Monthly Archives: November 2023

McLuhan and Plato 14: “nothing exists in itself”

The object of the McLuhan-Plato posts (and of the upcoming McLuhan-Aristotle posts) is not that McLuhan was a considerable classical scholar. He made no attempt in that direction. Instead, the great point (one made by Whitehead in Process and Reality in the characterization of the history of philosophy as a series of footnotes to Plato, and by Heidegger in the second half of Was Heisst Denken? in the turn from Nietzsche to Aristotle) is that thinking, when it truly is thinking, cannot help but return to Plato and Aristotle as the progenitors and exemplars, at least in the western tradition, of the acute deployment of mind.

The remarkable recall by McLuhan of Plato and Aristotle may be seen in terms of his central focus on media. In the first instance, media are not literal phenomena like language, letters, print, radio and television, but are ratios or relations. The second paragraph of Take Today (3) reads:

Nothing has its meaning alone. Every figure must have its ground or environment . A single word, divorced from its linguistic ground, would be useless. A note in isolation is not music. (…) The “meaning of meaning” is relationship.


nothing exists (…) itself by itself, but everything is always (…) in relation to something (Theaetetus 157a, full passage below)

Now a ratio or a relation may be specified by its two poles, as with mathematical fractions each with its numerator and denominator.1 But it may alternatively be specified by the middle between its poles: “the medium is the message”. The first paragraph of Take Today (3) reads:

The art and science of this century reveal and exploit the resonating bond in all things. All boundaries are areas of maximal abrasion and change. The interval or gap constitutes the resonant or musical bond in the material universe. This is where the action is. To naïve classifiers a gap is merely empty. They will look for connections instead of bonds. (…) But by directing perception on the interfaces of the processes in ECO-land,2 all gaps become prime sources of discovery.

The media-ting middle or gap between the poles of a ratio is always characterized by a certain emphasis.3 Emphasis, in turn, may be specified in terms of:

(a) the emphasis on one side of the relation, or on the other side, or on both together (when the emphasis is equal between the two)4 = the location of the emphasis

(b) the intensity of the emphasis

A medium specified in this way defines the “relationship” of the two poles of a ratio and hence their respective “meaning”. The total spectrum of such media defines all possible relations of such poles and hence all possible meanings. The spectrum of all possible meanings then defines the field of human experience for open collective investigation.

“The medium is the message” because the location and intensity of emphasis in the structure of a medium defines the message or “meaning” covered by it. The particular ‘content’ of the poles is only a property of the medial configuration, never an essential component of the elementary structure. It is like ‘color’ in chemistry.

The great message of the medium according to McLuhan is that its emphatic structure of location and intensity can serve to delineate all the different varieties of human experience and in this way enable their collective investigation — just as the elementary structure in chemistry serves to delineate all the different varieties of physical material and in this way enables their collective investigation. And since the collective investigation of human experience opens the possibility of openly agreed orientation beyond haphazardly held beliefs, many of which currently are murderous or suicidal, the resulting science represents a possibility of peace for the species which may not be available in any other way. Hence McLuhan’s characterization of his work as a strategy for survival.


Here is Theaetetus 155e-157a, with commentary in footnotes:

Socrates: The uninitiated are those who think nothing is except what they can grasp firmly with their hands, and who deny the existence of actions and generation and all that is invisible.5
Theaetetus: Truly, Socrates, those you speak of are very stubborn
and perverse mortals.
Socrates: So they are, my boy, quite without culture. But others are more clever, whose secret doctrines I am going to disclose to you. For them the beginning, upon which all the things (…) depend, is the assumption that everything is motion6 and that (…) there are two kinds of motion, each infinite in the number of its manifestations, and of these kinds one has an active, the other a passive force. From the union and friction of these two are born offspring, infinite in number, but always twins, the object of sense and the sense [of the human subject] which is (…) brought forth together with the object of sense.7 (…) We must assume (…) that nothing exists in itself, but all things of all sorts arise out of motion by intercourse with each other; for it is, as they say, impossible to form a firm conception of the active or the passive element as being anything separately; for there is no active element until there is a union with the passive element, nor is there a passive element until there is a union with the active; and that which unites with one thing [at one time] is [predominantly] active and appears again as [predominantly] passive when it comes in contact with something else [at another time].8 

