehen, diese Totalität in unsrer Natur, welche die Kunst zerstört hat, durch eine höhere Kunst wieder herzustellen.

That “the manifold aptitudes” of human being were set at odds by the Greeks and that this opposition was the motor of the whole western tradition was, of course, exactly the position reached by the Toronto school (along with I.A. Richards) by the late 1940s.4 So, too, the idea that the undoubted positive results of this tradition had brought with them fundamental problems which that tradition now had to solve (or potentially perish). As Schiller put these two points, the “rival directions [unloosed by the Greeks] arrive at the highest possible development, and exhaust the whole extent of their sphere”. McLuhan, for his part, had already been considering this constellation as an undergraduate at the University of Manitoba, particularly in his work with Rupert Lodge. As he wrote in his master’s thesis on Meredith:

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.

These “Idealist” and “Realist” positions were just Schiller’s “pure understanding [which] usurps authority in the world of sense, and empiricism [which] attempts to subject this intellect [of pure understanding] to the conditions of [sense] experience”. As Lodge had insisted, and as Schiller explicitly stated, “it must be false that the Ausbildung of particular faculties [eg, of “understanding” and “sense”] renders the sacrifice of their totality necessary”. This must be false, that is, if it is true that these form a complex totality and not an unthinkable seamless singularity of some sort of one of them alone. It then followed for the Toronto school, as much as it did for Schiller, that the outstanding goal of western civilization must be to “re-form” (reformulate and thereby reinstitute) the “totality of our being” — especially including the medium enabling this complex.

This was what McLuhan called going ‘from the ivory tower to the control tower’. Not ‘control tower’ in the sense of some center manipulating lesser marginal entities through management from above, however, but ‘control tower’ in the sense of having an overview of independent entities each requiring attention and respect on its own, but just as much requiring communication between and among the ensemble. McLuhan expressed this notion to Jackie Tyrwhitt in this way:

With electronics, any marginal area can become centre, and marginal experiences can be had at any centre.  Perhaps the city needed to coordinate and concert the distracted sense programs of our global village will have to be built by computers in the way in which a big airport has to coordinate multiple flights.5

For Schiller, the demand was to understand “play” as the initial condition of such independence and coordination.  The overview depended upon an ability to allow “play” this priority.  Otherwise it would degrade into management via the rear-view mirror: a superiority would be assumed for which marginal entities could have neither genuine independence nor, as a result, effective coordination among themselves.6 

For McLuhan this priority of Schiller’s “play” was “the medium [that] is the message”. 

  1. The Toronto school was hardly unconscious of tradition and traditions. But as it itself was acutely aware, the great question was how to identify traditions and define them for further investigation. History played a major role in Innis’ economics; Innis named the subject of his work the “History of the Greek Mind”; and the single topic of McLuhan’s lifetime labor was the history of human communication. All realized that the cogency of their efforts depended upon the theorization deployed in their work; but they all equally realized that theory had to arise from the facts under study and could never be simply imposed on them.  All struggled with the chicken and egg problem implicated here. The suggestions of this blog is that there is a tradition of the consideration of this chicken and egg problem and that examination of it can supply interesting ways to approach both the contributions and the limitations of the Toronto school. Schiller was an important link in this further tradition whose foundation was laid by its two greatest representatives, Plato and Aristotle.
  2. The chicken and egg problem again — see the previous note.
  3. The translation at Bartleby: “There was no other way to develop the manifold aptitudes of man than to bring them in opposition with one another. This antagonism of forces is the great instrument of culture, but it is only an instrument; for as long as this antagonism lasts, man is only on the road to culture. It is only because these special forces are isolated in man, and because they take on themselves to impose an exclusive legislation, that they enter into strife with the truth of things, and oblige common sense, which generally adheres imperturbably to external phænomena, to dive into the essence of things. While pure understanding usurps authority in the world of sense, and empiricism attempts to subject this intellect (= pure understanding) to the conditions of experience (= the world of sense), these two rival directions arrive at the highest possible development, and exhaust the whole extent of their sphere.  (…) (But) can nature snatch from us, for any (particular) end whatever, the perfection (Vollkommenheit) which is prescribed to us by the (end) of reason (as opposed to understanding)? It must be false that the perfecting (Ausbildung) of particular faculties renders the sacrifice of their totality necessary; and even if the law of nature had imperiously this tendency, we must have the power to reform (re-form) by a superior art this totality of our being, which (inferior) art has destroyed.”
  4. This antagonism was formulated as sight versus sound, dialectic vs rhetoric, literacy vs orality, etc. Compare Schiller: “Der todte Buchstabe vertritt den lebendigen Verstand, und ein geübtes Gedächtniß leitet sicherer als Genie und Empfindung.” (Aesthetische Briefe, #6)
  5. McLuhan to   Tyrwhitt,  December 23, 1960, Letters 277–278.
  6. If speech were enforced along these lines, it would never have been initiated in history and could not be learned by a child today.