A whole new genus of sciences

Just as with a child, which after a long still gestation draws its first breath, breaking off the continuity of only gradual growth -– a qualitative leap — and it is born, so too the spirit, in ripening itself slowly and quietly towards a new form, dissolves bit by bit the structure of its previous world, whose tottering condition is intimated only by isolated symptoms — the frivolity as much as the boredom which enter into the established order, the  indeterminate presentiment of some unknown, all are harbingers of the coming of something new. This gradual process of dissolution, which does not alter the physiognomy of the whole, is suddenly undermined by a supervening insight that — a lightning bolt! — at once reveals the prospect of a new world. (Hegel, Phänomenologie des Geistes, ‘Preface’, 1807)1

The basis of all paradox, Christian and secular, is to be found in the sixth book of the Physics of Aristotle, to which Aquinas refers in his Summa Theologica I.II.q 113.a.7, ad quintum. The question for Aquinas is whether justification by faith occurs instantly or gradually. Aquinas says it occurs instantly because — ­here he appeals to Aristotle’s Physics  — “the whole preceding time during which anything moves towards its form, it is under the opposite form”. (McLuhan, From Cliché to Archetype)2

McLuhan foresaw3 a whole new genus of sciences. Not another species of science within the existing genus,4 but a new genus of sciences entirely. 

This would not be “old science” which studies “first nature” excluding (as far as possible) the bias of human observation and its instrumentation,5 but “new science” which would study what McLuhan called “second nature” — a “second nature” specifically including the spectrum of biases which humans enact, at present nearly always utterly unconsciously, in all their different ways of being.6

The central problem is that the whole environment defined by “new science” was and is invisible: its workings take place unconsciously behind our own backs even as we enact them. But environments in general are invisible, McLuhan argued, until they are not — only consider that 200 years ago the material environment as defined by the chemical elements was invisible and unknown. This did not mean that it was not very much already there and already at work everywhere (including in our own bodies and brains, as much as in the furthest reaches of the universe). In fact, it had always been at work and always will be at work  — but 200 years ago it was as if it were not there at all.

All of the sciences and manufacturing processes that have consequently been established in that newly dis-covered environment, indeed on the basis of that new environment, from chemistry itself to medicine and our whole industrial society — all modern life! — could appear only after it had appeared.7 The medium is the message.

However, once a new environment has emerged, at first always only tentatively of course, and against the resistance of the whole old world for whom it remains invisible, humans are inherently able to investigate it in a process which never stops generating new knowledge and even whole new sciences. As McLuhan said of this new genus of sciences, and of his attempt to initiate it, in the Introduction to his 1964 Understanding Media:

It explores the contours of our own extended beings in our technologies, seeking the principle of intelligibility in each of them. In the full confidence that it is possible to win an understanding of these forms that will bring them into orderly service, I have looked at them anew, accepting very little of the conventional wisdom concerning them. 

Two decades before this, already in his Cambridge PhD thesis from 1943, McLuhan had proffered how it is that humans as humans relate to “the principle of intelligibility” in things:

Just as language offers an extensive and complex apprehension of the structure of beings [by situating us in a defined natural and social world], so that faculty which produced this state of language is perpetually operative — an intuitive perception of essentials.8 (The Classical Trivium, 1943, 51)

And then in ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ in 1954:

In this creative work that is perception and cognition, we experience immediately that dance of Being within our faculties which provides the incessant intuition of Being.9

And in From Cliché to Archetype in 1970:

The Expressionists had discovered that the creative process is a kind of repetition of the stages of apprehension, somewhat along the lines that relate Coleridge’s Primary and Secondary imagination. In the same way there would seem to be an echo of the formative process of consciousness in the entire content of the unconscious. This, in turn, implies a close liaison between private and corporate awareness.10


Here is McLuhan writing to his former student at St Louis University, Walter Ong, in 1961:11

My theory is acceptable only to Thomists for whom consciousness as analogical proportion among the senses from moment to moment is quite easy to grasp. But print technology actually smashes that analogical awareness in society and the individual. (…) I can now explain these matters very much better than I did in Understanding Media.12 But no more evidence is needed of the hypnotic aspect of all media in human history than the absence of awareness among those who underwent [subjection to] them. Each is invested with a cloak of invisibility. I am naturally eager to attract many people to such study as this and see in it the hope of some rational consensus for our externalized senses. A sensus communis for external senses is what I’m trying to build.13