  1. In a mathematical ratio, the poles of its fractions are numbers which are largely accepted in their ‘natural’ sequence. Given (!) that sequence, mathematics is set free to develop as it will. But when mathematics treats ‘imaginary numbers’ or runs up against ‘surds’, it may be that it exceeds its own field and begins to operate in the more general — or more open — field of human experience. In fact, this is true of all the physical sciences which cannot escape from the fact that their formulations are just as much from a subject as they are about an object.
  2. McLuhan’s ECO-land is an ECO-logy defined by the ECHO-ing or resonating interfaces between the poles of the focal structures constituting the field of experience.
  3. McLuhan sometimes used the term ‘preference’ to designate ’emphasis’: “As for (my) approach itself, it may be said to accept any work of (…) human expression (a road, a town, a building, a poem, a painting, an ashtray, or a motor-car) as a preferential ordering of materials. Since all art expresses some preference, any portion of anything made by man can be spelled out (ed: within the field or spectrum of possible preferences). Every art object and every art situation represents a preferential response to reality, so that the precise techniques chosen for the manipulation and presentation of reality are a key to the mental states and assumptions of the makers. (Stylistic, review of Mimesis by Eric Auerbach, 1956)
  4. McLuhan calls emphasis on one side of a relation, ‘exclusion’ — exclusion, namely, of simultaneous emphasis on the other pole) and calls simultaneous emphasis on both poles together, ‘inclusion’.
  5. “Those who think nothing is except what they can grasp firmly with their hands” — like the giants in Plato’s  gigantomachia.
  6. There are two kinds of fundamental motion in McLuhan’s view. First there are the media or “interfaces” or “boundaries” within the deep structures of experience which are “areas of maximal abrasion and change”. Second, there is the abysmal movement between those deep structures in the moment to moment constitution of subjective experience and objective world: “Language itself and every department of human activity would in this view be a long succession of ‘momentary deities’ or epiphanies” (‘Little Epic’ manuscript). In a seminar at Fordham in November 1967 McLuhan described this metaphoric activity in language use: “the interval is very tactile, the space between sounds is not audible, naturally, it’s tactile, you have to close (or cross) that (space) kinetically”.
  7. The subject in McLuhan’s analysis requires no separate account aside from the momentary emphatic interface in its “sense” of world. The subject just is that sensory emphasis — which, however, implicates a prior abysmal action of the selection of that particular interface out of the totality of possible ones = McLuhan’s ‘unconscious’. And the possible consciousness of this unconscious is foreseen at the end of Take Today (297): “For the best part of a century, we have been programming human consciousness with retrievals and replays of the tribal unconscious. The complementary of this process would seem to be the ‘natural’ program for the period ahead: programming the unconscious with the recently achieved forms of consciousness. This procedure would evoke a new form of consciousness.”
  8. The active and passive here correspond to McLuhan’s making and matching. All experience is both. “The ‘meaning of meaning’ is relationship.”

Evolution: shift from biology to technology

Beginning 70 years ago in 1954, McLuhan anticipated much of the contemporary (2024) discussion around A.I. :

modern technology is so comprehensive that it has abolished Nature. (The God-Making Machines of the Modern World, Commonweal, March 19, 1954) 

Technology has abolished ‘nature’ in the old sense and brought the globe within the scope of art. (Notes on the Media as Art Forms, 1954)

Today, a new technology of great delicacy and precision has created an image of ourselves which invites us to swallow nature. The gap between man and the world, [between] art and nature, has been abolished. (Radio and Television vs. The ABCED-Minded, 1955)

