Monthly Archives: November 2019

Wakese 4: Swift’s engine of communicativeness

Joyce’s countryman, Jonathan Swift, perhaps prompted by Bacon’s Novum Organum (1620), was the architect in 1726 of an engine which Joyce contrived to assemble following Swift’s design (from part 3, chapter 5, of Gulliver’s Travels). Finnegans Wake is the resulting working model:

The first professor [Gulliver] saw [in the Academy of Projectors], was in a very large room, with forty pupils about him.  After salutation, observing me to look earnestly upon a frame, which took up the greatest part of both the length and breadth of the room, he said, “Perhaps I might wonder to see him employed in a project for improving speculative knowledge, by practical and mechanical operations.  But the world would soon be sensible of its usefulness; and he flattered himself, that a more noble, exalted thought never sprang in any other man’s head. Every one knew how laborious the usual method is of attaining to arts and sciences; whereas, by his contrivance, the most ignorant person, at a reasonable charge, and with a little bodily labour, might write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, laws, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study.” He then led me to the frame, about the sides whereof all his pupils stood in ranks. It was twenty feet square, placed in the middle of the room. The superfices [surface] was composed of several bits of wood, about the bigness of a die, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender wires. These bits of wood were covered, on every square, with paper pasted on them; and on these papers were written all the words of their language, in their several moods, tenses, and declensions; but without any order. The professor then desired me “to observe; for he was going to set his engine at work.” The pupils, at his command, took each of them hold of an iron handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the edges of the frame; and giving them a sudden turn, the whole disposition of the words was entirely changed. He then commanded six-and-thirty of the lads, to read the several lines softly, as they appeared upon the frame; and where they found three or four words together that might make part of a sentence, they dictated to the four remaining boys, who were scribes. This work was repeated three or four times, and at every turn, the engine was so contrived, that the words shifted into new places, as the square bits of wood moved upside down.
Six hours a day the young students were employed in this labour; and the professor showed me several volumes in large folio, already collected, of broken sentences, which he intended to piece together, and out of those rich materials, to give the world a complete body of all arts and sciences; which, however, might be still improved, and much expedited, if the public would raise a fund for making and employing five hundred such frames (…) and oblige their managers to contribute in common their several collections.
He assured me “that this invention had employed all his thoughts from his youth; that he had emptied the whole vocabulary into his frame, and made the strictest computation of the general proportion there is in books between the numbers of particles, nouns, and verbs, and other parts of speech.”
I made my humblest acknowledgment to this illustrious person, for his great communicativeness; and promised, “if ever I had the good fortune to return to my native country, that I would do him justice, as the sole inventor of this wonderful machine.” 

Joyce’s machine improved on Swift’s only by substituting for “all the words of their language” all the possible sounds of all possible languages. The generation of words was therefore a laborious and prior work of his machine compared to Swift’s. Remarkably, however, it was found upon inspection that this laborious and prior work had already been performed by each of the world’s languages in its ‘turn’, each anticipating, as it were, the FW engine and, arguably, obviating the need for its initial computations which turned sounds into words. Words had somehow already been generated!1

Swift’s diagram of the knowledge machine:

  1. Of course, Joyce’s machine also generated words for possible languages that were not, or were not yet, actual languages. Recognizing these words, let alone reading them, presents gigantic difficulties! How know when such a possible word from a possible language begins or ends — let alone what ‘it’ might mean? And yet, don’t infants somehow accomplish just this impossible task?

Hayakawa and Alfred Korzybski

In some of McLuhan’s earliest work he gestured in the direction of ‘Count’ Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950):

The grammatical method in science (…) persists as long as alchemy, which is to say, well into the eighteenth century. But from the time of Descartes the main mode of science is, of course, mathematical.  In our own time the methods of anthropology and psychology have re-established grammar as (…) a valid mode of science. Full justification for this statement is found in Count Korzybski’s Science and Sanity [1933], which makes claims for linguistic study (grammar in the old sense) which extend far beyond the modest position of Cratylus. (The Classical Trivium, 1943, 17) 

The general incredulity concerning Socrates’ seriousness in this dialogue [Cratylus] is an adequate measure of the modern failure to apprehend the nature of grammar in the ancient and medieval worlds; and much of Plato’s power over St. Augustine and the medieval mind is owing to his great, though not exclusive, respect for the method of grammar in philosophy. (…) So far as I have been able to discover, this subject has received no attention from historians of philosophy, to whose province it belongs; and I merely indicate its bearings here as a means of showing that grammar and science were inseparably linked in their origins. The fullest treatment which the claims of universal language as based on universal reason ever received was during the late Middle Ages in the numerous works on speculative grammar which were written by dialecticians. But there is an uninterrupted tradition through Francis Bacon, Thomas Urquhart, and the Cambridge Platonists, to James Harris [author of Hermes, a philosophical inquiry concerning universal grammar (1751)], to say nothing of Condillac, Comte, and, today, Count Korzybski and the Chicago University school of encyclopedists. So far I have tried to indicate, in a large and unexplored field, how science and grammar were quite naturally united by the concept of language as the expression and analogy of the Logos. (The Classical Trivium, 1943, 27)

Anthropology and psychology together have also revindicated the traditional ‘magical’ view of language fusing the seemingly distinct activities of the brothers Grimm, on the one hand, as philologists, and on the other, as students of folk-lore, so that we are once more in a position to adopt a sympathetic view of the divine Logos of late antiquity. Quite incidental to the radical readjustments in awareness we can relax where Francis Bacon is concerned. We can take him in our stride, as it were, nodding at him as a useful landmark in a great literary tradition whose representatives today are Jung and Count Korzybski. (Medieval Grammar as the Basis of Bacon’s Novum Organum, 1943)1

Just as Korzybski offers us a correlation of knowledge by an extension of the modes of grammar (and in this respect belongs to an ancient tradition headed by Cratylus and carried on by Pliny, Philo-Judaeus, Origen, St. Bonaventura, and the later alchemists) so Mr. Richards, whose Meaning of Meaning is a treatise of speculative grammar of curiously scholastic stamp, offers us a method for interpreting and manipulating our lives by an extension of the devices of rhetoric. In this respect Mr. Richards is a true nominalist son of Ockham, Agricola, and Ramus; and it is no accident that Harvard has welcomed this distinguished schoolman. Mr. Richards’ rediscovery of the functional rhetorical relationships in speech and prose was timely, indeed, after three centuries of Cartesian contempt for metaphor and rhetoric in all its modes. (‘Poetic and Rhetorical Exegesis: The Case for Leavis against Richards and Empson’, 1944)2

It may be that McLuhan was alerted to Korzybski by his onetime Winnipeg neighbour and fellow University of Manitoba graduate, S.I. (Don) Hayakawa (1905-1992).3 Hayakawa became the first editor of the semanticist journal, Etcetera, in 1943 and remained in this position until 1970 (before becoming a US Senator from California in 1976). 

Even aside from their acquaintance on Gertude Avenue in Winnipeg, McLuhan would certainly have been interested in Hayakawa’s 1939 book, Language in Action,4 both as a topic close to his own preoccupation at the time with Logos, but also as a publishing phenomenon: Hayakawa somehow got Language in Action into the Book of the Month Club. Korzybski is introduced in it and this is probably where McLuhan first came across him.

Neither Hayakawa nor McLuhan were ever strict semanticists, but McLuhan’s eventual problems with Korzybski (to the extent that he completely disappeared from his work) went far beyond any question of doctrinal adherence. As seen in the passage from The Classical Trivium p27 above, the modern tradition of grammatica seemed to lead to Comte and the “Chicago University school of encyclopedists”. Now McLuhan had already taken up a position against the Chicago school in his 1940 critique of Mortimer Adler5 and he would continue that critique in publications into the 1950s (especially in ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’ from 1946). In the event, he found himself uncomfortably straddling incompatible positions. On the one hand, particularly as a Catholic convert, he championed the tradition of Logos. On the other, modern representatives of this tradition, it seemed, were often fierce opponents of the Church and the sort of fuzzy thinkers McLuhan despised.

McLuhan’s attention to the three arts of the trivium went back to the three types of philosophy identified by his mentor at the University of Manitoba, Rupert Lodge.6 McLuhan sensed that some such typology was required for a science of interpretation. But it was not at all clear that the two classifications were compatible with each other or that either one of them would do the job he required. This was the aporia that drove McLuhan away from his early ‘trivial pursuit’ in search of a classification that would both be unambiguously identifiable for collective research and capable of sufficient combinations to account for the myriad complications of the ‘interior landscape’. Only so could scientific investigation be initiated in the humanities and social sciences.

It would not be until 1960 that McLuhan thought he had found a solution to this aporia at last.7 Whether he did or not remains an open question — but one that is ignored even in McLuhan research, let alone outside of it. Suffice it to note here only that his itinerary at the least opened this question along with many others and suggested interesting ways in which they might be interrogated.


  1. W.T. Gordon cites this passage in his biography of McLuhan, Escape into Understanding, 380, n8. Apparently these are the closing lines of a version of ‘Medieval Grammar as the Basis of Bacon’s Novum Organum’ which remains unpublished. The version which has been published (Explorations in Media Ecology, 6:3,  2007, 167-174) is dated by hand to February 22, 1943 — but it is unknown what changes were made to this version after this date.
  2. Sewanee Review, 52(2), 1944, 266–76.
  3. Hayakawa got his ‘Don’ nickname at grad school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. In Winnipeg he was called ‘Hak’.
  4. Later retitled as Language in Thought and Action.
  5. Review of Art and Prudence by Mortimer J. Adler, Fleur de Lis, 40:1, 1940, 30-32.
  6. See Taking Lodge to Cambridge and beyond and the Lodge posts generally.
  7. For discussion and references, see McLuhan’s #1 breakthrough.

Bacon in McLuhan 6 (‘Medieval Grammar as the Basis of Bacon’s Novum Organum‘)

The grammarian observes and interprets the great book of nature. The dialectician arranges and reduces to “methods” what the grammarian discovers. The rhetorician (…)1 applies the discoveries to the benefit of the commonweal for the relief of man’s estate. (169-170)2

On December 27, 1944, at the first annual meeting of the MLA since 1941, McLuhan presented a paper on ‘Medieval Grammar as the Basis of Bacon’s Novum Organum‘. An abstract was printed in the PMLA Supplement for 1944, pp 1324-1325:

The art of grammar in Greek and Roman times was in its etymological and analogical functions inseparable from physics, cosmogony, and the interpretation of phenomena, or the book of nature. Philo of Alexandria adapted the art, with its four levels of interpretation, to scriptural exegesis. Patristic theology took over his methods, and the encyclopedic tradition in education which it implied. Until the time of Abelard, grammatical theology and science were supreme. Its temporary eclipse did not effect a breach in continuity. St. Bonaventure was its greatest exponent. Erasmus was the key figure for his contemporaries because he restored grammatical theology while struggling against decadent dialectical theology. Bacon’s significance is best understood in this tradition and against this background. 

