McLuhan’s contributions

In the heights of thought, contributing anything new is extremely rare. But McLuhan made several contributions.

First, that the elements or archetypes or ontologies or media in the artefactual domain are ratios. Now Plato had suggested as much in maintaining that the ontological battle of the idealist gods and materialist giants was ‘always going on’ (Sophist 246).1 So the two were always actively engaged with one another and this could be understood as a constantly varying relation or ratio between them. But did Plato or Aristotle (who did indeed set out tables of binary oppositions) specify that the ratio between oppositions is the key to investigation of the artefactual domain? That the medium is the message?2

Second, that elements or archetypes or ontologies or media, as ratios, can be expressed either as varying emphases of their numerator/denominator poles or as manifestations of their mediating middles — media in another sense. That is, any elementary form can be defined by the “resonating interval” (or mode of emphasis) between its poles.3 The medium is the message.

Third, that the elementary media as ratios are not only two or three, say, but are likely to be quite numerous, like the chemical elements, once the possible configurations of their ratios begin to be understood.4 For the ratios of gods/giants or giants/gods (for example) would seem to have a great many permutations depending on the dynamic relations between them: the medium is the message.5

Forth, that the resulting investigations, if they amount to a ‘new science’, do not constitute a sister species to the existing domains of the physical sciences, but are integral to a new genus of sciences.6 This idea has often enough been suggested either by denying that artefactual inquiries are scientific at all or by insisting on their fundamental difference from those of the physical sciences. But McLuhan’s ‘new science’, which he took to be implicit in Francis Bacon and Vico, is explicitly an entirely new genus of investigations with its own laws.7

Taken together, these contributions could instigate a new understanding of human being, one whose ongoing explorations could, according to McLuhan, amount to a “survival strategy” — this at a time when human folly threatens civilization and even the entire biosphere. But ‘could’ is the operative word here…


  1. Plato’s great insight that ontology is plural as ontologies may have been taken over from the polytheistic mythologies which had been around forever before his time. McLuhan quoted an observation from Rachel Levy’s Gate of Horn (1948) at least twice: “Plato’s theory of Ideas constitutes a gigantic effort to establish the mystic doctrine upon an intellectual basis.” The same insight implicates the fundamentality of an abysmal gap, since ontologies could not be plural unless bordered by a nontological groundlessness. Furthermore, if such an abysmal gap holds together gigantic ontological powers, how not also our relatively meager ontic ones?
  2. Usually when something is supposed to be absent from the thought of Plato or Aristotle it will be found to be there after all — once specification of the missing piece is far enough along for us to find it there! Perhaps Plato’s ‘philosophical child’ who ‘begs for both’ (Sophist 249) is exactly the medium that is the message?
  3. In chemistry, to compare, the different elements can be conceived as physical proton/electron structures or as different expressions of (p-e)n, where ‘n’ is that varying but always equal number which dictates the specific form they have in any particular case. With the artefactual elements or media, however, there cannot be any such defining “particles of being” (Take Today, 10) because the domain is exactly that of the range of experience — including the range of experience of any “particle”. It follows that media as the elements of artefactual science must be completely abstract. If they were not, experience would ultimately be tied to some ‘particular’ (unambiguous) object and thereby reduced to physical science.
  4. When chemistry was inaugurated around 1800 there was no idea how many elements there were to it. Now over 200 years later isn’t their final number still unknown? Since elements are not only only to be found, but can also be constructed?
  5. Take Today, 10: “There are no connections among ‘particles of being’ such as appear in mechanical models. Instead, there is a wide range of resonating intensities…”
  6. Integral to a new genus of sciences — in the same way as chemistry is integral to further physical sciences like biology and genetics.
  7. See A whole new genus of sciences.