The old separation of art and nature we now see1 to have been based on an ignorance of nature. (New Media in Arts Education, 1956)

By the end of the first phase of the Industrial Revolution most of the physical organs had been given extension in metallic forms,2 and Samuel Butler could argue that the evolutionary process had been transferred from the biological to the mechanical plane.3 (Humpty Dumpty, Automation and TV, 1962)

The transformations of technology have the character of organic evolution. (Understanding Media, 1964, 182)

Satellites = super human environment around planet = end of “Nature” (Notes in Alphabet: Number Thirteen, June, 1967)4

The evolutionary process no longer belongs to the biology of our bodies. Our bodies create these new environments, the extensions of our bodies, create these new environments like the electric one. And these are the location now of the evolutionary process.5 A new environment like TV, or computer, or telephone, or radio, can compress millions of years of evolution in seconds. What has been happening to us in the 20th century is that we have been going through many millions of years of evolution, biological evolution, psychological evolution, through the extension of our bodies to these new environments. The body doesn’t fit into an environment anymore, it makes the environment. It makes that space. (Fordham lecture, ‘Tribal Retrieval’, September 20, 1967)6

The extension of our own nervous system as a total environment of information is in a sense an extension of the evolutionary process. Instead of it taking place biologically over many thousands of years it is now possible — in fact it has happened to us in the last few decades — it is now possible to traverse many millions of years in seconds by putting evolutionary extensions of ourselves outside [of ourselves] as environments, as teaching machines. The man-made environments that are now planetary are, in terms of evolutionary development, a greater step than anything that ever happened to our biological lives in the whole biological past. (Fordham lecture, ‘Open Mind Surgery’, September 28, 1967)7

With Sputnik, nature ended. The Darwinian environment of evolutionary biology went inside a man-made environment. The evolutionary process shifted from biology to technology. (Noble Purpose but to What End?, 1968)8 

The evolutionary process has shifted from biology to technology (McLuhan to I.A. Richards, July 12, 1968, Letters 355)

The evolutionary process has shifted from biology to technology (McLuhan to Jacques Maritain, May 6, 1969, Letters 369)

The new extensions of man [tele-graph, tele-phone, tele-vision] and the environments they generate are the central manifestations of the evolutionary process. (Playboy Interview. 1969)

The latest technology in our world is the satellite. The satellite is the first man-made environment to encompass the planet. The earth has become the content of a human artifact. The satellite surround is the new artistic mask worn by the earth itself. (Innovation is Obsolete, 1971)

Hiroshima and The Bomb (…)  returned men to sudden recognition of the precious significance of the human scale. The classic wisdom of nothing in excess was resurrected by this instant of hideous strength, when everything was in excess. The human scale that had been submerged during a century of industrial gigantism was instantly and unforgettably retrieved. Man-made Rim Spins Supplant Natural Cycles. Henceforth, the natural round of seasonal and biological cycles was supplanted by vehement new intensities of man-made “rim spins” demanding a new programming of the entire human enterprise. (Take Today, 1972, 150)

The moment of Sputnik extended the planet. Something happened to the stellar system at that moment. The possibility of “retuning the sky” was born. Previously, the “extensions of man” related to his body, anything from his skin (clothing) to his central nervous system (electric circuitry). Each and all of these extensions affected the transactions between men and their previous environment. The extension of the planet itself meant that the technology was not transported by individual or collective man but by his previous environment — the Earth. It became a totally new game with new ground rules. Our ground now was literally in the sky. (Take Today, 1972, 293-294)

The satellites (…) transform the planet into a work of art by placing it inside a man-made environment. (Take Today, 1972, 294)

The “revolution” of this age has been a new order in which nature has become the extension of man. The centuries-old pattern had been man as an echo vibrating in harmony with the “natural order”. Now nature must play man’s tune. (Take Today, 1972, 296)9