In this MLA presentation McLuhan summarized the narrative of his Nashe PhD thesis from 1943 by way of setting out in brief form the background to Bacon’s work, in particular the Novum Organum:

It is necessary to go back at least as far as Heraclitus and his doctrine of the Logos to get our bearings in this matter. (…) With the great metaphysical concept of the Logos, which the Romans found necessary to translate as ratio et oratio (reason and speech), Heraclitus was able to harmonize (…) “such diverse provinces as those of physics, religion, and ethics.”3 Human reason was a participation in the Logos or divine reason, and the whole external world (…) a network of analogies expressing the universal reason. (169)

One obvious consequence of the doctrine of the Logos is seen in the Cratylus, named for the famous grammarian who was Plato’s teacher. Socrates concurs in Cratylus’ statement that “a power more than human gave things their first names, and (…) the names which were thus given were necessarily their true names.” The dialogue is then given over to the consideration of essence and the basic nature of things by means of the grammatical arts of allegory and etymology. This same method had already been widely applied to the Homeric poems by philosophic grammarians,4 (…)5 and it was, of course, widely applied in Roman and Medieval times to Virgil and others. (169)

Philo of Alexandria adapted the grammatical exegesis of the Greeks to the Hebrew Books of Scripture. (…) He was a direct influence on the beginnings of patristic theology based on grammatical exegesis,6 which was practised as late as the Cambridge Platonists. The fact that grammatical education both in Greek and Roman times was (…) the means of introducing the young to the egkuklios paideia, or the encyclopedia of learning, was also decisive. No other form of education was available to, or thinkable by, the Christian Fathers; and, as Professor Marrou has recently shown in detail in his fine work on Saint Augustin et la Fin de la Culture Antique (Paris, 1938), Christian culture in the Middle Ages was, owing to this tradition, to rest on a grammatical base. (170)

The cultivation of the liberal arts was an inevitable adjunct of the grammatical business of scriptural exegesis; and all learning was subordinate to this art until the rise of dialectical exegesis in the twelfth century with Abelard. (170)

The struggle between the humanists, between Pico della Mirandola, and Colet, and More, and Vives, and Rabelais, and Reuchlin, and Agrippa on one hand, and the schoolmen on the other, is unintelligible apart from the traditional war between the grammarians and dialecticians.  (171)

McLuhan’s reading of Bacon took it that he was well aware of this background in the tradition of the trivium, and sympathized with it, but that he was equally aware of the potential of the Gutenbergian revolution. His great merit lay in the attempt to do justice to both:

A strange wedding of the medieval Book of Nature and the new book from movable types was conducted by Francis Bacon. (The Gutenberg Galaxy, 186)  


  1. Omitted here: “and in this Bacon is an ardent Ciceronian rather than a Stoic”.
  2.  ‘Medieval Grammar as the Basis of Bacon’s Novum Organum‘, Explorations in Media Ecology, 6:3,  2007, 167-174. The paper is dated by hand to February 26, 1943, but was not published until over 60 years later in 2007 — more than a quarter century after McLuhan’s death. Furthermore, in his biography of McLuhan, Escape into Understanding (1996), W.T. Gordon cites (380, n8) a different ending of the paper than the one given in the Explorations in Media Ecology version. Presumably McLuhan, and perhaps also his son, Eric, edited it from time to time to unknown purpose. All page numbers below, unless otherwise identified, are from the version of it published in Explorations in Media Ecology.
  3. E. V. Arnold, Roman Stoicism, 1911, p. 37
  4. McLuhan refers here to E. Bréhier, Les Idées Philosophiques et Réligieuses de Philon d’Alexandrie (1908).
  5. Omitted here: “exactly as Bacon applies it in The Wisdom of the Ancients.”
  6. McLuhan’s reference: William Fairweather, Origen and Greek Patristic Theology, 1901

Bacon in McLuhan 5 (‘Francis Bacon, Ancient or Modern?’)

McLuhan’s last substantial piece on Bacon was his 1974 essay, ‘Francis Bacon, Ancient or Modern?’1

In The Orphic Voice; Poetry and Natural History (1960) Elizabeth Sewell studies the Orphic or metamorphic and “magical” tradition in poetry and science from Ovid to Mallarmé. Francis Bacon has a very special place in her study, precisely because of his concern with the language of the Book of Nature: “A Collection of all varieties of Natural Bodies … where an Inquirer … might peruse, and turn over, and spell, and read the Book of Nature, and observe the Orthography, Etymologia, Syntaxis, and Prosodia of Nature’s Grammar, and by which as with a Dictionary, he might readily turn to and find the true Figures, Composition, Derivation, and Use of the Characters, Words, Phrases and Sentences of Nature written with indelible, and most exact, and most expressive Letters, without which Books it will be very difficult to be thoroughly a Literatus in the Language and Sense of Nature.”2 (97-98)

This “new” approach was, however, something that had a continuous history throughout the patristic and medieval periods before Bacon. The bond which Elizabeth Sewell finds between poetry and science in the Orphic tradition is the one which [more than a thousand years before] Martianus Capella had tied between the trivium and the quadrivium in his marriage of Mercury and Philology: “The description of the liberal arts which remained authoritative throughout the Middle Ages had been produced by Martianus Capella, who wrote between 410 and 439. Notker Labeo (d. 1022) translated it into Old High German; the young Hugo Grotius won his spurs with a new edition (1599); and Leibniz, even in his day, planned another.”3 (…) Martianus Capella had succeeded in bringing the language arts to bear on the sciences and mathematics, creating that unified encyclopedism which characterizes the inclusive and acoustic approach to knowledge, which is represented by ancient and medieval and Baconian grammatica alike. (98)

In this (…) philosophical sense, grammar had been a main mode of physics, cosmogony and theology for centuries [before Bacon]. (96)

Gilson’s study of The Philosophy of St. Bonaventure indicates Bonaventure’s [1221-1274] complete accord with traditional grammatica: “Since the universe was offered to his eyes as a book to read and he saw in nature a sensible revelation analogous to that of the Scriptures, the traditional methods of interpretation which had always been applied to the sacred books could equally be applied to the book of creation. Just as there is an immediate and literal sense of the sacred4 text, but also an allegorical sense by which we discover the truths of faith that the letter signifies, a tropological sense by which we discover a moral precept behind the passage in the form of an historical narrative, and an anogogical sense by which our souls are raised to the love and desire of God, so we must not attend to the literal and immediate sense of the book of creation but look for its inner meaning in the theological, moral and mystical lessons that it contains. The passage from one of these two [sacred and profane] spheres to the other is the more easily effected in that they are in reality inseparable.” (95)

Now that we have the work of Henri de Lubac (Exégèse médiévale, les quatre sens de l’Écriture, 4 vols., Paris, 1959-1964), it is easier to explain how the multi-levelled exegesis of Scripture blended with the scientific work of the interpreters of “The Book of Nature” in an unbroken tradition from the Fathers to the Novum Organum of Francis Bacon. (94)

Bacon’s humanist and grammatical approach to (…) the book of creatures makes for “a conception of organism as fundamental for nature” (Whitehead).5 Bacon’s organic approach, I suggest, is derived from the multi-levelled exegesis of the book[s] of Nature and Scripture alike. (94)

What is to be seen in contemporary arts and science, particularly physics, McLuhan suggests, is a return to the organic, synchronic, multi-levelled exegesis of pre-Gutenbergian perception:

The simultaneity of all levels in ancient grammatica coincides with twentieth century quantum mechanics which is concerned with the physical and chemical bond of nature as the “resonant interval.” The acoustic simultaneity of the new physics co-exists with “synchrony” and structuralism in language and literature and anthropology as understood in Saussure and Levi-Strauss. (94-95)

In fact, the entire development of symbolism and structural synchrony from Baudelaire onward has tended to restore the understanding of the rationale of ancient exegesis. (97)

Today the submicroscopic world of electronics has once more attuned our senses to the acoustic properties of natural phenomena and the arts, rendering contemporary both the “science” [of nature] of Bacon and the science of theological exegesis, long familiar to the commentators on both the Natural and the Sacred Page. (98)

This 1974 essay from McLuhan pictured Bacon as representative of both pre- and post-Gutenbergian approaches, somewhat as did McLuhan’s early work on Bacon from the 1940s.6 In the intervening Gutenberg Galaxy from 1962, however, and in the associated ‘Printing and Social Change’ essay from 1959, Bacon was presented as promoting the Gutenbergian approach itself.7 Taken together, these different portraits of Bacon show him as a kind of universal man, the understanding of whom requires (and thereby elicits) insight into the full spectrum of human possibilities.

Perhaps Bacon performed the role for McLuhan that Virgil did for Dante — guiding him among those underlying synchronic shades (or possibilities) from amongst which ‘we’ must ‘choose’, in an ever-repeated process, momentarily to incarnate. There is a need for scare-quotes around ‘we’ and ‘choose’ here, however, since we are the effect of this strange “organic” action and not its cause. In order to ‘undergo’ it, we must be exposed to a “resonant interval” that is by definition between identities and between the senses of reality that are correlate with those identities.

But this is a fearsome prospect of freedom, responsibility and mortality which is nearly always consigned to oblivion:  

they marched on in a scorching heat to the plain of Forgetfulness, which was a barren waste destitute of trees and verdure; and then towards evening they encamped by the river of Unmindfulness, whose water no vessel can hold; of this they were all obliged to drink (…) and each one as he drank forgot all things. Now after they had gone to rest, about the middle of the night there was a thunderstorm and earthquake, and then in an instant they were driven upwards in all manner of ways to their birth, like stars shooting.
(Republic 621a-b)

  1. In Renaissance and Reformation, X:2, 93-98. Several passages in this essay were taken directly from McLuhan’s unpublished Bacon studies from 30 years before. But this is only one of the signs in the piece (along with, eg, extended third-party citations) that it was composed hastily for a local University of Toronto journal. Perhaps McLuhan was unwell at the time as he often was throughout the 1970s: the decade opened with him suffering a heart attack and closed with his fatal stroke.
  2. This citation by Sewell is from Robert Hooke in 1705, a century after Bacon. It is unclear from McLuhan’s essay if he mistakenly attributed it to Bacon or if he merely thought it typical of Baconian grammatica.
  3.  Ernst Robert Curtius (1886–1956), European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, 1948, English translation 1953, p 38.
  4. McLuhan has ‘profane’ here, not ‘sacred’. He may have have been thinking of the development he treats at length elsewhere, the derivation through Philo of multilevel patristic exegesis of scripture from the earlier Alexandrian exegesis of literary texts.
  5.  Science and the Modern World, 1938, p. 130.
  6. See Bacon in McLuhan 1 and 2.
  7. See Bacon in McLuhan 3 and 4.

