Monthly Archives: February 2020

McLuhan and George Bernard Shaw

In the first of his published letters, from February 19, 1931 to his mother, McLuhan records his introduction to G.B. Shaw:

I was initiated to the writings of Mr Bernard Shaw last evening when we attended a very admirable performance of Pygmalion presented by the University. (…) I was very agreeably surprised. [Shaw] has looked at life with a very penetrating if a somewhat disapproving eye. I should think that he deserves one of the highest places among English dramatists, after Shakespeare. (…) Shaw has studied life and reduced his observations to pithy and valuable aphorisms (…) I shall certainly get thru Shaw at the earliest opportunity. (Letters 9)

Five months later that same year, on July 18, just before McLuhan’s 20th birthday on July 21, a lengthy appreciation of Shaw appeared in the The Manitoba Free Press.1 A clipping of the article was found in McLuhan’s copy of Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion, Overruled, [&] Pygmalion,2 which, in turn, is now preserved among his books donated by the McLuhan family to the Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.3

No author is identified. But there are multiple reasons to suspect that this was the work of McLuhan4 and, therefore, his first work to appear outside of University of Manitoba student publications:

  • The article appeared half a year after he had written to his mother that he would “certainly get thru Shaw at the earliest opportunity”.
  • The clipping was preserved by McLuhan for 50 years.
  • It was preserved in his copy of Pygmalion, the very play which introduced him to Shaw in the first place.
  • In his library at Fisher, there are more books authored by Shaw than any other author, many of which are annotated and at least one ‘heavily annotated’.
  • Many phrases in the article have the McLuhan ring to them: “a sense of grievance”, “draper’s assistants, who were able to endure the drab realities of their days only by dwelling in preposterous unreality at night”, “the underlying will that governs ideals, the unconscious desires that urge them into being”, “nature does not dance to moralist-made tunes”;5 “the overwhelming sanity with which Mr. Shaw intimidates us”, “how to blast this disorder from the earth has become Mr. Shaw’s chief preoccupation”, Shaw “divides his personality into a hundred appallingly articulate [forms] so that the entire stage of our time is populated with bits and multiples and off-shoots of Shaw”, “the whole point and substance of Shaw’s teaching are that he is content, that he is in favor of this whirlgig process that will inevitably bring him to negation”, “not egotism at all but an unusually superior and bracing kind of honesty”, “a constitutional inability to look below the surface”, “the whole tenor of his plays is impatience with us because we never think; but he can give us a premonition of thinking. He drives the comfortable fogs out of our minds as the prophets of old drove demons out of the possessed, not with rites and incantations, but with railleries and caustic jesting”. 
  • The article mentions Chesterton which very few in Winnipeg aside from McLuhan would have done at the time (or any other time).
  • Shaw is described as being “against schools as they are (his education was ‘interrupted’ by ten years’ schooling)”. This was a frequent topic of McLuhan in Winnipeg.6
  • The ‘Interesting Book Notes’ on the same page includes a short review of The Spirit of British Policy. The reviewer focuses on Germany. McLuhan wrote a series of articles in the UM student paper, The Manitoban, on Germany.7
  • In a letter to his family from Cambridge from September 5, 1935, McLuhan wrote that he was “going to write 2 or 3 articles for The Free Press.” (Letters 76)
  • That McLuhan had some kind of relationship with J.W. Dafoe,   the longtime editor of The Free Press, may be indicated by the fact that in 1936 McLuhan’s first paper for the Dalhousie Review (‘Chesterton: A Practical Mystic’) and Dafoe’s only paper ever to appear there (‘Canada’s Interest in the World Crisis’) were published in the same issue:

Here is the article on Shaw from The Free Press, Saturday, July 18, 1931, p 7:

Literature Unriddles Life’s Meaning

Bernard Shaw’s Work Is Marked by an Unusually Superior and Bracing Kind of Honesty

[Review of] The Complete Plays Of Bernard Shaw (Constable: Macmillans in Canada.)

It probably cannot be helped, but [Shaw’s] prefaces are not here. The present volume contains the plays alone. While this deprivation does not exactly put you in the plight of the critic at Count O’Dowda’s [in Fanny’s First Play, by Shaw], who did not know how to take the play he had just seen because he had not been told who wrote it (“what sort of play is this? that’s what I want to know”), it does put you in the plight of having to do without something you have learned to expect, and to which you feel entitled. To read a Shavian play with the preface is to have a sense of twitching eyebrows and Mephistophelian laughter just over the shoulder. To read without the preface is to have a swindled feeling — and a sense of grievance.

But the plays are here. The first ones, the Plays Unpleasant, recall the fuss over Ibsen and A Doll’s House in the eighteen-nineties; the establishment of the “Independent Theatre,” and Mr. Shaw’s part in it; his discovery that, while the “New Theatre” actually existed, the “New Drama” was a figment of the revolutionary imagination. “This (from the preface to Plays Pleasant) was not to be endured. I had rashly taken up the case; and rather than let it collapse, I manufactured the evidence.”

