McDonald on Humboldt and McLuhan

In his 2017 book, Artefacts of Writing: Ideas of the State and Communities of Letters from Matthew Arnold to Xu BingPeter McDonald makes a series of observations on McLuhan which are utterly mis-taken — but which yet may be taken to point (in the mode of Wittgenstein’s arrows)1 to central aspects of McLuhan’s project. Here is a sample of McDonald’s take with a running commentary given in the footnotes:2

McLuhan looked back to the Prussian idealist philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt, citing the following key statement from On the Diversity of Human Language (1836) via Ernst Cassirer and in Susanne K. Langer’s translation:

Man lives with his objects chiefly — in fact, since his feeling and acting depends on his perceptions, one may say exclusively — as language presents them to him. By the same process whereby he spins language out of his own being, he ensnares himself in it; and each language draws a magic circle round the people to which it belongs, a circle from which there is no escape save by stepping out of it into another.3

(…) Humboldt saw this as a phenomenon in and of language; whereas McLuhan, like Goody and Watt,4 believed that the effects of print were social and political as well as cognitive.5 If the ‘Gutenberg revolution’ instituted the ‘fixed point of view’ characteristic of nationalist thinking (…) McLuhan, it should be said, did not appeal to Humboldt merely as an exemplar of nation-centred linguistic relativity.6 In keeping with his Utopian vision,7 he saw the passage from the Diversity of Human Language as an endorsement of his own ambition to ‘transcend the limitations of our own assumptions by a critique of them’.8 Humboldt’s relativism, as he saw it, was fundamentally emancipatory, since he showed9 ‘we can now live, not just amphibiously in divided and distinguished worlds, but pluralistically in many worlds and cultures simultaneously’.10 For him, the ‘global village’ to come was, in other words, not just post-literate but post-national.11 Like many commentators, he ignored the fact that Humboldt, for all his relativism, always insisted on seeing languages as open-ended rather than ‘closed systems’, the expressive potential of which is endlessly extendable…12 

What McDonald says McLuhan ignored in von Humboldt — “the expressive  potential [of language] which is endlessly extendable” — is actually what McDonald “like many commentators” ignores in McLuhan: namely, the all important distinction between ‘making’ and ‘matching’ (or ‘merging’). Making is “open-ended”, while matching/merging aims at being ‘closed-ended’ — but can never actually be ‘closed-ended’ given the multiple ramifications of human finitude. 

The “endlessly extendable” nature of all human enterprise operates despite the fact that we are always situated in some or other “magic circle” — “from which there is no escape save by stepping out of it into another”. This may be seen as negative or positive — or both — depending upon context. For McLuhan, the great point is that real communication and real knowing occur despite — or exactly thereby — the fact that no ultimate closure is possible. “The gap is where the action is.” This is most clearly to be seen in language learning by in-fants. Somehow they step from one magic circle to another. But something of the sort occurs in all great art and in all scientific discovery.

As regards the field of media theory, which is no less than the field of all human experience which is never unmediated, never not situated in some or other “magic circle”, the “endlessly extendable” nature of language implicates the possibility that this field, too, may be investigated and mapped. McLuhan’s insistent question: why don’t we get on with the job when so much, even our survival, may depend on it?

Here he is in his Playboy interview:

our survival (…)  is predicated on understanding the nature of our new environment, because unlike previous environmental changes, the electric media constitute a total and near-instantaneous transformation of culture, values and attitudes. This upheaval generates great pain and identity loss, which can be ameliorated only through a conscious awareness of its dynamics. If we understand the revolutionary transformations caused by new media, we can anticipate and control them; but if we continue in our self-induced subliminal trance, we will be their slaves.
Because of today’s terrific speed-up of information moving, we have a chance to apprehend, predict and influence the environmental forces shaping us — and thus win back control of our own destinies. The new extensions of man and the environment they generate are the central manifestations of the evolutionary process, and yet we still cannot free ourselves of the delusion that it is how a medium is used that counts, rather than what it does to us and with us. This is the zombie stance of the technological idiot. It’s to escape this Narcissus trance that I’ve tried to trace and reveal the impact of media on man, from the beginning of recorded time to the present.