Bacon in McLuhan 4 (‘Printing and Social Change’)

McLuhan’s 1959 essay, ‘Printing and Social Change’,1 has the following paragraph on Bacon:

The Essays of Francis Bacon are a high instance of all the new characteristics of the reading and writing disciplines which were having such exciting results in 1600. Bacon’s scientific program was frankly based on the printed book as offering  a supreme instrument of applied science. For centuries men had spoken of the ‘book of nature’ meaning pages for contemplation and meditation. Bacon understood the resources of print technology very well. His idea was to catalogue the entire face of nature in systematic book form in such a way that as by a kind of synoptical device one could consult any phenomenon in a printed form. If the cataloguing were completely done in tables and columns, Bacon was sure that a child could read off the most profound natural laws which had been hidden from man since the fall of Adam.2 Bacon had no concern with speculative science. He wanted practical results for ‘the relief of man’s fallen estate‘.  He was not mistaken in the power of print to provide the means of applied science. The methods of spelled-out and segmented processes have been at the base of all Western achievement. Technology is explicitness. (27-28)

Bacon (1561-1626) and Galileo (1564-1642) were contemporaries. Galileo’s telescope used a mechanical device to extend an existing human ability, sight, through the application of focus.3 

Bacon, in McLuhan’s reading, considered that human being is founded on an even more fundamental ability than sight (or any of the physical senses, alone or together), namely what McLuhan termed “an intuitive perception of essentials” (The Classical Trivium, 51). He cited Bacon describing this ability as the faculty of “touching the nature of things”. (Works IX, 239) This was the faculty enabling the uniquely human characteristic of language use and was therefore what gave humans the ability to read the books of scripture and of nature in their languages.

Bacon could then be seen as asking how this most basic human ‘sense’ might itself be focused. How magnify its results in analogous fashion to the magnification of sight by the telescope? As cited above from ‘Printing and Social Change’:

Bacon understood the resources of print technology very well. His idea was to catalogue the entire face of nature in systematic book form in such a way that as by a kind of synoptical device one could consult any phenomenon in a printed form. If the cataloguing were completely done in tables and columns, Bacon was sure that a child could read off the most profound natural laws which had been hidden from man since the fall of Adam.

Since the “intuitive perception of essentials” was most purely exercised by infants learning to speak in their recognition of names and words as names and words, the focused magnification of this sense could be termed its return to that superlative childish state. This had the added advantage of appealing at the same time to the many instances in scripture calling for such a return in the exercise of faith.

So much concerning the several classes of Idols, and their equipage: all of which must be renounced and put away with a fixed and solemn determination, and the understanding thoroughly freed and cleansed; the entrance into the kingdom of man, founded on the sciences, being not much other than the entrance into the kingdom of heaven, where into none may enter except as a little child. [Novum Organum, aphorism 48, Works VIII 99.]

Bacon’s insight was that focus or “explicitness” in regard to the nature of things” could align humans ever more closely with the design of the world. Four centuries of spectacular scientific discovery since his time have shown that he was correct as far as the exterior landscape is concerned (although, even there, abysmal black holes have been encountered).4

McLuhan’s proposal following on Bacon’s was that an analogous focusing of the interior landscape was required to address our increasing individual and social problems (and perhaps even to solve theoretical problems of the exterior landscape): Understanding Media

  1. ‘Printing and Social Change’, in Printing Progress: a mid-century report, 1959, 89-112, reprinted in McLuhan Unbound, 1:1, 3-31.
  2. McLuhan was referring to the Novum Organum here with its ‘tables of presentation’. A century later, Swift may have had Bacon’s notion in mind with the engine of “communicativeness” seen by Gulliver on his travels: “out of those rich materials to give the world a complete body of all arts and sciences”. See Wakese 4: the engine of communicativeness.
  3. The principle had long been known (at least since the classical Greeks) through the magnification effect of glass and could be put to use, as it was by Galileo and others in Bacon’s lifetime, also for a microscope.
  4. Black holes have certainly been exposed as well in the interior landscape in its drive to “explicitness”. Our knowledge of knowledge has fallen through itself as specified by Nietzsche in Twilight of the Idols: “The true world — we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we also have abolished the apparent one!!” (Die Götzen-Dämmerung: “Die wahre Welt haben wir abgeschafft: welche Welt blieb übrig? die scheinbare vielleicht?… Aber nein! mit der wahren Welt haben wir auch die scheinbare abgeschafft!!”) McLuhan’s proposal was that black holes are actually the key to understanding both the exterior and interior landscapes: “the gap is where the action is!” After all, was such an abysmal gap not already crossed in our “touching (interior sense) the nature of things (exterior sense)”? Was this not a “fecund interval” (as McLuhan began to term it late in life), however unfathomable it was and would always remain?

Bacon in McLuhan 3 (Gutenberg Galaxy)

Francis Bacon is probably the single most cited figure in McLuhan’s 1962 book of citations, The Gutenberg Galaxy. This was twenty years after McLuhan’s engagement with Bacon in the early 1940s in his PhD thesis on Thomas Nashe and the essays on Bacon associated with it.1 Bacon was mentioned here and there in the intervening period by McLuhan, but never substantially. Then in the early 1960s Bacon suddenly emerged once again as a central figure in McLuhan’s work.

It would seem that McLuhan’s sense of the general importance of Bacon didn’t change, but his appreciation of the nature of that importance did. He came to find in Bacon what he had previously missed and what he first had to learn from Wyndham Lewis and Harold Innis in order to see it there: the insight, namely, that no empire, no sect, no star seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these mechanical inventions (full passage from Bacon’s Novum Organum cited below in the selection from The Gutenberg Galaxy, 184). 

In the early 1940’s McLuhan was only a few years out from his religious conversion, which had resulted from an intense study of Catholicism beginning with Chesterton but culminating in Hopkins and Maritain. From that personal experience, combined with the critical theory of Eliot, Richards and Leavis that he imbibed at Cambridge at the same time, he had the notion that the great problems of the world were problems of individual reading — and that individual reading, therefore, required renovation. On the other hand, however, he had had the notion since his teens that education was more a societal than a school process and that economics, billboards and radio had decisive effect on it. He had yet to resolve how the individual and social components of human experience come to be knotted.

In the course of the 1940s McLuhan began to perceive through Lewis and Innis (with Mallarmé playing a decisive supporting role) how to bring these strands together via the study of media. The reading of the world and of the world’s traditions — the reading of our exterior and interior landscapes — was indeed the crux of the matter, but reading was not a matter of individual insight and decision. Instead, it was exactly the ‘individual’ and ‘its’ insight that had to be decided and determined. What was needed, then, and what McLuhan found to be prescribed already in Bacon, was the exercise of “that faculty which (…) is perpetually operative — an intuitive perception of essentials” (The Classical Trivium, 51) but directed now on our technologically extended collective sensibilities (from which our individual ones derive as a secondary constellation): Understanding Media.

So it was that Bacon was revisioned by McLuhan as foreseeing a way out of what Innis called “the fundamental solipsism of Western civilization”2 (and Bacon “total defection from God (…) to depend wholly upon himself“)3 via “laws of media”. Furthermore, McLuhan fully shared, and was motivated in his turn by, the religious ground of Bacon’s insight. Both saw the alienation of human beings from God as the cause and further effect of the great problems of the world. Both saw that the repair of that alienation could, and arguably could only, come from essential investigation into the landscapes, exterior and interior, of that world. From them, and arguably from them alone, could come the desperately needed turn. Both were books of instruction for the soul’s direction.

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 183
The figure of Francis Bacon has always seemed full of contradictions. As the PR man for modern science, he has been found to have both feet firmly planted in the Middle Ages. His prodigious Renaissance reputation baffles those who can find nothing scientific in his method. (…) Simply on his own terms, however, he does make sense. He hangs together once you grant his assumption that Nature is a Book whose pages have been smudged by the Fall of Man.

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 184
Bacon himself was aware of the discontinuity between his age and previous history as consisting in the rise of mechanism. He writes in Novum Organum
It is well to observe the force and effect and consequences of discoveries. These are to be seen nowhere more conspicuously than in those three which were unknown to the ancients, and of which the origin, though recent, is obscure; namely, printing, gunpowder, and the magnet. For these three have changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world; the first in literature, the second in warfare, the third in navigation; whence have followed innumerable changes; insomuch that no empire, no sect, no star seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these mechanical inventions.” [Novum Organum, aphorism 129, Works VIII, 162.]

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 185
Bacon was more impressed by the meaning of print as applied knowledge than anybody else except Rabelais. The entire Middle Ages had regarded Nature as a Book to be scanned for the vestigia dei. Bacon took the lesson of print to be that we could now literally get Nature out in a new and improved edition. An encyclopedia is envisaged. It is his complete acceptance of the idea of the Book of Nature that makes Bacon so very medieval and so very modern. But the gap is this. The medieval Book of Nature was for contemplatio like the Bible. The Renaissance Book of Nature was for applicatio (…) like movable types. A closer look at Francis Bacon will (…) elucidate the transition from the medieval to the modern world

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 185
Erasmus directed the new print technology to the traditional uses of grammatica and rhetoric and to tidying up the sacred page. Bacon used the new technology for an attempt to tidy up the text of [the Book of] Nature. 

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 186
A strange wedding of the medieval Book of Nature and the new Book [of Nature] from movable types was conducted by Francis Bacon. 

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 187-188
our present goal is (…) to relate Bacon’s notion of science to the medieval tradition of the two Scriptures of Revelation and [of] Nature (…):

for as the Psalms and other Scriptures [of Revelation] do often invite us to consider and magnify the great and wonderful works of God, so if we should rest only in the contemplation of the exterior of them, as they first offer themselves to our senses, we should do a like injury unto the Majesty of God, as if we should judge or construe of the store of some excellent jeweller, by that only which is set out toward the street in his shop. The other [scriptures of Nature], because they minister a singular help and preservative against unbelief and error: for our Saviour saith, You err, not knowing the Scriptures, nor the power of God; laying before us two books or volumes to study, if we will be secured from error; first, the Scriptures [of Revelation], revealing the Will of God; and then [the Scriptures of] the creatures expressing His Power; whereof the latter is a key unto the former: not only opening our understanding to conceive the true sense of the Scriptures [of Revelation], by the general notions of reason and rules of speech; but chiefly opening our belief, in drawing us into a due meditation of the omnipotency of God, which is chiefly signed and engraven upon His works. Thus much therefore for divine testimony and evidence concerning the true dignity and value of Learning.” [The Advancement of Learning, Bk 1, Works VI, 143-144.]
The next passage gives Bacon’s ever-recurrent theme that all of the arts are forms of applied knowledge for the sake of diminishing the effects of the Fall:
Concerning speech and words, the consideration of them hath produced the science of grammar: for man still striveth to reintegrate himself in those benedictions, from which by his fault he hath been deprived; and as he hath striven against the first general curse by the invention of all other arts, so hath he sought to come forth of the second general curse, which was the confusion of tongues, by the art of grammar; whereof the use in a mother tongue is small, in a foreign tongue more; but most in such foreign tongues as have ceased to be vulgar tongues, and are turned only to learned tongues.” [The Advancement of Learning, Bk 2, Works VI, 285.]
It is the Fall of Man which engenders the arts of applied knowledge for the relief of man’s fallen estate:
So in the age before the flood, the holy records within those few memorials which are there entered and registered have vouchsafed to mention and honour the name of the inventors and authors of music and works in metal. In the age after the flood, the first great judgment of God upon the ambition of man was the confusion of tongues; whereby the open trade and intercourse of learning and knowledge was chiefly imbarred.”  [The Advancement of Learning, Bk 1, Works VI, 138-139.]
Bacon has the utmost regard for the kind of work done by unfallen man:
After the creation was finished, it is set down unto us that man was placed in the garden to work therein; which work, so appointed to him, could be no other than work of Contemplation; that is, when the end of work is but for exercise and experiment, not for necessity; for there being then no reluctation of the creature, nor sweat of the brow, man’s employment must of consequence have been matter of delight in the experiment, and not matter of labour for the use.4 Again, the first acts which man performed in Paradise consisted of the two summary parts of knowledge; the view of creatures, and the imposition of names. As for the knowledge which induced the fall, it was (…) not the natural knowledge of creatures, but the moral knowledge of good and evil(…) which man aspired to know; to the end to make a total defection from God and to depend wholly upon himself.” [The Advancement of Learning, Bk 1, Works VI, 137-138.