When the planet was suddenly enveloped by a man-made artifact, “Nature” flipped into art form. The moment of Sputnik was the moment of creating Spaceship Earth and/or the global theatre. Shakespeare at the Globe had seen all the world as a stage, but with Sputnik, the world literally became a global theatre with no more audiences, only actors. (The End of the Work Ethic, 1972)10

in both the industrial and electric age Nature is superseded by art. Thus the future of the book is nothing less than to be the means of surpassing Nature itself. The material world, as it were, is to be etherealized and encapsulated in a book whose characters will possess all the formulas for the knowledge and recreation of Being.11 (The Future of the Book, 1972)

  1. With quantum physics, for example.
  2. In telegraphy, photography and phonography, for example.
  3. The printed text of this passage has a typo, ‘revolutionary process’ instead of ‘evolutionary process’. Later in this same essay: “It was just at the point indicated by Samuel Butler’s observation concerning evolution and machinery that the entire mechanical world became enclosed in the seamless web of electro-magnetism, the extension of our central nervous system.”
  4. Transcribed by Andrew McLuhan at his Inscriptorium blog.
  5. War And Peace In The Global Village (1968): “biologists use two (…) categories that are helpful for perceiving (…) the end of nature today (…) They speak of ‘outbreeding’ and ‘inbreeding.’ As (Ernst) Mayr puts it (in Animal Species and Evolution, 1963), ‘Most animals are essentially outbreeders, most microorganisms inbreeders.’ With electricity, all this has changed totally. At present the entire mammalian world has become the micro-organismic. It is the (…) cultures of the world, linguistically and politically, that have become the (outbreeding) mammals, according to the old classifications of evolutionary hypothesis. It is the cultural habitat, in which we have long been accustomed to think that people were contained, that has now become the (outbreeding) mammal itself”.
  7. On November 25, just two months after this ‘Open Mind Surgery’ lecture, McLuhan underwent a day-long operation to remove a large tumor from his brain. ‘Open Mind Surgery’ — a fine example of second sight!
  8. Review of Erich Fromm, The Revolution of Hope: Toward a Humanized Technology, in Book WorldNovember 10, 1968. The original title of McLuhan’s review seems to have been: ‘Ye Shall Be As Cogs’!
  9. It is thought-provoking that this suggestion was made by a Catholic convert! The heart of the matter lies in the question of “man’s tune”. What is this and how does it sound?
  10. Address to the Empire Club of Canada, November 16, 1972.
  11. See note 9 above. The great question is how McLuhan found this sort of future compatible with Catholicism. Put another way, McLuhan’s work centrally concerns the question, what is the ground of A.I.?

The representative ferment

media are ‘ideas’ in action (McLuhan to Harry Skornia, June 5, 1959)1

As epigraphs to his 1944 ‘Wyndham Lewis: Lemuel in Lilliput’, McLuhan set out two citations from Lewis’ Time and Western Man. The second of these reads:

I unmask the will that is behind the Time-Philosophy, by displaying it in the heart of the representative ferment produced by it — in the full, instinctive indulgence and expansion of the artistic impulse, and imposing its values upon the impressionable material of life. p. xv, Time and Western Man.2

Lewis’ “representative ferment” must be read in at least two ways. First, ‘representative’ is intended in the sense of ‘characteristic’, ‘identifying’, ‘distinctive’. That is, what Lewis terms “Time-Philosophy” may be identified by the particular type of ‘ferment’ it reveals and, as he attempts to demonstrate, that it in fact derives from. The implication is that there are not only different types of ferment, but that these types are original. Fundamentally different sorts of Philosophy — but also of Art and even of Society — are, he claims, grounded in these various kinds of ferment as the effects of these ferments. According to Lewis, ‘Time’ is one sort of these representational or effect-producing ferments, one that has come to dominate “western man”. 

