Innis or Havelock?

It is an interesting question whether it was Innis or Havelock who first formulated the idea for the Toronto school that the medium of communication might be regarded as a, or the, central force in history. It is certainly the case that Innis saw, already in 1936, that “improvements in facilities for discussion” beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing apace in the twentieth had had great influence:1 

the possibilities of discussion have increased immeasurably.2 The character of discussion (…) has been tremendously influenced by recent industrialism and inventions (…) the development of the printing press (…) and (…) particularly the radio (‘Discussion in the Social Sciences’, Dalhousie Review, January 1936, 404)3

If “the nineteenth century, with the development of the printing press, economic expansion and the growth of literacy”, together with later “improvements in facilities for discussion, particularly the radio”, precipitated a new “era of discussion”4 in the twentieth century, when and where have such ‘eras’ arisen in the past and what could their study tell us about the overall course of history and about our present situation?

It may be that Havelock thought along these lines from Innis in his consideration of the role of literacy in the the development of Greek thought from the pre-Socratics to Plato and in the associated foundation of schools of higher learning like Plato’s Academy.5 By the early 1940’s, at least, he was explicitly considering the question of “the great transition from the oral to the written word”.6

Several strands in this idea may be differentiated: (1) the notion that changes in communication has been influential to the evolution of modernity; (2) the notion that modes of communication, oral and literate, were central to the birth of classical Greece (and of all that has followed from that birth); (3) the notion that communication has repeatedly shaped history for the last 5000 years.

The first was broached by Innis in the 1930s.7 The second was formulated by Havelock in the 1940s on the basis particularly of Milman Parry’s orality research, but doubtless nudged in this direction also by Innis’ work.8 The third was central to Innis’ research on communication beginning in the middle 1940s as decisively influenced by Havelock.9 

McLuhan became the heir of these ideas when he moved to Toronto in 1946. In the 1950s he would hammer away at the question of how to specify the domain of communication (dual genitive) in order to facilitate collective investigation of the subject.

Around 1960 he would begin thinking of ‘galaxies’ of communication rather than ‘eras’ to get away from a chronological framework for such investigation. But already in his PhD thesis from 1943 he was investigating the closely related question of how to define recurrent dominants, particularly in the history of education, but also of the humanities in general, which he saw as constituting a perennial “ancient quarrel”.


  1. Having ‘influence’ in historical change and being the focus for the study of historical change are fundamentally different things. The first is alchemy, the second is chemistry. It may be that Innis and Havelock, even McLuhan, never fully realized the ‘gestalt switch’ or “quantum leap” (McLuhan) that is needed to e-merge from the former into the latter. But since the point of such paradigm change is to start differently, if it is not ‘fully realized’ it has not been realized at all. Linear progress cannot be made in this context: a start cannot be made in the middle of a project that is already ongoing — except by ‘beginning again’. However, the need to start differently, and the reasons that support a different start, may well be realized short of making the new start itself. Indeed, a start to “new science” can hardly be made by individuals since science is inherently a social enterprise. So what is at stake here is the question of how close Innis and Havelock respectively were to the launching of new science in the 1940s when both began to investigate how communication media might be investigated and what that investigation might show.
  2. Innis was clear that “change which has so profoundly influenced discussion” necessarily reflects back on the discussion of the individual intellectual so that one who “has failed to realize the significance of the change (…) remains as a vestige of an era of discussion which has passed.” (‘Discussion in the Social Sciences’, 405)
  3. The subject of Innis’ 1936 Dalhousie Review essay is called ‘discussion’ (even in its title, ‘Discussion in the Social Sciences’). But his 1937 Encyclopedia of Canada article on the ‘Pulp-and-Paper Industry’ replaces the term ‘discussion’ with ‘communication’: “Expansion of press services and of advertising agencies has accompanied the marked improvements in communication”. Innis himself was, of course, deeply skeptical of these “improvements”.
  4. See note #1.
  5. See note #8 below.
  6. ‘The Technique of Exposition’, an unpublished essay in Havelock’s papers at Yale. The essay was intended as a chapter on the history of the pre-Socratics which Havelock developed out of his extended study of Socrates. Havelock later wrote (in ‘The Oral-Literate Equation: A Formula for the Modern Mind’, 1987) that he began to read Milman Parry (1902-1935) in 1943 and that he then lectured on oral composition in Toronto before moving to Harvard. Here he was apparently thinking of his 1946 UT lecture on ‘The Sophistication of Homer’. Meanwhile at Harvard, I.A. Richards reported in a BBC lecture that “Professor Havelock has suggested that we may see in Plato’s rejections of Homer the revolt of the writing mind’s mode of apprehension against the pre-literate mind’s other, less abstract and intellectual, ways of ordering itself.” For further discussion see Richards and Havelock before 1947 and Havelock, Innis and Richards in 1947.
  7. Innis, in turn, knew of the notion from Hugo and Bulwer from the 1830s. For discussion, see Innis multiplying Hugo (PEMS 6).
  8. Innis’ work was well known to Havelock. For discussion see Innis and Havelock – 1930 and beyond.
  9. See the previous note for references. Also Sirluck on Innis, Owen and Havelock and Havelock, Innis and Richards in 1947.