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 188-190
Before the Fall the purpose of work was just for experience or “experiment,” “not for necessity,” “nor matter of labour for the use.” Strangely, although Bacon is quite explicit and repetitive in his derivation of the program of applied knowledge from the Scriptures, his commentators have avoided this issue. Bacon pushes Revelation into every part of his program stressing, not only the parallelism between the book[s] of Nature and of Revelation, but also between the methods used in both.

Bacon’s conception of applied knowledge concerns the means of restoring the text of the Book of Nature which has been defaced by the Fall, even as our faculties have been impaired. Just as Bacon strives to mend the text of Nature by his Histories, so he sought to repair our faculties by his Essays or Counsels (…). The broken mirror or glass of our minds no longer lets “light through” but enchants us with broken lights, besetting us with Idols.
Just as Bacon draws on traditional inductive grammatica for his exegesis of the two books of Nature and Revelation, so he relies heavily on the Ciceronian conception of eloquence as applied knowledge, explicitly uniting Cicero and Solomon in this regard (…):
Of this wisdom, it seemeth some of the ancient Romans in the saddest and wisest times were professors; for Cicero reporteth that it was then in use for senators that had name and opinion for general wise men, as Coruncanius, Curius, Laelius, and many others, to walk at certain hours in the Place, and to give audience to those that would use their advice; and that the particular citizens would resort unto them, and consult with them of the marriage of a daughter, or of the employing of a son, or of a purchase or bargain, or of an accusation, and every other occasion incident to man’s life. So as there is a wisdom of counsel and advice even in private causes, arising out of a universal insight into the affairs of the world; which is used indeed upon particular causes propounded, but is gathered by general observation of cases of like nature. For so we see in the book which Q. Cicero writeth to his brother, De petitione consulatus (being the only book of business that I know written by the ancients), although it concerned a particular action set on foot, yet the substance thereof consisteth of many wise and politic axioms, which contain not a temporary, but a perpetual direction in the case of popular elections. But chiefly we may see in those aphorisms which have place among divine writings, composed by Salomon the king (of whom the Scriptures testify that his heart was as the sands of the sea, encompassing the world and all worldly matters), we see, I say, not a few profound and excellent cautions, precepts, positions, extending to much variety of occasions; whereupon we will stay awhile, offering to consideration some number of examples.” [The Advancement of Learning, Bk 2, Works VI, 351-352.]

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 190
Bacon has much to say of Solomon as the forerunner of himself. In fact, he derives his pedagogical theory of aphorism from Solomon:

So like wise in the person of Salomon the King, we see the gift or endowment of wisdom and learning, both in Salomon’s petition and in God’s assent thereunto, preferred before all other terrene and temporal felicity. By virtue of which grant or donative of God Salomon became enabled not only to write those excellent Parables or Aphorisms concerning divine and moral philosophy; but also to compile a Natural History of all verdure, from the cedar upon the mountain to the moss upon the wall (which is but a rudiment between putrefaction and a herb), and also of all things that breathe or move. Nay, the same Salomon the King, although he excelled in the glory of treasure and magnificent buildings, of shipping and navigation, of service and attendance, of fame and renown, and the like, yet he maketh no claim to any of those glories, but only to the glory of inquisition of truth; for so he saith expressly, The glory of God is to conceal a thing, but the glory of the king is to find it out [Prov 25:2]; as if, according to the innocent play of children, the Divine Majesty took delight to hide His works, to the end to have them found out; and as if kings could not obtain a greater honour than to be God’s playfellows in that game; considering the great commandment of wits and means, whereby nothing needeth to be hidden from them.” [The Advancement of Learning, Bk 1, Works VI, 141.]
Bacon’s allusion to scientific discovery as a children’s game brings us close to another of his basic notions, that as man lost his Eden through pride he must regain it by humility:
“So much concerning the several classes of Idols, and their equipage: all of which must be renounced and put away with a fixed and solemn determination, and the understanding thoroughly freed and cleansed; the entrance into the kingdom of man, founded on the sciences, being not much other than the entrance into the kingdom of heaven, where into none may enter except as a little child.” [Novum Organum, aphorism 48, Works VIII, 99.]
Earlier (…) Bacon insisted in the same way that the course I propose for the discovery of sciences is such as leaves but little to the acuteness and strength of wits, but places all wits and understandings nearly on a level.” [Novum Organum, aphorism 41, Works VIII, 89.]

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 190-191
Print had inspired Bacon not only with the idea of applied knowledge by means of the homogeneity of segmental procedure, but it gave him the assurance that men would be levelled in their capacities and performance as well. Some strange speculations have resulted from this doctrine, but few would care to dispute the power of print to level and to extend the learning process as much as cannon or ordnance did level castles and feudal privilege.5 Bacon, then, argues that the text of [the Book of] Nature can be restored by great encyclopedic fact-finding sweeps. Man’s wits can be reconstructed so that they can once again mirror the perfected Book of Nature. His mind is now an enchanted glass, but the hex can be removed. It is quite clear, then, that Bacon would have no respect for scholasticism any more than for the dialectics of Plato and Aristotle 
because it is the duty of Art to perfect and exalt Nature; but they contrariwise have wronged, abused, and traduced Nature. 

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 191-192
Early in The Advancement of Learning, Bacon has a compact history of Renaissance prose that illuminates the role of printing indirectly: “Martin Luther, conducted no doubt by a higher providence, but in discourse of reason finding what a providence he had undertaken against the bishop of Rome and the degenerate traditions of the church, and finding his own solitude, being no ways aided by the opinion of his own time, was enforced to awake all antiquity, and to call former times to his succours to make a party against the present time. So that the ancient authors, both in divinity and in humanity, which had long time slept in libraries, began generally to be read and revolved. Thus by consequence did draw on a necessity of a more exquisite travail in the languages original, wherein those authors did write, for the better understanding of those authors, and the better advantage of pressing and applying their words. And thereof grew again a delight in their manner of style and phrase, and an admiration of that kind of writing; which was much furthered and precipitated by the enmity and opposition that the propounders of those primitive but seeming new opinions had against the schoolmen; who were generally of the contrary part, and whose writings were altogether in a different style and form; taking liberty to coin and frame new terms of art to express their own sense, and to avoid circuit of speech, without regard to the pureness, pleasantness, and, as I may call it, lawfulness of the phrase or word.”  [The Advancement of Learning, Bk 1, Works VI, 118-119.]

Bacon says here that the entire humanist effort in languages and historical revival was incidental to religious differences. The printing presses made available authors of remote times. People began to imitate their styles. The schoolmen had such a technical terse way that they fell quite out of fashion, being utterly unable to develop any popularity with the new reading public. The growing public could only be won by flowery rhetoric and, Bacon goes on to say:
for the winning and persuading of them, there grew of necessity in chief price and request eloquence and variety of discourse, as the fittest and forciblest access into the capacity of the vulgar sort: so that these four causes concurring, the admiration of ancient authors, the hate of the schoolmen, the exact study of languages, and the efficacy of preaching, did bring in an affectionate study of eloquence and copie of speech, which then began to flourish. This grew speedily to an excess; for men began to hunt more after words than matter; more after the choiceness of the phrase, and the round and clean composition of the sentence, and the sweet falling of the clauses, and the varying and illustration of their works with tropes and figures, than after the weight of matter, worth of subject, soundness of argument, life of invention or depth of judgment. Then grew the flowing and watery vein of Osorius the Portugal bishop, to be in price. Then did Sturmius spend such infinite and curious pains upon Cicero the Orator, and Hermogenes the Rhetorician, besides his own books of Periods and Imitation, and the like. Then did Car of Cambridge, and Ascham with their lectures and writings almost deify Cicero and Demosthenes, and allure all young men that were studious, unto that delicate and polished kind of learning. Then did Erasmus take occasion to make the scoffing Echo: decem annos consumpsi in legendo Cicerone; and the Echo answered in Greek, Ove Asine. Then grew the learning of the schoolmen to be utterly despised as barbarous. In sum, the whole inclination and bent of those times was rather towards copie than weight.” [The Advancement of Learning, Bk 1, Works VI, 119-129.]
There in a page or so Bacon renders a detailed image of the literary struggles and fashions of his day. Like his idea of scientific methods, his idea of the literary scene is rooted in religion. His outline of a history of English prose has yet to be examined seriously by literary historians. When, for example, Bacon says [at the end of the preceding passage]: “Then grew the learning of the Schoolmen to be utterly despised as barabarous” he does not say that he himself despises it. He has no respect for the ornate and affected eloquence that was [then] currently trumped up. 

  1. See Bacon in McLuhan 1 and 2.
  2.  Empire and Communications, 1950 edition, 67; 1972 edition, 56.
  3.  The Advancement of Learning as cited in The Gutenberg Galaxy, 187-188 passage given below.
  4.  An ever-repeated topic in McLuhan’s later work is the relation of ‘school’ to the Latin ‘schola‘ = leisure. He may well have been gesturing with this to Bacon’s notion that the natural vocation of humans is to the delightful and unnecessitated appreciation of creation.
  5. McLuhan made the same points earlier in GG: “Although the main work was done by Cromwell and Napoleon, “ordnance” (or cannon) and gunpowder had (…) begun the levelling of castles, classes, and feudal distinctions. So print, says Rabelais, has begun the homogenizing of individuals and of talents. Later in the same century Francis Bacon was prophesying that his scientific method would level all talents (…) Bacon’s ‘method’ (…) was the extension of the idea of the new printed page to the whole encyclopedia of natural phenomena.” (148)

The gigantomachia in GG from Rabelais

The Gutenberg Galaxy (148): “Albert Guerard’s comment on (…) Rabelais in The Life and Death of an Ideal1 is as follows”:

This triumphant Pantagruelism inspires the chapters, full of quaint erudition, practical knowledge and poetic enthusiasm, which, at the end of the third book, he [Rabelais] devotes to the praise of the blessed herb Pantagruelion. Literally, Pantagruelion is mere hemp; symbolically, it is human industry. Capping the wildest achievements of his own times with wilder boast and prophecy, Rabelais first shows man, by virtue of this Pantagruelion, exploring the remotest regions of his globe, “so that Taproban hath seen the heaths of Lapland, and both the Javas, the Riphaean Mountains.” Men “scoured the Atlantic Ocean, passed the tropics, pushed through the torrid zone, measured all the Zodiac, sported under the equinoctial, having both poles level with their horizon.” Then, “all marine and terrestrial gods were on a sudden all afraid.” What is to prevent Pantagruel and his children from discovering some still more potent herb, by means of which they shall scale the very heavens? Who knows but they may “contrive a way to pierce into the high aerian clouds, and shut and open as they please the sluices from whence proceed the floodgates of the rain (…) then, prosecuting their ethereal voyage, they may step into the lightning workhouse and shop … where, seizing on the magazine of heaven, they may discharge a bouncing peal or two of thundering ordnance for joy of their arrival at these new supernal places (…) And we the Gods shall then not be able to resist the impetuosity of their intrusion (…) whatever regions, domiciles or mansions of the spangled firmament they shall have a mind to see, to stay in, or to travel through for their recreation.”2

  1. 1956. Guerard’s subtitle: France in the classical age.
  2.  The Life and Death of an Ideal, p39.

