Author Archives: McEwen

Lewis in McLuhan 1 (‘Lemuel in Lilliput’)

From early on in Winnipeg McLuhan was clear about the critical role played by the environment in education:

It is, of course, mistaken to suppose that education in any important sense is connected with the schoolroom. Education is the sum total of all those ideas and objects pressing in on the mind every hour of the waking day. (‘Public School Education’, Manitoban, October 17, 1933)

But in 1967, in answer to a question about the influence of Wyndham Lewis on his own work, McLuhan observed how it was Lewis who had supplied the critical impetus towards an environmental analysis in which the programming of culture was the central component:

Good heavens, that’s where I got it, it was Lewis who put me onto all this (…) Lewis was the person who showed me that the man-made environment was a teaching machine – a programmed teaching machine. But earlier, you see, the symbolists had discovered that the work of art was a programmed teaching machine. It’s a mechanism for shaping sensibility. Well Lewis simply extended this private art activity to the corporate activity of the whole society in making environments that basically were artifacts, or works of art, and that acted as teaching machines on the whole population.1

McLuhan’s point about the importance of Lewis to this aspect of his work may be documented in his 19442 essay, ‘Wyndham Lewis: Lemuel in Lilliput’,3 where his remarks are as applicable today, 75 years later, as they were then — “only more so”4:

To read (…) Lewis is to become aware not only of the scope of the forces arrayed against reason and art, but it is [also] to have anatomized before one’s eyes every segment of the contemporary scene of glamorized commerce and advertising… (181)

[Words today] have no meaning. They are spoken in a trance of inattention while the reason is in permanent abeyance. They are typical of men who no longer understand the world they have made and which, as robots, they operate day by day. (182)

Everything in our life today conspires to thrust most people into prescribed tracks, in what can be called a sort of trance of action. Hurrying, without any significant reason, from spot to spot at the maximum speed obtainable . . . how is the typical individual of this epoch to do some detached thinking for himself? All his life is disposed with a view to banishing reflection.” (183, citing Lewis, Time and Western Man)

This “trance of inattention” was and is no accidental happenstance:

[Lewis] unmasks the long-preserved anonymity of supposedly unwilled and irresistible forces in modern life. The atomization of consciousness, the attack on the continuity of personal experience, whether by the medicine man of the laboratory or the dionysiac ecstasies of advertisement and high-finance, are alike shown to be the products of deliberate will. (185)

“Science is often described as the religion of industrialism. (…) Its public function is actually (…) to conceal the human mind that manipulates it, or that manipulates through it (…) For in its impersonality and its ‘scientific detachment’ it is an ideal cloak for the personal human will. Through it, that will can operate with a godlike inscrutability that no other expedient can give. It enables man to operate as though he were nature on other men. In the name of science people can be almost without limit bamboozled and managed.” (187, citing Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled)

nothing is more hysterically personal than ‘news’ in its reflection of the human will. Time, Life and Fortune put up an enormous front of ‘detachment’ which upon slight examination proves to be violently emotional and interested. (188)

it is impossible (…) to exercise [such] power openly (…) it is necessary [for the manipulators] to pretend to be merely private citizens when in reality they are the rulers of the world” (180, citing Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled.)

While modern technology may not necessitate this bamboozling management, it certainly is what makes it possible:

The dehumanization of life by means of centralized methods of “communication”… (180)

the modern state is necessarily an educationalist state owing to the huge impassivity of the urban masses on the one hand and to the closely centralized control of all agencies of communication on the other. (187)

Huge impassivity” was the result; “the closely centralized control of all agencies of communication”, the means.

Such a ‘society’ is operated by “technicians who control ‘scientifically’ [the] educational experiment” (188) — an “educational experiment” which was and is the modern environment as the “educationalist state”. An essential aspect of the machine operated by these “technicians” is that it works to obviate any consciousness of this:

The life of free intelligence has never, in the Western World, encountered such anonymous and universal hostility before. (181)

The scientist and the stock-broker today are alike (…) in that they have no detachment, they make no effort to criticize the total situation in which they find themselves. So with the ordinary artist and politician — they are immersed. (189)

Paradoxically, the machine has not stiffened but melted life. Mechanism has imposed universal fashions of primitivism. It has rendered all the conditions of experience so fluid and frothy that men now are swimming in another Flood. (192)

“Science makes us strangers to ourselves. (…) It instills a principle of impersonality in the heart of life that is anti-vital. In its present vulgarized condition science represents simply the principle of destruction: it is more deadly than a thousand plagues, and every day we perfect (…) our popular industrially applied version of it.” (192-193, citing Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled)

So powerful and so essentially lacking in discrimination is this machine that the manipulators themselves come to share the fate of the manipulated:

“with all the resources of his fabulous wealth, the democratic magnate is able to drag the poor into depths of spiritual poverty undreamed of by any former proletariat or former ruling class. The rich have achieved this awful brotherhood with the poor by bleeding them of all character, spirituality, and mental independence. That accomplished, they join them (…) in the servant’s hall.” (195, citing Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled)

The exploited and the exploiter coalesce. (195)

Who are the beneficiaries of the modern world?  Are they that tiny handful of people such as Lord Beaverbrook and Henry Luce [or Bezos or Zuckerberg] who exercise absolute control over the thoughts and emotions of many millions of people? (…) The answer then to the question of ‘cui bono‘ is ultimately this. Everybody loses. (…) There are no beneficiaries. The [mass of] Dagwoods and the billionaire power-gluttons are equally rushing to the suicide of total immersion… (193-194)

If “no detachment” and “total immersion” were the problem, the way out of the cul-de-sac, if there were one, could be found only in the “toil of detachment” (178). 

We want a new race of philosophers, instead of hurried men, speed-cranks, simpletons, or robots” (178, citing Lewis, Time and Western Man)

The first object of such “philosophers” would be to lift the veil obscuring the exercise of “deliberate will” in the deployment of “the ideologic machine”.5 They would expose what lies behind its ideal cloak for the personal human will” that “operate[s] as though [it] were nature on other men”.

It is therefore, politically and humanly speaking, a matter of the utmost concern for us to know from what sources and by what means the rulers of the modern world determine what they will do next.  How do they determine the ends for which, as means, they employ the vast machines of government, education, and amusement?  (188)

This sort of revolutionary simpleton, this beaming child of the Zeitgeist, is precisely the sort of ruler the modern world cannot afford to have at the head of its enormous machinery. Lewis presents a massive documentation and analysis of the art and science and philosophy which manufacture the Zeitgeist. (188-189)

To read (…) Lewis is to become aware (…) of the bogus science, philosophy, art, and literature which has been the main instrument in producing the universal stupefaction. (181)

Much of McLuhan’s work for the remainder of the 1940s would, of course, be dedicated to just “this toil of detachment” (178) and to the description of what was exposed through it. He would closely “consider how the ‘ideologic machine’ has gone to work” (189). His labors would eventuate in The Mechanical Bride, which was published, at last, in January 1951. Here he would document such matters as:

the pathological blindness of the modern world to anything but itself: “It is naturally, for itself, the best that has ever been — it is for it that the earth has laboured so long…” (191, citing Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled)

the spurious reverence of the modern world. Man, the master of things, is about to enter the terrestrial paradise of gadgets. (186)

The destruction of family life, in theory and in practice, the flight from adulthood, the obliteration of masculine and feminine has all gone ahead — by means of a glorification of those things. Never was sex so much glorified, children and motherhood so idolized and advertised in theory as at this present hour when the arrangements for their internment have been completed. (195)

But there were some inherent instabilities to McLuhan’s analysis which would act, consciously and unconsciously, as spurs to his work going forward. Especially, he was a family man and a convert. How was this compatible with the sort of internal exile prescribed by Lewis and by many other writers and artists at that time like Camus and Beckett? Further, the sort of cultural collapse he described with Lewis had eventuated in two world wars, one of which was ongoing. And yet McLuhan could write:

Maritain is perfectly at home amidst modern art and letters. He has a contemporary sensibility. This in turn has energized and directed his philosophical activity, and given a precise, contemporary relevance to the philosophia perennis. (180)

How could anyone be “perfectly at home” amidst the debacle set out by Lewis and McLuhan? And in regard to the philosophia perennis, it would seem either that it was not “perennis” at all (given what had become of modern ‘culture’) or, if it were in fact “perennis“, its peculiar relation to that ‘culture’ would have to lie in factors which remained unidentified and undefined in McLuhan’s essay:

The Art of Being Ruled is a study of the major dichotomy of modern life. There is the romanticized machine on one hand, the vulgarized spawn of speculative science committed to perennial and ever-accelerated revolution. On the other hand are the traditional human and political values… (184)

What was the relation, if there were one, between these hands?


  1. ‘Recollections of Wyndham Lewis’flexidisk recording with Marshall McLuhan included with arts/canada No. 114, November 1967: side 1, side 2. Side 1 until 3:50 (of 6:20) is a recording of Lewis reading his own work; Side 2 again has a Lewis reading from 2:45 until the end. McLuhan’s recollections of Lewis begin at 3:50 of Side 1 and continue until 2:32 of Side 2. The cited passage from McLuhan begins at 0:09 of Side 2.
  2. McLuhan encountered the work of Lewis during his first years at Cambridge between 1934 and 1936. Then he met Lewis personally in 1943 when he, McLuhan, was teaching at St Louis University.
  3. Included in Key Thinkers and Modern Thought (St. Louis University studies in honor of St. Thomas Aquinas), Volume 2,  1944, 58-72; reprinted in The Medium and the Light, 1999, 178-198. All page numbers below, unless otherwise identified, refer to ‘Wyndham Lewis: Lemuel in Lilliput’ as reprinted in The Medium and the Light.
  4. McLuhan liked to use the phrase “only more so” with superlatives or comparisons that were already weighted positively or negatively.
  5. McLuhan uses this phrase repeatedly in his essay on 188, 189, 190 and 192. It is from Lewis’ Art of Being Ruled.

Wakese 4: Swift’s engine of communicativeness

Joyce’s countryman, Jonathan Swift, perhaps prompted by Bacon’s Novum Organum, was the architect of an engine which Joyce contrived to assemble following Swift’s design (from part 3, chapter 5, of Gulliver’s Travels). Finnegans Wake is the resulting working model:

The first professor [Gulliver] saw [in the Academy of Projectors], was in a very large room, with forty pupils about him.  After salutation, observing me to look earnestly upon a frame, which took up the greatest part of both the length and breadth of the room, he said, “Perhaps I might wonder to see him employed in a project for improving speculative knowledge, by practical and mechanical operations.  But the world would soon be sensible of its usefulness; and he flattered himself, that a more noble, exalted thought never sprang in any other man’s head. Every one knew how laborious the usual method is of attaining to arts and sciences; whereas, by his contrivance, the most ignorant person, at a reasonable charge, and with a little bodily labour, might write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, laws, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study.” He then led me to the frame, about the sides, whereof all his pupils stood in ranks. It was twenty feet square, placed in the middle of the room. The superfices [surface] was composed of several bits of wood, about the bigness of a die, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender wires. These bits of wood were covered, on every square, with paper pasted on them; and on these papers were written all the words of their language, in their several moods, tenses, and declensions; but without any order. The professor then desired me “to observe; for he was going to set his engine at work.” The pupils, at his command, took each of them hold of an iron handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the edges of the frame; and giving them a sudden turn, the whole disposition of the words was entirely changed. He then commanded six-and-thirty of the lads, to read the several lines softly, as they appeared upon the frame; and where they found three or four words together that might make part of a sentence, they dictated to the four remaining boys, who were scribes. This work was repeated three or four times, and at every turn, the engine was so contrived, that the words shifted into new places, as the square bits of wood moved upside down.
Six hours a day the young students were employed in this labour; and the professor showed me several volumes in large folio, already collected, of broken sentences, which he intended to piece together, and out of those rich materials, to give the world a complete body of all arts and sciences; which, however, might be still improved, and much expedited, if the public would raise a fund for making and employing five hundred such frames (…) and oblige their managers to contribute in common their several collections.
He assured me “that this invention had employed all his thoughts from his youth; that he had emptied the whole vocabulary into his frame, and made the strictest computation of the general proportion there is in books between the numbers of particles, nouns, and verbs, and other parts of speech.”
I made my humblest acknowledgment to this illustrious person, for his great communicativeness; and promised, “if ever I had the good fortune to return to my native country, that I would do him justice, as the sole inventor of this wonderful machine.” 

Swift’s diagram of the knowledge machine:

Alfred Korzybski

In some of McLuhan’s earliest work he gestured in the direction of ‘Count’ Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950):

The grammatical method in science (…) persists as long as alchemy, which is to say, well into the eighteenth century. But from the time of Descartes the main mode of science is, of course, mathematical.  In our own time the methods of anthropology and psychology have re-established grammar as (…) a valid mode of science. Full justification for this statement is found in Count Korzybski’s Science and Sanity [1933], which makes claims for linguistic study (grammar in the old sense) which extend far beyond the modest position of Cratylus. (The Classical Trivium, 1943, 17) 

The general incredulity concerning Socrates’ seriousness in this dialogue [Cratylus] is an adequate measure of the modern failure to apprehend the nature of grammar in the ancient and medieval worlds; and much of Plato’s power over St. Augustine and the medieval mind is owing to his great, though not exclusive, respect for the method of grammar in philosophy. (…) So far as I have been able to discover, this subject has received no attention from historians of philosophy, to whose province it belongs; and I merely indicate its bearings here as a means of showing that grammar and science were inseparably linked in their origins. The fullest treatment which the claims of universal language as based on universal reason ever received was during the late Middle Ages in the numerous works on speculative grammar which were written by dialecticians. But there is an uninterrupted tradition through Francis Bacon, Thomas Urquhart, and the Cambridge Platonists, to James Harris [author of Hermes, a philosophical inquiry concerning universal grammar (1751)], to say nothing of Condillac, Comte, and, today, Count Korzybski and the Chicago University school of encyclopedists. So far I have tried to indicate, in a large and unexplored field, how science and grammar were quite naturally united by the concept of language as the expression and analogy of the Logos. (The Classical Trivium, 1943, 27)

Anthropology and psychology together have also revindicated the traditional ‘magical’ view of language fusing the seemingly distinct activities of the brothers Grimm, on the one hand, as philologists, and on the other, as students of folk-lore, so that we are once more in a position to adopt a sympathetic view of the divine Logos of late antiquity. Quite incidental to the radical readjustments in awareness we can relax where Francis Bacon is concerned. We can take him in our stride, as it were, nodding at him as a useful landmark in a great literary tradition whose representatives today are Jung and Count Korzybski. (Medieval Grammar as the Basis of Bacon’s Novum Organum, 1943)1

Just as Korzybski offers us a correlation of knowledge by an extension of the modes of grammar (and in this respect belongs to an ancient tradition headed by Cratylus and carried on by Pliny, Philo-Judaeus, Origen, St. Bonaventura, and the later alchemists) so Mr. Richards, whose Meaning of Meaning is a treatise of speculative grammar of curiously scholastic stamp, offers us a method for interpreting and manipulating our lives by an extension of the devices of rhetoric. In this respect Mr. Richards is a true nominalist son of Ockham, Agricola, and Ramus; and it is no accident that Harvard has welcomed this distinguished schoolman. Mr. Richards’ rediscovery of the functional rhetorical relationships in speech and prose was timely, indeed, after three centuries of Cartesian contempt for metaphor and rhetoric in all its modes. (‘Poetic and Rhetorical Exegesis: The Case for Leavis against Richards and Empson’, 1944)2

It may be that McLuhan was alerted to Korzybski by his onetime Winnipeg neighbour and fellow University of Manitoba graduate, S.I. (Don) Hayakawa (1905-1992).3 Hayakawa became the first editor of the semanticist journal, Etcetera, in 1943 and remained in this position until 1970 (before becoming a US Senator from California in 1976). 

Even aside from their acquaintance on Gertude Avenue in Winnipeg, McLuhan would certainly have been interested in Hayakawa’s 1939 book, Language in Action,4 both as a topic close to his own preoccupation at the time with Logos, but also as a publishing phenomenon: Hayakawa somehow got Language in Action into the Book of the Month Club. Korzybski is introduced in it and this is probably where McLuhan first came across him.

Neither Hayakawa nor McLuhan were ever strict semanticists, but McLuhan’s eventual problems with Korzybski (to the extent that he completely disappeared from his work) went far beyond any question of doctrinal adherence. As seen in the passage from The Classical Trivium p27 above, the modern tradition of grammatica seemed to lead to Comte and the “Chicago University school of encyclopedists”. Now McLuhan had already taken up a position against the Chicago school in his 1940 critique of Mortimer Adler5 and he would continue that critique in publications into the 1950s (especially in ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’ from 1946). In the event, he found himself uncomfortably straddling incompatible positions. On the one hand, particularly as a Catholic convert, he championed the tradition of Logos. On the other, modern representatives of this tradition, it seemed, were often fierce opponents of the Church and the sort of fuzzy thinkers McLuhan despised.

McLuhan’s attention to the three arts of the trivium went back to the three types of philosophy identified by his mentor at the University of Manitoba, Rupert Lodge.6 McLuhan sensed that some such typology was required for a science of interpretation. But it was not at all clear that the two classifications were compatible with each other or that either one of them would do the job he required. This was the aporia that drove McLuhan away from his early ‘trivial pursuit’ in search of a classification that would both be unambiguously identifiable for collective research and capable of sufficient combinations to account for the myriad complications of the ‘interior landscape’. Only so could scientific investigation be initiated in the humanities and social sciences.

It would not be until 1960 that McLuhan thought he had found a solution to this aporia at last.7 Whether he did or not remains an open question — but one that is ignored even in McLuhan research, let alone outside of it. Suffice it to note here only that his itinerary at the least opened this question along with many others and suggested interesting ways in which they might be interrogated.


