Ian Hacking and the Toronto School of Communication

Ian Hacking (born 1936) shares a surprising number of commonalities with Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980):

  • both western Canadians, McLuhan born in Edmonton, Hacking in Vancouver
  • both received their initial undergraduate degrees in their local universities, McLuhan at the University of Manitoba1, Hacking at UBC2
  • both then went to Cambridge where they each obtained another BA and then MA and PhD degrees there3
  • In Cambridge McLuhan studied at Trinity Hall (est 1350), Hacking at the nearby Trinity College (est 1546, but constituent King’s Hall in 1317)
  • both their careers developed through the combination of their Cambridge experience with a particular French author: Mallarmé in McLuhan’s case, Foucault in Hacking’s
  • both first taught in the US and married American women
  • both came to direct their Cambridge training in language studies (McLuhan’s in literary criticism, Hacking’s in analytic philosophy) to questions of social change and the relation of science to life
  • both ended their careers as decades-long University of Toronto professors, but with prestigious interim positions in New York (McLuhan) and Paris (Hacking)

Future posts will detail the similarities and differences in their work. Shortly put, McLuhan found a way to specify the focal (elementary) structure of ‘new science’ (“the medium is the message”) in the humanities and social sciences, whereas Hacking specified the problems the initiation of any new science in these areas would encounter and have to overcome (which he deemed impossible).4 It would seem that the second should proceed the first. But as Plato was already very aware, and as Heidegger specified from Schiller, all genuine thought requires a ‘step back’ (einen Schritt zurück) to a ‘new beginning’ (einem neuen Anfang). Hacking’s work therefore provides critical considerations from which the ‘step back’ to McLuhan may cogently be attempted and investigated.5


  1. McLuhan’s family moved from Edmonton to Winnipeg during WW1 and he received all his education there from primary school to his first MA.
  2. UBC, Hacking’s alma mater, has played an important role in the history of the Toronto School. McLuhan first announced that “the medium is the message” there in 1958 (see The medium is the message in 1958). And more than two decades earlier, in May 1935, Innis gave his important lecture, ‘‘The Role of Intelligence’, at UBC. This may have been one of the first writings of Innis that came to McLuhan’s attention and already pointed to Innis’ work in communications in the 1940s (for discussion see Innis and McLuhan in 1936 and Innis multiplying Hugo.
  3. McLuhan had an IODE scholarship which together with family funds maintained him in Cambridge for two years, 1934-1936; he returned on sabbatical in 1939 for his PhD residence year. Hacking had a much longer stay in Cambridge in the 1950s and early 1960s, and doubtless at least originally, and perhaps continually, also had a scholarship, or scholarships, enabling him to do so.
  4. Hacking in ‘Between Michel Foucault and Erving Goffman’ (2004): “There is no single underlying structure according to which looping occurs. More generally (…) I see no reason to suppose that we shall ever tell two identical stories about making up people. There is no one process, but only a motley.” Compare Innis’ analogous doubts based on the “looping” or self-reference implicated in a science of human experience as discussed in Innis and McLuhan in 1936 (where Innis is cited as declaring “the impossibility of building a science on a basis on which the observer becomes the observed”).
  5. It is unclear how much Hacking engaged with McLuhan. In his 1975 book, Why does language matter to philosophy?, he gestured towards him as follows: “Evidently I have no quarrel with students of technology like Marshall McLuhan who think that the so-called scientific revolution of the seventeenth century is only a spin-off from the invention of printing, and who forecast comparable mutations when the locus of the sentence passes from the book to the computer printout via the technology of semiconductors.” This is prescient as regards one aspect of McLuhan’s ‘s work. But McLuhan was much more than a ‘student of technology’. (For discussion, see What was McLuhan up to?) In a word, McLuhan was not an analyst of chronological events or a literalist, he was a synchronist (“allatonce”) and a structuralist — so that the significance or message of ‘printing’, say, or of ‘semiconductors’, depends in each case on the background structure or medium against which it is understood. For example: ” What is to be the new nature and form of the book against the new electronic surround?” (The Future of the Book, 1972) How to solve the implicated infinite regress (once a structure or medium like ‘the electronic surround’ is itself taken as a message) is fundamental to his contribution. (For illustrative texts see Escape from the cul-de-sac.)