Then followed the Plays Pleasant and Three Plays for Puritans, with their alarming inversion of the romantic conventions then cluttering the London stage. Plays were written for the “timid majority”, for clerks and seamstresses and draper’s assistants, who were able to endure the drab realities of their days only by dwelling in preposterous unreality at night.8  It was “cheap, spurious, vulgar,” it was “substitution of sensuous ecstacy for intellectual activity and honesty” and “the very devil” — Shaw would have none of it. He had himself carried up into a mountain (where no theatre was) and wrote his own plays, attacking the fatuous conventions of the time with tonic and merciless vigor. Arms and the Man upset romantic ideals of soldiering: The Man of Destiny upset romantic ideals of heroes; Lady Cicely Waynflete, in Captain Brassbound’s Conversion, upset romantic ideals of brigandage with her embarrassing nursing and stitching; and, in our own time, The Apple Cart all but upset the democratic ideal of government.

The thing Shaw is doing in the plays is the very thing he does in the essays and treatises, and in The Quintessence of Ibsenism: assailing “conventional ethics” and “romantic logic” and attempting to substitute natural history for them: “To me the tragedy and comedy of life (from the preface to Pleasant Plays) lie in the consequences, sometimes terrible, sometimes ludicrous, of our persistent attempts to found our institutions on the ideals suggested to our imaginations by our half-satisfied passions, instead of on a genuinely scientific natural history.”

He would have us look for the “underlying will” that governs ideals, the unconscious desires that urge them into being. These ideals “only the swaddling clothes which man has outgrown, and which insufferably impede his movements” — must be discarded if they do not grow and mature and progress as the evolving life in us grows and matures and progresses. They must conform, not to the arbitrary shape our self-full longings would impose upon them, but to the nature of things. And Nature does not dance to “moralist-made tunes.”

All this talk of ideals, of course, must not lead us to pretend that Shaw’s plays are not shocking. They are: intensely shocking. Nothing shocks your man of science so much as the idea — implicit in The Doctor’s Dilemma — that men of science are not infallible; as nothing shocks your true ecclesiastic so much as the idea — implicit in Saint Joan — that ecclesiastics are not infallible. And nothing in the eighteen-nineties, at least, shocked your freeborn Briton so much as the perverse idea — implicit in the domestic plays — that the traditional privileges and liberties of British freedom should be extended to his women and children: “and you may take it from me” (Johnny Tarleton in Misalliance) “that the moment a woman becomes pecuniarly independent, she gets hold of the wrong end of the stick in moral questions.”

It was probably this shocking process that prevented the critics from noticing that Shaw, like the other nineteenth-century dramatists, romanticizes woman. Not as [Arthur Wing] Pinero, not as Henry Arthur Jones romanticized her;9 but the tendency is there all the same. In the eighteen-nineties the New Woman was on the horizon: no one could tell, then, just how she would turn out. So Mr. Shaw recreated her in his own image, invested her with his own omniscience, made her sane and clear-thinking, not only regarding the things women have always known, but also regarding the things men are just beginning to know. Because a woman does her straight thinking — when she does it at all — in the arc of experience that men usually reserve for their conventional, or muddled thinking (that relating to the family, children, the home). Mr. Shaw assumes that she does straight thinking all around the circle. There was no justification — is none now — for such an illogical assumption. Pinero made “Sweet Lavender” simple. Shaw makes his adorable Cicelys and gay charming Candidas intelligent. The one legend is as romantic as the other.

But this is only the heel of Achilles, a single flaw in the overwhelming sanity with which Mr. Shaw intimidates us. It is not romantic heroines, but romantic ethics, romantic politics, romantic morals, that cause disorder and confusion. How to blast this disorder from the earth has become Mr. Shaw’s chief preoccupation. Unlike Mr. Wells, he cannot escape it by slipping sideways into a new dimension, or, like Mr. Chesterton, look at it upside down and prove it is something else. He stays in the midst of it, scolding; divides his personality into a hundred appallingly articulate Proteuses10 and Duvallets11, so that the entire stage of our time is populated with bits and multiples and off-shoots of Shaw:12It is a dangerous thing to be hailed at once (from the preface to Three Plays for Puritans) as a few rash admirers have hailed me, as above all things original; what the world calls originality is only an unaccustomed method of tickling it. Meyerbeer seemed prodigiously original to the Parisians when he first burst on them. Today, he is only the crow who followed Beethoven’s plough. I am a crow who has followed many ploughs.”

Everything he says points back to Nietzsche, to Ibsen, to Plato, and always he is swift to affirm his debt: “No doubt I seem prodigiously clever to those who have never hopped, hungry and curious across the fields of philosophy, politics and art.”