Secondly, ‘representative’ is used in the sense of a ‘drive to represent’, ‘to manifest’, ‘to go forth’: ‘to ex-press’. As Lewis has it, it is the “expansion of the artistic impulse” — ‘re-presentative’ as itself a “ferment” in all its etymological implications:

from Old French fermenter (13c.) and directly from Latin fermentare “to leaven, cause to rise or ferment,” from fermentum “substance causing fermentation, leaven, drink made of fermented barley,” perhaps contracted from *fervimentum, from root of fervere “to boil, seethe” (from PIE root *bhreu “to boil, bubble, effervesce, burn”).

‘Ferment’, then, considered with all its Indo-European cognates deriving from *bhreu:

Sanskrit bhurnih “violent, passionate”, Greek phrear “well, spring, cistern”, Latin fervere “to boil, foam”, Thracian Greek brytos “fermented liquor made from barley”, Russian bruja “current”, Old Irish bruth “heat”, Old English breowan “to brew”, beorma “yeast”, Old High German brato “roast meat.”

It is remarkable that a “representative ferment” is at work both physically and etymologically in the sacraments of bread and fermented drink.


On the one hand, this 1944 citation by McLuhan from Lewis’ TWM reaches back a decade to McLuhan’s 1934 M.A. thesis on George Meredith at the University of Manitoba:

The poet plants himself upon his instincts and permits his temperament sovereign sway. And he has quite as much right to do this as the philosopher has to trust his thought processes. In his table talk, Coleridge noted that all men (…) are born either Platonists or Aristotelians. There are similarly, in all times and places, definite types of temperament displaying consistency of conformation. The literary or artistic expression of such temperaments has properly the same validity as has the philosophizing of the Idealist and the Realist.3

With “the philosophizing of the Idealist and the Realist” McLuhan was explicitly gesturing to the ‘comparative method‘ of his University of Manitoba mentor, Rupert Lodge. And at the same time, with “literary or artistic expression”, he was silently pointing to the third elementary form in that method which Lodge usually called ‘pragmatism’ or ‘pragmatist’. 

a third type of philosophy has tended to develop: a philosophy which tries to be true to experience, and to avoid all (…) one-sided theorizings [such as those of the Idealist and the Realist]. This attempt at interpretation has taken many forms. One of the best known is called “pragmatism” (…) Here, then, we have three typical directions in which philosophers move when they attempt to master experience: the realist, the idealist, and the pragmatist direction.4

McLuhan’s contention in his M.A. thesis was that the “third type” must be taken to exceed philosophy if it is “to avoid all abstract and one-sided theorizings” (Lodge) — the “theorizings”, that is, of “the philosophizing of the Idealist and the Realist” (McLuhan). Hence his appeal to “the poet” as opposed to “the philosopher”, to temperaments” as opposed to “thought processes” and to “instincts” as opposed to “philosophizing”. More than this, McLuhan seems to have been intuiting the further point against Lodge,5 that the very key to a ‘comparative method’ lies in what Lewis termed the “instinctive (…) expansion of the artistic impulse”; what Lodge himself termed the “tende[ncy] to develop” and what McLuhan termed “sway”. 6 7 That is, the “third type” was not only (only!) one of three fundamental forms of expression, it was also and above all the dynamism or inherent “will” to ex-pression in each of these three — the original/originating drive in each not to remain abstract, but to represent or manifest or ex-tend itself concretely. 

Consider any chemical element, say, carbon. It is not to be located only as the ‘abstract’ element ‘C’ in Mendeleev’s table. It is just as much graphite or diamond or a component in the myriad compounds in which carbon plays an essential role. So the element ‘C’ is re-presented in diamonds and elsewhere. But it is not only any one of these — or even all of these manifestations together. ‘C’ is both all those representative manifestations and also itself one ‘representative’ manifestation of the common elementary structure set out in Mendeleev’s table. 