  1. W.T. Gordon cites this passage in his biography of McLuhan, Escape into Understanding, 380, n8. Apparently these are the closing lines of a version of ‘Medieval Grammar as the Basis of Bacon’s Novum Organum’ which remains unpublished. The version which has been published (Explorations in Media Ecology, 6:3,  2007, 167-174) is dated by hand to February 22, 1943.
  2.  Sewanee Review, 52(2), 1944, 266–76.
  3. Hayakawa got his ‘Don’ nickname at grad school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. In Winnipeg was called ‘Hak’.
  4. Later retitled as Language in Thought and Action.
  5.  Review of Art and Prudence by Mortimer J. Adler, Fleur de Lis, 40:1, 1940, 30-32.
  6. See Taking Lodge to Cambridge and beyond and the Lodge posts generally.
  7. For discussion and references, see McLuhan’s #1 breakthrough.

Bacon in McLuhan 6 (‘Medieval Grammar as the Basis of Bacon’s Novum Organum‘)

The grammarian observes and interprets the great book of nature. The dialectician arranges and reduces to “methods” what the grammarian discovers. The rhetorician (…)1 applies the discoveries to the benefit of the commonweal for the relief of man’s estate. (169-170)2

On December 27, 1944, at the first annual meeting of the MLA since 1941, McLuhan presented a paper on ‘Medieval Grammar as the Basis of Bacon’s Novum Organum‘. An abstract was printed in the PMLA Supplement for 1944, pp 1324-1325:

The art of grammar in Greek and Roman times was in its etymological and analogical functions inseparable from physics, cosmogony, and the interpretation of phenomena, or the book of nature. Philo of Alexandria adapted the art, with its four levels of interpretation, to scriptural exegesis. Patristic theology took over his methods, and the encyclopedic tradition in education which it implied. Until the time of Abelard, grammatical theology and science were supreme. Its temporary eclipse did not effect a breach in continuity. St. Bonaventure was its greatest exponent. Erasmus was the key figure for his contemporaries because he restored grammatical theology while struggling against decadent dialectical theology. Bacon’s significance is best understood in this tradition and against this background. 

In this MLA presentation McLuhan summarized the narrative of his Nashe PhD thesis from 1943 by way of setting out in brief form the background to Bacon’s work, in particular the Novum Organum:

It is necessary to go back at least as far as Heraclitus and his doctrine of the Logos to get our bearings in this matter. (…) With the great metaphysical concept of the Logos, which the Romans found necessary to translate as ratio et oratio (reason and speech), Heraclitus was able to harmonize (…) “such diverse provinces as those of physics, religion, and ethics.”3 Human reason was a participation in the Logos or divine reason, and the whole external world (…) a network of analogies expressing the universal reason. (169)

One obvious consequence of the doctrine of the Logos is seen in the Cratylus, named for the famous grammarian who was Plato’s teacher. Socrates concurs in Cratylus’ statement that “a power more than human gave things their first names, and (…) the names which were thus given were necessarily their true names.” The dialogue is then given over to the consideration of essence and the basic nature of things by means of the grammatical arts of allegory and etymology. This same method had already been widely applied to the Homeric poems by philosophic grammarians,4 (…)5 and it was, of course, widely applied in Roman and Medieval times to Virgil and others. (169)

Philo of Alexandria adapted the grammatical exegesis of the Greeks to the Hebrew Books of Scripture. (…) He was a direct influence on the beginnings of patristic theology based on grammatical exegesis,6 which was practised as late as the Cambridge Platonists. The fact that grammatical education both in Greek and Roman times was (…) the means of introducing the young to the egkuklios paideia, or the encyclopedia of learning, was also decisive. No other form of education was available to, or thinkable by, the Christian Fathers; and, as Professor Marrou has recently shown in detail in his fine work on Saint Augustin et la Fin de la Culture Antique (Paris, 1938), Christian culture in the Middle Ages was, owing to this tradition, to rest on a grammatical base. (170)

The cultivation of the liberal arts was an inevitable adjunct of the grammatical business of scriptural exegesis; and all learning was subordinate to this art until the rise of dialectical exegesis in the twelfth century with Abelard. (170)

The struggle between the humanists, between Pico della Mirandola, and Colet, and More, and Vives, and Rabelais, and Reuchlin, and Agrippa on one hand, and the schoolmen on the other, is unintelligible apart from the traditional war between the grammarians and dialecticians.  (171)

McLuhan’s reading of Bacon took it that he was well aware of this background in the tradition of the trivium, and sympathized with it, but that he was equally aware of the potential of the Gutenbergian revolution. His great merit lay in the attempt to do justice to both:

A strange wedding of the medieval Book of Nature and the new book from movable types was conducted by Francis Bacon. (The Gutenberg Galaxy, 186)  


  1. McLuhan inserts here: “and in this Bacon is an ardent Ciceronian rather than a Stoic”.
  2.  ‘Medieval Grammar as the Basis of Bacon’s Novum Organum‘, Explorations in Media Ecology, 6:3,  2007, 167-174. The paper is dated by hand to February 26, 1943, but was not published until over 60 years later in 2007 — more than a quarter century after McLuhan’s death. Furthermore, in his biography of McLuhan, Escape into Understanding (1996), W.T. Gordon cites (380, n8) a different ending of the paper than the one given in the Explorations in Media Ecology version. Presumably McLuhan, and perhaps also his son, Eric, edited it from time to time to unknown purpose. All page numbers below, unless otherwise identified, are from the version of it published in Explorations in Media Ecology.
  3. E. V. Arnold, Roman Stoicism, 1911, p. 37
  4. McLuhan refers here to E. Bréhier, Les Idées Philosophiques et Réligieuses de Philon d’Alexandrie (1908).
  5. McLuhan inserted here: “exactly as Bacon applies it in The Wisdom of the Ancients.”
  6. McLuhans reference: William Fairweather, Origen and Greek Patristic Theology, 1901

Bacon in McLuhan 5 (‘Francis Bacon, Ancient or Modern?’)

McLuhan’s last substantial piece on Bacon was his 1974 essay, ‘Francis Bacon, Ancient or Modern?’1

In The Orphic Voice; Poetry and Natural History (1960) Elizabeth Sewell studies the Orphic or metamorphic and “magical” tradition in poetry and science from Ovid to Mallarmé. Francis Bacon has a very special place in her study, precisely because of his concern with the language of the Book of Nature: “A Collection of all varieties of Natural Bodies … where an Inquirer … might peruse, and turn over, and spell, and read the Book of Nature, and observe the Orthography, Etymologia, Syntaxis, and Prosodia of Nature’s Grammar, and by which as with a Dictionary, he might readily turn to and find the true Figures, Composition, Derivation, and Use of the Characters, Words, Phrases and Sentences of Nature written with indelible, and most exact, and most expressive Letters, without which Books it will be very difficult to be thoroughly a Literatus in the Language and Sense of Nature.”2 (97-98)

This “new” approach was, however, something that had a continuous history throughout the patristic and medieval periods before Bacon. The bond which Elizabeth Sewell finds between poetry and science in the Orphic tradition is the one which [more than a thousand years before] Martianus Capella had tied between the trivium and the quadrivium in his marriage of Mercury and Philology: “The description of the liberal arts which remained authoritative throughout the Middle Ages had been produced by Martianus Capella, who wrote between 410 and 439. Notker Labeo (d. 1022) translated it into Old High German; the young Hugo Grotius won his spurs with a new edition (1599); and Leibniz, even in his day, planned another.”3 (…) Martianus Capella had succeeded in bringing the language arts to bear on the sciences and mathematics, creating that unified encyclopedism which characterizes the inclusive and acoustic approach to knowledge, which is represented by ancient and medieval and Baconian grammatica alike. (98)

In this (…) philosophical sense, grammar had been a main mode of physics, cosmogony and theology for centuries [before Bacon]. (96)

Gilson’s study of The Philosophy of St. Bonaventure indicates Bonaventure’s [1221-1274] complete accord with traditional grammatica: “Since the universe was offered to his eyes as a book to read and he saw in nature a sensible revelation analogous to that of the Scriptures, the traditional methods of interpretation which had always been applied to the sacred books could equally be applied to the book of creation. Just as there is an immediate and literal sense of the sacred4 text, but also an allegorical sense by which we discover the truths of faith that the letter signifies, a tropological sense by which we discover a moral precept behind the passage in the form of an historical narrative, and an anogogical sense by which our souls are raised to the love and desire of God, so we must not attend to the literal and immediate sense of the book of creation but look for its inner meaning in the theological, moral and mystical lessons that it contains. The passage from one of these two [sacred and profane] spheres to the other is the more easily effected in that they are in reality inseparable.” (95)

Now that we have the work of Henri de Lubac (Exégèse médiévale, les quatre sens de l’Écriture, 4 vols., Paris, 1959-1964), it is easier to explain how the multi-levelled exegesis of Scripture blended with the scientific work of the interpreters of “The Book of Nature” in an unbroken tradition from the Fathers to the Novum Organum of Francis Bacon. (94)

Bacon’s humanist and grammatical approach to (…) the book of creatures makes for “a conception of organism as fundamental for nature” (Whitehead).5 Bacon’s organic approach, I suggest, is derived from the multi-levelled exegesis of the book[s] of Nature and Scripture alike. (94)

What is to be seen in contemporary arts and science, particularly physics, McLuhan suggests, is a return to the organic, synchronic, multi-levelled exegesis of pre-Gutenbergian perception:

The simultaneity of all levels in ancient grammatica coincides with twentieth century quantum mechanics which is concerned with the physical and chemical bond of nature as the “resonant interval.” The acoustic simultaneity of the new physics co-exists with “synchrony” and structuralism in language and literature and anthropology as understood in Saussure and Levi-Strauss. (94-95)

In fact, the entire development of symbolism and structural synchrony from Baudelaire onward has tended to restore the understanding of the rationale of ancient exegesis. (97)

Today the submicroscopic world of electronics has once more attuned our senses to the acoustic properties of natural phenomena and the arts, rendering contemporary both the “science” [of nature] of Bacon and the science of theological exegesis, long familiar to the commentators on both the Natural and the Sacred Page. (98)

This 1974 essay from McLuhan pictured Bacon as representative of both pre- and post-Gutenbergian approaches, somewhat as did McLuhan’s early work on Bacon from the 1940s.6 In the intervening Gutenberg Galaxy from 1962, however, and in the associated ‘Printing and Social Change’ essay from 1959, Bacon was presented as promoting the Gutenbergian approach itself.7 Taken together, these different portraits of Bacon show him as a kind of universal man, the understanding of whom requires (and thereby elicits) insight into the full spectrum of human possibilities.

Perhaps Bacon performed the role for McLuhan that Virgil did for Dante — guiding him among those underlying synchronic shades (or possibilities) from amongst which ‘we’ must ‘choose’, in an ever-repeated process, momentarily to incarnate. There is a need for scare-quotes around ‘we’ and ‘choose’ here, however, since we are the effect of this strange “organic” action and not its cause. In order to ‘undergo’ it, we must be exposed to a “resonant interval” that is by definition between identities and between the senses of reality that are correlate with those identities.

But this is a fearsome prospect of freedom, responsibility and mortality which is nearly always consigned to oblivion:  

they marched on in a scorching heat to the plain of Forgetfulness, which was a barren waste destitute of trees and verdure; and then towards evening they encamped by the river of Unmindfulness, whose water no vessel can hold; of this they were all obliged to drink (…) and each one as he drank forgot all things. Now after they had gone to rest, about the middle of the night there was a thunderstorm and earthquake, and then in an instant they were driven upwards in all manner of ways to their birth, like stars shooting.
(Republic 621a-b)

  1. In Renaissance and Reformation, X:2, 93-98. Several passages in this essay were taken directly from McLuhan’s unpublished Bacon studies from 30 years before. But this is only one of the signs in the piece (along with, eg, extended third-party citations) that it was composed hastily for a local University of Toronto journal. Perhaps McLuhan was unwell at the time as he often was throughout the 1970s: the decade opened with him suffering a heart attack and closed with his fatal stroke.
  2. This citation by Sewell is from Robert Hooke in 1705, a century after Bacon. It is unclear from McLuhan’s essay if he mistakenly attributed it to Bacon or if he merely thought it typical of Baconian grammatica.
  3.  Ernst Robert Curtius (1886–1956), European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, 1948, English translation 1953, p 38.
  4. McLuhan has ‘profane’ here, not ‘sacred’. He may have have been thinking of the development he treats at length elsewhere, the derivation through Philo of multilevel patristic exegesis of scripture from the earlier Alexandrian exegesis of literary texts.
  5.  Science and the Modern World, 1938, p. 130.
  6. See Bacon in McLuhan 1 and 2.
  7. See Bacon in McLuhan 3 and 4.

Bacon in McLuhan 4 (‘Printing and Social Change’)

McLuhan’s 1959 essay, ‘Printing and Social Change’,1 has the following paragraph on Bacon:

The Essays of Francis Bacon are a high instance of all the new characteristics of the reading and writing disciplines which were having such exciting results in 1600. Bacon’s scientific program was frankly based on the printed book as offering  a supreme instrument of applied science. For centuries men had spoken of the ‘book of nature’ meaning pages for contemplation and meditation. Bacon understood the resources of print technology very well. His idea was to catalogue the entire face of nature in systematic book form in such a way that as by a kind of synoptical device one could consult any phenomenon in a printed form. If the cataloguing were completely done in tables and columns, Bacon was sure that a child could read off the most profound natural laws which had been hidden from man since the fall of Adam.2 Bacon had no concern with speculative science. He wanted practical results for ‘the relief of man’s fallen estate‘.  He was not mistaken in the power of print to provide the means of applied science. The methods of spelled-out and segmented processes have been at the base of all Western achievement. Technology is explicitness. (27-28)

Bacon (1561-1626) and Galileo (1564-1642) were contemporaries. Galileo’s telescope used a mechanical device to extend an existing human ability, sight, through the application of focus.3 

Bacon, in McLuhan’s reading, considered that human being is founded on an even more fundamental ability than sight (or any of the physical senses, alone or together), namely what McLuhan termed “an intuitive perception of essentials” (The Classical Trivium, 51). He cited Bacon describing this ability as the faculty of “touching the nature of things”. [Works IX, 239] This was the faculty enabling the uniquely human characteristic of language use and was therefore what gave humans the ability to read the books of scripture and of nature in their languages.

Bacon could then be seen as asking how this most basic human ‘sense’ might itself be focused. How magnify its results in analogous fashion to the magnification of sight by the telescope? As cited above from ‘Printing and Social Change’:

Bacon understood the resources of print technology very well. His idea was to catalogue the entire face of nature in systematic book form in such a way that as by a kind of synoptical device one could consult any phenomenon in a printed form. If the cataloguing were completely done in tables and columns, Bacon was sure that a child could read off the most profound natural laws which had been hidden from man since the fall of Adam.

Since the “intuitive perception of essentials” was most purely exercised by infants learning to speak in their recognition of names and words as names and words, the focused magnification of this sense could be termed its return to that superlative childish state. This had the added advantage of appealing at the same time to the many instances in scripture calling for such a return in the exercise of faith.

So much concerning the several classes of Idols, and their equipage: all of which must be renounced and put away with a fixed and solemn determination, and the understanding thoroughly freed and cleansed; the entrance into the kingdom of man, founded on the sciences, being not much other than the entrance into the kingdom of heaven, where into none may enter except as a little child. [Novum Organum, aphorism 48, Works VIII 99.]

Bacon’s insight was that focus or “explicitness” in regard to the nature of things” could align humans ever more closely with the design of the world. Four centuries of spectacular scientific discovery since his time have shown that he was correct as far as the exterior landscape is concerned (although, even there, abysmal black holes have been encountered).4

McLuhan’s proposal following on Bacon’s was that an analogous focusing of the interior landscape was required to address our increasing individual and social problems (and perhaps even to solve theoretical problems of the exterior landscape): Understanding Media

  1.  ‘Printing and Social Change’, in Printing Progress: a mid-century report, 1959, 89-112, reprinted in McLuhan Unbound, 1:1, 3-31.
  2. McLuhan was referring to the Novum Organum here with its ‘tables of presentation’. A century later, Swift may have had Bacon’s notion in mind with the engine of “communicativeness” seen by Gulliver on his travels: “out of those rich materials to give the world a complete body of all arts and sciences”. See Wakese 4: the engine of communicativeness.
  3. The principle had long been known (at least since the classical Greeks) through the magnification effect of glass and could be put to use, as it was by Galileo and others in Bacon’s lifetime, also for a microscope.
  4. Black holes have certainly been exposed as well in the interior landscape in its drive to “explicitness”. Our knowledge of knowledge has fallen through itself as specified by Nietzsche in Twilight of the Idols: “The true world — we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we also have abolished the apparent one!!” (Die Götzen-Dämmerung: “Die wahre Welt haben wir abgeschafft: welche Welt blieb übrig? die scheinbare vielleicht?… Aber nein! mit der wahren Welt haben wir auch die scheinbare abgeschafft!!”) McLuhan’s proposal was that black holes are actually the key to understanding both the exterior and interior landscapes: “the gap is where the action is!” After all, was not such an abysmal gap not already crossed in our “touching (interior sense) the nature of things (exterior sense)”? Was this not a “fecund interval” (as McLuhan began to term it late in life), however unfathomable it was and would always remain?

Bacon in McLuhan 3 (Gutenberg Galaxy)

Francis Bacon is probably the single most cited figure in McLuhan’s 1962 book of citations, The Gutenberg Galaxy. This was twenty years after McLuhan’s engagement with Bacon in the early 1940s in his PhD thesis on Thomas Nashe and the essays on Bacon associated with it.1 Bacon was mentioned here and there in the intervening period by McLuhan, but never substantially. Then in the early 1960s Bacon suddenly emerged once again as a central figure in McLuhan’s work.

It would seem that McLuhan’s sense of the general importance of Bacon didn’t change, but his appreciation of the nature of that importance did. He came to find in Bacon what he had previously missed and what he first had to learn from Wyndham Lewis and Harold Innis in order to see it there: the insight, namely, that no empire, no sect, no star seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these mechanical inventions (full passage from Bacon’s Novum Organum cited below in the selection from The Gutenberg Galaxy, 184). 

