Innis on thought and its eclipse (PEMS 7)

What is “initiative in thought” in Innis? Perspective.

What is perspective? It is a position that is: Long-term. Limited. Open. Balanced. Stable. Anchored.

In fundamental contrast, the loss of thought and perspective in the contemporary world (beginning in the late nineteenth century) is: Short-term. Unrestricted. Closed. Unbalanced. Unstable. Ungrounded.

The task of thought (dual genitive!) is to indicate the way from the first to the second.

The task is to indicate the way from one beginning to another beginning, from one origin to another origin.

The history of the twentieth century is testimony to the difficulty of this transformation. 

Her [the university’s] traditions and her [proper] interest demand an obsession with balance and perspective — an obsession with the Greek tradition of the humanities. The search for truth assumes a constant avoidance of extremes and extravagance. Virtue is in the middle way. There are no cures. Always we are compelled to be sceptical of the proposal to cure the world’s ills. We cannot tolerate the dominance of any individual or of any group. (A Plea for the University Tradition, 1944)

In the words of Cobden, political economy is “the highest exercise of the human mind, and the exact sciences require by no means so hard an effort.” 1 (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

the [contemporary] study of economic history emphasizes short-run points of view acceptable to the price system rather than long-term points of view which necessitate perspective. An equilibrium of approaches to the study of economic phenomena becomes exceedingly difficult to achieve with the insistence on short-run interests and the obsession with the present. (A Plea for the University Tradition, 1944)

The modern tendency to find mental satisfaction in measuring everything by a fixed rational standard, and the way it takes for granted that everything can be related to everything else, certainly receives from the apparently objective value of money, and the universal possibility of exchange which this involves, a strong psychological impulse to become a fixed habit of thought, whereas the purely logical process itself, when it only follows its own course, is not subject to these influences, and it then turns these accepted ideas into mere probabilities.2 (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

Cartels and formalism in commerce paralleled ecclesiasticism in religion and in both cases initiative in thought was weakened. (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

Machine industry through printing dispenses with thought or com­pels it to move in certain channels. The dispersion of thought through the printing industry makes attacks on monopoly increasingly difficult.3 (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

economic history should contribute to stability. Not only should it supplement political and social history, it should in supplementing them check the tendency in itself and in them to bias and fanaticism. Within the narrower range of the social sciences it should provide a check against the specialization of mathematical systems peculiar to a monetary and a machine age and should indicate the extent and significance of the irrational as contrasted with the rational.4 (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

The circulation of printed matter cheapened thought and destroyed the prestige of the great works of the past which were collected and garnered before the introduction of movable type. Rational thought [in the sense of narrowly defined fields fenced off from “the mysteries of life and death”] and art [in the event that the other ‘absolute’ pursuits of philosophy and religion had ‘given up the ghost’] conse­quently had more influence.  (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

economic history (…) should indicate the extent and significance of the irrational as contrasted with the rational.  (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

recognition of factors affecting [consideration of] irrationality is a beginning. (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

religion is an effort to organize irrationality and as such appears in all (…) organizations of knowl­edge. (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

language is deliberately [manipulated]5 as a framework for hocus pocus and unintelligibility (…) with no possibility of a common approach through rationality. Irrationality assumes fresh importance as a means of capitalizing the necessity of unintelligibility and deliberately avoiding rational contacts.6 (The University In The Modern Crisis)

Man as a biological phe­nomenon has been unable to sustain the excessive demands of rationalism evident in the mathematics of the price system and of technology.7 (The Economic Significance of Culture)

Rationality which accompanies the price system brings its own handicaps in the formation of monopolies.8 (The Economic Significance of Culture, 1944)

  1. Innis citing John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (1887).
  2. “Mere probabilities” sound negative. But they are what thought and perspective deal with. To compare, nothing in the hard sciences exceeds “mere probabilities”. Compare Innis’ negative use of ” fixed rational standard” here to notes #4 and #6 below.
  3. Concern with “monopoly” is a good example of the constant attention paid by Innis at once to structure and to real world economics. His chief point is that the latter must be understood via the former.
  4. “The irrational as contrasted with the rational”, in this context, means ‘extra-systematic’ factors like “the mysteries of life and death” (The Economic Significance of Culture). In this sense, thought and perspective, like religion, are vitally concerned with “the irrational”.
  5. Innis: “built up”.
  6. Here “rationality” and “irrationality” are used in the opposite sense discussed in note #4 above. Here “rationality” is equated with thought and perspective and “irrationality” with a closed system with “no possibility of a common approach”.
  7. For “rationalism” as “system and of technology” here, compare notes #2, #4 and #6.
  8. “Rationality” is brought together with both economics and structuralism here. Since “rationality” is treated in fundamentally different ways by Innis, it, as well as “economics”, may be imagined to name positions on a spectrum stretching between “monopolies” .