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)