In the early 1940’s McLuhan was only a few years out from his religious conversion, which had resulted from an intense study of Catholicism beginning with Chesterton but culminating in Hopkins and Maritain. From that personal experience, combined with the critical theory of Eliot, Richards and Leavis that he imbibed at Cambridge at the same time, he had the notion that the great problems of the world were problems of individual reading — and that individual reading, therefore, required renovation. On the other hand, however, he had had the notion since his teens that education was more a societal than a school process and that economics, billboards and radio had decisive effect on it. He had yet to resolve how the individual and social components of human experience come to be knotted.

In the course of the 1940s McLuhan began to perceive through Lewis and Innis (with Mallarmé playing a decisive supporting role) how to bring these strands together via the study of media. The reading of the world and of the world’s traditions — the reading of our exterior and interior landscapes — was indeed the crux of the matter, but reading was not a matter of individual insight and decision. Instead, it was exactly the ‘individual’ and ‘its’ insight that had to be decided and determined. What was needed, then, and what McLuhan found to be prescribed already in Bacon, was the exercise of “that faculty which (…) is perpetually operative — an intuitive perception of essentials” (The Classical Trivium, 51) but directed now on our technologically extended collective sensibilities (from which our individual ones derive as a secondary constellation): Understanding Media.

So it was that Bacon was revisioned by McLuhan as foreseeing a way out of what Innis called “the fundamental solipsism of Western civilization”2 (and Bacon “total defection from God (…) to depend wholly upon himself“)3 via “laws of media”. Furthermore, McLuhan fully shared, and was motivated in his turn by, the religious ground of Bacon’s insight. Both saw the alienation of human beings from God as the cause and further effect of the great problems of the world. Both saw that the repair of that alienation could, and arguably could only, come from essential investigation into the landscapes, exterior and interior, of that world. From them, and arguably from them alone, could come the desperately needed turn. Both were books of instruction for the soul’s direction.

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 183
The figure of Francis Bacon has always seemed full of contradictions. As the PR man for modern science, he has been found to have both feet firmly planted in the Middle Ages. His prodigious Renaissance reputation baffles those who can find nothing scientific in his method. (…) Simply on his own terms, however, he does make sense. He hangs together once you grant his assumption that Nature is a Book whose pages have been smudged by the Fall of Man.

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 184
Bacon himself was aware of the discontinuity between his age and previous history as consisting in the rise of mechanism. He writes in Novum Organum
It is well to observe the force and effect and consequences of discoveries. These are to be seen nowhere more conspicuously than in those three which were unknown to the ancients, and of which the origin, though recent, is obscure; namely, printing, gunpowder, and the magnet. For these three have changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world; the first in literature, the second in warfare, the third in navigation; whence have followed innumerable changes; insomuch that no empire, no sect, no star seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these mechanical inventions.” [Novum Organum, aphorism 129, Works VIII, 162.]

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 185
Bacon was more impressed by the meaning of print as applied knowledge than anybody else except Rabelais. The entire Middle Ages had regarded Nature as a Book to be scanned for the vestigia dei. Bacon took the lesson of print to be that we could now literally get Nature out in a new and improved edition. An encyclopedia is envisaged. It is his complete acceptance of the idea of the Book of Nature that makes Bacon so very medieval and so very modern. But the gap is this. The medieval Book of Nature was for contemplatio like the Bible. The Renaissance Book of Nature was for applicatio (…) like movable types. A closer look at Francis Bacon will (…) elucidate the transition from the medieval to the modern world

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 185
Erasmus directed the new print technology to the traditional uses of grammatica and rhetoric and to tidying up the sacred page. Bacon used the new technology for an attempt to tidy up the text of [the Book of] Nature. 

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 186
A strange wedding of the medieval Book of Nature and the new Book [of Nature] from movable types was conducted by Francis Bacon. 

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 187-188
our present goal is (…) to relate Bacon’s notion of science to the medieval tradition of the two Scriptures of Revelation and [of] Nature (…):

for as the Psalms and other Scriptures [of Revelation] do often invite us to consider and magnify the great and wonderful works of God, so if we should rest only in the contemplation of the exterior of them, as they first offer themselves to our senses, we should do a like injury unto the Majesty of God, as if we should judge or construe of the store of some excellent jeweller, by that only which is set out toward the street in his shop. The other [scriptures of Nature], because they minister a singular help and preservative against unbelief and error: for our Saviour saith, You err, not knowing the Scriptures, nor the power of God; laying before us two books or volumes to study, if we will be secured from error; first, the Scriptures, revealing the Will of God; and then the creatures expressing His Power; whereof the latter is a key unto the former: not only opening our understanding to conceive the true sense of the Scriptures, by the general notions of reason and rules of speech; but chiefly opening our belief, in drawing us into a due meditation of the omnipotency of God, which is chiefly signed and engraven upon His works. Thus much therefore for divine testimony and evidence concerning the true dignity and value of Learning.” [The Advancement of Learning, Bk 1, Works VI, 143-144.]
The next passage gives Bacon’s ever-recurrent theme that all of the arts are forms of applied knowledge for the sake of diminishing the effects of the Fall:
Concerning speech and words, the consideration of them hath produced the science of grammar: for man still striveth to reintegrate himself in those benedictions, from which by his fault he hath been deprived; and as he hath striven against the first general curse by the invention of all other arts, so hath he sought to come forth of the second general curse, which was the confusion of tongues, by the art of grammar; whereof the use in a mother tongue is small, in a foreign tongue more; but most in such foreign tongues as have ceased to be vulgar tongues, and are turned only to learned tongues.” [The Advancement of Learning, Bk 2, Works VI, 285.]
It is the Fall of Man which engenders the arts of applied knowledge for the relief of man’s fallen estate:
So in the age before the flood, the holy records within those few memorials which are there entered and registered have vouchsafed to mention and honour the name of the inventors and authors of music and works in metal. In the age after the flood, the first great judgment of God upon the ambition of man was the confusion of tongues; whereby the open trade and intercourse of learning and knowledge was chiefly imbarred.”  [The Advancement of Learning, Bk 1, Works VI, 138-139.]
Bacon has the utmost regard for the kind of work done by unfallen man:
After the creation was finished, it is set down unto us that man was placed in the garden to work therein; which work, so appointed to him, could be no other than work of Contemplation; that is, when the end of work is but for exercise and experiment, not for necessity; for there being then no reluctation of the creature, nor sweat of the brow, man’s employment must of consequence have been matter of delight in the experiment, and not matter of labour for the use.4 Again, the first acts which man performed in Paradise consisted of the two summary parts of knowledge; the view of creatures, and the imposition of names. As for the knowledge which induced the fall, it was (…) not the natural knowledge of creatures, but the moral knowledge of good and evil(…) which man aspired to know; to the end to make a total defection from God and to depend wholly upon himself.” [The Advancement of Learning, Bk 1, Works VI, 137-138.

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 188-190
Before the Fall the purpose of work was just for experience or “experiment,” “not for necessity,” “nor matter of labour for the use.” Strangely, although Bacon is quite explicit and repetitive in his derivation of the program of applied knowledge from the Scriptures, his commentators have avoided this issue. Bacon pushes Revelation into every part of his program stressing, not only the parallelism between the book[s] of Nature and of Revelation, but also between the methods used in both.

Bacon’s conception of applied knowledge concerns the means of restoring the text of the Book of Nature which has been defaced by the Fall, even as our faculties have been impaired. Just as Bacon strives to mend the text of Nature by his Histories, so he sought to repair our faculties by his Essays or Counsels (…). The broken mirror or glass of our minds no longer lets “light through” but enchants us with broken lights, besetting us with Idols.
Just as Bacon draws on traditional inductive grammatica for his exegesis of the two books of Nature and Revelation, so he relies heavily on the Ciceronian conception of eloquence as applied knowledge, explicitly uniting Cicero and Solomon in this regard (…):
Neither needeth it at all to be doubted, that this knowledge should be so variable as it falleth not under precept; for it is much less infinite than science of government, which, we see, is laboured and in some part reduced. Of this wisdom, it seemeth some of the ancient Romans in the saddest and wisest times were professors; for Cicero reporteth that it was then in use for senators that had name and opinion for general wise men, as Coruncanius, Curius, Laelius, and many others, to walk at certain hours in the Place, and to give audience to those that would use their advice; and that the particular citizens would resort unto them, and consult with them of the marriage of a daughter, or of the employing of a son, or of a purchase or bargain, or of an accusation, and every other occasion incident to man’s life. So as there is a wisdom of counsel and advice even in private causes, arising out of a universal insight into the affairs of the world; which is used indeed upon particular causes propounded, but is gathered by general observation of cases of like nature. For so we see in the book which Q. Cicero writeth to his brother, De petitione consulatus (being the only book of business that I know written by the ancients), although it concerned a particular action set on foot, yet the substance thereof consisteth of many wise and politic axioms, which contain not a temporary, but a perpetual direction in the case of popular elections. But chiefly we may see in those aphorisms which have place among divine writings, composed by Salomon the king (of whom the Scriptures testify that his heart was as the sands of the sea, encompassing the world and all worldly matters), we see, I say, not a few profound and excellent cautions, precepts, positions, extending to much variety of occasions; whereupon we will stay awhile, offering to consideration some number of examples.” [The Advancement of Learning, Bk 2, Works VI, 351-352.]

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 190
Bacon has much to say of Solomon as the forerunner of himself. In fact, he derives his pedagogical theory of aphorism from Solomon:

So like wise in the person of Salomon the King, we see the gift or endowment of wisdom and learning, both in Salomon’s petition and in God’s assent thereunto, preferred before all other terrene and temporal felicity. By virtue of which grant or donative of God Salomon became enabled not only to write those excellent Parables or Aphorisms concerning divine and moral philosophy; but also to compile a Natural History of all verdure, from the cedar upon the mountain to the moss upon the wall (which is but a rudiment between putrefaction and a herb), and also of all things that breathe or move. Nay, the same Salomon the King, although he excelled in the glory of treasure and magnificent buildings, of shipping and navigation, of service and attendance, of fame and renown, and the like, yet he maketh no claim to any of those glories, but only to the glory of inquisition of truth; for so he saith expressly, The glory of God is to conceal a thing, but the glory of the king is to find it out [Prov 25:2]; as if, according to the innocent play of children, the Divine Majesty took delight to hide His works, to the end to have them found out; and as if kings could not obtain a greater honour than to be God’s playfellows in that game; considering the great commandment of wits and means, whereby nothing needeth to be hidden from them.” [The Advancement of Learning, Bk 1, Works VI, 141.]
Bacon’s allusion to scientific discovery as a children’s game brings us close to another of his basic notions, that as man lost his Eden through pride he must regain it by humility:
“So much concerning the several classes of Idols, and their equipage: all of which must be renounced and put away with a fixed and solemn determination, and the understanding thoroughly freed and cleansed; the entrance into the kingdom of man, founded on the sciences, being not much other than the entrance into the kingdom of heaven, where into none may enter except as a little child.” [Novum Organum, aphorism 48, Works VIII, 99.]
Earlier (…) Bacon insisted in the same way that the course I propose for the discovery of sciences is such as leaves but little to the acuteness and strength of wits, but places all wits and understandings nearly on a level.” [Novum Organum, aphorism 41, Works VIII, 89.]

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 190-191
Print had inspired Bacon not only with the idea of applied knowledge by means of the homogeneity of segmental procedure, but it gave him the assurance that men would be levelled in their capacities and performance as well. Some strange speculations have resulted from this doctrine, but few would care to dispute the power of print to level and to extend the learning process as much as cannon or ordnance did level castles and feudal privilege.5 Bacon, then, argues that the text of [the Book of] Nature can be restored by great encyclopedic fact-finding sweeps. Man’s wits can be reconstructed so that they can once again mirror the perfected Book of Nature. His mind is now an enchanted glass, but the hex can be removed. It is quite clear, then, that Bacon would have no respect for scholasticism any more than for the dialectics of Plato and Aristotle 
because it is the duty of Art to perfect and exalt Nature; but they contrariwise have wronged, abused, and traduced Nature. 

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 191-192
Early in The Advancement of Learning, Bacon has a compact history of Renaissance prose that illuminates the role of printing indirectly: “Martin Luther, conducted no doubt by a higher providence, but in discourse of reason finding what a providence he had undertaken against the bishop of Rome and the degenerate traditions of the church, and finding his own solitude, being no ways aided by the opinion of his own time, was enforced to awake all antiquity, and to call former times to his succours to make a party against the present time. So that the ancient authors, both in divinity and in humanity, which had long time slept in libraries, began generally to be read and revolved. Thus by consequence did draw on a necessity of a more exquisite travail in the languages original, wherein those authors did write, for the better understanding of those authors, and the better advantage of pressing and applying their words. And thereof grew again a delight in their manner of style and phrase, and an admiration of that kind of writing; which was much furthered and precipitated by the enmity and opposition that the propounders of those primitive but seeming new opinions had against the schoolmen; who were generally of the contrary part, and whose writings were altogether in a different style and form; taking liberty to coin and frame new terms of art to express their own sense, and to avoid circuit of speech, without regard to the pureness, pleasantness, and, as I may call it, lawfulness of the phrase or word.”  [The Advancement of Learning, Bk 1, Works VI, 118-119.]

Bacon says here that the entire humanist effort in languages and historical revival was incidental to religious differences. The printing presses made available authors of remote times. People began to imitate their styles. The schoolmen had such a technical terse way that they fell quite out of fashion, being utterly unable to develop any popularity with the new reading public. The growing public could only be won by flowery rhetoric and, Bacon goes on to say:
for the winning and persuading of them, there grew of necessity in chief price and request eloquence and variety of discourse, as the fittest and forciblest access into the capacity of the vulgar sort: so that these four causes concurring, the admiration of ancient authors, the hate of the schoolmen, the exact study of languages, and the efficacy of preaching, did bring in an affectionate study of eloquence and copie of speech, which then began to flourish. This grew speedily to an excess; for men began to hunt more after words than matter; more after the choiceness of the phrase, and the round and clean composition of the sentence, and the sweet falling of the clauses, and the varying and illustration of their works with tropes and figures, than after the weight of matter, worth of subject, soundness of argument, life of invention or depth of judgment. Then grew the flowing and watery vein of Osorius the Portugal bishop, to be in price. Then did Sturmius spend such infinite and curious pains upon Cicero the Orator, and Hermogenes the Rhetorician, besides his own books of Periods and Imitation, and the like. Then did Car of Cambridge, and Ascham with their lectures and writings almost deify Cicero and Demosthenes, and allure all young men that were studious, unto that delicate and polished kind of learning. Then did Erasmus take occasion to make the scoffing Echo: decem annos consumpsi in legendo Cicerone; and the Echo answered in Greek, Ove Asine. Then grew the learning of the schoolmen to be utterly despised as barbarous. In sum, the whole inclination and bent of those times was rather towards copie than weight.” [The Advancement of Learning, Bk 1, Works VI, 119-129.]
There in a page or so Bacon renders a detailed image of the literary struggles and fashions of his day. Like his idea of scientific methods, his idea of the literary scene is rooted in religion. His outline of a history of English prose has yet to be examined seriously by literary historians. When, for example, Bacon says [at the end of the preceding passage]: “Then grew the learning of the Schoolmen to be utterly despised as barabarous” he does not say that he himself despises it. He has no respect for the ornate and affected eloquence that was [then] currently trumped up. 

  1. See Bacon in McLuhan 1 and 2.
  2.  Empire and Communications, 1950 edition, 67; 1972 edition, 56.
  3.  The Advancement of Learning as cited in The Gutenberg Galaxy, 187-188 passage given below.
  4.  An ever-repeated topic in McLuhan’s later work is the relation of ‘school’ to the Latin ‘schola‘ = leisure. He may well have been gesturing with this to Bacon’s notion that the natural vocation of humans is to the delightful appreciation of creation.
  5. McLuhan made the same points earlier in GG: “Although the main work was done by Cromwell and Napoleon, “ordnance” (or cannon) and gunpowder had (…) begun the levelling of castles, classes, and feudal distinctions. So print, says Rabelais, has begun the homogenizing of individuals and of talents. Later in the same century Francis Bacon was prophesying that his scientific method would level all talents (…) Bacon’s ‘method’ (…) was the extension of the idea of the new printed page to the whole encyclopedia of natural phenomena.” (148)

The gigantomachia in GG from Rabelais

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 148:

Albert Guerard’s comment on (…) Rabelais in The Life and Death of an Ideal1 (p. 39) is as follows:
This triumphant Pantagruelism inspires the chapters, full of quaint erudition, practical knowledge and poetic enthusiasm, which, at the end of the third book, he [Rabelais] devotes to the praise of the blessed herb Pantagruelion. Literally, Pantagruelion is mere hemp; symbolically, it is human industry. Capping the wildest achievements of his own times with wilder boast and prophecy, Rabelais first shows man, by virtue of this Pantagruelion, exploring the remotest regions of his globe, “so that Taproban hath seen the heaths of Lapland, and both the Javas, the Riphaean Mountains.” Men “scoured the Atlantic Ocean, passed the tropics, pushed through the torrid zone, measured all the Zodiac, sported under the equinoctial, having both poles level with their horizon.” Then, “all marine and terrestrial gods were on a sudden all afraid.” What is to prevent Pantagruel and his children from discovering some still more potent herb, by means of which they shall scale the very heavens? Who knows but they may “contrive a way to pierce into the high aerian clouds, and shut and open as they please the sluices from whence proceed the floodgates of the rain (…) then, prosecuting their ethereal voyage, they may step into the lightning workhouse and shop … where, seizing on the magazine of heaven, they may discharge a bouncing peal or two of thundering ordnance for joy of their arrival at these new supernal places (…) And we the Gods shall then not be able to resist the impetuosity of their intrusion (…) whatever regions, domiciles or mansions of the spangled firmament they shall have a mind to see, to stay in, or to travel through for their recreation.”

  1. 1956. Guerard’s subtitle: France in the classical age.