Bacon in McLuhan 2 (‘Bacon’s Patristic Inheritance’)

We must make therefore a complete solution and separation of nature, not indeed by fire, but by the mind, which is a kind of divine fire. (Novum Organum, #41)

The doctrine of names is, of course, the doctrine of essence and not a naive notion of oral terminology. (The Classical Trivium, 16) 

Just as language offers an extensive and complex apprehension of the structure of beings, so that faculty which produced this state of language is perpetually operative — an intuitive perception of essentials. There is no room for error in our intuitive grasp of nature, but in our methods of inference leading to the forming of opinions there is much likelihood of error. (The Classical Trivium51) 

“…the entrance into the kingdom of man, founded on the sciences, being not much other than the entrance into the kingdom of heaven, where into none may enter except as a little child.” (‘Francis Bacon’s Patristic Inheritance’,1 8, citing Bacon’s Novum Organum)2

[Bacon cited] the widely held Christian tradition that Solomon alone of the sons of men had recovered that natural wisdom and metaphysical knowledge of the essences of things, of which Adam had been deprived. It is precisely to the task of recovering natural wisdom that Bacon’s labours were addressed. (‘Medieval Grammar as the Basis of Bacon’s Novum Organum‘, 168)3

McLuhan noted in his Cambridge PhD thesis on Thomas Nashe that he had begun a monograph on Bacon, but had put it aside when a paper by Richard McKeon appeared that covered much the same ground:

I have already suggested how completely Bacon’s scientific program was tied up with grammar and dialectics and with rhetorical theory and practice, and had already undertaken a separate monograph on this subject before McKeon’s paper appeared. (The Classical Trivium, 119n22)4  

Parts of this effort which could have eventuated in a monograph on Bacon are be found in two posthumously published papers which go back to 1942-1943 when McLuhan was feverishly writing his thesis5: ‘Francis Bacon’s Patristic Inheritance’ (“Expanded version of a paper written for the M.L.A. meeting of 1942″) and ‘Medieval Grammar as the Basis of Bacon’s Novum Organum‘ (dated by hand to February 22, 1943).6 These two papers must have had a complicated origin in relation to the Nashe thesis and to each other. Then (like the thesis itself) they were continually revised and mined for different purposes, not only in the 1940s, but throughout McLuhan’s lifetime (as late, eg, as ‘Francis Bacon: Ancient or Modern’ in 1974)7 — and even after his lifetime by Eric McLuhan. No effort will be made to retrace this complicated history here.8 

As broached in his Nashe thesis, McLuhan’s chief point in the ‘Patristic Inheritance’ paper was that Bacon was both the herald of the coming scientific age and the heir of ancient tradition:

I shall try to show that [Bacon’s] concept of science and the way9 in which he stresses the arts of the trivium entitle him to be considered a highly orthodox ancient, a representative of a long and uninterrupted line of interpreters of the “book of nature”. (7)10

If these — the revolutionary insights of modern science and the anchor of tradition — could be shown to be fundamentally linked, the incomparably important result would be to suggest, conceivably even to help demonstrate, that modern science does not contradict the tradition, but presupposes it and, properly understood, furthers it and affirms it.

This would, of course, be transformative. Instead of the tradition and science being two continents drifting inexorably apart in unrecallable divide, or, in reverse fashion, moving unstoppably into catastrophic collision, they would form a bulwark together against our reigning nihilism.11

The role of language and its implicated grammar as the key to both spiritual and natural investigation was formulated in the Nashe thesis as follows:

From the time of the neo-Platonists and Augustine to Bonaventura and to Francis Bacon, the world was viewed as a book, the lost language of which was analogous to that of human speech. Thus the art of grammar provided the sixteenth-century approach not only to the Book of Life in scriptural exegesis but to the Book of Nature, as well. (The Classical Trivium, 7)

it was not only in antiquity but until the Cartesian revolution that language was viewed as simultaneously linking and harmonizing all the intellectual and physical functions of men and of the physical world as well. (The Classical Trivium, 16) 

Now “human speech” takes place first of all through a curious chain of recognition: the recognition that certain environmental sounds are peculiar objects, namely words, the recognition that those words have certain restricted meanings, the recognition that those meanings may be controlled through certain manipulations (the province of traditional grammar). Fundamental to all of these is the prior (but unknown or at least ignored) recognition that humans exist in a communicative matrix in which, alone, something like a meaningful word, together with its enabling net of meanings and grammar, is possible at all.

Just as a newborn must learn to breathe in the new matrix of air after its life in the womb for nine months, so (during its life in in-fancy — ‘non-speaking’ — for a further 12 months or so) must it learn to function in that matrix of communication in which alone humans exercise their being.

As with its acclimatization to air, so in regard to the matrix of communication is it necessary for the infant to learn to live with what is already there and on no account to attempt to invent something of its own: 

Just as the grammarian is always compelled to establish and stick to a text, so Bacon urges the scientist always to stay with nature and never to build hypotheses such as William  Gilbert [1544-1603] did. Thus, the Novum Organum is a set of rules for interpreting and clarifying the obscurities of nature, but rules designed always to refer the observer back to his text [of word or world], and to prevent him both from “anticipations” and from contumacious construction, or hypotheses. (20)

Bacon viewed the rerum natura as a book, and man’s task as the true exegesis thereof: “For God forbid that we should give out a dream of our own imagination for a pattern of the world; rather may He graciously grant to us to write an apocalypse or true vision of the footsteps of the Creator imprinted on His creations.”12 The restoration of the study of languages is indispensable since grammar is as it were the harbinger of other sciences(19-20)13

Taken in this broad sense, grammar was the enabling matrix of “exegetical techniques of interpretation” (9),14 and this, in turn, fundamentally the effort to supply “the name which each thing by nature has”.15 The ancient tradition of grammar (gen. subj.), according to McLuhan, attended this exercise as the basic way in which humans exist.

These grammatical recognitions which infants must learn to perform are, of course, seldom considered. As McLuhan often remarked, the ubiquitous goes unperceived. Nor need they be perfect. Sounds may be mispronounced or misheard and yet still be understood. Meanings may be confused but usually with little ill effect. Grammatical mistakes may be made without necessary problems. Language is able to struggle through such imperfections because it is, so to say, more basic than they are.16

The great mystery is: what is the source of such recognition?  How does a child recognize that some sounds are words with meaning and other sounds are meaningless?  Or that some meanings work for a word and others do not? Or that some manipulations are significant and others are not? And if this mystery is somewhat obscured when it is repeated by infants millions of times a day around the world, how did it take place in the first place?

McLuhan read Bacon as participating in a “grammatical” tradition for which such recognition was the chief characteristic of both theology and science and, in fact, of all history. Just as humans somehow sort words from noise, so (analogously) do they differentiate holy things from profane things and learn to sift out the elements in all sorts of scientific disciplines.  Grammar may in this broad way be termed the study of the recognition of what things are and are not, whether these things be words or physical stuff or gods. It is the “harbinger” of study and reflection in all these areas since, like human speech itself, none can begin without sufficient recognition (conscious or unconscious) of the particular nature at stake in the activity at hand.

What an infant must first of all come to understand in learning to speak is that it exists in a universe where communication is a basic possibility. This understanding is of course only implicated in the infant’s growing capability to process and produce meaningful sounds, but it is the foundation of all that it does and all that it will ever do.

Socrates concurs in Cratylus’ statement that “a power more than human gave things their first names, and that the names which were thus given are necessarily their true names.” (10-11)17

McLuhan enlarged on this point in his Nashe thesis as follows:

Plato’s Cratylus broaches the question of analogy and anomaly in such a way as to indicate that their dispute was of ancient origin even in his day, but the issues [between the two], of course, are drawn on a plane loftier than that of conjugations and declensions. Socrates refutes the superficial anomalist doctrine of Hermogenes at great length. Hermogenes says, ‘I have often talked over this  matter, both with Cratylus and others, and cannot convince myself that there is any principle of correctness in names other than convention and agreement.’ Socrates replies that ‘I should say that this giving of names can be no such light matter as you fancy, or the work of light or chance persons; and Cratylus is right in saying that things have names by nature, and that not every man is an artificer of names; but he only who looks to the name which each thing by nature has, and is, will be able to express the ideal forms of things in letters and syllables.’ The general incredulity concerning Socrates’ seriousness in this dialogue is an adequate measure of the modern failure to apprehend the nature of grammar in the ancient and medieval worlds; and much of Plato’s power over St. Augustine and the medieval mind [generally] is owing to his great, though not exclusive, respect for the method of grammar in philosophy. It is quite impossible to make any sense of the scope and intensity of the strife between the analogists and anomalists unless the philosophic implications are perceived. (The Classical Trivium, 28)

The “first names” which were “true names” were not certain sounds (which of course vary between languages); instead the action at stake was the recognition of names as names, of words as words, of the fact that a certain kind of sound in the environment carries meaning.

The doctrine of names is, of course, the doctrine of essence and not a naive notion of oral terminology.  (The Classical Trivium, 16) 

The Stoics, of course, are analogists to a man, although Varro, himself, as well as Cicero, Caesar, Pliny, and Quintilian, freely admit the influence of custom or usage on language.  (The Classical Trivium, 27) 

By extension, this (usually utterly unattended) existence in a matrix of meaning enabling the recognition of essential natures happens again when a geometer understands a shape like a triangle as significant in a way a squiggle is not; or when copper is recognized as significant in a way wood is not. None of these recognitions begins (or ends) in perfection, but all do begin and apparently they do so through some “power more than human”. For we do not recognize through recognition (as the occultists maintained and as seems to be implied in much research into how infants learn to speak), but through a possibility built into the very nature of the universe that is there before us and that is deeper than us.

