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. McLuhan inserts 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. McLuhan inserted here: “exactly as Bacon applies it in The Wisdom of the Ancients.”
  6. McLuhans reference: William Fairweather, Origen and Greek Patristic Theology, 1901