On nisus

In a 1933 paper for a philosophy seminar with Rupert Lodge at the University of Manitoba, McLuhan wrote:

In a universe constituted by inclusion, exclusion, limitation and participation,1 there can be no principle of value; but if there is a nisus2 of which these forms are an empirical expression and which is prior or superior to them, then it alone could be the principle of value or the unifying impulse of the universe.3

Almost 50 years later, in the last year of McLuhan’s life, here is Barry Nevitt (speaking as always more or less in McLuhan’s name) in ABC of Prophecy:

things properly understood are the visible manifestations of their invisible harmony.4

Empirical expression’ and ‘visible manifestations’ remain the same.  But a movement has been made away from the striving of nisus, or at least from a certain understanding of the striving of nisus, to perception of an existing “harmony”.

Nisus as a horizontal striving reveals no harmony, visible or invisible, precisely because it would reach something that remains outstanding and unrealized. However, nisus as a vertical striving, as the essential dynamic of all possibilities to realize themselves, is an existing harmony of possibility and actuality, of new and old, of creativity and reality. Nisus in these two senses is isomorphic with diachronic and synchronic times and the need (in general, but McLuhan’s in particular) was to move from the first of these to the second. Not to the second alone, however, but to the second in essential relation with the first — where the first would be the “empirical expression” of the second.

The great question is hinted at in McLuhan’s 1933 paper with its phrase, “a nisus (…) which is prior”. But “prior” in what sense? Diachronic or synchronic?5


  1. McLuhan considered these (“inclusion, exclusion, limitation and participation”) as types of judgment and maintained that “the fundamental error committed by Mr. Demos is to (…) erect a metaphysics on a foundation of elementary judgment.” Instead, he thought, the reverse had to obtain: judgments and values had to follow on a foundation of elementary metaphysics.
  2. Nisus was a central notion of Rupert Lodge which he treated especially in the books he published in the 1930s: “But in all milieus, and whatever the particular medium in which mind expresses itself, the inward and spiritual nisus is essentially the same and exhibits the same laws of operation. It happens that language is peculiarly important as (such) a medium of expression (…) in the intercommunication of experiences in our ordinary social living” (The Philosophy of Education, 1937, 136). McLuhan would soon leave off thinking about nisus, but he would never, of course, leave off thinking about media, language and intercommunication. (‘Intercommunication’ was a central topic also in the work of Henry Wright, Lodge’s colleague in the University of Manitoba philosophy department and another great early influence on McLuhan.)
  3. The Non/Being of Non-Being (A Reply to Mr. Demos)’ is preserved in the McLuhan papers in Ottawa. Raphael Demos was a longtime professor of philosophy at Harvard and the author of ‘Non-being’, Journal of Philosophy, 30:4, Feb. 16, 1933, 85-102. McLuhan included this paper, along with another seminar paper on ‘Creative Thought Versus Pragmatism’, in his applications for a teaching position in 1936 with this note: “These two essays in philosophy were products of ordinary seminar work which I did for Prof. R.C. Lodge — the well-known Platonist. I kept them because he considered them to be worthy of publication.” With this note, McLuhan was apparently signalling that anyone wanting to know of his potential as a teacher and researcher should contact Rupert Lodge. He was also saying, what he would later openly admit, that in his two years at Cambridge he had failed to impress anybody sufficiently to use as a reference.
  4.  ABC of Prophecy, preview edition, 1980, 44.
  5. One answer might be ‘both’, once the diachronic is consider as “an empirical expression” of the synchronic. But this answer is wrong where the diachronic is considered on its own. In this case, nisus at the diachronic or factual level implies a continuity which is one of the signatures of the Gutenberg galaxy only. Such continuity is not the case, is broken, once a rival form of representation (‘medium’) is considered (like the preliterate or the electronic) and especially not where plural forms are considered.