Reputations are nothing. “We must hurry on: we must get rid of reputations: they are weeds in the soil of ignorance.” Shaw’s as well as Ibsen’s, as Strindberg’s or Moliere’s: “I shall perhaps enjoy a few years of immortality. But the whirlgig of time will soon bring my audiences to my own point of view: and then the next Shakespeare that comes along will turn these petty tentatives of mine into masterpieces final for their epoch.”

The whole point and substance of Shaw’s teaching are that he is content, that he is in favor of this whirlgig process that will inevitably bring him to negation. What frequently passes for egotism — “I really cannot respond to this demand for mock-modesty. I write prefaces as Dryden did, and treatises as Wagner, because I can.” — is not egotism at all but an usually superior and bracing kind of honesty.

The cart and trumpet are not for himself, but for his message, for the vision that fills him with apostolic fire. He is the passionate Puritan, the fierce Crusader, using what means he can to win the crowd to his beliefs; hitting them on the head with his extravagant fooleries so they will attend to his serious faiths.

Beside the force and drive and power of the Shavian faiths, the Shavian legends seem singularly idle and beside the mark. The legend of the critics, outlined in the preface of “Plays Pleasant” — “paradoxy, cynicism, and eccentricity, trite formula of treating bad as good and good as bad, important as trivial, and trivial as important, serious as laughable, and laughable as serious” — is only a symptom of a constitutional inability to look below the surface; [it is] the counter-legend of the apologists — Shaw as an amiable and old gentleman, kind to his friends and shy in company. Both legends are negligible. The formidable legend is the one that Mr. Shaw has created for himself: the braggadocio-buffoon legend, the outcome of his frivolous capering and his outrageous boasts: “When the spirit drives me to tell the truth (from The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism) and the flesh reminds me of the police and the fate of those who have yielded to that temptation in the past, I screw my courage up by reflecting on the extreme improbability of anybody seeing anything in my treatise but a paradoxical joke.”

In the later plays this confident expectation of being misunderstood is increasingly apparent. Amanda’s reason for being in “The Apple Cart” is not so much to disconcert the cabinet as to give the audience the right cues for laughter; and the prefaces chiefly consist of cues for critics. But it is no use: “In my plays they — the critics — look for my legendary qualities, and find originality and brilliance in my most hackneyd claptraps. Were I to republish Buckstone’s “Wreck Ashore” as my latest comedy, it would be hailed as a masterpiece of perverse paradox and scintillating satire.13

It is the jest of Hahalaba14: the device contrived to attract the crowd to the entrance now covers the whole show. Its creator cannot get free of it, cannot speak through it to those he is trying to reach. When he leaves off capering and speaks directly, with serious passion and therapeutic wrath, what he gets is an idle clapping of the hands.

This legend obscures the real Shaw, not only from the idealists, who protest that they do not understand him, but from the Shavians, who protest that they do. Shavianism, no less than Taoism, or Behaviorism, suffers from its ardent converts as well as from its ardent enemies.

Mr. Shaw’s philosophy is not away with all ideals, but: “The ideal is dead: long live the ideal.” He is against current conventions because he wants better conventions; against schools as they are (his education was “interrupted” by ten years’ schooling) because they are not good enough; against most churches because “the godhead in me, certified by the tenth chapter of St. John’s Gospel to those who will admit no other authority, refuses to enter these barren places.”

A church must mirror the cathedral in us, must lift the spirit — as Shaw’s spirit was lifted in San Lorenzo — with a confirmation of godhead and ennobling power. The religion that shows through his writings — the Life-Force realizing itself in the developing will and awakening consciousness of man —  is as positive and thrilling, as overwhelmingly assured of divine origin and authority, as any faith that sent a martyr to ecstatic immolation. It is the revelation of Ibsen’s Julian15 “prompted step by step to the stupendous conviction that he no less than the Galilean is God”.16

No cynic finds life “a sort of splendid torch” which he must make burn “as brightly as possible”. No perverse contriver of paradox leaves a system of philosophy in his work as consistent and true in its course, as a system of solar planets. Shaw’s writings are no less divinely inspired for being strewn with gaities instead of being strewn with records of the generations of Pashur17. There is perhaps an instinctive reason for the too-much talking that envelopes the thinking in his plays (apart from the reason that he has probably noticed that people do talk too much). We can no more take our thinking neat than we can take our electricity neat: there must be adequate insulation. Mr. Shaw would insist that he cannot make us think at all: the whole tenor of his plays is impatience with us because we never think; but he can give us a premonition of thinking. He drives the comfortable fogs out of our minds as the prophets of old drove demons out of the possessed, not with rites and incantations, but with railleries and caustic jesting.  