Similarly a few years later in Understanding Media:14

The Greeks had the notion of a consensus or a faculty of “common sense” that translated each sense into each other sense, and conferred consciousness on man. Today, when we have extended all parts of our bodies and senses by technology, we are haunted by the need for an outer consensus of technology and experience that would raise our communal lives to the level of a world-wide consensus.15 When we have achieved a world-wide fragmentation, it is not unnatural to think about a world-wide integration. Such a universality of conscious being for mankind was dreamt of by Dante, who believed that men would remain mere broken fragments until they should be united in an inclusive consciousness.

McLuhan contrasted the “exterior landscape”16 and “first nature”, with the “interior landscape” and “second nature”. The difference between them, between the “exterior landscape” or “first nature”, on the one hand, and the “interior landscape” or “second nature”, on the other, was not that the former are outside and material while the latter are inside and mental. Instead, McLuhan’s “second nature” is “first nature” plus all the varieties of sensibility through which humans experience that “first nature” and relate to it in ways that alter both it and them:

  • Consciousness (…) may be thought of as a projection to the outside of an inner synesthesia (War and Peace in the Global Village, 1968, p62)
  • Second nature consists entirely in our artefacts and extensions (Laws of Media, posthumous, p116)17
  • Technology — second nature — recapitulates first nature in new forms. (Laws of Media, p118)
  • Second nature is [first] nature made and remade by man (Laws of Media, p222)

In short, the “second nature” investigated by “new science” consists of “the entire material of the globe as well as the thoughts and feelings of its human inhabitants“. (Culture Without Literacy, 1953)

Sensibility is not something inside our skulls. Sensibilities are extensions that inherently express themselves in and as relations to the “exterior landscape” of “first nature”. McLuhan’s technical name for these extensions was ‘media’. The subtitle of Understanding Media is: “the extensions of man”. 

The task of the investigation of “second nature” is to investigate it not only as including the biases of the human ways of being, so to say objectively, but to understand it also subjectively on the basis of our inevitable biases:

[Harold] Innis taught us how to use the bias of culture and communication as an instrument of research. By directing attention to the bias or distorting power of the dominant imagery and technology of any culture, he showed us how to understand cultures. (Media and Cultural Change, 1964)18 

The bias of our culture is precisely to isolate the bias of all others in an effort at orchestration(Counterblast, 1969, p64)

McLuhan’s claim was that we are currently in the same relation to “second nature” as we were to “first nature” before, say, 1800. Only as the chemical elements were specified in the century leading up to Mendeleev’s table in 1869 was it gradually recognized that there was such a thing as the “first nature” of chemical nature — and of all the further sciences and disciplines enabled by chemistry (biology, genetics, modern medicine, materials science, etc). 

We are currently blind to “second nature” for the same reason that “first nature” was once unknown: because environments are invisible until we find a way to investigate them through collectively recognized focus. And as the old scientific revolution showed, this in turn requires the identification of elements that serve to supply that focus.

the crucial study that remains is that of working out in precise detail the relations19 between second and first nature (Laws of Media, p117)20 

The goal of science and the arts and of education for the next generation must be to decipher not the genetic [first nature] but the perceptual [second nature] code. (Laws of Media, p239).

“It is not the bamboo in the wind [ first nature] that we are representing but all the thought and emotion in the painter’s mind at a given instant [second nature] when he looked upon a bamboo spray and suddenly identified his life with it for a moment.” (Laws of Media, p82)21

The artist is the person who invents the means to bridge between biological inheritance [first nature] and the environments created by technological innovation [second nature]. (Laws of Media, p98)

Aristotle first noted that the Greeks’ invention of nature was made possible when they had left behind a savage or barbaric state (first nature) by putting on an individualized and civilized one (second nature).22 (Laws of Media, p116)

Second nature consists entirely in our artefacts and extensions and the grounds and narcoses they impose23 (Laws of Media, p116)

Technology — second nature — recapitulates first nature in new forms; that is, it translates from one nature to another.24 (Laws of Media, p118)

Speech (…) and our technologies, as other [forms of] speech25(…) have enacted our two natures, effectively hoicking us out of servitude to [first] nature [via ‘old science’], but leaving us slaves to the vagaries of second nature [since we unnecessarily continue to lack ‘new science’]. (Laws of Media, p118)