Bacon in McLuhan 2 (‘Bacon’s Patristic Inheritance’)

We must make therefore a complete solution and separation of nature, not indeed by fire, but by the mind, which is a kind of divine fire. (Novum Organum, #41)

The doctrine of names is, of course, the doctrine of essence and not a naive notion of oral terminology. (The Classical Trivium, 16) 

Just as language offers an extensive and complex apprehension of the structure of beings, so that faculty which produced this state of language is perpetually operative — an intuitive perception of essentials. There is no room for error in our intuitive grasp of nature, but in our methods of inference leading to the forming of opinions there is much likelihood of error. (The Classical Trivium51) 

“…the entrance into the kingdom of man, founded on the sciences, being not much other than the entrance into the kingdom of heaven, where into none may enter except as a little child.” (‘Francis Bacon’s Patristic Inheritance’,1 8, citing Bacon’s Novum Organum)2

[Bacon cited] the widely held Christian tradition that Solomon alone of the sons of men had recovered that natural wisdom and metaphysical knowledge of the essences of things, of which Adam had been deprived. It is precisely to the task of recovering natural wisdom that Bacon’s labours were addressed. (‘Medieval Grammar as the Basis of Bacon’s Novum Organum‘, 168)3

McLuhan noted in his Cambridge PhD thesis on Thomas Nashe that he had begun a monograph on Bacon, but had put it aside when a paper by Richard McKeon appeared that covered much the same ground:

I have already suggested how completely Bacon’s scientific program was tied up with grammar and dialectics and with rhetorical theory and practice, and had already undertaken a separate monograph on this subject before McKeon’s paper appeared. (The Classical Trivium, 119n22)4  

Parts of this effort which could have eventuated in a monograph on Bacon are be found in two posthumously published papers which go back to 1942-1943 when McLuhan was feverishly writing his thesis5: ‘Francis Bacon’s Patristic Inheritance’ (“Expanded version of a paper written for the M.L.A. meeting of 1942″) and ‘Medieval Grammar as the Basis of Bacon’s Novum Organum‘ (dated by hand to February 22, 1943).6 These two papers must have had a complicated origin in relation to the Nashe thesis and to each other. Then (like the thesis itself) they were continually revised and mined for different purposes, not only in the 1940s, but throughout McLuhan’s lifetime (as late, eg, as ‘Francis Bacon: Ancient or Modern’ in 1974)7 — and even after his lifetime by Eric McLuhan. No effort will be made to retrace this complicated history here.8 

As broached in his Nashe thesis, McLuhan’s chief point in the ‘Patristic Inheritance’ paper was that Bacon was both the herald of the coming scientific age and the heir of ancient tradition:

I shall try to show that [Bacon’s] concept of science and the way9 in which he stresses the arts of the trivium entitle him to be considered a highly orthodox ancient, a representative of a long and uninterrupted line of interpreters of the “book of nature”. (7)10

If these — the revolutionary insights of modern science and the anchor of tradition — could be shown to be fundamentally linked, the incomparably important result would be to suggest, conceivably even to help demonstrate, that modern science does not contradict the tradition, but presupposes it and, properly understood, furthers it and affirms it.

This would, of course, be transformative. Instead of the tradition and science being two continents drifting inexorably apart in unrecallable divide, or, in reverse fashion, moving unstoppably into catastrophic collision, they would form a bulwark together against our reigning nihilism.11

The role of language and its implicated grammar as the key to both spiritual and natural investigation was formulated in the Nashe thesis as follows:

From the time of the neo-Platonists and Augustine to Bonaventura and to Francis Bacon, the world was viewed as a book, the lost language of which was analogous to that of human speech. Thus the art of grammar provided the sixteenth-century approach not only to the Book of Life in scriptural exegesis but to the Book of Nature, as well. (The Classical Trivium, 7)

it was not only in antiquity but until the Cartesian revolution that language was viewed as simultaneously linking and harmonizing all the intellectual and physical functions of men and of the physical world as well. (The Classical Trivium, 16) 

Now “human speech” takes place first of all through a curious chain of recognition: the recognition that certain environmental sounds are peculiar objects, namely words, the recognition that those words have certain restricted meanings, the recognition that those meanings may be controlled through certain manipulations (the province of traditional grammar). Fundamental to all of these is the prior (but unknown or at least ignored) recognition that humans exist in a communicative matrix in which, alone, something like a meaningful word, together with its enabling net of meanings and grammar, is possible at all.

Just as a newborn must learn to breathe in the new matrix of air after its life in the womb for nine months, so (during its life in in-fancy — ‘non-speaking’ — for a further 12 months or so) must it learn to function in that matrix of communication in which alone humans exercise their being.

As with its acclimatization to air, so in regard to the matrix of communication is it necessary for the infant to learn to live with what is already there and on no account to attempt to invent something of its own: 

Just as the grammarian is always compelled to establish and stick to a text, so Bacon urges the scientist always to stay with nature and never to build hypotheses such as William  Gilbert [1544-1603] did. Thus, the Novum Organum is a set of rules for interpreting and clarifying the obscurities of nature, but rules designed always to refer the observer back to his text [of word or world], and to prevent him both from “anticipations” and from contumacious construction, or hypotheses. (20)

Bacon viewed the rerum natura as a book, and man’s task as the true exegesis thereof: “For God forbid that we should give out a dream of our own imagination for a pattern of the world; rather may He graciously grant to us to write an apocalypse or true vision of the footsteps of the Creator imprinted on His creations.”12 The restoration of the study of languages is indispensable since grammar is as it were the harbinger of other sciences(19-20)13

Taken in this broad sense, grammar was the enabling matrix of “exegetical techniques of interpretation” (9),14 and this, in turn, fundamentally the effort to supply “the name which each thing by nature has”.15 The ancient tradition of grammar (gen. subj.), according to McLuhan, attended this exercise as the basic way in which humans exist.

These grammatical recognitions which infants must learn to perform are, of course, seldom considered. As McLuhan often remarked, the ubiquitous goes unperceived. Nor need they be perfect. Sounds may be mispronounced or misheard and yet still be understood. Meanings may be confused but usually with little ill effect. Grammatical mistakes may be made without necessary problems. Language is able to struggle through such imperfections because it is, so to say, more basic than they are.16

The great mystery is: what is the source of such recognition?  How does a child recognize that some sounds are words with meaning and other sounds are meaningless?  Or that some meanings work for a word and others do not? Or that some manipulations are significant and others are not? And if this mystery is somewhat obscured when it is repeated by infants millions of times a day around the world, how did it take place in the first place?

McLuhan read Bacon as participating in a “grammatical” tradition for which such recognition was the chief characteristic of both theology and science and, in fact, of all history. Just as humans somehow sort words from noise, so (analogously) do they differentiate holy things from profane things and learn to sift out the elements in all sorts of scientific disciplines.  Grammar may in this broad way be termed the study of the recognition of what things are and are not, whether these things be words or physical stuff or gods. It is the “harbinger” of study and reflection in all these areas since, like human speech itself, none can begin without sufficient recognition (conscious or unconscious) of the particular nature at stake in the activity at hand.

What an infant must first of all come to understand in learning to speak is that it exists in a universe where communication is a basic possibility. This understanding is of course only implicated in the infant’s growing capability to process and produce meaningful sounds, but it is the foundation of all that it does and all that it will ever do.

Socrates concurs in Cratylus’ statement that “a power more than human gave things their first names, and that the names which were thus given are necessarily their true names.” (10-11)17

McLuhan enlarged on this point in his Nashe thesis as follows:

Plato’s Cratylus broaches the question of analogy and anomaly in such a way as to indicate that their dispute was of ancient origin even in his day, but the issues [between the two], of course, are drawn on a plane loftier than that of conjugations and declensions. Socrates refutes the superficial anomalist doctrine of Hermogenes at great length. Hermogenes says, ‘I have often talked over this  matter, both with Cratylus and others, and cannot convince myself that there is any principle of correctness in names other than convention and agreement.’ Socrates replies that ‘I should say that this giving of names can be no such light matter as you fancy, or the work of light or chance persons; and Cratylus is right in saying that things have names by nature, and that not every man is an artificer of names; but he only who looks to the name which each thing by nature has, and is, will be able to express the ideal forms of things in letters and syllables.’ The general incredulity concerning Socrates’ seriousness in this dialogue is an adequate measure of the modern failure to apprehend the nature of grammar in the ancient and medieval worlds; and much of Plato’s power over St. Augustine and the medieval mind [generally] is owing to his great, though not exclusive, respect for the method of grammar in philosophy. It is quite impossible to make any sense of the scope and intensity of the strife between the analogists and anomalists unless the philosophic implications are perceived. (The Classical Trivium, 28)

The “first names” which were “true names” were not certain sounds (which of course vary between languages); instead the action at stake was the recognition of names as names, of words as words, of the fact that a certain kind of sound in the environment carries meaning.

The doctrine of names is, of course, the doctrine of essence and not a naive notion of oral terminology.  (The Classical Trivium, 16) 

The Stoics, of course, are analogists to a man, although Varro, himself, as well as Cicero, Caesar, Pliny, and Quintilian, freely admit the influence of custom or usage on language.  (The Classical Trivium, 27) 

By extension, this (usually utterly unattended) existence in a matrix of meaning enabling the recognition of essential natures happens again when a geometer understands a shape like a triangle as significant in a way a squiggle is not; or when copper is recognized as significant in a way wood is not. None of these recognitions begins (or ends) in perfection, but all do begin and apparently they do so through some “power more than human”. For we do not recognize through recognition (as the occultists maintained and as seems to be implied in much research into how infants learn to speak), but through a possibility built into the very nature of the universe that is there before us and that is deeper than us.

The initial imposition of names in this sense signifies essence, metaphysical knowledge. The corresponding doctrine, that to know the name of a thing was to have direct power over it, is responsible for what we have so long smiled at as alchemy. (11n14) 

Bacon, like the Stoics, was an analogist, though a cautious one. That is, he held the ancient doctrine (…) of the Cratylus of Plato. An understanding of the great historical dispute waged for many centuries between the analogists and the anomalists is basic to an understanding of ancient, medieval, and Renaissance culture. (10n7)

The doctrine of the Logos, with its insistence of the dynamic unity of all nature, inevitably made for the encyclopedic ideal which we find equally in the practice of the Stoics, the Fathers, in Vincent of Beauvais, Roger Bacon, and Francis Bacon. Isidore of Seville named his encyclopedic synthesis of the arts Etymologiae simply because grammar (with etymology)18 was the basic mode of the synthesis. (12n16)19

The fact that man was distinguished from the brutes by virtue of his power of speech was the fact which in connection with the doctrine of the Logos lent special impetus in the ancient world to the cultivation of eloquence. After Isocrates and Cicero, it was urged as a reason for the arduous disciplines of speech by the Fathers, by Alcuin, John of Salisbury, and humanists of the Renaissance. This is signally the case with Francis Bacon. From the humanist point of view, Socrates had initiated the fatal destruction of eloquence and good letters by his divorce between head and heart, thought and speech20. It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of this insight21 for the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. This extraordinary account22 of the disastrous rise of Greek dialectics and the breach between eloquence and wisdom (the humanists of the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries make precisely the same complaints about the rise of [scholastic] dialectics in the twelfth century) is given classic statement in Cicero’s De Oratore. Francis Bacon repeats and endorses this account of Cicero’s.23 (10n10)

Bacon readily allows the validity of the physics of the Timaeus but points out that it is theological, concerned with final causes. This, of course, is the reason it was held in such esteem in the Middle Ages. Similarly, Aristotle’s physics is valid within its limits, but the method is dialectical and the aim no more for the relief of men’s estate than Plato’s. The trouble with Plato and Aristotle, said Bacon, is that they are more interested in truth than utility.24 (11n14) 

The kind of importance attaching to traditional grammar [in this much broader sense than we now understand] in Bacon’s scheme is evident from the following passage: “Concerning Speech and Words, the consideration of them hath produced the science of Grammar (…) examining the power and nature of words as they are the footsteps and prints of reason, which kind of analogy between words and reason (…) I think (…)  very worthy to be reduced into a science by itself.” 25 In this latter philosophical sense, grammar had been the main mode of physics, cosmogony, and theology for centuries [before Bacon, or even millennia]…(9)

This understanding of the imperative role of the recognition of natures in all human activity whatsoever and especially in the study of sacred and natural phenomena led Bacon to a novel view of history from Adam to himself and beyond into “a new period of study”:

Francis Bacon envisaged his encyclopedic task as the vindicator of ancient truths, which had been obscured by the arrogant follies (…) of Plato and Aristotle and (…) of the Schoolmen, and [also] as the “buccinator” [or herald] of a new period of study… (13)

Bacon wished to associate his endeavors with the widely held Christian tradition that Solomon alone of the sons of men had recovered that natural wisdom and metaphysical knowledge of essence of which Adam had been justly deprived. (8)

What kind of knowledge was lost by Adam in consequence of his fall? Fortunately it isn’t necessary to speculate about [Bacon’s] answer. (…) He states it thus in The Advancement of Learning: “After the creation was finished, it is set down unto us that man was placed in the garden to work therein; which work, so appointed to him, could be no other than the work of Contemplation. […] Again, the first acts which man performed in Paradise consisted of the two summary parts of knowledge; the view of creatures, and the imposition of names.” [Works VI, 137-138] The view upon26 creatures and the imposition of names corresponds precisely to the major aims of Bacon’s own program. The first was to be achieved by a universal natural history [as his field of inquiry], the second by exegetical techniques of interpretation [of that field] based on traditional grammar. (9)27

Just as Adam had had the power to give the names (essences) to things, so Solomon in viewing creatures had written commentaries of precisely the kind which Bacon’s inductive method aimed to reproduce touching the nature of things, wherein he treated of every vegetable, from the moss upon the wall to the cedar of Lebanon, and likewise of all animals…”. [Works IX, 239.] (9n4)

Typical of the statements by which Bacon focussed the scope and relevance of his work are the closing sentences of the Novum Organum: “For man by the fall fell at the same time from his state of innocency and from his dominion over creation. Both of these losses, however, can even in this life be in some part repaired: the former by religion and faith, the latter by arts and sciences. For creation was not by the curse [on Adam] made altogether and for ever a rebel, but in virtue of that charter ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread’, it [creation] is now by various labours (…) at length and in some measure [to be]28 subdued (…) to the uses of human life.” [Works VIII, 350.] (7)

  1. In McLuhan Studies I, 1991, 7-26.
  2. The passage is from Novum Organum, #69 = Works VIII, p 99.
  3. In Explorations in Media Ecology, 6:3,  2007, 167-174. For discussion see Bacon in McLuhan 6 (‘Medieval Grammar as the Basis of Bacon’s Novum Organum‘).
  4. McLuhan was referencing Richard P. McKeon, ‘Rhetoric in the Middle Ages‘,  Speculum, 17:1, January 1942, 1-32.
  5. McLuhan’s PhD thesis on Thomas Nashe was submitted in April 1943 and approved in December of that year. It was put together in a tremendous hurry because he had come to see his job in St Louis as a dead end and urgently required his doctorate to obtain a position elsewhere. Seeking a job without it, so he wrote in a letter to Wyndham Lewis, was “like a man presenting himself in a bathing suit at an embassy ball” (January 17, 1944, Letters 147). As a result, the thesis shows many signs of haste and even outright incompletion (like the hundreds of Nashe references that are simply listed in the last chapter of his thesis with the implication that they might have been organized into a narrative had it not been for, eg, the exigencies of wartime. Since these loose threads were obvious enough, the thesis needed to include countervailing points intended to excuse or otherwise offset them. McLuhan’s suggestion that he had been at work at the same time as he was writing his thesis on a parallel enterprise that he then had to abandon (however true this may have been) was one of these offsets.
  6. References given in notes 1 and 2 above.
  7. In Renaissance and Reformation, X:2, 1974, 93-98. For discussion see Bacon in McLuhan 5.
  8. One of the two Bacon papers from the early 1940s was submitted, unsuccessfully, to the Journal for the History of Ideas in late 1943 or early 1944. But McLuhan’s two biographers, Philip Marchand and W.T. Gordon, disagree about which of the papers it was. Marchand says (73) it was the ‘Patristic Inheritance’ piece and he is probably correct. For Gordon, after naming ‘Medieval Grammar’ as the submitted paper, notes (115) that the journal’s reviewer critiqued McLuhan’s use of ‘decorum’ — a word which appears only in ‘Patristic Inheritance’.
  9. McLuhan has ‘order’ here, not ‘way’.
  10.  All page numbers not otherwise identified are from ‘Francis Bacon’s Patristic Inheritance’.
  11. These three fundamental possibilities of ‘continental drift’ are already present in Plato’s gigantomachia from the Sophist.
  12. Works VIII, 53. Bacon has ‘creatures’ here, not ‘creations’.
  13. McLuhan references Works VIII 46-47, 358-361 and 369 here.
  14. Full passage from The Classical Trivium (9) given below.
  15.  The Classical Trivium, 28. Full passage given below.
  16. Perhaps Finnegans Wake is an attempt to demonstrate this thesis in practice. At any rate, all science works in this way. A working but inevitably imperfect perception is mined until it gives way to a more workable perception — that is imperfect in its own ways. What McLuhan called ‘grammar’ is the fit between insight and imperfection, especially when this fit itself is investigated via imperfect insight.
  17. The Nashe thesis: “In the dialogue named for Cratylus, the follower of Heraclitus, Plato has this exchange of arguments between Socrates and Cratylus: Socrates: But if these things are only to be known through names, how can we suppose that the givers of names had knowledge, or were legislators before there were names at all, and therefore before they could have known them?Cratylus: I believe, Socrates, the true account of the matter to be, that a power more than human gave things their first names, and that the names which were thus given are necessarily their true names. Obviously, with this kind of importance associated with the names of things, and of gods, heroes, and legendary beings, etymology would be a main source of scientific and moral enlightenment. And such was the case. The prolific labors of the etymologists reflected in Plato’s Cratylus, but begun centuries before and continued until the seventeenth century, are as much the concern of the historian of philosophy and of science as of the historian of letters and culture. Indeed, it was not only in antiquity but until the Cartesian revolution that language was viewed as simultaneously linking and harmonizing all the intellectual and physical functions of men and of the physical world as wellAt any time from Plato to Francis Bacon the statement of Cratylus would have made sense, and would have evoked respect” (The Classical Trivium, 15-16).
  18. McLuhan has ‘and etymology’ here.
  19. “Inevitably made for the encyclopedic ideal” exactly because “language was viewed as simultaneously linking and harmonizing all the intellectual and physical functions of men and of the physical world as well” (The Classical Trivium, 16). An encyclopedia simply set out in systematic fashion these “linking and harmonizing (…) functions of men and of the physical world”.
  20. McLuhan has ‘eloquence’ here instead of ‘speech’.
  21. McLuhan has ‘view’ here instead of ‘insight’.
  22.  McLuhan has ‘view’ here instead of ‘account’.
  23. McLuhan references Spedding’s Works VI 42-43 and 135 here. (All his references to Bacon’s Works are to the Spedding edition.)
  24. McLuhan references Works VI, 224; VIII, 102-103, 132. For Bacon on utility, see Bacon in McLuhan 1 (Nashe thesis).
  25. McLuhan references Works VI, 285-286.
  26. McLuhan has ‘of’.
  27. Cf, The Classical Trivium57n45: “Grammar is the art of gathering and interpreting congruous instances, whether phenomenal (= physical nature, the exterior landscape) or textual ( = human nature, the interior landscape).”
  28. On the orientation to the future in the Novum Organum: “the thorough passage of the world (which now by so many distant voyages seems to be accomplished, or in course of accomplishment), and the advancement of the sciences, are destined by fate, that is, by Divine Providence, to meet in the same age.” (Aphorism XCIII)

Bacon in McLuhan 1 (Nashe thesis)

Man cannot look with understanding on the book of nature until he has been perfected in the art of grammar. (140)1

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) played an important role, or important roles, in McLuhan’s work from 1940 (when he began blocking out his Cambridge PhD thesis on Thomas Nashe) to 1980 (when he died on the last day of the year).