Jester or not, he is a true prophet, and he is even now going the way of the other true prophets: moving in the inevitable curve from heterodoxy to orthodoxy, and achieving his apotheosis in the applause of fashionable audiences who accept him (as Elizabeth told Will Shakespeare England would accept the endowed theatre),18 not because they accept his serious faiths, but because it is the thing to do (“because it is her desire (…) to do humbly and dutifully whatso she seeth everybody else do”):19 greeting his stern wraths as well as his gay frivolities with polite laughter and an idle clapping of the hands.

  1. The newspaper was established in 1872 as The Manitoba Free Press and changed its name on December 2, 1931 to The Winnipeg Free Press. The Shaw article from July 18, 1931 therefore appeared under the Manitoba masthead.
  2. This 1916 book collected three Shaw plays which appeared in 1912 and 1913.
  3. See McLuhan’s library, 01372 and the additions to McLuhan’s library, mcluhan add 01372.
  4. Alternately, the article was not by McLuhan, but by someone who immensely influenced him at the time — and for the rest of his life. But who could this have been?
  5. A McLuhan citation from Shaw’s Preface to Three Plays for Puritans.
  6. See, especially, his article ‘Public School Education’ (The Manitoban, Oct 17,1933): “We see hundreds of millions of dollars being spent annually in destroying (…) children.”
  7. ‘Germany and Internationalism’, Oct 27,1933; ‘Germany’s Development’, Nov 3,1933;German Character’, Nov 7,1933.
  8. Is this a pointer Eliot’s Prufrock and/or Waste Land?
  9. Pinero (1855-1934) and Jones (1851-1929) were English playwrights contemporaneous with Shaw (1856-1950).
  10. Proteus is a character in Shaw’s Fanny’s First Play (1911). But the reference in both Shaw and McLuhan is, of course, to the shape-shifter in Homer and Virgil.
  11. Duvallet  is a character in Shaw’s The Apple Cart (1928).
  12. McLuhan took this view of the theatre, and of all life as theatre, from his mother’s work as an “impersonator”. See The put-on.
  13. John Baldwin Buckstone, 1802-1879, “Wreck Ashore”, 1834.
  14. Lord Dunsany’s one-act play from 1928.
  15. Ibsen, Emperor and Galilean, 1896.
  16. Citation from Shaw’s The Quintessence of Ibsenism. Shaw comments on this “stupendous conviction”: “In his moments of exaltation he (Julian) half grasps the meaning of Maximus, only to relapse presently and pervert it into a grotesque mixture of superstition and monstrous vanity.”
  17. Jeremiah 20:1
  18. McLuhan is referring here to Shaw’s 1910 play The Dark Lady of the Sonnets.
  19. Ibid.

McLuhan, Hayakawa and Allison

The biography of S.I. Hayakawa1 describes how he remained in Winnipeg for college when his family moved back to Japan:

In 1924, Ichiro Hayakawa [S.I. Hayakawa’s father] decided to relocate his firm’s main operation [from Canada] to Japan (…) Hayakawa’s two sons remained in Canada, not only because it was their choice but because both parents recognized that Samuel [nicknamed ‘Hak’] and Fred weren’t culturally Japanese. (…) Hak,2 meanwhile, moved in with the family of one of his professors at the University of Manitoba, William Talbot Allison (…) Allison’s sons (…) had been two of Hak’s closest high school friends (…) Another of his chums was the neighborhood paperboy,3 a youngster named Marshall McLuhan, whose path would cross Hayakawa’s several times in the decades to follow.4

The Allisons lived at 600 Gertude Ave in Winnipeg:

This was just down the street from the McLuhans at 507 Gertude.

According to the biography, “Professor Allison was (…) Hayakawa’s favorite teacher” (29) in the English department at UM.5 But this was far from the case with McLuhan. As a nineteen year old in the first of his published letters, he wrote to his mother (who must have been on one of her impersonator tours at the time) complaining about their neighboring professor:

They are changing the whole [UM] English course from beginning to end. I cannot help but think that the revision should have started with the staff. I am so utterly disgusted and impatient with both [Robert F.] Argue and Allison that I should never enter their classes had I not the idea of the scholarship in the back of my head. (February 19, 1931, Letters 9)

In his biography of McLuhan, Marchand describes the same animus:

In his first lecture in English at the start of his third year (…) [McLuhan] noted that his professor, a W.T. Allison, spoke on Milton for an hour without telling him anything new. (…) In his diary, he claimed that it was impossible to imagine Allison returning again and again to a work like Paradise Lost or Gray’s Elegy for aesthetic pleasure or for edification. (Marchand 19-20)


