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.
  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 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.