Vico aimed to heal the rift (…) between the Ancients and the Moderns. (…) In the end, it eluded him for he was caught in a dilemma that had been building for centuries before him [but] that was then [invisible because] environmental. (…) Vico simply had not distinguished between first and second nature for separate study: nothing in his experience suggested such a distinction would be of any use. Second nature is nature made and remade by man as man remakes himself with his extensions. Separate them: the first is the province of traditional grammar [and of the ‘old science’ from physics and chemistry to biology and genetics]; the second, that of Bacon, Vico, and Laws of Media. (Laws of Media, p222)26

McLuhan’s new genus of sciences accorded with the views of Vico and Joyce:

There must, in the nature of human things be a mental language common to all nations, which uniformly grasps the substance of things feasible in human social life, and expresses it with as many diverse modifications as these same things may have diverse aspects. (Vico, New Science, §161, cited verbatim by McLuhan in Laws of Media, p221.)

What we symbolize in black the Chinaman may symbolize in yellow; each has his own tradition. Greek beauty laughs at Coptic beauty and the American Indian derides them both. It is almost impossible to reconcile all tradition whereas it is by no means impossible to find the justification of every form of beauty which has been adored on the earth by an examination into the mechanism of esthetic apprehension whether it be dressed in red, white, yellow or black. We have no reason for thinking that the Chinaman has a different system of digestion from that which we have though our diets are quite dissimilar. The apprehensive faculty must be scrutinized in action. (James Joyce, Stephen Hero, cited verbatim by McLuhan in ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’)


Personally, I have a great faith in the resiliency and adaptability of man, and I tend to look to our tomorrows with a surge of excitement and hope. I feel that we’re standing on the threshold of a liberating and exhilarating world in which the human tribe can become truly one family and man’s consciousness can be freed from the shackles of mechanical culture and enabled to roam the cosmos. I have a deep and abiding belief in man’s potential to grow and learn, to plumb the depths of his own being and to learn the secret songs that orchestrate the universe. We live in a transitional era of profound pain and tragic identity quest, but the agony of our age is the labor pain of rebirth. (Playboy Interview)


The task confronting contemporary man is to live with the hidden ground of his activities as familiarly as our predecessors lived with the figure-minus-ground. (The Global Village, p26)27


Knowledge of the creative process in art, science, and cognition shows us the way either to the earthly paradise or to complete madness. It is to be either the top of Mount Purgatory or the abyss. (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters)28