Diamonds re-present ‘C’ because it has an essential drive to manifestation. But this drive does not terminate in ‘matching’ or ‘merging’; instead it is more like ‘making’ in the later sense of McLuhan (which he explicitly contrasted with ‘matching’). ‘Making’ is ‘to manifest justly’, ‘to represent appropriately’, ‘to reveal truly if not absolutely’ — leaving open the possibility in the future for some surprisingly different objective manifestation of ‘C’ and/or for improved subjective insight into ‘C’. 

McLuhan saw with Lewis that finite ‘making’ is not a bar to truthful apprehension but a condition of it. Just as manifestation does not exhaust a chemical element or a physical law, but does re-present truly.

However, there is a great problem to these passages from Lewis and Lodge. Lewis talks of “imposing (…) values upon the impressionable material of life” and Lodge of the “attempt to master experience”. The supposition is that the “material of life” and of “experience” is in some way prior to the forms in which they, life and experience, appear. Their “material” is portrayed as raw stuff that is yet somehow “impressionable” — as capable of being impressed upon. But imagine how far chemistry would get, were it to focus on “the impressionable material” of the physical world, like sub-atomic particles, say, rather than the elements of Mendeleev’s table!

One of McLuhan’s most important tasks was to attempt to recall this mis-taken focus on some supposedly prior material. Unfortunately he did not succeed in this task any more than did Plato and Aristotle 2500 years ago. He himself was always (or at least al too often) trying to find some underlying substrate like the hemispheres of the brain.


On the other hand, it is exactly Plato that this passage from TWM most deeply recalls. As Aristotle, Plato’s great friend and pupil, repeatedly tried to communicate, particularly with his treatments of dynamis, Plato’s forms are not static abstractions. They fundamentally enact a “representative ferment” through which they manifest themselves in “extensions”. 

The subtitle of Understanding Media is “the extensions of man”. The genitive here, ‘of man’, is first of all objective. Human being is what is extended as effect, it is not the creator or possessor of extensions as subjective cause.

Like Plato’s forms or ideas, McLuhan’s media are prior to human being and are what first of all engender it in all its manifestations.


  1. whole paragraph here is very important: “One new concept for us: media are ‘ideas’ in action. That is, any technological pattern or grouping of human know-how has the mark of our minds built-into it. The media dynamics are, therefore, parallel to those of our ideas. But many of our ideas are feed-back subliminally from media. Jeep calling unto jeep.” It is possible that “jeep calling unto jeep” here is a dictation error for “beep calling unto beep” — but error or not, the phrase is telling and funny. Around the same time in the late 1950s McLuhan’s unpublished review of of Northrop Frye’s 1957 Anatomy of Criticism has the related “blip calling unto blip”: “an archetype or profile of collective awareness offers small consumer satisfaction in itself. And Professor Frye would disclaim the notion that even the most diaphanous archetype could afford consumer satisfaction to a reader. These profiles or nuclear models of collective postures are not literary bon-bons for passive savoring but rather scientific data suited to the austere producer-oriented mind, data necessary to the public relations engineer and the shaper and ruler of societies. Like Sputnik they have a hook in outer space whence they relay signals to us, blip calling unto blip in the universe of the pictorialized word.”
  2. McLuhan’s citation is a slight abbreviation. Lewis has: “I, at the outset, unmask the will that is behind the time-philosophy…”. “At the outset” here is not only an off-hand phrase marking the initial stage of Lewis’ composition. It may also be taken as ‘situating myself at the origin of things’, hence giving him the possibility of seeing into “the heart” of their genesis.
  3. See The essential plurality of the forms of being.
  4. Lodge, ‘The Comparative Method in Philosophy’. For reference and discussion see The Comparative Method of Rupert Lodge.
  5. Intuiting the point — it would require much further thought until McLuhan could formulate the subtitle to Understanding Media, a full thirty years after his M.A, thesis, as “the extensions of man”.
  6. McLuhan would later have many other terms for this sort of outreach, of course. Above all: ‘extension’.
  7. All these terms appear in the citations from Lewis, Lodge and McLuhan given in the body of the post above.