At the start of his thesis (submitted and approved in 1943) McLuhan specified that Bacon could and perhaps should have been its subject rather than Nashe:

What the present study tries to do directly for Nashe, it does incidentally for his contemporaries; so that if Nashe appears to be a kind of appendix to a chapter in the history of education, he is really intended to be a focal point [illustrating it]. Bacon or Donne would have served this function better in some ways than Nashe.  It would have been possible to relate them more complexly to their age, in so far as they were more complex and comprehensive writers. This study will achieve its end if it can indicate the lines along which further enlightenment concerning Bacon and Donne and their age is possible. (6)2 

Still, even with Nashe as its nominal subject, by describing the dynamics of education3 in terms of the trivium, that is of grammar vis-a-vis dialectic, on the one hand, and rhetoric, on the other — and this over the two millennia between classical Athens and Elizabethan England — McLuhan hoped to supply new illumination particularly on Bacon:

[Grammar’s] claim to be viewed as an important basis of scientific method, both during antiquity and continuously throughout medieval times, and in the work of Francis Bacon, has, I think, never been indicated before the present study. (15)

A central idea of the thesis, one which McLuhan would continue to pursue for the rest of his life, concerned the “Book of Nature” (7) with its implicated “language of nature” (16) — the “language” with its enabling “grammar” in which that “Book of Nature” was written:4

From the time of the neo-Platonists and Augustine to Bonaventura and to Francis Bacon, the world was viewed as a book, the lost language of which was analogous to that of human speech. Thus the art of grammar provided the sixteenth-century approach not only to the Book of Life in scriptural exegesis but to the Book of Nature, as well. (7)

[grammar’s] claim to be viewed as an important basis of scientific method… (15)

grammar and science were inseparably linked in their origins. (27)

Finding his place in a long line of Ciceronians, Bacon has the same conception [as the others in that line] of the function of the arts. Grammar is the art of gathering and interpreting congruous instances, whether phenomenal [physical nature, the exterior landscape] or textual [human nature, the interior landscape]. (57n45)

[Hugh of Saint Victor] shows like the Fathers before him and like Francis Bacon after him, that the arts are for the relief of man’s fallen state. Grammar is the most basic art of all. Man cannot look with understanding on the book of nature until he has been perfected in the art of grammar. (140) 

It is within this system of analogy, rooted in the ancient notions of the Logos and grammar, and seeking the light of revelation, that Bonaventure’s fellow Franciscans Grosseteste and [Roger] Bacon envisaged the importance of their physical experiments. There is thus no inconsistency but propriety in the fact that Roger Bacon, like Erasmus and Francis Bacon, asserted the primacy of the art of grammar in approaching both Scripture and the book of nature. (145)

Grammar as the interpretive study of the language of life and of nature aims to illuminate, not to conclude. Its aim is to open relationships for mutual regard — or to recognize relationships which are already open for mutual regard. Of course science can follow from this (and can follow from this alone); but so does every social activity extending from family interaction through all social exchange to “communication between divinity and humanity” (89n32):

Bacon considered his own aphoristic style in the Essays as part of a scientific technique of keeping knowledge in a state of emergent evolution.5 (57n45)

Francis Bacon’s remark in the [1623] De Augmentis [Scientiarum] (…) asserts the superiority of allegorical or parabolical poesy above all others “especially as religion itself commonly uses its aid as a means of communication between divinity and humanity.” (89n32, citing Works VIII, 442)

Donne is quite explicit about his rhetorical aims in preaching. His intention was to arrange his rhetorical effects in such a way as “to trouble the understanding, to displace, and discompose and disorder the judgement … or to empty it of former apprehensions, and to shake beliefe, with which it had possessed it self before, and then, when it is thus melted to poure it into new molds, when it is thus mollified, to stamp and imprint new formes, new images, new opinions in it.” [Donne Works 3, 275] Donne is here stating the Attic or anti-Ciceronian concept of style espoused by the Senecans. His words describe the aims set [for] themselves by Montaigne and Bacon in their essays.6 In The Advancement [of Learning, 1605] Bacon contrasts the two modes of delivering knowledge as the modes of aphorism and [of] orderly method: “But the writing in aphorisms hath many excellent virtues, whereto the writing in Method doth not approach. For first, it trieth the writer, whether he be superficial or solid: for Aphorism, except they should be ridiculous, cannot be made but of the pith and heart of sciences; for discourse illustration is cut off: recitals of examples are cut off; discourse of connection and order cut off; descriptions of practice are cut off…. And lastly, Aphorisms, representing a knowledge broken do invite men to inquire farther; whereas Methods, carrying the show of a total do secure men, as if they were at farthest.” [Works VI, 291] Both Montaigne and Bacon made compromises, gradually admitting examples, authorities, and descriptions, but persisting in their original intention of employing an aphoristic style in order to dislocate the mind from its customary courses.7 (200)

Contrary to the common supposition that self-interest necessarily counts against the truth of a matter,8 the thesis places repeated emphasis on the properly utilitarian character of an enterprise like Bacon’s when it is pursued in true self-interest:

Bacon’s account of the history of philosophy in the Novum Organum [1620] is almost identical with Cicero’s [in works written almost 1700 years before in the middle of the first century BC]. This is not strange, since both hold the view that the arts are entirely to be judged on the basis of their usefulness to man. (56n43)

Bacon never for a moment ceases to view the business of the arts as being the relief of man’s fallen moral state. In this matter he is in perfect accord with (…) a long tradition in which man’s task had been defined as “as the organization of our earthly exile into a sort of suburb of the heavenly kingdom.”9 (56n43)10

Just as Bacon was later to claim in attacking the dialecticians, St. Augustine says arts and knowledge are for use, for the relief of man’s estate; and, as Bacon freely admits, the greatest art is theology, since it is for the relief of man’s spiritual estate.11  (73n45)

It is, of course, the utilitarianism of Bacon which charms Macaulay, and the utilitarianism of the fathers from which Bacon’s derives, is, of course, intense. Nothing was more utilitarian than the salvation they preached. Naturally the arts and sciences which assisted in this grand utilitarian scheme were also of great practical concern. The Middle Ages were completely utilitarian. Even the classics were of utility and St Bonaventure the theologian put up a much better case for the study of classics than Macaulay the civil servant. Insofar as Macaulay retains a grasp of the Ciceronian view of the great utility of eloquence as a political wisdom, he can thank Bacon and the Fathers. (147)

McLuhan’s deepest intent in the thesis was to begin showing the hidden roots of modern science and of modernity generally. As roots these had never been lost and never could be lost; but they could be obscured and for all the world could seem to be lost. And this for essential reasons.12 This radical intent was, again, a matter McLuhan would pursue for the rest of his life.

In his Filium Labyrinthi [1606], Francis Bacon shows himself an exception to the Renaissance habit of ignoring the predecessors of the hated Schoolmen. After conventionally attacking the contentious dialectical learning which the Schoolmen had derived from (…) Aristotle, he says [that] the true and precious heritage of antiquity, both natural and revealed knowledge, has been preserved by the Church: “in the bosom and lap thereof, in the greatest injuries of times, ever preserved as holy relics, [were] the books of philosophy and all heathen learning”. [Works VI, 423] (87n27)

Bacon [was] an enthusiastic exponent of the revived grammatical theology and encyclopedia of the arts, which had been neglected by the dialectical Schoolmen: “and lastly in our times (…) when Luther and the divines of the Protestant church on the one side, and the Jesuits on the other, have enterprised to reform, the one the doctrine, the other the discipline and manners of the Church of Rome, (…) both of them [together] have awaked (…) human learning.” [Works VI, 423]13 (87n27)

In the De Augmentis [1623] discussing the relation of dialectics and scientific method, Bacon makes quite explicit that he approves the Old Logic: “And herein Ramus merited better in reviving those excellent rules of propositions that they should be true, universally, primarily, and essentially…”. [Works IX, 128]14 Bacon’s impatience with the “vermiculate questions” of the schoolmen is owing to his conviction that his tradition of logic with its rhetorical topics dealt with arguments and things, while that of the Aristotelians dealt with words only. (105n4)15

  1. Page numbers below, unless otherwise specified, are from the posthumous publication in 2006 of Marshall McLuhan’s 1943 PhD thesis, The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of his Time, retitled as The Classical Trivium and edited by W.T. Gordon.
  2. In papers from the early 1940s which remained unpublished in his lifetime,  McLuhan himself attempted to pursue such “further enlightenment concerning Bacon”. One paper was intended for the Journal of the History of Ideas, but was not revised as the editors wished and never did appear there. Another was intended for an MLA meeting which was cancelled on account of the war. These two papers were eventually published posthumously and will be discussed in future posts in this series.
  3. The dynamics of education — broadly considered as the variable ontological and epistemological foundations of individual and social culture.
  4. The genitive construction, “language of nature”, must be considered both  subjectively and objectively. That is, nature is both the object of this language and its author (or subject). Only when we learn this language can we learn about nature — precisely because it is nature’s own in multiple senses.
  5. The phrase “emergent evolution” points to two times, one that is eruptive or emergent and one that is continuous or in evolution. Times plural are combined in all life and all knowledge.
  6. It is no contradiction when McLuhan sometimes describes Bacon as Ciceronian and sometimes again as anti-Ciceronian. Bacon was a grammarian, in McLuhan’s view, and the crux of grammar derives exactly from its power to hold together without merger such complex matters as anti-Ciceronian dialectic and Ciceronian rhetoric.
  7. In a May 22, 1944 letter to John Randall, editor of the Journal of the History of Ideas, which had rejected a paper on Bacon drawn from his Nashe thesis, McLuhan wrote: “This Bacon paper was intended as a raid, but not as a raid to set up a scholastic regime — merely a raid to upset a mass of complacent cliché.” (Cited by Gordon In Escape into Understanding, 116.)
  8. This notion is, of course, often extended through the observation that everything shows some self-interest, so that there is, therefore, no such thing as the truth of any matter.
  9. McLuhan takes this phrase from St Bonaventure, translated by Gilson in The Philosophy of St. Bonaventure, 479.
  10. At the start of his 2006 edition of the Nashe thesis, W.T. Gordon states that “With the exception of pages 192 to 197 of this edition, published as ‘Cicero and the Renaissance Training for Prince and Poet’ in Renaissance and Reformation Studies VI, 3 (1970), pages 38- 42, none of the material has appeared in print previously.” But this is mistaken. Pages 197 to 202 of his edition appeared in another issue of Renaissance and Reformation Studies (VII:1, 1970, 3-7) as ‘The Ciceronian Program in Pulpit and in Literary Criticism’. Furthermore, Eric McLuhan included many pieces of the thesis in papers he published after his father’s death. Parts of this note, for example, appeared in Eric’s ‘Francis Bacon’s Theory Of Communication And Media’, McLuhan Studies, 1996, Issues 3 and 4.
  11. This is another note from the thesis used by Eric McLuhan in his ‘Francis Bacon’s Theory Of Communication And Media’ essay. See note 10 above for details.
  12. Leibniz, Monadology (1714): “this is the way of obtaining as much variety as possible (…) that is, it is the way of obtaining as much perfection as possible.”
  13. Mcluhan continued: “The Jesuits shared with (…) Bacon the Ciceronian doctrine of the primacy of eloquence and political or civil prudence among the arts and sciences. Without these, knowledge could never, they said, be applied to the relief of man’s fallen state.” (87n27) The conclusion intended here was not that politics or other civil pursuits are more important than the arts and sciences. It was, rather, that all humans understand family and society in some fashion and the key to this understanding is also the key to the arts and sciences. Call it ‘language’ or ‘grammar’ — it is that medium that links the generations in time and the members of family and society in every present. The sciences must understand this key both as something that is, indeed, something that is superlatively, but also as that medium into which they themselves must fully enter if they are to succeed. The arts and sciences must, this is to say, relate to their various subject matters — and know that they thus relate to them — as naturally as family and society members do in their mutual intercourse.
  14. Bacon continues here: “Ramus merited better in reviving those excellent rules (…) than he did in introducing his uniform method and dichotomies; and yet it comes ever to pass, I know not how, that in human affairs (according to the common fiction of the poets) ‘the most precious things have the most pernicious keepers’.” McLuhan was intrigued with the complexity of Bacon’s sentiment here and therefore recommended to his best student at the time, Walter Ong S.J., that he pursue a study of Ramus. In fact, Ong did just this. He went on to complete his PhD on the topic at Harvard a dozen years later — part of which, published as Ramus and Talon Inventory, was dedicated to McLuhan “who started all this”.
  15. Emphasis added. Words are not words merely as sounds or as marks on paper. Indeed, grammar is not properly concerned with words in these ways at all, but with words in essential relation to things.

Stewart Robb

In her 1974 “Intimate look at Marshall McLuhan”, Kaye Rowe mentions a University of Manitoba classmate, Stewart Robb (1909-1991), who was part of an unofficial Monday night study group along with her (she was then Kaye Moreland) and McLuhan. Since Robb graduated from UM in English in 1932 and since the group studied texts for a survey course, this must have been in 1930 or 1931.

The 1931 Brown and Gold yearbook for the University of Manitoba has this thumbnail portrait:

Robb cannot be measured by the common rules of the student body; you can never put your finger on him long enough to decide whether he is goblin or elf, or Puck himself. Here he is distinguished by a love of music, a fly-away temperament, and certain eccentricities. There is a spark of something which promises, when matured, to be at least quite extraordinary.

Like McLuhan, Robb continued at UM after graduating with his B.A. in 1932. He obtained his M.A. there in 1933 with a thesis on Evidences Of Christian Influence In The Epic Of Beowulf. Noteworthy here already is Robb’s familiarity with German, which he would put to use decades later translating Wagner.

An article in The Winnipeg Tribune, December 29, 1934 (p 14) mentions Robb and McLuhan as  studying in Oxford and Cambridge:

The last issue of the [University of Manitoba] “Alumni Journal” In its “Around the Globe” column gives news of (…) Stewart Robb, last year’s I.O.D.E. scholarship man, now spending his second year at Oxford (…) [and] Marshall McLuhan, honors B.A., ’33, [in his first year] at Trinity Hall, Cambridge.1 

The two remained in touch in England: Gordon’s bio (following Letters 70n2) records them meeting at the end of June, 1935, to make a trip together to Belgium and France.2  

Rowe’s characterization of Robb forty years later in her “intimate look” as “the world’s leading authority on Nostradamus” was doubtless accurate:3 

Robb authored many other Nostradamus and parapsychology titles as well.4 But he was up to much more than this.


The liner notes for these 1962 Folkways albums5 describe the artist as follows:

Stewart Robb, harpsichordist, as well as author, lecturer and translator, is a graduate of Oxford and the University of  Manitoba. He is the world’s leading authority on
Nostradamus, and a noted scholar on the Bacon-Shakespeare controversy.6
A regular panel member on WOR’s Long John Nebel [All Night Radio] Show,7 he has also appeared on other radio and television programs, speaking on psychic phenomena and related subjects.
He is equally well known as a harpsichordist. He studied with Fernando Valenti and subsequently has been heard many times on the radio and in concert  performances. He holds an L.A.B. (performer’s degree) in piano from the Associated Board of the London Royal Academy of Music and the London Royal College of Music.
Mr. Robb’s libretto translations have won him praise from leading musical personalities, including Lawrence TibbettHenry Weber, and Frederick Jagel.
His recently published 
translation of the entire Ring of the Nibelung (Dutton, 1960) has been acclaimed by Dr. Sigmund Spaeth; Toscanini’s  assistant, Dr. Walter du Cloux; and the editors of the The Library Journal, and is being used as a text in University classes. This spring his translation of Parsifal will appear in an anthology of Opera Librettos published by Doubleday Music.8

A favorable review of Robb’s Music for the Harpsichord and Virginal appeared the year after its release in a section of Audio magazine called ‘Hi-ways and By-ways’ by Edward Canby.

