The essential plurality of the forms of being

McLuhan’s Ph.D. thesis from 1943, The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of his Time, retitled as The Classical Trivium, was edited and published 25 years after his death by W.T. Gordon. In his ‘Editor’s Introduction’, Gordon cites some notes from McLuhan written in the 1960s:1

I think it can be shown that the general cultural confusion and merging of the past century or so has been favorable to the rebirth of grammatica in its ancient sense— a sense even wider than that in which Vives or Bacon understood it and a sense more profound than current semantic studies provide. (…) The pursuit of psychological order in the midst of a material and political chaos is of the essence of grammatica. Thus modern symbolism in art and literature corresponds to ancient allegory. (…) Of course, the weakness of grammatica is that it never seems able to avail itself of the aids of dialectics and philosophy.2

As described by Gordon, these notes went back twenty-some years from the 1960s to the early 1940s when McLuhan was writing his thesis on the three arts of the trivium: rhetoric, grammar and dialectic. But in fact they had roots a decade earlier in McLuhan’s work with Rupert Lodge at the University of Manitoba in the early 1930s.

Lodge’s ‘comparative method‘ for philosophy postulated that it has three irreducible forms: realism, pragmatism and idealism. As illustrated by the obvious parallel between this notion and McLuhan’s investigation of the trivium in his Nashe thesis a decade later, he was so deeply taken by this idea of an essential threefold plurality that he would continue relentlessly to probe it in various ways all during the half century of his subsequent work.3

Even while he was working closely with Lodge, however, McLuhan suspected that Lodge’s restriction of the notion to philosophy was questionable. How could essential plurality be limited to a single discipline? Hence, in his 1934 Manitoba M.A. thesis on George Meredith, McLuhan gave what was at once a nod to Lodge and an implicit criticism of him:

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.

This same critique was forcibly expressed twenty years later in a 1954 letter to Walter Ong, who had been McLuhan’s student at St Louis University in the early 1940s when McLuhan was writing his Nashe thesis:

I realize now that my own rejection of philosophy as a study in my pre-Catholic days4 was owing to the sense that it was a meaningless truncation.5

“Meaningless” here may have been intended to correlate with “pre-Catholic” and in this case could be brought together with McLuhan’s explicit critique of Lodge in a 1935 letter to his family from Cambridge:

Lodge is a decided Platonist and I learned [to think] that way as long as I was trying to interpret Christianity in terms of comparative religion. Having perceived the sterility of that process, I now realize that Aristotle is the soundest basis for Xian doctrine.6

But it may also have had the sense of “unaccountable”, “counterproductive”, even “contradictory”. For if it is the first business of thought to be dynamic in regard both to what it studies and how it studies — that is, both to investigate fundamental plurality and itself to be fundamental plurality — it must always and only be the practice of anti-truncation.7

The short concluding chapter on Thomas Nashe in McLuhan’s Ph.D. thesis may be used to illustrate the point at stake.

Nashe was thus a fulIy enlightened protagonist in an ancient quarrel (…) It was not a quarrel between Catholic and Protestant, but a dispute about methods of exegesis in theology and preaching, concerning which some [on each side of the divide between] Catholics and Protestants held patristic views and some held to scholastic positions. (The Classical Trivium, 226)

Elsewhere in the chapter, the dispute is said to have concerned “the way of right studie” (217), “the authority of Aristotle“,8 (229),  the “mode of eloquence” (235), the “mode of theology” (235), and “conflicting rhetorics” (253).

In a word, the “ancient quarrel” concerned “at once (…) style and doctrine” (242). A truncation to the latter alone — the charge against Lodge — represented a problematic limitation of both the objective matter of investigation and of the investigating subjects’s own focus and method. 

The notes published by Gordon cited at the start of this post returned to the same theme, but now reversed: just as philosophy needed in 1934 to be open to “literary or artistic expression”,9 aka to grammatica, so in the 1960s grammatica had to be open to “dialectics and  philosophy”. The question was always how to investigate the matter of irreducible plurality — first of all by being it.

  1. Gordon gives no reference, but these are apparently to be found in McLuhan’s papers in Ottawa.
  2. W.T. Gordon, ‘Editor’s Introduction’ to McLuhan, The Classical Trivium, 2005, xi.
  3. The fundamental threefold in McLuhan’s 1960-1980 work in “understanding media” may be seen in his determination that the Gutenberg galaxy is inherently dualistic and that it cannot equally valorize both horns of its dilemma without also valorizing their medium. Since the latter was the signal difference between electric configuration and that of the Gutenberg galaxy, the result was to posit three basic forms (the two horns + their metamorphic dialogue or resonance) each with a characteristic estimate of the possibility of positive relation to its other (“the medium is the message”): each of the horns refusing it and the electric embracing it. The unavoidable (yet universally avoided) ‘main question’ followed: how to understand the implicated positive relation of the all-at-once electric to its other, namely, the inherently dualistic assembly line of print? If there were no such positive relation, the electric would itself be one horn of a dilemma vis-a-vis print and hence not electric at all. (Thus McLuhan’s observation in a May 13, 1975 letter to Don and Louise Cowan cited in Gordon’s Escape into Understanding bio, p 260: “The phrase — ‘Print Oriented Bastards’ — was invented by John Culkin and has never been used by me in conversation. The feeling of animus in it is not characteristic of me.”) But this concern for fundamental relation across fundamental difference was, of course, exactly the chief preoccupation of Rupert Lodge: “As the speculative construction of interpretations which essentially admit of alternatives, philosophy is necessarily sceptical of (any and all) one-sided claims; and its proper method of study is necessarily comparative.” (‘The Comparative Method in Philosophy’, 1937, 432, ‘any and all’ added here.) Amazingly, McLuhan’s 1960-1980 investigations of media, which represented the final form of his long engagement with the thought of Rupert Lodge, did so on the basis of the work of McLuhan’s other University of Manitoba philosophy professor, Henry Wright. For it was Wright who introduced McLuhan to the importance of communications and media in all aspects of human being (verbal) and who grounded this importance in the roots of media in the human psyche. See Henry Wilkes Wright 2 for citation and discussion.
  4. McLuhan converted in 1937, but he seems to be referring here to the period around 1934 when he was beginning the study of Catholicism that led to his conversion. He felt a tension then between Lodge’s philosophy and the Church which he decided in favor of the latter. Over the next decade, however, he would gradually find a way to reconcile the two, especially in the philosophical-theological work of his future colleague at St Michael’s, Étienne Gilson. His Nashe thesis was a formulation of this reconciliation.
  5. October 14, 1954, Letters 244.
  6. McLuhan to Elsie, Herbert & Maurice McLuhan, February 1935, Letters 53.
  7. McLuhan’s rejection of philosophy may usefully be compared and contrasted to that of Verlinde as discussed in Verlinde and the aversion to philosophy. For Verlinde, philosophy is too unscientific. For McLuhan, it might be said, it was too scientific.
  8. Full passage: “The responsible historian should guard himself from repeating the opinion that the ‘authority of Aristotle’ was absolute at any time in the history of European thought” (229).
  9. The phrase is from the Meredith thesis cited in full above.