  1. “Aber wie beim Kinde nach langer stiller Ernährung der erste Atemzug jene Allmählichkeit des nur vermehrenden Fortgangs abbricht – ein qualitativer Sprung – und das Kind geboren ist, so reift der sich bildende Geist langsam und stille der neuen Gestalt entgegen, löst ein Teilchen des Baues seiner vorgehenden Welt nach dem andern auf, ihr Wanken wird nur durch einzelne Symptome angedeutet; der Leichtsinn wie die Langeweile, die im Bestehenden einreißen, die unbestimmte Ahnung eines Unbekannten sind Vorboten, daß etwas anderes im Anzuge ist. Dies allmähliche Zerbröckeln, das die Physiognomie des Ganzen nicht veränderte, wird durch den Aufgang unterbrochen, der, ein Blitz, in einem Male das Gebilde der neuen Welt hinstellt.” Pinkard’s translation has been used with considerable changes.
  2. From Cliché to Archetype, p160.
  3. McLuhan wanted not only to foresee such science, of course, but actually to initiate it. His last 20 years, after the start of his blackouts in 1959 and his first serious stroke in 1960, must be seen as a repeated attempt to communicate his findings through writing, lecturing, teaching, media interviews and the cultivation of co-workers who might be his intellectual heirs. But none of this worked — at least not yet.
  4. The Gutenberg Galaxy was McLuhan’s attempt to explicate the foundations of the existing genus of ‘old science’ as defined by a certain kind of subjectivity related to a certain kind of objectivity within a certain kind of space-time.
  5. Like Hegel 200 years ago, McLuhan saw that the goal of conducting investigation somehow aside from the instruments supplying its data, and from the mentalities supplying its experimental design and conclusions, is ultimately senseless and self-defeating. McLuhan: “The old separation of art and nature we now see to have been based on an ignorance of nature.” (New Media in Arts Education, 1956). How so? Because art and nature belong to each other and can be separated only artificially (in a fruitless Gutenbergian attempt to install some One). ‘Nature’ is always ‘nature as experienced in some way’, ‘nature as mediated’. And ‘experience’ (aka ‘art’) is always the ‘experience of natural beings living in a natural world’. (The equation of ordinary experience and art was the central object of McLuhan’s research for the 10 years or so after WW2. See note 24.)
  6. Terms such as ‘old’ and ‘new’ science, and ‘first’ and ‘second’ nature, must, of course, be specified. McLuhan repeatedly tried to do so. He recognized that “the crucial study that remains is that of working out in precise detail the relations between second and first nature” (Laws of Media, 117).
  7. For many reasons McLuhan thought that “new science” could emerge ‘now’ — 70 years ago and counting! — from its previous invisibility. One was that we already apply much of this “new science” in cybernetics, advertising, entertainment, politics, in fact everywhere. These are all much more than chemical constructions! They all implicate a practical knowledge of the workings of human being (understood verbally). What was and is needed: to become conscious of what we already live! Nietzsche’s motto for Ecce Homo “How one becomes what one is” (Wie man wird, was man ist).
  8. Without such “perception of essentials”, how could infants learn language in the first place? Decades later, in 1970, McLuhan termed this “perpetually operative” faculty “pre-tribal awareness” (since being a member of a tribe entails that its language — including its languages of gesture, story-telling, taste, etc, be understood): “Havelock’s Preface to Plato shows how the phonetic alphabet scrapped tribal man but retrieved the primordial role of individual and pre-tribal awareness.” (McLuhan to Joe Keogh, July 6,1970, Letters 413) Again: “The liquidating of the tribal encyclopaedia of the bards (…) was done by phonetic literacy, but there was retrieved something of great antiquity, namely pre-tribal metaphysical man. (McLuhan to Lynn White, August 17, 1970)
  9. By ‘Being’ here McLuhan does not mean some kind of cloud of unknowing. He means that humans ‘incessantly’ interrogate their surroundings for the being of things. This has eventuated in our understanding of the being of the physical universe. Nothing occurs in it aside form its being in (or being from) the chemical and physical laws we have learned to identity and further investigate.  This same power can also come to an understanding of ourselves in all our various ‘extensions’. In turn, the possibility of these understandings tells us about the central characteristic of Being itself. As Aristotle has it: ἀλλ᾽ οὔτε τὸ θεῖον φθονερὸν ἐνδέχεται εἶναι
    “it is impossible for the Deity to be jealous”. (Met. 1.983a).
    Being extends itself in multiple ways and one of these is the possibility of knowing it.
  10. From Cliché to Archetype, 1970, p200. In ‘Towards an Inclusive Consciousness’ from 1967 McLuhan speaks of “an inclusive consciousness that is at the same time private and tribal”. The “liaison between private and corporate awareness” consists in the fact that “an intuitive perception of essentials”, aka “pre-tribal awareness”, is required in order to learn language and so to become a member of a tribe. Every human is exposed to an enormous variety of sounds and gestures. A tribe is structured by which of these it considers meaningful or “essential” — just as a word is a meaningful sound, not a meaningless one. A tribe can therefore be described as “the formative process of consciousness” in action, whose basis lies in the “incessant” “repetition” of this “creative process” of identifying what is “essential” and what is not. Finally, that this process not only has happened, but is happening even now in “repetition”, implies, since we are not aware of what we are doing at this moment, that it remains in our “unconscious” (somewhat like our absence of awareness of the hormonal interactions in our bodies). McLuhan’s whole point is that this “incessant” action need not remain unconscious (just as the specification and study of hormones has not). All of my recommendations, therefore, can be reduced to this one: study the modes of the media, in order to hoick all assumptions out of the subliminal, non-verbal realm for scrutiny and for prediction and control of human purposes.” (‘Recommendations’, Project in Understanding New Media, 1960) (“Non-verbal” = ‘essentially pre-verbal’, in one sense, and ‘accidentally not-yet-verbal’, in another sense.)