  1.  In Thought and Action: The Enigmatic Life of S.I. Hayakawa, Gerald W. Haslam & Janice E. Haslam, 2011. Hayakawa (1906-1992) went on from Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba English Department to become one of the foremost semanticists in the US, then the president of San Francisco State University and, finally, a famous US senator from California.
  2. In Winnipeg Hayakawa was called ‘Hak’. Later, in grad school at the University of Wisconsin, he got the nickname  ‘Don’, which stuck for the rest of his life.
  3. A picture of McLuhan as a paperboy in 1927 — the year Hak graduated from UM and was ending his time living with the Allisons — appeared in the Tribune. McLuhan is in the picture on the right, back left:Thanks to R4 for the find.
  4. In Thought and Action, 27-29.
  5. According to Hayakawa’s bio: “Professor Allison was not only Hayakawa’s favorite teacher, but he also wrote a newspaper book-review column (for the Winnipeg Tribune). (…) “When I was nineteen years old (1925) — I remember this very vividly — Professor Allison was way behind in his weekly column. (…) He said, ‘Would you sketch one out for me?’ (…) I wrote the column — the draft of a column— the right length. He read it over and said, ‘That’s just fine; I’m going to send it out just the way it is.’ He sent it out over his name.” (29)

McKeon’s 1935 Trivium essay (the trivial debate)

McKeon’s 1935 essay set out a general theory in which the complex interrelations of the arts of the trivium are held to be fundamental to human consciousness, aka, what McKeon termed “verbal expression in general”. He named this field and its investigation ‘philosophy’.1 He then looked at the changes from the middle ages to the renaissance, and in particular at the work in those periods of Abelaird, Erasmus and Luther, as illustrating the proposed theory.

The general theory:

the history of the dispute of the grammarian, the rhetorician and the dialectician was chosen as the subject of this (…) exercise, since it is not difficult (…) to show how any historical work involves an attitude toward — and a solution of — that dispute.2  (108)

the manner in which discoveries [concerning]3 nature, God and man depend on grammar, rhetoric and dialectic has been shown sufficiently to make obvious the necessity of distinctions [within and between them] at each step [of the proposed investigation]. (110)

grammar differs as it is used by the grammarian, the rhetorician and the dialectician [just as dialectic and rhetoric differ between them in comparable ways]. (109)

The change in the relation of the three arts [to each other] (…) has the curious result of transforming the natures of the arts as they [themselves] are conceived (…) and consequently changing the significance of works that are read [on the basis of these conceptions] (82)4

shift in the emphasis in the [relations of the] three arts [to one another](…) is in itself sufficient to account for the changes [in history and particularly in intellectual history] (87)

positions [assigned to the trivial arts relative to one another] may be considered the corners of a three-sided debate in which men (…) have [always] engaged (55)

the controversies are persistent, since [the trivial arts are deeper than facts such that] no fact can dislodge the historian from any of the three positions…5  (111)

the successive persons [recorded in history] (…) take their complexions from the grammarians, the rhetoricians and the occasional dialecticians who have written about them (111)

The picture of the transformation which knowledge and action have undergone as a result of the shifting places of grammar, rhetoric and dialectic is not complete with the statement of the uses to which the dialectician has put grammar and rhetoric and the changes which the grammarian has introduced by submitting dialectic and rhetoric to his art. The rhetorician had long been at work, too, since the times of Isocrates and Quintillian, and by his approach grammar and dialectic are the tools of rhetoric, with resulting profound mutation of both arts and a particular degradation of dialectic. (105)

letters do not savor as they are but of that which is brought to them. (79)

The design (…) [of this essay] (…) turned upon the trick of restating a historical sequence of views in terms simply of the ideas they expressed [as shaped by the trivial arts] and in thus translating history into a [“persistent”]6 debate.  (114)

The middle ages and renaissance:

For two hundred years [roughly 900-1100?] the problems of philosophy were discussed [in the west] largely in the ordered terms derived from the study of two works attributed to Saint Augustine, the Ten Categories and the Dialectica, and from the sections on grammar, rhetoric and dialectic in the poem of Martianus Capella. The many commentaries on these works produced in the period are testimony of the central place they occupied in the scheme of education [and in] the organization of knowledge in general.7 (50-51)

[the middle ages may be seen as a] grammatical preparation for the dialectical developments of theology in the thirteenth century.8 (70)

What became of grammar, rhetoric and dialectic in the renaissance9? (71)

That shift in the emphasis in the three arts, that subversion of dialectic to grammar, is in itself sufficient to account for the changes which the Renaissance is reputed to have made. (87) 

There is a third form (…) in the hands of rhetoricians who submit grammar and dialectic to the needs of their art (83)  

Abailard, Erasmus and Luther:

Of the three, grammar, rhetoric and dialectic, it is grammar that Abailard finds particularly dangerous. (62)

Abailard conceived the task of philosophy to be precisely to disclose the meanings of various statements he quotes, how the reasons are related, what the arguments demonstrate. This is the task of the three arts. Grammar is used for the explication of the meaning of words, by examining the variation of their significances with the variation of context, speaker, auditor, time and place. The Sic et Non [of Abailard] is thus a vast grammatical exercise.10 (67)

the task [of Abailard] is dialectical: the meanings having been expounded, their agreements and disagreements are set forth, and where the arguments are fallacious they are refuted. Rhetoric falls into a subordinate place to be invoked only when figurative expressions and developments are involved. But herein lies the whole task of philosophy: the examination by reason of the various theories that have been advanced concerning the nature of things. By his approach Abailard discovered greater accord among the philosophers than has been found by other approaches, for his concern is to discover that aspect of reality which the philosopher was attempting to express.(68-69)

