McKeon, Gilson and Rorty

Richard Rorty studied with Richard McKeon as an undergraduate and master’s student at the University of Chicago. 

Richard McKeon, an admirer of Aristotle, dominated the philosophy department at Chicago in those days. A committee he headed had dreamt up a nonstandard introductory philosophy course called “Observation, Interpretation and Integration.” I was anxious to start studying philosophy, so I signed up to take OII in my second year at Chicago. (5)1

Rorty then did his PhD at Yale, but continued to consider McKeon:

[Paul] Weiss was my dissertation advisor, but the dissertation owed less to his influence than to McKeon’s. An ungainly six hundred pages, it was titled “The Concept of Potentiality” and discussed Aristotle’s account of dynamis in the ninth book of his Metaphysics, Descartes’s dismissive treatment of the Aristotelian potency-act distinction, and Carnap’s and Goodman’s treatment of subjunctive conditionals and of nomologicality2. McKeon had specialized in such comparisons and contrasts between philosophers of different epochs. At Yale I was applying techniques I had learned at Chicago. (8)

McKeon’s 1935 paper offered two contrasting ways of advancing from the  “debate” of the three arts of the trivium (dialectic, grammar and rhetoric). Both ways emerged from the determination that the quarrel of the trivial arts is foundational and therefore “persistent”. It was forever irreducible to any one of the three. McKeon remarked, “controversies (…) did not go out of the world” (95) and, indeed, could not go out of the world. 

One pathway from this crossroads could be illustrated from Luther:

Here the extreme of value is put upon uncertainty. This humble despair of all human powers is behind Luther’s strictures against the scholastics for their too great confidence in reason: no reason of man can be taken as certain, for the wisdom of the world is made stupid by God… (McKeon, 1935, 104-105)

Quite aside from God (if anything can be said to be quite aside from God), “no reason of man can be taken as certain” in relation to the debate of the trivial arts because the working of the “debate” is deeper than human beings. As the precondition to what McKeon termed “verbal expression in general”, it is already there before we express anything at all in word or deed, is then variously at work in every expression we attempt, and it remains always there again after we have done so. It may well be said, then, that the “extreme of value is put upon uncertainty”, since all human expression stands before this prior multiplicity and is never determined beforehand in only one of its contesting directions.  

However this might inculcate a fitting humility, it would be wrong to conclude any necessary “despair” from it. Hence, if Rorty (for example) took this “uncertainty” track out of McKeon’s work, he certainly did not do so out of despair, but from the determination that dogged persistence in thought and action in an attempt to put things right was indicated — and that this was enough for beings who are finite in every way. The aspiration to an organized discipline could, he apparently thought, only detract from the required uncertain assessment of the human situation and of our responses in and to it.3

The other pathway was Gilson’s4 ‘philosophy’.5 This ‘nomological’ option was broached at the end of McKeon’s essay in conclusion to it:

when the distinctions [between the arts of the trivium] which have been employed in this essay have been fortified by (…) further materials, it will be time to consider dialectical resolutions, the problems of philosophy and their evolution and finally the character of philosophic truth. (110)

When, however, two [or more] theories [deriving from different arts of the trivium] are set one against the other, when the question of (…) truth (…)6 is raised, the technique of the dialectician is needed. So long as there is no two-voiced controversy, the question may remain on the grammatical or on the rhetorical level. (112-113)7

though each interpretation [of each the three trivial arts] is impregnable within its own limits,8 when brought into controversy [between them] the debate is ultimately dialectical.9 (111)

Once that philosophic view has been established, however, it may not be impossible to show that there are canons of criticism for history according to which one manner of interpretation is preferable to another. (113)

in segregating the philosophic problems involved in history, the character of philosophic problems themselves might be shown more clearly for the examination of what is involved in the making of statements. (113-114)  

McLuhan shared with Gilson, at least,10 the notion that the interior landscape of human beings was just as subject to scientific investigation as the external one. But this would be based, like all sciences, not on some absolute insight (whatever that might be), but on collective investigation focused on central organizing conceptions (like Gilson’s and McKeon’s trivial arts) — which conceptions would always remain, however, perpetually open in principle to scientific revision and even revolution (as articulated by Rorty’s friend and longtime colleague at Princeton, Thomas Kuhn).11 

Here is how McLuhan described this nomological possibility from Gilson in his 1954 ‘Catholic Humanism’ lecture:

What [Gilson’s Unity of Philosophical Experience] does is to elicit the image of truth from past errors and to confirm the unity of man’s quest from the jarring discords of unremitting debate. But what I wish to point out is that Gilson’s method is that of contemporary art and science (for contemporary poetry has healed the old breach between art and science). Gilson does not set out to produce a theory or view that will unify the philosophical disputes of the past. He reconstructs the disputes. He enables us to participate in them as though we were there. We see that they were real. (…) By repeating this process of participation (…) we are liberated both from past and present. We don’t arrive at a simple unifying concept but are put on the road to achieving a wisdom. And the road to this wisdom is by way of sympathetic reconstruction, involving the abeyance of personal prejudice and preconception.
the poetic process as it appears in the work of Poe, Baudelaire and Eliot, and by writers of detective fiction, is also the manifest principle of historical reconstruction as used by Gilson.
Gilson has used the method of reconstruction in the history of philosophy as a new creative technique which permits a new kind of communication between the present and the past. The reader of Gilson is typically given not a view or theory of the past but the experience of it. But the past as experience is present. It is available once more as nutriment. Previous theories of the past really amounted to a way of disowning it or of explaining it away.
the traditional errors of men become for the analogical artist precious matter for his structures even as Gilson has used historical error in philosophy to build a path to truth.

In 1954, McLuhan — now in his 40’s and the father of 6 children — was feeling utterly isolated even in the culture and technology seminar. He felt himself called to consider how a finite yet scientific discipline built out of the most unlikely of materials (“the traditional errors of men”) might be instigated and pursued — as a new (yet oldest of the old) “path to truth”.

The path has been known and traversed forever. Every child takes it in learning to speak. Every practical craft and theoretical discipline was and is established through it. However, its communication has never succeeded beyond a small circle and general investigation never initiated. But, McLuhan worried anxiously, was such communication perhaps the only way to avert disaster in a nuclear global village?

Somewhat like fusion in physics, McLuhan’s eventual breakthrough12 in 1960 must be understood as the product of enormous pressure. Its realization that year would all but kill him.13


  1. ‘Richard Rorty: Intellectual Autobiography’, in The Philosophy of Richard Rorty, ed Auxier & Hahn, The Library of Living Philosophers, vol xxxii, 2009, 3-23.
  2. Nomology. The Wikipedia article cites William Hamilton’s definition of nomology: “The Laws by which our faculties are governed, to the end that we may obtain a criterion by which to judge or to explain their procedures and manifestations (…) a science which we may call the Nomology of Mind (or) Nomological Psychology.” The ‘philosophical’ option broached by McKeon at the end of his 1935 essay might be termed nomological in this sense.
  3. Although Rorty was a great admirer of John Dewey, he rejected Dewey’s Quest for Certainty out of hand. He took it to have been a aberration on Dewey’s part that he, for one, found inexplicable.
  4. Surprisingly, Rorty mentions Gilson in his ‘Intellectual Autobiography’ and does so in high company: “Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Whitehead’s Adventures of Ideas, and Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being gave me a taste for ambitious, swooshy, Geistesgeschichte that I have never lost. This taste was gratified in later years by such writers as Etienne Gilson, Hans Blumenberg, and, above all, the later Heidegger” (6). Gilson was undoubtedly suggested to Rorty by McKeon.
  5. See McKeon’s 1935 Trivium essay (what is philosophy?).
  6. McKeon has “the question of the truth of one of them” here. This is remarkable since the main thrust of his essay is to suggest that truth is necessarily plural and never “one”!
  7. McKeon seems to slide here between two different definitions of “the dialectician”. There is “the dialectician” who is one of the three corners of the trivial debate. And there is “the dialectician”, or philosopher, who considers that debate somehow aside from it. These two are fundamentally different in that the first is inherently ‘one-sided’, while the second (although itself inevitably one-sided, but in other ways belonging to all finite creatures) considers, as best it can, that irreducible multiplicity.
  8. McKeon in the same place: “the controversies (between the trivial arts) are persistent, since no fact can dislodge the historian from any of the three positions” (111).
  9. See previous note. Also, earlier in McKeon’s essay: “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.” (68-69) This is pure Gilson.
  10. McKeon may have been less confident than his mentor, Gilson, in the possibility of such nomological science (although at the end of the 1935 essay, at least, he seems sure enough about it).
  11. It is difficult to see why Rorty should have been so determined against this possibility. Perhaps he saw even the aspiration to it not only as a waste of effort, but even as a barrier to the constant reconsideration he saw as necessary to right thought and action? To an undergraduate paper I once did for Rorty trying to make sense of C.S. Peirce’s ‘thirds’, his only comment was: “There are no thirds”. For Gilson and McLuhan, on the contrary, it might be said that there are only thirds: the medium is the message.
  12. See McLuhan’s #1 breakthrough.
  13. See footnote #12 in McLuhan’s new sciences: “only the authority of knowledge”.