  1. PU #454: “Der Pfeil zeigt nur in der Anwendung, die das Lebewesen von ihm macht.” An arrow has meaning only in the application made of it within some exercise of life. McLuhan: the message of an arrow has meaning only in the context of some prior medium.
  2. McDonald, p 11. Single quotation marks in the passage signal McDonald’s citations from The Gutenberg Galaxy, the great majority of which are from its first 40 pages.
  3. Cited from von Humboldt in The Gutenberg Galaxy30-31.
  4. In ‘The Consequences of Literacy’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 5:3 (April, 1963), pp. 304-345.
  5. McLuhan would reject this “whereas” since for him the “social and political” were fundamentally also “in and of language”. Like everything in possible human experience, they had their “grammars”. For McLuhan’s discussion of the point see, eg, his 1958 Grammars of the Media.
  6. Are “nationalist thinking” and “nation-centred linguistic relativity” offered here as figures or grounds? Do they make sense either way? Especially, are independent investigators able to specify these proposed objects and to investigate them in common? By implicating questions like these, the Gutenberg mentality points beyond itself (cf Wittgenstein’s arrows above) and is, therefore, not at all merely negative in McLuhan’s view (as McDonald would have it). More, McLuhan often characterized his whole project as an attempt to defend such undoubted goods such as individual identity, privacy, human rights, law and science, all of which he saw as priceless products of the Gutenberg galaxy and as gravely threatened in a world gone electric. Today in 2022, over 40 years after McLuhan’s death, it is plain that he was all too prophetic about that threat.
  7. As if wishing to illustrate McLuhan’s description of the literary outlook as “schizophrenic”, McDonald characterizes McLuhan’s work in successive sentences as “starkly negative” and as “utopian” in its desire to “unite the entire human family” (10). The same taste for stark dissociation may be seen in operation immediately before this where McDonald describes McLuhan as “a direct inversion” of the “world according to Goody and Watt”. In fundamental contrast, McLuhan’s enterprise attempted to liberate us from such conceptualizations as “direct inversion” by insisting on the prior range of such ratios.
  8. The word “endorsement” here is strange. Far rather, McLuhan saw von Humboldt’s observation as precipitating basic problems which, once deeply considered, might lead to needed new ground. The central problem in von Humboldt’s passage is the threat of infinite regress from one “magic circle” to another and to another after that — and so on indefinitely. Moreover, as Nietzsche was to show later that century, such regress leads to the loss, not only of the ‘true world’, but of the ‘apparent world’ along with it. Hence his nihilism. Put in McLuhan’s terms, if the medium is the message, how is any medium to be specified except via some further medium? And if the medium can never be specified strictly (because always begging the question of its medium), how can it be that ‘the medium is the message’? What medium? And, therefore, what message? Here Beckett is the great expositor.
  9. McDonald omits explication of just how what “ensnares” might “show” at the same time — especially how it might show something “fundamentally emancipatory”. But precisely this is the heart of the matter!
  10. Here is the fundamental medium (or elementary structure) proposed by McLuhan: “live, not just (…) in (…) distinguished worlds, but pluralistically in many worlds and cultures simultaneously”. That is, we may now live not just in one “distinguished world” structured by a singular (usually molecular) configuration of ear/eye ratio, but “in many worlds and cultures simultaneously” — by always judging against the background of all possible ear/eye ratios and their combinations at once.
  11. McDonald’s linear language here (“to come”, “post-“) fails to appreciate the synchronic axis of McLuhan’s work (“simultaneously”) and therefore also fails to appreciate the crossing in it of the synchronic and diachronic axes. The underlying problem is a failure to appreciate the inherent plurality of times. ‘Time’s arrow’, like Wittgenstein’s, is not unidirectional.
  12. Or was McLuhan one of the few people in the world who took this open/closed question with deep seriousness by insisting on the range of their ratios? Indeed, how a “magic circle” that “ensnares” might also be “open-ended (…) the expressive potential of which is endlessly extendable” is the great question — one McLuhan engaged for 35 years as that of a possible “ascent from the maelstrom”.