Both Abailard and Erasmus (…) bring the arts of grammar, rhetoric and dialectic prominently into the discussion. (72)

Though they differed from Abailard in the relative emphases they would give the arts, Petrarch or Erasmus would not condemn the liberal arts, not even logic, since they are the necessary preparations, the instruments to be used to penetrate to philosophy.11 (71) 

But whereas Abailard is fearful lest one be led by grammar and rhetoric from the true understanding which dialectic alone can procure, the hope of Erasmus centers on the art of grammar, and his suspicions fall on rhetoric and,to a much greater degree, on dialectic. (75)

The difference between the method of Erasmus and that of Abailard may therefore be stated as that between a use of the three arts oriented to an understanding of a passage (that is, the three arts arranged in accordance with the needs of grammar) [versus]12 the use of the three arts oriented to a comparative estimation of a variety of arguments (that is, the three arts arranged under the dominance of dialectic). (81) 

theology [according to Luther] uses the same grammatical terms entirely differently from dialectic. (98)

Between these two foes of dialectic, these two grammarians of the word of Christ, [namely, Erasmus and Luther,] there is a sharp difference concerning the nature of grammar… (103)13


  1. See McKeon’s 1935 Trivium essay (what is philosophy?).
  2. The dashes here have been added here for clarity. As regards McKeon’s ‘persistent dispute’ of the arts of the trivium, McLuhan usually used the words ‘ancient quarrel’. Hence his 1946 article: ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America”.
  3. McKeon: ‘of’
  4. Reading = interpretation = experience = “expression in general” = consciousness.
  5. Facts do not underlie the trivial categories; instead the trivial categories underlie the understanding of fact. Some solution of the trivial debate is implicated in any relation we take up to fact.
  6. McKeon: ‘philosophic’.
  7. McLuhan made a couple minor references to Martianus Capella in his Nashe thesis. Three decades later, however, in his 1974 Bacon essay, he cited Ernst Robert Curtius (European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, 1953, 38) as follows: “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. Traces of Martianus are still to be found in the pageantry of the late sixteenth century.” This was old news to Gilson and McKeon, but perhaps not to McLuhan. In any case, it would seem that the notion of working from the trivium in intellectual history did not come to McLuhan from Martianus Capella or any other original source, but from Gilson and McKeon. Indeed, McLuhan was well aware that his PhD thesis was predominantly a review of secondary literature and represented few new findings.
  8. The thirteenth century — and fourteenth? So another 200 years?
  9. A further 200 years of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries?
  10. McKeon’s differing descriptions of Abailard in regard to dialectic and grammar may be taken to signify that the three are seldom or never found in pure form. Instead, most work, and all good work, is, as McKeon writes here, “the task of the three arts” together. See the citation from p 72: “Both Abailard and Erasmus (…) bring (all of) the arts of grammar, rhetoric and dialectic prominently into the discussion.”
  11. “Relative emphases” implicates structuralism!
  12. McKeon: ‘and’.
  13. Erasmus used grammar to consolidate the tradition: “the grammar which he praises, however, is that practiced by the old theologians, Origen, Basil, Chrysostom, Jerome” (76); Luther in fundamental contrast  to undermine it — or, at least, to appeal to another tradition.

McKeon’s 1935 Trivium essay (what is philosophy?)

history [i]s disguised philosophy (McKeon, ‘Renaissance and Method in Philosophy‘, 43)1

In the late 1930s at St Louis University, as a follow-up to his 1937 conversion, McLuhan began an intense study of the work of his future colleague in Toronto, Etienne Gilson.2 Consequently, Gilson would be be cited more than any other authority in McLuhan’s 1943 Cambridge PhD thesis on the trivium.3

Through his study of Gilson and his related conversations with Gilson’s student Bernie Muller-Thym, who was McLuhan’s colleague at St Louis University and intimate friend, McLuhan learned of Richard McKeon, who had studied with Gilson in Paris in the 1920s, and of McKeon’s 1935 essay, ‘Renaissance and Method in Philosophy‘. McKeon’s essay would be cited several times in McLuhan’s thesis, along with a related 1942 McKeon essay that appeared as McLuhan was finalizing his work (in time, however, for several substantial citations). But what the thesis does not divulge is that the whole notion of focusing historical research on the three arts of the trivium, dialectic, grammar and rhetoric — the notion to which the thesis was dedicated — almost certainly came to McLuhan from McKeon’s 1935 essay!4

Now the “philosophy” in the title of McKeon’s essay is not the discipline as usually conceived. But it is close to the notion of “comparative philosophy”, championed by McLuhan’s mentor at the University of Manitoba, Rupert Lodge. This would certainly have attracted McLuhan’s interest. Furthermore, explicit in both Lodge and McKeon is the Hegelian5 determination that thought, or reality itself, is grounded in three fundamental forms (Lodge’s idealism, pragmatism and realism, McKeon’s dialectic, grammar and rhetoric).