  11. November 18, 1961, Letters, 280-281.
  12. McLuhan is referring here to his NAEB report, Project in Understanding New Media from 1960, not to his later Understanding Media from 1964.
  13. Such a sensus communis would be a ‘new science’ — in fact a whole new genus of sciences.  This science would not operate like our subjective sensus communis (or, at least, as we currently imagine it to operate), but conversely, with new science we would come to understand ourselves through it. Not it like us, then, but us like it.
  14. Understanding Media, p108.
  15. When did everybody, especially the French, start talking about the ‘haunting’ of our thought? Was it before this passage from McLuhan in 1964 — or after?
  16. Coleridge as Artist’ (1957): The (study of the) exterior landscape serves very well for (…) some areas of experience. But it is necessarily (…) ill-suited to the variety and compression of the modern city.”
  17. This is ‘consists in‘, not ‘consists of‘! Since 1953, if not earlier, McLuhan had seen: “the fact that with modern technology the entire material of the globe as well as the thoughts and feelings of its human inhabitants have become the matter of art (…) means that (…) there is no more external nature.” (Culture Without Literacy, 1953)
  18. ‘Media and Cultural Change’ was McLuhan’s introduction to the 1964 reprinting of Innis’ 1951 The Bias of Communication.
  19. ‘Relations’ here has two important significations: (1) “second and first nature” must be perceived as complementary fields of investigation — they are fundamentally different, but also fundamentally related since everything known about “first nature” is also an object within “second nature” exactly as something known; (2) all of the phenomena studied in the field of “second nature” are relations between knowers and what they know.
  20. McLuhan’s posthumous book, Laws of Media, was assembled by his son, Eric, out of materials (published and unpublished papers, drafts, dictations, fragmentary notes, sound recordings and video tapes) from the last 10 or so years of Marshall’s life,1970-1980. Eric knew how crucial and how difficult was the task he had been given by his father. After Marshall’s death he spent a decade of his life putting together Laws of Media and then the remaining three decades of his life after that, continuing his attempt to think through his father’s work and to communicate its importance. In the end he left all the materials he had used for Laws of Media to the University of Toronto for future investigators to work through for themselves. This act of donation and preservation for future research reflected the heart of Marshall’s enterprise which lay in the ever-repeated attempt to communicate about communication with the object of “working out in precise detail the relations between second and first nature” (Laws of Media, p117). The book amounts to Eric’s understanding of a kind of prolonged last will and testament whispered to his first born from a man who was often gravely ill in those years and who deeply suffered from the knowledge that he had not discovered how to communicate what he had discovered about communication — and this to a world in desperate need of his discovery and one that, he feared, might well not survive without it.
  21. McLuhan’s Citation from Chiang Yee, The Chinese Eye, 1964.
  22. The specifications of ‘first nature’ and ‘second nature’ in round brackets here are from McLuhan.
  23. See note #17 above: consists in, not consists of.
  24. Compare ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ (1954): “In ordinary perception men perform the miracle of recreating within themselves, in their interior faculties, the exterior world. This miracle is the work of the nous poietikos or of the agent intellect — that is, the poetic or creative process. The exterior world in every instant of perception is interiorized and recreated in a new matter. Ourselves. And in this creative work that is perception and cognition, we experience immediately that dance of Being within our faculties which provides the incessant intuition of Being.”
  25. Laws of Media simply has ‘other speech’ here and notes in the same place: “technology, as extension/outering, is speech (…) we speak our selves”.
  26. As detailed in McLuhan on Vico and Bacon and Vico, McLuhan thought Vico pointed to “the only method of escape” from our enormous intellectual and practical difficulties. He especially agreed with Vico that:The human mind is naturally inclined by the senses to see itself externally in the body (‘first nature’ and ‘old science’), and only with great difficulty does it come to attend to itself by means of reflection” (second nature’ and ‘new science’) (New Science, §236), further “that the world of civil society has certainly been made by men (unlike the things of ‘first nature’), and that its principles are therefore to be found within the modifications of our own human mind. Whoever reflects on this cannot but marvel that the philosophers should have bent all their energies to the study of the world of nature (…) and that they should have neglected the study of the world of nations or civil world, which, since men made it, men could hope to know.” (New Science, §331).
  27. Compare: “Electronics and automation make mandatory that everyone adjust to the vast global environment as if it were his little home town. (War and Peace in the Global Village, p11)
  28. In The Medium and the Light, 160.