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.”