Another attraction of McKeon’s essay to McLuhan in these years immediately after his conversion: “The grammatical collection of data relative to the progress of philosophy from Abailard to the Renaissance assembled here has been limited to questions of theology and the shifting interpretations of the Bible.” (109)

Importantly for McLuhan, McKeon, unlike Lodge but as McLuhan already urged against Lodge in his 1934 Manitoba master’s thesis on Meredith, the contemplated discipline would not be restricted to philosophy (as usually understood) but would encompass “the expositions of poets and scientists” as well. Hence the great appeal to McLuhan of the terminology of the trivium as opposed to Lodge’s philosophical exposition. Its field would cover no less than what McKeon termed “verbal expression in general”. (109) Here is McLuhan to Walter Ong (October 14, 1954):

I realize now that my own rejection of philosophy as a study in my pre-Catholic days was owing to the sense that it was a meaningless truncation. (Letters 244)

McKeon, however, although openly directing his study to “verbal expression in general”, settled on the term ‘philosophy’ for it:

the means [!] which the historian has at his disposal for its accomplishment introduce into history much the same philosophic problems as are to be found in the expositions of poets and scientists. (37)

a history [like “the expositions of poets and scientists”] must, whether by conscious intention or not, be the expression of a philosophy. (38) 

[the sort of meta-philosophy proposed by McKeon following Gilson is therefore in the business of] recognizing and examining explicitly either the philosophic convictions which [any] narrative adumbrates or the manner in which those convictions determine the narrative itself. (38) 

The historian has shared in the general advance of science (…) but in intellectual history he has been dogged by the paradoxes of philosophy: philosophers can adopt a new language without [actually] changing [the nature of] their doctrines; [conversely] they can continue to use the old language (…) while they [actually] renovate their philosophic positions entirely; finally there are no two philosophic doctrines which a philosopher (…) cannot show to be the same or, if his intention should chance to be the opposite, different. The shifting interpretations and (…) long controversies in which scholars are involved on every major question of the intellectual complexion of ages are at bottom forms of those paradoxes. Consequently, as history has become more scientific, [genuine] philosophic understanding of past philosophers has been on the wane.6 (39-40)

It is our purpose to raise that philosophic question here by translating a historical sequence of ideas (…) into the philosophic debate that is implicit in the relations of those ideas.7 Such a translation will serve to indicate the philosophic aspects of historical interpretation. For the nature of history, the variety of historical interpretations and their origins and principles must be examined before questions of historical truth and accuracy can be considered profitably. The task set in the present essay is [therefore] only the first stage of that inquiry into the nature of history, or of verbal expression in general… (49)8

[regarding any samples of “expression”] only a consideration of their [philosophical] grounds will make clear their meanings and remove the ambiguity. (48)

[such work] prepares for the assimilation of questions of historical truth [or of any “verbal expression” at all] into questions of philosophic truth… (49)9

herein lies the whole task of philosophy: the examination by reason of the various theories that have been advanced concerning the nature of things. By this approach Abailard discovered greater accord among the philosophers than has been found by other approaches, for his concern is to discover that aspect of reality which the philosopher was attempting to express…10 (68-69)

in segregating the philosophic problems involved in history, the character [or nature] of philosophic problems themselves might be shown more clearly for the examination of what is involved in the making of statements [of any kind whatsoever, aka, “verbal expression in general”] (113-114)

An understanding of this entry of philosophy into [the investigations and formulations of] history is important to the understanding of the nature of history. (114) 

The design (…) [of this essay] was (…) philosophical rather than historical. Its accomplishment turned upon the trick of restating a historical sequence of views in terms simply of the ideas they expressed and in thus translating history into a philosophic debate. (114) 

As will be considered in detail in future posts, many of McKeon’s points here implicate a circularity. For if “history [i]s disguised philosophy” already, the “entry of philosophy into history” cannot be something yet to occur. It must be something that is ‘always already’ the case and ‘philosophy’ would be the double recognition of it and — at the same time — of itself.