The initial imposition of names in this sense signifies essence, metaphysical knowledge. The corresponding doctrine, that to know the name of a thing was to have direct power over it, is responsible for what we have so long smiled at as alchemy. (11n14) 

Bacon, like the Stoics, was an analogist, though a cautious one. That is, he held the ancient doctrine (…) of the Cratylus of Plato. An understanding of the great historical dispute waged for many centuries between the analogists and the anomalists is basic to an understanding of ancient, medieval, and Renaissance culture. (10n7)

The doctrine of the Logos, with its insistence of the dynamic unity of all nature, inevitably made for the encyclopedic ideal which we find equally in the practice of the Stoics, the Fathers, in Vincent of Beauvais, Roger Bacon, and Francis Bacon. Isidore of Seville named his encyclopedic synthesis of the arts Etymologiae simply because grammar (with etymology)18 was the basic mode of the synthesis. (12n16)19

The fact that man was distinguished from the brutes by virtue of his power of speech was the fact which in connection with the doctrine of the Logos lent special impetus in the ancient world to the cultivation of eloquence. After Isocrates and Cicero, it was urged as a reason for the arduous disciplines of speech by the Fathers, by Alcuin, John of Salisbury, and humanists of the Renaissance. This is signally the case with Francis Bacon. From the humanist point of view, Socrates had initiated the fatal destruction of eloquence and good letters by his divorce between head and heart, thought and speech20. It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of this insight21 for the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. This extraordinary account22 of the disastrous rise of Greek dialectics and the breach between eloquence and wisdom (the humanists of the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries make precisely the same complaints about the rise of [scholastic] dialectics in the twelfth century) is given classic statement in Cicero’s De Oratore. Francis Bacon repeats and endorses this account of Cicero’s.23 (10n10)

Bacon readily allows the validity of the physics of the Timaeus but points out that it is theological, concerned with final causes. This, of course, is the reason it was held in such esteem in the Middle Ages. Similarly, Aristotle’s physics is valid within its limits, but the method is dialectical and the aim no more for the relief of men’s estate than Plato’s. The trouble with Plato and Aristotle, said Bacon, is that they are more interested in truth than utility.24 (11n14) 

The kind of importance attaching to traditional grammar [in this much broader sense than we now understand] in Bacon’s scheme is evident from the following passage: “Concerning Speech and Words, the consideration of them hath produced the science of Grammar (…) examining the power and nature of words as they are the footsteps and prints of reason, which kind of analogy between words and reason (…) I think (…)  very worthy to be reduced into a science by itself.” 25 In this latter philosophical sense, grammar had been the main mode of physics, cosmogony, and theology for centuries [before Bacon, or even millennia]…(9)

This understanding of the imperative role of the recognition of natures in all human activity whatsoever and especially in the study of sacred and natural phenomena led Bacon to a novel view of history from Adam to himself and beyond into “a new period of study”:

Francis Bacon envisaged his encyclopedic task as the vindicator of ancient truths, which had been obscured by the arrogant follies (…) of Plato and Aristotle and (…) of the Schoolmen, and [also] as the “buccinator” [or herald] of a new period of study… (13)

Bacon wished to associate his endeavors with the widely held Christian tradition that Solomon alone of the sons of men had recovered that natural wisdom and metaphysical knowledge of essence of which Adam had been justly deprived. (8)

What kind of knowledge was lost by Adam in consequence of his fall? Fortunately it isn’t necessary to speculate about [Bacon’s] answer. (…) He states it thus in The Advancement of Learning: “After the creation was finished, it is set down unto us that man was placed in the garden to work therein; which work, so appointed to him, could be no other than the work of Contemplation. […] Again, the first acts which man performed in Paradise consisted of the two summary parts of knowledge; the view of creatures, and the imposition of names.” [Works VI, 137-138] The view upon26 creatures and the imposition of names corresponds precisely to the major aims of Bacon’s own program. The first was to be achieved by a universal natural history [as his field of inquiry], the second by exegetical techniques of interpretation [of that field] based on traditional grammar. (9)27

Just as Adam had had the power to give the names (essences) to things, so Solomon in viewing creatures had written commentaries of precisely the kind which Bacon’s inductive method aimed to reproduce touching the nature of things, wherein he treated of every vegetable, from the moss upon the wall to the cedar of Lebanon, and likewise of all animals…”. [Works IX, 239.] (9n4)

Typical of the statements by which Bacon focussed the scope and relevance of his work are the closing sentences of the Novum Organum: “For man by the fall fell at the same time from his state of innocency and from his dominion over creation. Both of these losses, however, can even in this life be in some part repaired: the former by religion and faith, the latter by arts and sciences. For creation was not by the curse [on Adam] made altogether and for ever a rebel, but in virtue of that charter ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread’, it [creation] is now by various labours (…) at length and in some measure [to be]28 subdued (…) to the uses of human life.” [Works VIII, 350.] (7)

  1. In McLuhan Studies I, 1991, 7-26.
  2. The passage is from Novum Organum, #69 = Works VIII, p 99.
  3. In Explorations in Media Ecology, 6:3,  2007, 167-174. For discussion see Bacon in McLuhan 6 (‘Medieval Grammar as the Basis of Bacon’s Novum Organum‘).
  4. McLuhan was referencing Richard P. McKeon, ‘Rhetoric in the Middle Ages‘,  Speculum, 17:1, January 1942, 1-32.
  5. McLuhan’s PhD thesis on Thomas Nashe was submitted in April 1943 and approved in December of that year. It was put together in a tremendous hurry because he had come to see his job in St Louis as a dead end and urgently required his doctorate to obtain a position elsewhere. Seeking a job without it, so he wrote in a letter to Wyndham Lewis, was “like a man presenting himself in a bathing suit at an embassy ball” (January 17, 1944, Letters 147). As a result, the thesis shows many signs of haste and even outright incompletion (like the hundreds of Nashe references that are simply listed in the last chapter of his thesis with the implication that they might have been organized into a narrative had it not been for, eg, the exigencies of wartime). Since these loose threads were obvious enough, the thesis needed to include countervailing points intended to excuse or otherwise offset them. McLuhan’s suggestion that he had been at work at the same time as he was writing his thesis on a parallel enterprise that he then had to abandon (however true this may have been) was one of these offsets.
  6. References given in notes 1 and 2 above.
  7. In Renaissance and Reformation, X:2, 1974, 93-98. For discussion see Bacon in McLuhan 5.
  8. One of the two Bacon papers from the early 1940s was submitted, unsuccessfully, to the Journal for the History of Ideas in late 1943 or early 1944. But McLuhan’s two biographers, Philip Marchand and W.T. Gordon, disagree about which of the papers it was. Marchand says (73) it was the ‘Patristic Inheritance’ piece and he is probably correct. For Gordon, after naming ‘Medieval Grammar’ as the submitted paper, notes (115) that the journal’s reviewer critiqued McLuhan’s use of ‘decorum’ — a word which appears only in ‘Patristic Inheritance’.
  9. McLuhan has ‘order’ here, not ‘way’.
  10.  All page numbers not otherwise identified are from ‘Francis Bacon’s Patristic Inheritance’.
  11. These three fundamental possibilities of ‘continental drift’ are already present in Plato’s gigantomachia from the Sophist.
  12. Works VIII, 53. Bacon has ‘creatures’ here, not ‘creations’.
  13. McLuhan references Works VIII 46-47, 358-361 and 369 here.
  14. Full passage from The Classical Trivium (9) given below.
  15.  The Classical Trivium, 28. Full passage given below.
  16. Perhaps Finnegans Wake is an attempt to demonstrate this thesis in practice. At any rate, all science works in this way. A working but inevitably imperfect perception is mined until it gives way to a more workable perception — that is imperfect in its own ways. What McLuhan called ‘grammar’ is the fit between insight and imperfection, especially when this fit itself is investigated via imperfect insight.
  17. The Nashe thesis: “In the dialogue named for Cratylus, the follower of Heraclitus, Plato has this exchange of arguments between Socrates and Cratylus: Socrates: But if these things are only to be known through names, how can we suppose that the givers of names had knowledge, or were legislators before there were names at all, and therefore before they could have known them?Cratylus: I believe, Socrates, the true account of the matter to be, that a power more than human gave things their first names, and that the names which were thus given are necessarily their true names. Obviously, with this kind of importance associated with the names of things, and of gods, heroes, and legendary beings, etymology would be a main source of scientific and moral enlightenment. And such was the case. The prolific labors of the etymologists reflected in Plato’s Cratylus, but begun centuries before and continued until the seventeenth century, are as much the concern of the historian of philosophy and of science as of the historian of letters and culture. Indeed, it was not only in antiquity but until the Cartesian revolution that language was viewed as simultaneously linking and harmonizing all the intellectual and physical functions of men and of the physical world as wellAt any time from Plato to Francis Bacon the statement of Cratylus would have made sense, and would have evoked respect” (The Classical Trivium, 15-16).
  18. McLuhan has ‘and etymology’ here.
  19. “Inevitably made for the encyclopedic ideal” exactly because “language was viewed as simultaneously linking and harmonizing all the intellectual and physical functions of men and of the physical world as well” (The Classical Trivium, 16). An encyclopedia simply set out in systematic fashion these “linking and harmonizing (…) functions of men and of the physical world”.
  20. McLuhan has ‘eloquence’ here instead of ‘speech’.
  21. McLuhan has ‘view’ here instead of ‘insight’.
  22.  McLuhan has ‘view’ here instead of ‘account’.
  23. McLuhan references Spedding’s Works VI 42-43 and 135 here. (All his references to Bacon’s Works are to the Spedding edition.)
  24. McLuhan references Works VI, 224; VIII, 102-103, 132. For Bacon on utility, see Bacon in McLuhan 1 (Nashe thesis).
  25. McLuhan references Works VI, 285-286.
  26. McLuhan has ‘of’.
  27. Cf, The Classical Trivium57n45: “Grammar is the art of gathering and interpreting congruous instances, whether phenomenal (= physical nature, the exterior landscape) or textual ( = human nature, the interior landscape).”
  28. On the orientation to the future in the Novum Organum: “the thorough passage of the world (which now by so many distant voyages seems to be accomplished, or in course of accomplishment), and the advancement of the sciences, are destined by fate, that is, by Divine Providence, to meet in the same age.” (Aphorism XCIII)

Bacon in McLuhan 1 (Nashe thesis)

Man cannot look with understanding on the book of nature until he has been perfected in the art of grammar. (140)1

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) played an important role, or important roles, in McLuhan’s work from 1940 (when he began blocking out his Cambridge PhD thesis on Thomas Nashe) to 1980 (when he died on the last day of the year).