Record Review of Music for the Harpsichord and Virginal (Stewart Robb, Folkways FM 3320 mono)
Edward Tatnall Canby
Audio (the original magazine about high fidelity!)
47:1, January 1963, p 53
For a long while this Mr. Robb kept calling me to find whether I’d received his record, then whether I’d played it. Since I tend to be swamped with everybody’s records, I was mildly annoyed. Well, I’m happy to say that the disc is really very excellent. He was right. Never heard of “it” [virginal] in the singular before, like a trouser — one normally speaks of the “virginals,” plural, always wondering how “they” came to be that way. “They” are a single small-edition harpsichord, table-model (with or without legs), with a single set of plucked strings and a short keyboard. There was much lovely music in Elizabethan times for the instrument, and Mr. Robb manages to make it sound a lot less monotonous than it can sometimes sound, what with the one, single tone color and loudness available for the playing. On a medium-size harpsichord, Mr. Robb plays a fine long set of later Buxtehude variations on a simple theme. The Italian works by Frescobaldi and several items by Purcell are technically post-virginal but sound out very musically on the little instrument even so.9

Over twenty years later a description of Robb and his virginal appeared in an article describing the 10th anniversary event of the Tustin (California) Historical Society, “A May Day in a Victorian Garden”. Here is an excerpt:

A Shaggy Garden Blooms in Tustin
Richard Buffum
Los Angeles Times, May 11, 1986

Ah, spring, sweet spring in a Victorian garden, while sipping tea and listening to ancient music played upon a virginal, a type of early harpsichord, while beside my feet oregano grows rampant and overhead a great lemon tree dangles fruit the size of baseballs. Over the Minuet in G, over the hum of voices of others at tea, from behind the avocado trees and the giant pecan tree, from beyond the old barn, the honking of geese is heard.  After tea (…) I excuse myself to talk with the virginal player, Stewart Robb.
Robb and his wife, Marilyn, who accompanies him on the violin, are from up the road in Anaheim. He says he has been playing the same virginal, a small rectangular keyboard instrument of the 16th Century, for the past 30 years. Its strings are plucked with plectrums of leather.
“Look,” says Robb, “look at those keys.” They had worn depressions in their wood. “They are from my fingers playing on them over the years.”
It seems that the instrument, which can be set upon any convenient table, appears to be 400 years old. But it is a replica, he says, built by a friend of 30 years ago.
Robb plays from memory the oldest piece he knows, a 15th-Century dance tune named “My Lady Carrie’s Dump.” He cautions me not to be misled by the last word in the title, explaining that it was a form of dance.


  1.  McLuhan obtained the same I.O.D.E. scholarship for, according to Letters 18, 1934-1935. But it is plain from McLuhan’s correspondence from Cambidge that his scholarship did not kick in until the start of the school-year in the fall of 1935. For his travel, tuition and living expenses in 1934-1935 he had to rely on a small travel grant from UM together with money from his family. During this time he was frequently down to his last pound.
  2.  Escape into Understanding: “McLuhan remained in Cambridge until the end of June 1935, meeting then with his Winnipeg friend Stewart Robb, a student at Oxford, and sailing from Harwich for Belgium” (58). The Letters note followed by Gordon here indicates that there are unpublished McLuhan letters in Ottawa describing this trip to the continent which could not be included in the volume “for reasons of space”. Indeed, according to Corinne McLuhan, the original Letters manuscript amounted to four volumes, but OUP would agree to issue only one. The work of the editors, including Corinne, had to be reduced by 75%.
  3.  Robb: “There is only one Nostradamus. There is only one Bach, one Beethoven, one Nostradamus.” (Talk delivered at the 1967 Congress of Scientific UFOlogists, June 23-25, 1967, Commodore Hotel, New York City. See pages 26-30 of the transcript for Robb’s remarks.)
  4. Nostradamus on Napoleon, Hitler and the present crisis (1942); Letters on Nostradamus and miscellaneous writings (1945); Nostradamus and the end of evil (1983); Nostradamus and the end of evils begun (1984). Parapsychology titles from Robb included Strange prophecies that came true (1967), True spirit stories from the beyond (1969) and More true spirit stories from the beyond (1970). Regarding parapsychology, New University, the campus newspaper of UC Irvine, in an item from December 2, 1969, reported the following event for that evening: “The alleged posthumous voice of George Bernard Shaw will be heard on tape this evening at the Psynetics Foundation. The event, which will be open to the public, will take place during the third in a series of weekly lectures on parapsychology and mediumship being given by the musician and author, Stewart Robb of Anaheim. The lecture is scheduled to start at 8 o’clock in the main meeting room of the foundation, 1135 Barkley Avenue, Orange. (New University, 2:17, December 2, 1969,  p 2.) Kandi Roche from Hundred, WV, reported in what amounts to a testimonial that she “learned how to capture & record sounds & voices of entities from the other side (in a course) “Exploring Parapsychology” taught by Stewart Robb, Cal State Fullerton, 1975.” The voices of the dead came from an unknown future: so, for Robb, also Nostradamus — but while he was still with us in the present.
  5.  Music for the Harpsichord and Virginal, FM 3320, and Music for the  Virginal FM 3321, both recorded in 1961.
  6. Both Robb and McLuhan were trained in Winnipeg and the UK in the literature of the English renaissance. Robb published three pieces in Baconiana, the publication of The Francis Bacon Society: ‘Shakespeare and Cambridge University’, xxxiii:132, summer 1949; ‘Shakespeare’s Schoolboy Howlers’, xxxiv:134, January 1950; and Francis Bacon, Macbeth and James I‘, xxxv:141, autumn 1951. Bacon and Shakespeare appear very frequently in McLuhan as well, of course, though not in regard to the authorship controversy. McLuhan published ‘Henry IV, A Mirror for Magistrates’ in UTQ, 1948, just before Robb’s ‘Shakespeare and Cambridge University’ in 1949.
  7. Robb is mentioned several times in Nebel’s book, The Way Out World. Nebel’s other book, The Psychic World Around Us is to be found “sanitized” and “approved for release” in the CIA reading room.
  8. Later translations of Wagner operas by Robb included Das Rheingold: English version (Schirmer, 1960), Lohengrin (Schirmer, 1963), Der fliegende Holländer (Dutton, 1964) and Tristan and Isolde (Dutton, 1965).
  9. Canby concluded his short review with a technical recommendation: “Note that this is a kind of absolute recording, i.e. with almost no liveness (reverberation time). Play it at the absolute loudness of the instruments themselves.”

The essential plurality of the forms of being

McLuhan’s Ph.D. thesis from 1943, The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of his Time, retitled as The Classical Trivium, was edited and published 25 years after his death by W.T. Gordon. In his ‘Editor’s Introduction’, Gordon cites some notes from McLuhan written in the 1960s:1

I think it can be shown that the general cultural confusion and merging of the past century or so has been favorable to the rebirth of grammatica in its ancient sense— a sense even wider than that in which Vives or Bacon understood it and a sense more profound than current semantic studies provide. (…) The pursuit of psychological order in the midst of a material and political chaos is of the essence of grammatica. Thus modern symbolism in art and literature corresponds to ancient [grammatical] allegory. (…) Of course, the weakness of grammatica is that it never seems able to avail itself of the aids of dialectics and philosophy.2

As described by Gordon, these notes went back twenty-some years from the 1960s to the early 1940s when McLuhan was writing his thesis on the three arts of the trivium: rhetoric, grammar and dialectic. But in fact they had roots a decade earlier in McLuhan’s work with Rupert Lodge at the University of Manitoba in the early 1930s.

Lodge’s ‘comparative method‘ for philosophy postulated that it has three irreducible forms: realism, pragmatism and idealism. As illustrated by the obvious parallel between this notion and McLuhan’s investigation of the trivium in his Nashe thesis a decade later, he was so deeply taken by this idea of an essential threefold plurality that he would continue relentlessly to probe it in various ways all during the half century of his subsequent work.3

Even while he was working closely with Lodge, however, McLuhan suspected that Lodge’s restriction of the notion to philosophy was questionable. How could essential plurality be limited to a single discipline? Hence, in his 1934 Manitoba M.A. thesis on George Meredith, McLuhan gave what was at once a nod to Lodge and an implicit criticism of him:

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.

This same critique was forcibly expressed twenty years later in a 1954 letter to Walter Ong, who had been McLuhan’s student at St Louis University in the early 1940s when McLuhan was writing his Nashe thesis:

I realize now that my own rejection of philosophy as a study in my pre-Catholic days4 was owing to the sense that it was a meaningless truncation.5

“Meaningless” here may have been intended to correlate with “pre-Catholic” and in this case could be brought together with McLuhan’s explicit critique of Lodge in a 1935 letter to his family from Cambridge:

Lodge is a decided Platonist and I learned [to think] that way as long as I was trying to interpret Christianity in terms of comparative religion. Having perceived the sterility of that process, I now realize that Aristotle is the soundest basis for Xian doctrine.6

But it may also have had the sense of “unaccountable”, “counterproductive”, even “contradictory”. For if it is the first business of thought to be dynamic in regard both to what it studies and how it studies — that is, both to investigate fundamental plurality7 and itself to be fundamental plurality — it must always and only be the practice of anti-truncation.8

The short concluding chapter on Thomas Nashe in McLuhan’s Ph.D. thesis may be used to illustrate the point at stake.

Nashe was thus a fulIy enlightened protagonist in an ancient quarrel (…) It was not a quarrel between Catholic and Protestant, but a dispute about methods of exegesis in theology and preaching, concerning which some [on each side of the divide between] Catholics and Protestants held patristic views and some held to scholastic positions. (The Classical Trivium, 226)

Elsewhere in the chapter, the dispute is said to have concerned “the way of right studie” (217), “the authority of Aristotle“,9 (229),  the “mode of eloquence” (235), the “mode of theology” (235), and “conflicting rhetorics” (253).

In a word, the “ancient quarrel” concerned “at once (…) style and doctrine” (242). A truncation to the latter alone — the charge against Lodge — represented a problematic limitation of both the objective matter of investigation and of the investigating subjects’s own focus and method. 

The notes published by Gordon cited at the start of this post returned to the same theme, but now reversed: just as philosophy needed in 1934 to be open to “literary or artistic expression”,10 aka to grammatica, so in the 1960s grammatica had to be open to “dialectics and  philosophy”. The question was always how to investigate the matter of irreducible plurality — first of all by being it.

  1. Gordon gives no reference, but these are apparently to be found in McLuhan’s papers in Ottawa.
  2. W.T. Gordon, ‘Editor’s Introduction’ to McLuhan, The Classical Trivium, 2005, xi.
  3. The fundamental threefold in McLuhan’s 1960-1980 work in “understanding media” may be seen in his determination that the Gutenberg galaxy is inherently dualistic and that it cannot equally valorize both horns of its dilemma without also valorizing their medium. Since the latter was the signal difference between electric configuration and that of the Gutenberg galaxy, the result was to posit three basic forms (the two horns + their metamorphic dialogue or resonance) each with a characteristic estimate of the possibility of positive relation to its other (“the medium is the message”): each of the horns refusing it and the electric embracing it. The unavoidable (yet universally avoided) ‘main question’ followed: how to understand the implicated positive relation of the all-at-once electric to its other, namely, the inherently dualistic assembly line of print? If there were no such positive relation, the electric would itself be one horn of a dilemma vis-a-vis print and hence not electric at all. (Thus McLuhan’s observation in a May 13, 1975 letter to Don and Louise Cowan cited in Gordon’s Escape into Understanding bio, p 260: “The phrase — ‘Print Oriented Bastards’ — was invented by John Culkin and has never been used by me in conversation. The feeling of animus in it is not characteristic of me.”) But this concern for fundamental relation across fundamental difference was, of course, exactly the chief preoccupation of Rupert Lodge: “As the speculative construction of interpretations which essentially admit of alternatives, philosophy is necessarily sceptical of (any and all) one-sided claims; and its proper method of study is necessarily comparative.” (‘The Comparative Method in Philosophy’, 1937, 432, ‘any and all’ added here.) Amazingly, McLuhan’s 1960-1980 investigations of media, which represented the final form of his long engagement with the thought of Rupert Lodge, did so on the basis of the work of McLuhan’s other University of Manitoba philosophy professor, Henry Wright. For it was Wright who introduced McLuhan to the importance of communications and media in all aspects of human being (verbal) and who grounded this importance in the roots of media in the human psyche. See Henry Wilkes Wright 2 for citation and discussion.
  4. McLuhan converted in 1937, but he seems to be referring here to the period around 1934 when he was beginning the study of Catholicism that led to his conversion. He felt a tension then between Lodge’s philosophy and the Church which he decided in favor of the latter. Over the next decade, however, he would gradually find a way to reconcile the two, especially in the philosophical-theological work of his future colleague at St Michael’s, Étienne Gilson. His Nashe thesis was a formulation of this reconciliation.
  5. October 14, 1954, Letters 244.
  6. McLuhan to Elsie, Herbert & Maurice McLuhan, February 1935, Letters 53.
  7. Dynamism implicates plurality since it is the movement between two states, or two levels, or two times. Meanwhile, the fundamental must be dynamic since it necessarily exists only in contrast to the non-fundamental and the relation between the two must be dynamic in some way.
  8. McLuhan’s rejection of philosophy may usefully be compared and contrasted to that of Verlinde as discussed in Verlinde and the aversion to philosophy. For Verlinde, philosophy is too unscientific. For McLuhan, it might be said, it was too scientific.
  9. Full passage: “The responsible historian should guard himself from repeating the opinion that the ‘authority of Aristotle’ was absolute at any time in the history of European thought” (229).
  10. The phrase is from the Meredith thesis cited in full above.

Verlinde and the aversion to philosophy

After his Delft lecture, Verlinde gave this answer to a question about the possibility of a theory of everything:

I don’t even want to go into the direction of religion or this kind of thing because for me that’s philosophy. What I can do with my equations is only estimate how much information is there, what it’s doing and for us that’s enough. And so I don’t think that that question is part of what we need to answer as physicists. (63:46ff)

It may be guessed that Verlinde has been criticized in the physics community for a tendency to ‘philosophy’. This might especially come from physicists like Lee Smolin who are insistent realists. Here is Smolin in an April 2019 Perimeter Institute lecture, ‘Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution‘:

I don’t want a theory of myself intervening with nature or having a conversation about nature. I’m doing science because I want to understand how nature is in our absence. (…) After all, through most of the history of the universe (…) we weren’t there. So our knowing, believing, thinking, intervening, preparing, measuring shouldn’t play a role in what fundamentally the atoms and the elementary particles are doing.1 (…) Those of us are realists believe that nature exists independently of our knowledge and beliefs about it, and that the properties of systems in nature can be characterized and understood independent of our existence and our manipulations. That’s what I mean by a realist. (12:20ff)2

Since information is a primitive property3 of the universe for Verlinde,4 and since information is necessarily implicated in the “knowing, believing, thinking, intervening, preparing, measuring” rejected by Smolin, Verlinde might seem to violate Smolin’s strictures in the very foundations of his work.  It may well be, then, that his declared aversion to ‘philosophy’ is an apotropaic attempt to deflect such criticism away from his research at the outset. ‘I’m not declaring myself in either of the realist-idealist directions’, he might be seen as assuring Smolin and other realists, ‘I’m just doing my work — please look at my equations before judging what I’m up to.’

Now McLuhan’s undergraduate mentor at the University of Manitoba, Rupert Lodge, held that philosophy comes in three flavors5 — realism, pragmatism and idealism.6 And Verlinde’s portrayal of his research might be seen as typical of the middle position of Lodge’s three forms, that of the ‘pragmatist’:

Realism interprets experience as a kind of being, idealism as a kind of knowing. It is easy to see that (…) both realism and idealism are one-sided. Experience has been split up into two aspects, and then the whole has been interpreted exclusively in terms of one of its aspects. It is all nature, or all mind. The extreme forms of these views have always invited criticism. (…) Consequently a third type of philosophy has tended to develop: a philosophy which tries to be true to experience, and to avoid all abstract and one-sided theorizings. This attempt at interpretation has taken many forms. One of the best known is called “pragmatism”.7

However, despite its declared wish “to avoid all abstract and one-sided theorizings”, such as might seem to characterize only realism and idealism, Lodge saw pragmatism as falling prey to this same ambition (or, at least, the same fate).8 He therefore explicitly rejected it as philosophy’s “proper method of study”:

If philosophy is essentially speculative, an affair of alternative possibilities, I must study those alternative possibilities, and must not, in my enthusiasm for realism (or idealism or pragmatism)9 close my eyes to alternative possibilities. In so far as any one alternative (…) refuses to be regarded as one alternative amongst others, and claims to be in exclusive possession of the whole truth, I must be sceptical of its claims. In fact, in so far as it ceases to be sceptical about its own claims, and becomes [for example] (…) convinced pragmatism, it loses its open-mindedness and is really ceasing to be truly speculative and philosophical.10 ln a word, it is precisely such one-sided philosophizing which is anti-philosophical, and not comparative philosophy, with its scepticism directed against one-sidedness. As the speculative construction of interpretations which essentially admit of alternatives, philosophy is necessarily sceptical of [any and all] one-sided claims; and its proper method of study is necessarily comparative. 11

For Lodge, the essential thing was to reject every form of “one-sidedness” and to remain “necessarily comparative”. Such fundamental pluralism in Lodge’s work — and of McLuhan’s in “understanding media” as opposed to ‘understanding the medium’ — is also to be found in Verlinde, notably in his attention to entangement:

  • [Qubits] can do something called being entangled in the sense that one qubit, here, is doing the same thing as another one somewhere else [over there]. This is two qubits that are entangled, where the zero of one [qubit] is combined with a zero of the other, or the 1 of the one [qubit] is combined with the 1 of the other. This is an example of entanglement.  So this is the language we’re going to use to consider even our universe — we’re going to think about the universe in terms of information and also in terms of this entangled quantum information. (8:22ff)
  • it’s the power of quantum mechanics, it’s the essence of quantum mechanics that we have entanglement. And our [whole] universe [itself] is very entangled. (47.45ff)

The many implications of entanglement are of fundamental importance and will be considered in future posts. Suffice it to note here only that, at a minimum, entanglement entails plurality — and if Lodge and Verlinde are followed, this means essential plurality characterizing the very ontology of everything that exists.12 In this case, plurality cannot not characterize philosophy simply insofar as it is part of the furniture of the universe. And if philosophy, too, is essentially plural, it (it!) cannot be waved away as Verlinde does in his answer to the question in Delft (as cited above). Indeed, as Smolin illustrates, even a decided realist can see value to philosophy in at least some of its necessarily plural senses:

Philosophy cannot settle scientific questions, but it has a role to play. A bit of philosophical thought may prevent us from getting hung up on a bad idea, and the record of people who have struggled with the deep questions we face, such as the meaning of time and space, may suggest new hypotheses for us to play with. (The Life of the Cosmos, 1997, 21)

But a stronger claim may be made for philosophy in physics if (a) theory is required to do physics at all13 and if, as Lodge claimed, (b) philosophy is the comparative investigation of the field of fundamental theories.