Further, if it is “the nature of history” to be the “debate” of “persistentforms, any and all investigations in this field must themselves, as McKeon was well aware, be the expression of a decision made in regard to it: 

The history of the sciences of words, since it must be written in words, exemplifies its theme while it states it: the historian when he writes the debate of the grammarian, the rhetorician and the dialectician must himself be partisan of one of the disciplines whose protagonists he expounds. (107)11 

It may have been an aspect of McLuhan’s aversion to philosophy, even when he was working closely with Rupert Lodge in Winnipeg, to have considered this circularity as less than decisive — as something that is always already solved once one looks beyond philosophy to other disciplines like literature or, especially, to practical life beyond the academy. However this may have been, he was certainly well aware of McKeon’s point that such study “exemplifies its theme while it states it” since “any historical work involves an attitude toward and a solution of that dispute”. Here is McLuhan in his thesis:

In studying the history of dialectics and rhetoric, as indeed, of grammar, it is unavoidable that one adopts the point of view of one of these arts... (The Classical Trivium, 41)


  1. McKeon: “history as disguised philosophy”. ‘Renaissance and Method in Philosophy‘ appeared in 1935 in the third volume of Studies in the History of Ideas issued by the Columbia University department of philosophy. All page numbers in this post, unless otherwise identitfied, refer to McKeon’s essay.
  2. Gilson was one of the founders of the Institute of Mediaeval Studies at St Michael’s, along with Henry Carr and Gerald Phelan, in 1929. Phelan was McLuhan’s spiritual adviser in the process of his conversion and thereafter secured McLuhan’s post at SLU for him. Phelan was a close friend of Gilson and there is no doubt that he would have suggested Gilson’s work to McLuhan for the immense amount of work he had to do as an adult convert to acquaint himself with the Catholic tradition. Another prompt to Gilson would have come from Bernard J Muller-Thym, who returned to St Louis University from Toronto at the start of the 1938-1939 school year. Gilson had been his adviser and very close friend In Toronto when Muller-Thym studied there from 1933 to 1938. Gilson recommended Muller-Thym’s PhD thesis on Eckhart for publication and wrote an introduction for it. In fact, Muller-Thym and his wife regarded Gilson as family so that, when their fourth child (of an eventual eight) and first son was born in St Louis in 1939, they named him Bernard Etienne. When Muller-Thym returned to SLU, he and McLuhan very quickly became best friends. As McLuhan had done earlier with Tom Easterbrook in Winnipeg, the two began to take long walks in conversation especially about the Catholic tradition (Muller-Thym’s specialty) and its relation to the contemporary world (McLuhan’s special interest). Muller-Thym was the best man in the McLuhans’ wedding in 1939 and the Godfather for two of McLuhan’s first three children (of an eventual six). For the rest of their lives, McLuhan and his wife Corinne took the family of Muller-Thym and his wife Mary as their model for their family.
  3. In the posthumously published edition, 8 titles from Gilson, half in French, are listed in the augmented bibliography and others were consulted silently. For example, the John of Salisbury citation at p 149 of the print version of the thesis is taken from Gilson’s 1938 The Unity of Philosophical Experience , but the title does not appear in the bibliography. A decade later, McLuhan would underline his assessment of the importance of this book in his 1954 ‘Catholic Humanism’ lecture.
  4. McKeon, in turn, had the idea from Gilson’s work in the 1920s. It is mentioned frequently in his writings from that decade.
  5. This triplicity was ultimately Platonic, if not already mythological long before him. See the gigantomachia posts.
  6. McKeon’s complaints here are as old as philosophy itself. If thought is ‘untethered’ by principles, “shifting interpretations and (…) long controversies” are inevitable. Indeed, these once characterized physics, chemistry, biology and all such fields that eventually isolated their elements and laws and so became sciences.
  7. ‘Relations’ of ideas here must be understood as being both internal and external to them — that is, as characterizing them both individually and collectively.
  8. McKeon’s proposed inquiry inquiry resembles nothing so much as chemistry (but for psychological not physical materials). He will isolate the “origins and principles” of “verbal expression in general” in order to have them in hand “before” any particular investigation. A “debate” is thereby implicated in two senses.  First, before (in chronological time) such “origins and principles” (aka, ‘elements’) are isolated, a debate over their specification and even over their existence is indicated. Second, following their specification, they would now come “before” any practical or theoretical “expression” whatsoever — come “before” in the sense of appearing before a court —  such that a “debate” must ensue as to which of them, alone or in combination, ought to be exercised in the following inquiry. To compare, the first question asked by a chemist in any investigation is, of course, what sort of stuff is ‘before’ it.
  9. As McKeon was well aware, a preparation was required for this preparation: “the long and tedious preparation which must precede expertness in philosophic discussions” (43). But could a fitting preparation be made to ‘philosophy’ that was itself unphilosophical?
  10. The possible success of the method attributed by McKeon to Abailard here turns on a crucial inversion. Not that the philosophers in their plurality should be seen as advancing various aspects reality due to their different vantages, but that different vantages, hence the plurality of philosophers, derive from the multiplicity of reality (aka, realities) as a subjective genitive.
  11. Compare: “The historian of military campaigns, of geographical explorations, or courtly intrigues must similarly be the grammarian, the rhetorician or the dialectician as he considers his materials and constructs his narrative (…) any historical work involves an attitude toward and a solution of that dispute.” (108)