At the start of his thesis (submitted and approved in 1943) McLuhan specified that Bacon could and perhaps should have been its subject rather than Nashe:

What the present study tries to do directly for Nashe, it does incidentally for his contemporaries; so that if Nashe appears to be a kind of appendix to a chapter in the history of education, he is really intended to be a focal point [illustrating it]. Bacon or Donne would have served this function better in some ways than Nashe.  It would have been possible to relate them more complexly to their age, in so far as they were more complex and comprehensive writers. This study will achieve its end if it can indicate the lines along which further enlightenment concerning Bacon and Donne and their age is possible. (6)2 

Still, even with Nashe as its nominal subject, by describing the dynamics of education3 in terms of the trivium, that is of grammar vis-a-vis dialectic, on the one hand, and rhetoric, on the other — and this over the two millennia between classical Athens and Elizabethan England — McLuhan hoped to supply new illumination particularly on Bacon:

[Grammar’s] claim to be viewed as an important basis of scientific method, both during antiquity and continuously throughout medieval times, and in the work of Francis Bacon, has, I think, never been indicated before the present study. (15)

A central idea of the thesis, one which McLuhan would continue to pursue for the rest of his life, concerned the “Book of Nature” (7) with its implicated “language of nature” (16) — the “language” with its enabling “grammar” in which that “Book of Nature” was written:4

From the time of the neo-Platonists and Augustine to Bonaventura and to Francis Bacon, the world was viewed as a book, the lost language of which was analogous to that of human speech. Thus the art of grammar provided the sixteenth-century approach not only to the Book of Life in scriptural exegesis but to the Book of Nature, as well. (7)

[grammar’s] claim to be viewed as an important basis of scientific method… (15)

grammar and science were inseparably linked in their origins. (27)

Finding his place in a long line of Ciceronians, Bacon has the same conception [as the others in that line] of the function of the arts. Grammar is the art of gathering and interpreting congruous instances, whether phenomenal [physical nature, the exterior landscape] or textual [human nature, the interior landscape]. (57n45)

[Hugh of Saint Victor] shows like the Fathers before him and like Francis Bacon after him, that the arts are for the relief of man’s fallen state. Grammar is the most basic art of all. Man cannot look with understanding on the book of nature until he has been perfected in the art of grammar. (140) 

It is within this system of analogy, rooted in the ancient notions of the Logos and grammar, and seeking the light of revelation, that Bonaventure’s fellow Franciscans Grosseteste and [Roger] Bacon envisaged the importance of their physical experiments. There is thus no inconsistency but propriety in the fact that Roger Bacon, like Erasmus and Francis Bacon, asserted the primacy of the art of grammar in approaching both Scripture and the book of nature. (145)

Grammar as the interpretive study of the language of life and of nature aims to illuminate, not to conclude. Its aim is to open relationships for mutual regard — or to recognize relationships which are already open for mutual regard. Of course science can follow from this (and can follow from this alone); but so does every social activity extending from family interaction through all social exchange to “communication between divinity and humanity” (89n32):

Bacon considered his own aphoristic style in the Essays as part of a scientific technique of keeping knowledge in a state of emergent evolution.5 (57n45)

Francis Bacon’s remark in the [1623] De Augmentis [Scientiarum] (…) asserts the superiority of allegorical or parabolical poesy above all others “especially as religion itself commonly uses its aid as a means of communication between divinity and humanity.” (89n32, citing Works VIII, 442)

Donne is quite explicit about his rhetorical aims in preaching. His intention was to arrange his rhetorical effects in such a way as “to trouble the understanding, to displace, and discompose and disorder the judgement … or to empty it of former apprehensions, and to shake beliefe, with which it had possessed it self before, and then, when it is thus melted to poure it into new molds, when it is thus mollified, to stamp and imprint new formes, new images, new opinions in it.” [Donne Works 3, 275] Donne is here stating the Attic or anti-Ciceronian concept of style espoused by the Senecans. His words describe the aims set [for] themselves by Montaigne and Bacon in their essays.6 In The Advancement [of Learning, 1605] Bacon contrasts the two modes of delivering knowledge as the modes of aphorism and [of] orderly method: “But the writing in aphorisms hath many excellent virtues, whereto the writing in Method doth not approach. For first, it trieth the writer, whether he be superficial or solid: for Aphorism, except they should be ridiculous, cannot be made but of the pith and heart of sciences; for discourse illustration is cut off: recitals of examples are cut off; discourse of connection and order cut off; descriptions of practice are cut off…. And lastly, Aphorisms, representing a knowledge broken do invite men to inquire farther; whereas Methods, carrying the show of a total do secure men, as if they were at farthest.” [Works VI, 291] Both Montaigne and Bacon made compromises, gradually admitting examples, authorities, and descriptions, but persisting in their original intention of employing an aphoristic style in order to dislocate the mind from its customary courses.7 (200)

Contrary to the common supposition that self-interest necessarily counts against the truth of a matter,8 the thesis places repeated emphasis on the properly utilitarian character of an enterprise like Bacon’s when it is pursued in true self-interest:

Bacon’s account of the history of philosophy in the Novum Organum [1620] is almost identical with Cicero’s [in works written almost 1700 years before in the middle of the first century BC]. This is not strange, since both hold the view that the arts are entirely to be judged on the basis of their usefulness to man. (56n43)

Bacon never for a moment ceases to view the business of the arts as being the relief of man’s fallen moral state. In this matter he is in perfect accord with (…) a long tradition in which man’s task had been defined as “as the organization of our earthly exile into a sort of suburb of the heavenly kingdom.”9 (56n43)10

Just as Bacon was later to claim in attacking the dialecticians, St. Augustine says arts and knowledge are for use, for the relief of man’s estate; and, as Bacon freely admits, the greatest art is theology, since it is for the relief of man’s spiritual estate.11  (73n45)

It is, of course, the utilitarianism of Bacon which charms Macaulay, and the utilitarianism of the fathers from which Bacon’s derives, is, of course, intense. Nothing was more utilitarian than the salvation they preached. Naturally the arts and sciences which assisted in this grand utilitarian scheme were also of great practical concern. The Middle Ages were completely utilitarian. Even the classics were of utility and St Bonaventure the theologian put up a much better case for the study of classics than Macaulay the civil servant. Insofar as Macaulay retains a grasp of the Ciceronian view of the great utility of eloquence as a political wisdom, he can thank Bacon and the Fathers. (147)

McLuhan’s deepest intent in the thesis was to begin showing the hidden roots of modern science and of modernity generally. As roots these had never been lost and never could be lost; but they could be obscured and for all the world could seem to be lost. And this for essential reasons.12 This radical intent was, again, a matter McLuhan would pursue for the rest of his life.

In his Filium Labyrinthi [1606], Francis Bacon shows himself an exception to the Renaissance habit of ignoring the predecessors of the hated Schoolmen. After conventionally attacking the contentious dialectical learning which the Schoolmen had derived from (…) Aristotle, he says [that] the true and precious heritage of antiquity, both natural and revealed knowledge, has been preserved by the Church: “in the bosom and lap thereof, in the greatest injuries of times, ever preserved as holy relics, [were] the books of philosophy and all heathen learning”. [Works VI, 423] (87n27)

Bacon [was] an enthusiastic exponent of the revived grammatical theology and encyclopedia of the arts, which had been neglected by the dialectical Schoolmen: “and lastly in our times (…) when Luther and the divines of the Protestant church on the one side, and the Jesuits on the other, have enterprised to reform, the one the doctrine, the other the discipline and manners of the Church of Rome, (…) both of them [together] have awaked (…) human learning.” [Works VI, 423]13 (87n27)

In the De Augmentis [1623] discussing the relation of dialectics and scientific method, Bacon makes quite explicit that he approves the Old Logic: “And herein Ramus merited better in reviving those excellent rules of propositions that they should be true, universally, primarily, and essentially…”. [Works IX, 128]14 Bacon’s impatience with the “vermiculate questions” of the schoolmen is owing to his conviction that this tradition of logic with its rhetorical topics dealt with arguments and things, while that of the Aristotelians dealt with words only. (105n4)15

  1. Page numbers below, unless otherwise specified, are from the posthumous publication in 2006 of Marshall McLuhan’s 1943 PhD thesis, The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of his Time, retitled as The Classical Trivium and edited by W.T. Gordon.
  2. In papers from the early 1940s which remained unpublished in his lifetime,  McLuhan himself attempted to pursue such “further enlightenment concerning Bacon”. One paper was intended for the Journal of the History of Ideas, but was not revised as the editors wished and never did appear there. Another was intended for an MLA meeting which was cancelled on account of the war. These two papers were eventually published posthumously and will be discussed in future posts in this series.
  3. The dynamics of education — broadly considered as the variable ontological and epistemological foundations of individual and social culture.
  4. The genitive construction, “language of nature”, must be considered both  subjectively and objectively. That is, nature is both the object of this language and its author (or subject). Only when we learn this language can we learn about nature — precisely because it is nature’s own in multiple senses.
  5. The phrase “emergent evolution” points to two times, one that is eruptive or emergent and one that is continuous or in evolution. Times plural are combined in all life and all knowledge.
  6. It is no contradiction when McLuhan sometimes describes Bacon as Ciceronian and sometimes again as anti-Ciceronian. Bacon was a grammarian, in McLuhan’s view, and the crux of grammar derives exactly from its power to hold together without merger such complex matters as anti-Ciceronian dialectic and Ciceronian rhetoric.
  7. In a May 22, 1944 letter to John Randall, editor of the Journal of the History of Ideas, which had rejected a paper on Bacon drawn from his Nashe thesis, McLuhan wrote: “This Bacon paper was intended as a raid, but not as a raid to set up a scholastic regime — merely a raid to upset a mass of complacent cliché.” (Cited by Gordon In Escape into Understanding, 116.)
  8. This notion is, of course, often extended through the observation that everything shows some self-interest, so that there is, therefore, no such thing as the truth of any matter.
  9. McLuhan takes this phrase from St Bonaventure, translated by Gilson in The Philosophy of St. Bonaventure, 479.
  10. At the start of his 2006 edition of the Nashe thesis, W.T. Gordon states that “With the exception of pages 192 to 197 of this edition, published as ‘Cicero and the Renaissance Training for Prince and Poet’ in Renaissance and Reformation Studies VI, 3 (1970), pages 38- 42, none of the material has appeared in print previously.” But this is mistaken. Pages 197 to 202 of his edition appeared in another issue of Renaissance and Reformation Studies (VII:1, 1970, 3-7) as ‘The Ciceronian Program in Pulpit and in Literary Criticism’. Furthermore, Eric McLuhan included many pieces of the thesis in papers he published after his father’s death. Parts of this note, for example, appeared in Eric’s ‘Francis Bacon’s Theory Of Communication And Media’, McLuhan Studies, 1996, Issues 3 and 4.
  11. This is another note from the thesis used by Eric McLuhan in his ‘Francis Bacon’s Theory Of Communication And Media’ essay. See note 10 above for details.
  12. Leibniz, Monadology (1714): “this is the way of obtaining as much variety as possible (…) that is, it is the way of obtaining as much perfection as possible.”
  13. Mcluhan continued: “The Jesuits shared with (…) Bacon the Ciceronian doctrine of the primacy of eloquence and political or civil prudence among the arts and sciences. Without these, knowledge could never, they said, be applied to the relief of man’s fallen state.” (87n27) The conclusion intended here was not that politics or other civil pursuits are more important than the arts and sciences. It was, rather, that all humans understand family and society in some fashion and the key to this understanding is also the key to the arts and sciences. Call it ‘language’ or ‘grammar’ — it is that medium that links the generations in time and the members of family and society in every present. The sciences must understand this key both as something that is, indeed, something that is superlatively, but also as that medium into which they themselves must fully enter if they are to succeed. The arts and sciences must, this is to say, relate to their various subject matters — and know that they thus relate to them — as naturally as family and society members do in their mutual intercourse.
  14. Bacon continues here: “Ramus merited better in reviving those excellent rules (…) than he did in introducing his uniform method and dichotomies; and yet it comes ever to pass, I know not how, that in human affairs (according to the common fiction of the poets) ‘the most precious things have the most pernicious keepers’.” McLuhan was intrigued with the complexity of Bacon’s sentiment here and therefore recommended to his best student at the time, Walter Ong S.J., that he pursue a study of Ramus. In fact, Ong did just this. He went on to complete his PhD on the topic at Harvard a dozen years later — part of which, published as Ramus and Talon Inventory, was dedicated to McLuhan “who started all this”.
  15. Emphasis added. Words are not words merely as sounds or as marks on paper. Indeed, grammar is not properly concerned with words in these ways at all, but with words in essential relation to things.