As to the first, Eric McLuhan in a lecture claiming his father had no theories, yet somehow managed to cite Stephen Hawking as follows:

“[W]e cannot distinguish what is real about the universe without a theory,” [Hawking] writes. A good, elegant theory will describe a wide array of observations and predict the results of new ones. “Beyond that, it makes no sense,” he points out “to ask if [a theory] corresponds to reality, because we do not know what reality is independent of a theory”.14

Hawking’s claim that “it is no good appealing to reality”15 is, of course, not “model independent”16 itself. So it would appear that, if theory is necessary to do physics at all, and if theory is necessarily plural, something like Lodge’s philosophy as the “speculative construction of interpretations which essentially admit of alternatives” must be applicable within physics before any assurance from it that “it is no good appealing to reality”. Or, of course, before ‘it’ is dismissed out of hand.17

  1. Compare Verlinde: “there might be a way of thinking about gravity in a different way than what Einstein told us by thinking about the microscopic structure of space-time, not in the language of particles (…) but thinking about more fundamental building blocks in terms of information and in particular its quantum properties.”  (Perimeter, 36:58ff)
  2. This is the auto-generated transcript of Smolin’s Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution lecture at YouTube, corrected against the audio.
  3. It may be wondered if ‘property’ is the correct term here as opposed to possible alternatives such as ‘substance’ or ‘structure’ or ‘formation’.
  4. Information (is) contained in everything that nature is made of, even space and time” (Delft 5:15ff); “we’re going to think about the universe where we think about the basic building blocks as being information. This is maybe a way of phrasing it: that we live in an information universe not an information world. The whole universe is revolving around information” (Delft, 6:21ff).
  5. Comparable, perhaps, to the division in nature between mineral, vegetable and animal or to the states of matter between solid, liquid and gas.
  6. See Quantum communications (the implications of essential plurality) and the Lodge posts generally.
  7.  ‘The Comparative Method in Philosophy’, in Manitoba Essays, ed Lodge, 1937, 405-432, here 413.
  8. Lodge’s interesting point seems to have been that one-sidedness is not, or is not only, a potential property internal to a philosophical position, but is also and above all a property of its external relations with other philosophical positions!
  9. This bracketed insertion is original to Lodge.
  10. Lodge: “in so far as it ceases to be sceptical about its own claims, and becomes convinced realism (or convinced idealism or convinced pragmatism), it loses its open-mindedness”. The bracketed insertion is from Lodge.
  11.  ‘The Comparative Method in Philosophy’, 432.
  12. It might be objected that Lodge’s three forms concern philosophy and not, at least not explicitly, ontology.  But this is to overlook the question at stake in those forms, namely, the relation of mind to nature. Restricting his forms to thought means to decide that question in an idealist manner and hence to contradict Lodge’s demand for a “comparative” method.
  13. Required to do physics at all — or to do philosophy at all or, indeed, to do anything at all as a human being.
  14. Eric McLuhan, ‘Marshall McLuhan’s Theory of Communication: The Yegg, Global Media Journal — Canadian Edition, 1:1, 25-43, here 28, citing Hawking, Black Holes and Baby Universes, 1993.  Hawking’s full passage: “If what we regard as real depends on our theory, how can we make reality the basis of our philosophy? I say that I am a realist in the sense that I think there is a universe out there waiting to be investigated and understood. (…) Beyond that, it makes no sense to ask if (a theory) corresponds to reality, because we do not know what reality is independent of a theory. This view of scientific theories may make me an instrumentalist or a positivist (…) I have been called both. (…) It is no good appealing to reality because we don’t have a model independent concept of reality.” (44)
  15. See previous note.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Curiously, this is just the conclusion which the arch-realist Smolin puts forward: “What might it mean to extend science to encompass the whole universe? Is it possible to describe the whole of the universe in scientific terms? And, if it is possible, how must we modify our current theories in order to be able to do this? I have come to believe that this is the central issue that we must confront if we are to solve many of the key open problems in theoretical physics. How we think about the universe as a whole affects such apparently diverse questions as the problem of unifying quantum theory with general relativity, the problem of understanding the origin of the properties of the elementary particles, the problems of the interpretation of the quantum theory, the problem of what “caused” the Big Bang, and the question of why the universe is hospitable to life. These are all problems we have so far failed to solve (…) In my view, part of the reason for this (failure) is that we have not paid enough attention to the ways in which a theory that could be sensibly applied to the whole universe must differ from our present theories. (The Life of the Cosmos, 12-13) Or again from Smolin, and more strongly: “If not for the philosophers, who is going to have the courage to tell the physicists when quantum theory, or another of our constructions, just cannot be made sense of? In the past, philosophers like Leibniz did not hesitate to tell physicists when they were speaking nonsense. Why now, when at least as much is at stake, are the philosophers so polite? (The Life of the Cosmos, 195)

Verlinde: Physics in the Information Age

On October 5, 2017, Eric Verlinde gave a lecture on A New View on Gravity and the Dark Side of the Cosmos.1 Many of the points Verlinde made in developing his lecture recapitulated insights which Marshall McLuhan repeatedly urged beginning in the early 1950’s. This was almost 70 years before Verlinde’s lecture held at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo Ontario — 70 miles from McLuhan’s base in Toronto. 

Here is McLuhan writing to Harold Innis in 1951:

One major discovery of the symbolists which had the greatest importance for subsequent investigation was their notion of the learning process as a labyrinth of the senses and faculties whose retracing provided the key to all arts and sciences.

And here is Verlinde retracing McLuhan along this labyrinthine way in a whole series of inter-related points:2

Technology and Thought

McLuhan in 1967:

  • this kind of [technological] revolution is one in which (…) all of us [are] actually living and it enables all sorts of things to appear and to be noticed for the first time that had previously been unobservable. This [is the] principle that whenever a new technology develops it creates a new environment for the whole culture…3

Verlinde in 2017:

  • The way that science progresses has very much to do with the times that we live in and with the technology that we use. Science helps us to develop technology but also our current technology influences the way we think about science. (4:33ff)
  • The revolutions in the 19th century were very much related to the existence of the steam engine. Now in the [20th] century we developed televisions and other things and a television, if you think about it, is actually a particle accelerator. It accelerates electrons which are moved around with electric fields and are projected on a screen and then we see photons coming out. So the ideas of forces and particles is really the language of the 20th century and there our understanding of nature was in terms of the most fundamental building blocks, which are elementary particles, and the fundamental forces. So we built theoretical physics using that language. Today we are already far in the 21st century and again we have a different type of technology — smartphones, computers, big data. (5:20ff)

Age of Information

McLuhan in 1958:

  • General Motors is a small operation compared to the electronic processing and packaging of information. The moving of information itself has become by far the largest industry in the world. The consuming of information, electronically processed, is by far the largest activity today.4

Verlinde in 2017:

  • Most of what we’re doing every day has to do somehow with information and that’s again a new language and this is again influencing the way we think about science. Today the new view on gravity has to do with information.  And because this is basically the language that we’re developing in our current century, we live in an Information Age. (6:17ff)
  • My new view on gravity has to do with a new view on the universe [as] built out of information and we’re going to understand the forces in it, in particular gravity, in terms of this new language [of information]. (8:27ff)
  • Information [is] contained in everything that nature is made of, even space and time. (Delft 5:15ff) 
  • we’re going to think about the universe where we think about the basic building blocks as being information. This is maybe a way of phrasing it: that we live in an information universe not an information world. The whole universe is revolving around information (Delft, 6:21ff) 

The Medium is the Message

McLuhan in 1953

  • the fury for change is in the form and not the message of the new media5

Verlinde in 2017:

  • But what is information? You might say, well it’s what I read in a newspaper because I’m interested in certain things. But there’s also an abstract way to think about information in terms of the way it’s stored in bits and then we don’t look at what is written somewhere, we just count for instance how many bits we have, how many bytes. And so I will think about information in this more abstract way so that we’re going to talk even about information that we cannot really access, but we still have a way of counting it by saying how many bits are used. (6:41ff)
  • So what indeed is information? I mean, it’s stored in bits and it is sort of unimportant (…) what is written there. You just count for instance how many bits you have and that tells you how much information you in principle can store, say on a chip or even in other parts of nature. (Delft 5:20ff)  
  • The link between entropy and information is going to be important, so if I talk about information later on and you wonder what I really mean, it’s counting the number of bits. (13:15ff)
  • There’s also another development going on, namely, we make things smaller and smaller and then we arrive at even sub-atomic scales or atomic scales where things become quantum mechanical. Then information has another meaning again because in quantum mechanics you get something called qubits. Not bits like zeros and ones but there’s also things that are somewhere in between. Qubits are funny objects because they can do things that are possible only in quantum mechanics — they can namely not just be 0 and 1 but can be something in the middle. (7:16ff)


McLuhan in 1963:

  • The (…) simultaneous character of electrical information coverage tends to create ‘field’ rather than point of view. And ‘field’ necessarily partakes of the character of interplay or of dialogue.6

Verlinde in 2017:

  • [Qubits] can do something called being entangled in the sense that one qubit here is doing the same thing as another one somewhere else. This is two qubits that are entangled, where the zero of one [qubit] is combined with a zero of the other, or the 1 of the one [qubit] is combined with the 1 of the other. This is an example of entanglement.  So this is the language we’re going to use to consider even our universewe’re going to think about the universe in terms of information and also in terms of this entangled quantum information. (8:00ff)
  • it’s the power of quantum mechanics, it’s the essence of quantum mechanics that we have entanglement. And our  [whole] universe [itself] is very entangled. (47.45ff)
  • Information [is] contained in everything that nature is made of, even space and time. (Delft: 5:15ff)


McLuhan in 1968:

  • As painters well know, space is created or evoked by all manner of associations among colors, textures (…) and their intervals.7

Verlinde in 2017:

  • And this is the same in nature — if we ask what things are made of, then some of the terms that we use, like maybe even matter or space and time, may not exist [as such at microscopic scale]. This is an indication of the way we are going in this lecture — and let me tell you then what the term [for this phenomenon] is: it’s called emergence. Mainly we use concepts and observe phenomena at macroscopic scales, which are derived from the microscopic scale but have a priori no meaning in that language [of the microscopic scale]. So the language that we use at macroscopic scales is different than the microscopic and we use concepts and things that are not meaningful [at microscopic scale], so we have to derive them… (10:02ff)

Emotion of Multitude

McLuhan in 1967:

  • the emotion of multitude (…) is a state in which we live constantly, that is, on the border. We live constantly in two worlds…8

Verlinde in 2017:

  • Bits are zeros and ones, quantum bits are also zeros and ones, but (…) [the quantum bit] can also be something in the middle and we call that a superposition (…) and this is why a qubit has many more possibilities [than bits]. (45.53ff)
  • A bit has only two possibilities, zero [or] one — [but] a qubit can be thought of as a sphere [where] all points on this sphere is a different state of that qubit and this is why if you do calculation with qubits, you’re doing many calculations at the same time — [using] many more bits than we normally have in a classical computer. In a quantum calculation you do all these things in parallel — all calculations are being done at the same time. This is why quantum computers are much more powerful [than classical computers]. (46.18ff)

Sphere of Meaning

McLuhan in 1960:

  • Today it is axiomatic that we live in a global space fed by information from every point on the sphere at the same time.9

Verlinde in 2017:

  • a qubit can be thought of as a sphere [where each] point on this sphere is a different [possible] state of that qubit (46:20ff)


McLuhan in 1967:

  • Ours is a brand-new world of allatonceness. ‘Time’ has ceased…10

Verlinde in 2017:

  • if you do calculation with qubits, you’re doing many calculations at the same time (…) In a quantum calculation you do all these things parallel — all calculations are being done at the same time. (46:28ff)
  • if you measure an [entangled] object (…) here, it can determine the outcome of a measurement somewhere else [over there]. Instantaneously. (47.18ff)

McLuhan held that art is always out ahead of science by a generation or two. So when Verlinde retraces McLuhan, it may be wondered if there are further aspects of McLuhan’s work which have not yet come to light in physics and which might help to solve outstanding problems in its investigations.

In fact, it is not at all merely McLuhan’s work that is of potential use to Verlinde’s physics. Instead, McLuhan may be regarded as a door opening onto both contemporary developments in the humanities and social sciences, as well as onto their long history. Entanglement (for example) has been considered for millennia in many different cultural traditions. Here is Heraclitus 2500 years ago:

ὁδὸς ἄνω κάτω μία καὶ ὡυτή11

Given such a long and varied history, it would be very strange if did not include the discovery and specification of ideas which physicists have not yet considered — but which could turn out to be critical for their research.

  1. On March 19, 2018 at Delft, Verlinde loosely repeated his Perimeter talk with a lecture called ‘A New View on Gravity and the Cosmos‘. Some of his formulations in this later lecture offer interesting variations on his earlier one at Perimeter.
  2. The remarkable thing between Verlinde and McLuhan (aside from the fact that McLuhan had these insights a half century ago), is not the number of similar points in the work of both, but the similar shape which the ensemble of these points takes for each of them. The passages cited from Verlinde’s lectures are taken from the auto-generated transcripts of the two ‘New View of Gravity’ lectures in YouTube.  They have been lightly edited to correct mistakes in the auto-transcription. The time stamps given in each case make it easy, of course, to proof Verlinde’s actual words.
  3. The Technological Unconscious‘, Inaugural Lecture at Fordham, September 18, 1967, 9:47ff.
  4. Our New Electronic Culture’, lecture held 26 May 1958, printed in NAEB Journal, 18:1, October 1958.
  5. Culture Without Literacy’, Explorations 1, Dec 1953. McLuhan in 1958: “The medium is the message. (…) It follows that if we study any medium carefully we shall discover its total dynamics and its unreleased powers. (Our New Electronic Culture’, lecture held 26 May 1958, printed in NAEB Journal, 18:1, October 1958.) McLuhan’s signature phrase has three entangled meanings: (1) form not content; (2) different forms have different middles or media and these forms can be classified on the basis of those different middles — so the middle is “where the action is” since it determines the form of the form (comparable to how the number of electrons and protons determine the particular form of the general form (EnPn) of chemical elements); (3) The middle is “where the action is”  because all messages are grounded in it — nothing comes to light except from some impetus out of the superposition of possibilities there.
  6. ‘We need a new picture of knowledge’, Yearbook: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1963.
  7. Through the Vanishing Point, 1968, 6. Interestingly, Verlinde, exactly like McLuhan, uses a picture to illustrate what he means by emergence. He shows his audience a few pixels of a picture which have no discernible significance at that level of detail (Perimeter, 8:53ff; Delft 6:53ff). Emergence is then shown in action when he pulls back to reveal the picture composed of those and many thousands of other pixels — just as in McLuhan’s painted picture where “space is created or evoked by associations among colors, textures (…) and their intervals”.
  8. ‘Canada: the Borderline Case’, 1967. For McLuhan and Yeats’ 1903 ‘Emotion of Multitude’ see Lévi-Strauss on method in anthropology.
  9.  Report on Project in Understanding, ‘Materials Developed for the Project’. Cf, McLuhan in 1970: “Without the interval (between them), there would be neither wheel nor axle. It is this resonant interval that constitutes the chemical bond, according to Linus Pauling (1939) in The Nature of the Chemical Bond. Heisenberg (1927) had pointed this out as relevant to quantum mechanics. What the Japanese call MA, the significant space between forms, evokes the world of auditory or acoustic space. It is the peculiar character of acoustic space, constituted by the act of hearing from all directions at once, that it is a sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose margin is nowhere.” (‘Discontinuity and Communication in Literature’, lecture given at University College, Toronto, Nov 21, 1970, printed in P. R. Leon, ed, Problèmes de L’Analyse Textuelle/Problems of Textual Analysis, 189-199, 1971.)
  10. The Medium is the Massage, 1967, 63.
  11. The way up and the way down are one and the same (DK B60). The sayings of Heraclitus have been investigated from Plato to Eliot (whose Four Quartets used this B60 fragment as one of its two epigrams from Heraclitus).