Stewart Robb

In her 1974 “Intimate look at Marshall McLuhan”, Kaye Rowe mentions a University of Manitoba classmate, Stewart Robb (1909-1991), who was part of an unofficial Monday night study group along with her (she was then Kaye Moreland) and McLuhan. Since Robb graduated from UM in English in 1932 and since the group studied texts for a survey course, this must have been in 1930 or 1931.

The 1931 Brown and Gold yearbook for the University of Manitoba has this thumbnail portrait:

Robb cannot be measured by the common rules of the student body; you can never put your finger on him long enough to decide whether he is goblin or elf, or Puck himself. Here he is distinguished by a love of music, a fly-away temperament, and certain eccentricities. There is a spark of something which promises, when matured, to be at least quite extraordinary.

Like McLuhan, Robb continued at UM after graduating with his B.A. in 1932. He obtained his M.A. there in 1933 with a thesis on Evidences Of Christian Influence In The Epic Of Beowulf. Noteworthy here already is Robb’s familiarity with German, which he would put to use decades later translating Wagner.

An article in The Winnipeg Tribune, December 29, 1934 (p 14) mentions Robb and McLuhan as  studying in Oxford and Cambridge:

The last issue of the [University of Manitoba] “Alumni Journal” In its “Around the Globe” column gives news of (…) Stewart Robb, last year’s I.O.D.E. scholarship man, now spending his second year at Oxford (…) [and] Marshall McLuhan, honors B.A., ’33, [in his first year] at Trinity Hall, Cambridge.1 

The two remained in touch in England: Gordon’s bio (following Letters 70n2) records them meeting at the end of June, 1935, to make a trip together to Belgium and France.2  

Rowe’s characterization of Robb forty years later in her “intimate look” as “the world’s leading authority on Nostradamus” was doubtless accurate:3 

Robb authored many other Nostradamus and parapsychology titles as well.4 But he was up to much more than this.


The liner notes for these 1962 Folkways albums5 describe the artist as follows:

Stewart Robb, harpsichordist, as well as author, lecturer and translator, is a graduate of Oxford and the University of  Manitoba. He is the world’s leading authority on
Nostradamus, and a noted scholar on the Bacon-Shakespeare controversy.6
A regular panel member on WOR’s Long John Nebel [All Night Radio] Show,7 he has also appeared on other radio and television programs, speaking on psychic phenomena and related subjects.
He is equally well known as a harpsichordist. He studied with Fernando Valenti and subsequently has been heard many times on the radio and in concert  performances. He holds an L.A.B. (performer’s degree) in piano from the Associated Board of the London Royal Academy of Music and the London Royal College of Music.
Mr. Robb’s libretto translations have won him praise from leading musical personalities, including Lawrence TibbettHenry Weber, and Frederick Jagel.
His recently published 
translation of the entire Ring of the Nibelung (Dutton, 1960) has been acclaimed by Dr. Sigmund Spaeth; Toscanini’s  assistant, Dr. Walter du Cloux; and the editors of the The Library Journal, and is being used as a text in University classes. This spring his translation of Parsifal will appear in an anthology of Opera Librettos published by Doubleday Music.8

A favorable review of Robb’s Music for the Harpsichord and Virginal appeared the year after its release in a section of Audio magazine called ‘Hi-ways and By-ways’ by Edward Canby.

Record Review of Music for the Harpsichord and Virginal (Stewart Robb, Folkways FM 3320 mono)
Edward Tatnall Canby
Audio (the original magazine about high fidelity!)
47:1, January 1963, p 53
For a long while this Mr. Robb kept calling me to find whether I’d received his record, then whether I’d played it. Since I tend to be swamped with everybody’s records, I was mildly annoyed. Well, I’m happy to say that the disc is really very excellent. He was right. Never heard of “it” [virginal] in the singular before, like a trouser — one normally speaks of the “virginals,” plural, always wondering how “they” came to be that way. “They” are a single small-edition harpsichord, table-model (with or without legs), with a single set of plucked strings and a short keyboard. There was much lovely music in Elizabethan times for the instrument, and Mr. Robb manages to make it sound a lot less monotonous than it can sometimes sound, what with the one, single tone color and loudness available for the playing. On a medium-size harpsichord, Mr. Robb plays a fine long set of later Buxtehude variations on a simple theme. The Italian works by Frescobaldi and several items by Purcell are technically post-virginal but sound out very musically on the little instrument even so.9

Over twenty years later a description of Robb and his virginal appeared in an article describing the 10th anniversary event of the Tustin (California) Historical Society, “A May Day in a Victorian Garden”. Here is an excerpt:

A Shaggy Garden Blooms in Tustin
Richard Buffum
Los Angeles Times, May 11, 1986

Ah, spring, sweet spring in a Victorian garden, while sipping tea and listening to ancient music played upon a virginal, a type of early harpsichord, while beside my feet oregano grows rampant and overhead a great lemon tree dangles fruit the size of baseballs. Over the Minuet in G, over the hum of voices of others at tea, from behind the avocado trees and the giant pecan tree, from beyond the old barn, the honking of geese is heard.  After tea (…) I excuse myself to talk with the virginal player, Stewart Robb.
Robb and his wife, Marilyn, who accompanies him on the violin, are from up the road in Anaheim. He says he has been playing the same virginal, a small rectangular keyboard instrument of the 16th Century, for the past 30 years. Its strings are plucked with plectrums of leather.
“Look,” says Robb, “look at those keys.” They had worn depressions in their wood. “They are from my fingers playing on them over the years.”
It seems that the instrument, which can be set upon any convenient table, appears to be 400 years old. But it is a replica, he says, built by a friend of 30 years ago.
Robb plays from memory the oldest piece he knows, a 15th-Century dance tune named “My Lady Carrie’s Dump.” He cautions me not to be misled by the last word in the title, explaining that it was a form of dance.


  1.  McLuhan obtained the same I.O.D.E. scholarship for, according to Letters 18, 1934-1935. But it is plain from McLuhan’s correspondence from Cambridge that his scholarship did not kick in until the start of the school-year in the fall of 1935. For his travel, tuition and living expenses in 1934-1935 he had to rely on a small travel grant from UM together with money from his family. During this time he was frequently down to his last pound. See The Winnipeg Tribune, December 3, 1934 (p 3) : “McLUHAN AWARDED I.O.D.E. SCHOLARSHIP (…) Herbert Marshall McLuhan, M.A., a graduate of the University of Manitoba, has been awarded the I.O.D.E. ‘War Memorial Overseas post-graduate scholarship for 1935, it was announced today (…) The award which is made annually in each province of the Dominion, consists of some $1,400, covering McLuhan one year’s tuition in a British university. This will enable Mr. McLuhan to complete his Bachelor of Arts course at Trinity (Hall) college, Cambridge, which he commenced last year when awarded a Travelling Fellowship by the University of Manitoba.”
  2.  Escape into Understanding: “McLuhan remained in Cambridge until the end of June 1935, meeting then with his Winnipeg friend Stewart Robb, a student at Oxford, and sailing from Harwich for Belgium” (58). The Letters note followed by Gordon here indicates that there are unpublished McLuhan letters in Ottawa describing this trip to the continent which could not be included in the volume “for reasons of space”. Indeed, according to Corinne McLuhan, the original Letters manuscript amounted to four volumes, but OUP would agree to issue only one. The work of the editors, including Corinne, had to be reduced by 75%.
  3.  Robb: “There is only one Nostradamus. There is only one Bach, one Beethoven, one Nostradamus.” (Talk delivered at the 1967 Congress of Scientific UFOlogists, June 23-25, 1967, Commodore Hotel, New York City. See pages 26-30 of the transcript for Robb’s remarks.)
  4. Nostradamus on Napoleon, Hitler and the present crisis (1942); Letters on Nostradamus and miscellaneous writings (1945); Nostradamus and the end of evil (1983); Nostradamus and the end of evils begun (1984). Parapsychology titles from Robb included Strange prophecies that came true (1967), True spirit stories from the beyond (1969) and More true spirit stories from the beyond (1970). Regarding parapsychology, New University, the campus newspaper of UC Irvine, in an item from December 2, 1969, reported the following event for that evening: “The alleged posthumous voice of George Bernard Shaw will be heard on tape this evening at the Psynetics Foundation. The event, which will be open to the public, will take place during the third in a series of weekly lectures on parapsychology and mediumship being given by the musician and author, Stewart Robb of Anaheim. The lecture is scheduled to start at 8 o’clock in the main meeting room of the foundation, 1135 Barkley Avenue, Orange. (New University, 2:17, December 2, 1969,  p 2.) Kandi Roche from Hundred, WV, reported in what amounts to a testimonial that she “learned how to capture & record sounds & voices of entities from the other side (in a course) “Exploring Parapsychology” taught by Stewart Robb, Cal State Fullerton, 1975.” The voices of the dead came from an unknown future: so, for Robb, also Nostradamus — but while he was still with us in the present.
  5.  Music for the Harpsichord and Virginal, FM 3320, and Music for the  Virginal FM 3321, both recorded in 1961.
  6. Both Robb and McLuhan were trained in Winnipeg and the UK in the literature of the English renaissance. Robb published three pieces in Baconiana, the publication of The Francis Bacon Society: ‘Shakespeare and Cambridge University’, xxxiii:132, summer 1949; ‘Shakespeare’s Schoolboy Howlers’, xxxiv:134, January 1950; and Francis Bacon, Macbeth and James I‘, xxxv:141, autumn 1951. Bacon and Shakespeare appear very frequently in McLuhan as well, of course, though not in regard to the authorship controversy. McLuhan published ‘Henry IV, A Mirror for Magistrates’ in UTQ, 1948, just before Robb’s ‘Shakespeare and Cambridge University’ in 1949.
  7. Robb is mentioned several times in Nebel’s book, The Way Out World. Nebel’s other book, The Psychic World Around Us is to be found “sanitized” and “approved for release” in the CIA reading room.
  8. Later translations of Wagner operas by Robb included Das Rheingold: English version (Schirmer, 1960), Lohengrin (Schirmer, 1963), Der fliegende Holländer (Dutton, 1964) and Tristan and Isolde (Dutton, 1965).
  9. Canby concluded his short review with a technical recommendation: “Note that this is a kind of absolute recording, i.e. with almost no liveness (reverberation time). Play it at the absolute loudness of the instruments themselves.”