Quantum communications (the implications of essential plurality)

All media are active metaphors in their power to translate experience into new forms. The spoken word was the first technology by which man was able to let go of his environment in order to grasp it in a new way. (Understanding Media)1

the ratio2 among sight and sound, and touch3 (…) offer[s] precisely that place to stand which Archimedes asked for: “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world.” The media [as defined by the elementary structure of this ratio] offer exactly such a place to stand, for they are extensions of our senses, if need be into outer space. (Effects of the Improvements of Communication Media, 1960)

inputs are never the same as (…) outputs! This pattern of non-lineality is evident in every human activity. (Take Today, 137).4

Reading Heisenberg has made me feel that my media studies are at the state that nuclear studies had reached in 1924. But my heart sinks, because those nuclear studies were being urged forward by eager teams, and media studies enjoys no such support at all. But I am bold [enough] to say that many of the same techniques and concepts are needed for advancing media studies as were used for nuclear studies. But there is the huge difference, that media studies involve human lives far more profoundly than nuclear studies ever have done, or ever can do. (McLuhan to E.T. Hall)5

The signature suggestion of McLuhan’s undergraduate mentor at the University of Manitoba, Rupert Lodge, was that philosophy — and by extension truth and reality6 — comes in three irreducible flavors: realism, idealism and pragmatism:7

If philosophers are to come down from their ivory tower and be of some practical use in the world — as is so often demanded nowadays — one great difficulty which they must somehow surmount is the difficulty occasioned by their internecine differences. There are, roughly speaking, three schools of philosophy (…): realism, idealism, and pragmatism. Each has many branches, concerning which, qualifications might have to be introduced; but taken as wholes, the three are fundamentally distinct. (…) Each of these schools exploits a particular kind of explanatory hypothesis. Realism exploits what Aristotle called the “material cause,” idealism the “formal cause” and pragmatism the “efficient cause”. These lines of explanation as followed by the three philosophical schools, are not only different. They are divergent. The methods, backgrounds, and outlooks of the three schools become increasingly different. Even where they all use the same words, they understand them in distinctive senses. They compete with each other over the whole field of experience, and, as far as they can, negate each other’s explanatory efforts. To the practical mind, philosophers appear to be engaged in a sort of triangular duel.8

Lodge was interested in the “practical use” of his ideas in education, business and throughout society, taking his three different possibilities more or less at face value. The central questions for him were: how to recognize the basic forms? how to interrogate their influence throughout the life of the individual and society?  how to put to use the ever-present possibility of other approaches? McLuhan took over the importance of these questions, but also intuited that the further exploration of the implications of such pluralism might be of critical importance in a global village where truths and worldviews were increasingly in deadly conflict with one another and with the physical environment. This would lead him in the direction of what might be termed a quantum theory of information and communication.

The central implication of Lodge’s threefold proposal, McLuhan eventually found, was that no human experience can be continuous on its preceding moment or input. As he recorded in Project in Understanding New Media: “Early in 1960 it dawned on me that the sensory impression proffered by a medium like movie or radio, was not the sensory effect obtained.”9

If input and output were connected in some continuum, a plurality of different fundamental approaches to experience would not be possible.

No fundamental approach can be based on a previous one since in this case it would no longer be primary — it would be secondary on that earlier basis and itself not basic at all. Instead, a fundamental approach must be able to bootstrap itself as its own cause on its own base or ground. Further, this possibility of bootstrap auto-ignition must be synchronic — always available and always active — since, were this not the case, experience would at least sometimes be continuous on previous moments. At such hypothetical times, the activation of the supposedly fundamental approaches would be repressed or cancelled by continuity. Here again they would not be fundamental at all.

The upshot is that human experience, at its deepest level, must take place as a kind of perpetual auto-ignited sparking of some one of the fundamental possibilities of approach. Above this level, just as in the physical universe, there may be all sorts of predictable regularities having to do with, say, the typical compound formations of the fundamental possibilities and their properties. But at the level of contesting fundamentals, constraints comparable to those of quantum physics must be in force.  For example, it must always be uncertain in principle what sort of experience will follow on a chronologically prior one. So experience at any moment may be specified, but not its trajectory. Or typical trajectories may be identified, but the particular moments constituting them cannot be specified without interrupting the continuity of those linear trajectories (aka, ‘world lines’).

Hence, the ‘location’ and the ‘momentum’ deriving from the fundamental dominants of human experience — media — may be specified, but not both together and at once.

McLuhan’s vocabulary can be understood only in this context. Thus, ‘probing’ and ‘exploring’ in his work have to do with an exercise of thought that is exactly not continuous. They arise freely out of the ineluctable “gap” in every moment of human experience between input and output, “the medium [that] is the message”, and represent the attempt to find a new way to consider, and perhaps to solve, suddenly, some problem.

Because McLuhan saw that quantum physics had encountered these sorts of problems, he foresaw that the conceptualities deployed in it could be helpful in the investigations of quantum communications.  As he said in his letter to Hall cited above:

many of the same techniques and concepts are needed for advancing media studies as were used for nuclear studies.

The reverse is also possible:

many of the same techniques and concepts are needed for advancing nuclear studies as were used for media studies.

But the potential synergies between quantum physics and quantum communications go far beyond “techniques and concepts”. Especially, the inter-working of the two could establish truth once again as the ground and calling of human beings and so put an end to the reign of nihilism.

Nihilism would be ended by demonstration that quantum communications can aid in the specification of physical reality (from quarks to the universe).10 For such demonstration in the hard science of physics would rebound on the domain of communications in the supposedly soft social sciences and humanities to reveal their capacity for truth.

Life in truth would be re-established on this earth — only now on “the authority of knowledge“.

  1. Understanding Media, 61. Cf: “So it is with the emergence of language in the child. In the first months grasping is reflexive, and the power to make voluntary release comes only toward the end of the first year. Speech comes with the development of the power to let go of objects. It gives the power of detachment from the environment that is also the power of great mobility in knowledge of the environment” (Understanding Media, 132). In these passages from Understanding Media McLuhan does not explicitly raise the issue if ‘man’ may properly be said to have existed before being “able to let go of his environment in order to grasp it in a new way” through language. The implication of “the spoken word was the first technology” is that there was indeed something like ‘pre-technological man’. But elsewhere McLuhan was clear that humanity and language use are coextensive. Or even that language as logos is prior to humans and that the beginning of human being (verbal) and learning the use of language were simultaneous in origin — no humanity absent language. This event, in turn, would have been the inauguration of an unaccountable accord between humans and that prior logos.
  2. The ratio, singular, “among sight and sound, and touch”, names a spectrum of ratios, plural, in the same way as the singular elementary structure in chemistry names a table of elementary structures, plural.
  3. McLuhan’s hypothesis was that all media are based in an elementary ratio “among sight and sound, and touch”. This ratio extends over a spectrum with 3 main types: predominantly sight, predominantly sound, and sight/sound balance in which touch predominates. These 3 types recapitulate Lodge’s 3 types, just as did the “ancient quarrel” of the 3 arts of the trivium in McLuhan’s work in the 1940s.
  4. See “Food for the mind is like food for the body”.
  5. McLuhan to Edward T. Hall, April 5, 1962, Papers of Edward Twitchell HallUniv of Arizona Special Collections.
  6. As Lodge says in the extended passage cited above from ‘Balanced Philosophy and Eclecticism’: “They (the 3 forms of philosophy) compete with each other over the whole field of experience“. As cannot be emphasized enough, it is precisely the relation of philosophy, experience and thought, on the one hand, to truth and reality, on the other, that is the question at stake in the ‘ancient quarrel’ of the 3 forms. Wherever this quarrel is decided in favor of one of them, the primacy of the quarrel has been abrogated. The central insight of Lodge, inherited from a long tradition, and bequeathed to McLuhan, was that the quarrel is deeper than its forms — although it exists through its forms.
  7. This notion of a 3-fold beat to reality was hardly original to Lodge — it goes back at least 2500 years to Heraclitus and Plato. See Gigantomachia, triangular duel, siamese triplets.
  8.  ‘Balanced Philosophy and Eclecticism’, Rupert C. Lodge, The Journal of Philosophy, 41:4, February, 1944, 85-91, here 85. This article is in McLuhan’s papers in Ottawa, but misnamed in the finding aid as ‘Balanced Philosophy and Scholasticism’.
  9. This insight occurred 25 years after McLuhan was explicitly exposed to the idea in 1936 books by Francis Yates and Muriel Bradbrook (see “Food for the mind is like food for the body”) and 40 or so years after he was implicitly exposed to it in the work of his mother as an impersonator. Elsie’s whole art was founded on the notion that sensibility is founded, knowingly or unknowingly, on a creative decision among possible options. It followed that any particular exercise of sensibility could be acted out by reproducing that decision.
  10.  For example, all theory in quantum physics is, of course, just that — theory. Quantum communications might provide quantum physics with a new way, or ways, to test and evaluate competing theories. Or quantum communications might provide a formulation of ontology — creative autonomous sparking of a spectrum of possibilities in both the physical and psychological domains — and so provide a kind of target conceptual map for (and of) investigations in physics. Above all, communications and the humanities in general have explored the implications of entanglement (under a series of different names) for centuries, indeed for millennia.  These can supply new questions and new answers for the interrogations of physics (dual genitive).

On nisus

In a 1933 paper for a philosophy seminar with Rupert Lodge at the University of Manitoba, McLuhan wrote:

In a universe constituted by inclusion, exclusion, limitation and participation,1 there can be no principle of value; but if there is a nisus2 of which these forms are an empirical expression and which is prior or superior to them, then it alone could be the principle of value or the unifying impulse of the universe.3

Almost 50 years later, in the last year of McLuhan’s life, here is Barry Nevitt (speaking as always more or less in McLuhan’s name) in ABC of Prophecy:

things properly understood are the visible manifestations of their invisible harmony.4

Empirical expression’ and ‘visible manifestations’ remain the same.  But a movement has been made away from the striving of nisus, or at least from a certain understanding of the striving of nisus, to perception of an existing “harmony”.

Nisus as a horizontal striving reveals no harmony, visible or invisible, precisely because it would reach something that remains outstanding and unrealized. However, nisus as a vertical striving, as the essential dynamic of all possibilities to realize themselves, is an existing harmony of possibility and actuality, of new and old, of creativity and reality. Nisus in these two senses is isomorphic with diachronic and synchronic times and the need (in general, but McLuhan’s in particular) was to move from the first of these to the second. Not to the second alone, however, but to the second in essential relation with the first — where the first would be the “empirical expression” of the second.

The great question is hinted at in McLuhan’s 1933 paper with its phrase, “a nisus (…) which is prior”. But “prior” in what sense? Diachronic or synchronic?5


  1. McLuhan considered these (“inclusion, exclusion, limitation and participation”) as types of judgment and maintained that “the fundamental error committed by Mr. Demos is to (…) erect a metaphysics on a foundation of elementary judgment.” Instead, he thought, the reverse had to obtain: judgments and values had to follow on a foundation of elementary metaphysics.
  2. Nisus was a central notion of Rupert Lodge which he treated especially in the books he published in the 1930s: “But in all milieus, and whatever the particular medium in which mind expresses itself, the inward and spiritual nisus is essentially the same and exhibits the same laws of operation. It happens that language is peculiarly important as (such) a medium of expression (…) in the intercommunication of experiences in our ordinary social living” (The Philosophy of Education, 1937, 136). McLuhan would soon leave off thinking about nisus, but he would never, of course, leave off thinking about media, language and intercommunication. (‘Intercommunication’ was a central topic also in the work of Henry Wright, Lodge’s colleague in the University of Manitoba philosophy department and another great early influence on McLuhan.)
  3. The Non/Being of Non-Being (A Reply to Mr. Demos)’ is preserved in the McLuhan papers in Ottawa. Raphael Demos was a longtime professor of philosophy at Harvard and the author of ‘Non-being’, Journal of Philosophy, 30:4, Feb. 16, 1933, 85-102. McLuhan included this paper, along with another seminar paper on ‘Creative Thought Versus Pragmatism’, in his applications for a teaching position in 1936 with this note: “These two essays in philosophy were products of ordinary seminar work which I did for Prof. R.C. Lodge — the well-known Platonist. I kept them because he considered them to be worthy of publication.” With this note, McLuhan was apparently signalling that anyone wanting to know of his potential as a teacher and researcher should contact Rupert Lodge. He was also saying, what he would later openly admit, that in his two years at Cambridge he had failed to impress anybody sufficiently to use as a reference.
  4.  ABC of Prophecy, preview edition, 1980, 44.
  5. One answer might be ‘both’, once the diachronic is consider as “an empirical expression” of the synchronic. But this answer is wrong where the diachronic is considered on its own. In this case, nisus at the diachronic or factual level implies a continuity which is one of the signatures of the Gutenberg galaxy only. Such continuity is not the case, is broken, once a rival form of representation (‘medium’) is considered (like the preliterate or the electronic) and especially not where plural forms are considered.

Vertical and horizontal times in Saussure and Nevitt

In ABC of Prophecy: understanding the environment,1 Barry Nevitt cites Ferdinand de  Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics:

All sciences would profit by indicating more precisely the co-ordinates along which their subject matter is aligned. Everywhere distinctions should be made, between (1) the axis of simultaneities (vertical), which stands for the relations of existing things and from which the intervention of time is excluded; and (2) the axis of successions (horizontal), on which only one thing can be considered at a time but upon which are located all the things on the first axis with their changes.2

As noted by Nevitt, the bracketed designations of “vertical” and “horizontal” were added to Saussure’s passage by him.

McLuhan had this notion3 of crossing vertical and horizontal times very early from T.S. Eliot (and even earlier by implication from Lodge in Winnipeg), and of course knew of Saussure, but apparently did not read him until the late 1960’s, perhaps as prompted by Nevitt. Here he is in the posthumously published The Global Village: 

time considered as sequential4 (left hemisphere) is figure and time considered as simultaneous5 (right hemisphere) is ground. (10)

  1. Preview edition, 1980, publication 1985. The reference for the following citation is taken from the preview edition, which was the edition used by Eric McLuhan and may even have been known to Marshall.
  2.  Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, ed Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye with Albert Riedlinger, orig 1916, translated by Wade Baskin, 1959 (later 1966 paperback edition used by Nevitt), 80. Saussure’s three courses in general linguistics were given in 1906-7, 1908-9 and 1910-11 and were not published in his lifetime. The Bally-Sechehaye edition used by Nevitt in the Baskin translation brought all three courses together mostly on the basis of students’ notes.
  3. It is a very different thing to ‘have a notion’ and to understand it and its implications. McLuhan continued to think about the plurality of time as times for his entire life, but was arguably as much in the dark about it when he died in 1980 as when he began to think about it in the 1930’s. (‘In the dark’, as used here, does not mean that no progress has been made.  It means that whatever progress has been made has not been understood internally.  It can be seen only by an external observer.)
  4. Diachronic.
  5. Synchronic.

S.D. Neill on Innis and McLuhan

S.D. Neill1 provides one more example of mistakenly taking McLuhan at his word regarding how and when he “felt the influence of H. A. Innis”:

The Mechanical Bride (…) was written before McLuhan felt the influence of H. A. Innis (1951), whose Bias of Communication was published the same year as the Bride. (115)

McLuhan claimed in the late 1970’s — almost 30 years after the event — that he became interested in Innis only after Innis put The Mechanical Bride on his communication course reading list in 1951. This supposedly then prompted McLuhan to seek out Innis and to read The Bias of Communication. But, as detailed in McLuhan on first meeting Innis, McLuhan’s memory of this sequence of events was mistaken in multiple ways.

However, most if not all of the Bride was probably indeed written before McLuhan met Innis and certainly before Innis became much of an influence on his work. McLuhan sometimes claimed that the Bride was finished by 1946 and then required five years’ work with publishers to see the light of day early in 1951. Even if this were an exaggeration, by 1947 McLuhan was able to publish two papers based on the book:

Neill was correct, then, that the great influence of Innis on McLuhan’s work would become evident only after 1951. But, like most researchers, following McLuhan’s own memory, he was mistaken as to when and how this influence came about.

  1. S.D. Neill’s 1993 book, Clarifying McLuhan, was published posthumously — he died in 1992. It incorporated as an appendix an earlier article of his, ‘McLuhan’s Media Charts Related to the Process of Communication’, AV Communication Review, 21:3, 1973, 277-97. The citation from his book comes from that earlier paper.

Gigantomachia, triangular duel, siamese triplets

ὁδὸς ἄνω κάτω μία καὶ ὡυτή (Heraclitus)1  

It seems that only one course is open to the philosopher who values knowledge and truth above all else. He must refuse to accept from the champions of the forms2 the doctrine that all reality is changeless, and he must turn a deaf ear to the other party3 who represent reality as everywhere changing. Like a child begging for ‘both’, he must declare that reality or the sum of things is both at once. (Plato, Sophist 249c)

Philosophers appear to be engaged in a sort of triangular duel (Rupert Lodge)4

when each of these [three arts of the trivium] is viewed not singly but as one of a set of Siamese triplets, the perspective changes enormously as does the entire significance of every development in their histories. (Eric McLuhan)5

The notion that there is a kind of triple beat to reality itself and, therefore, to all philosophy and to all human experience whatsoever, goes back at least to Heraclitus. But the notion is common in mythologies and is probably much older, stretching far back into pre-history.

The third position is what is called a superposition in quantum physics. It accounts for all of the possible subpositions but also, and this is one of its mysteries, it itself appears in the spectrum of possible subpositions. Other great mysteries are: why are there subpositions at all?  And once they come to be somehow, how do they hold out against the overwhelming power of the superposition?

  1.  The way up and the way down are one and the same (B60). This is one of the two epigrams from Heraclitus to Eliot’s Four Quartets.
  2. The gods in the heights above.
  3. The giants in the depths below.
  4.  ‘Balanced Philosophy and Eclecticism’, Rupert C. Lodge, The Journal of Philosophy, 41:4, February, 1944, 85-91. This article is in McLuhan’s papers in Ottawa, but misnamed in the finding aid as ‘Balanced Philosophy and Scholasticism’. Lodge’s “triangular duel” is that of the three fundamental assumptions — realism, idealism and pragmatism — which he saw as basic, always in one of these modes, to all human experience. McLuhan was very familiar with Lodge’s hypothesis from his work with him between 1931 and 1934 at the University of Manitoba and especially from Lodge’s 1934 paper, ‘Philosophy and Education‘. See Taking Lodge to Cambridge and beyond and McLuhan and Lodge (‘Philosophy and Education’) for citations and discussion.
  5. ‘Introduction’ to The Medium and the Light, 1999, xii. The full passage (beginning on xi): “He (McLuhan) decided that he had to master and then draw the outlines of the trivium, which had for many centuries been the traditional Western system for organizing intellectual activity. The trivium compressed all knowledge into three streams: rhetoric (communication), dialectic (philosophy and logic), and grammar (literature, both sacred and profane, including modes of interpretation). Grammar included written texts of all sorts, as well as the world and the known universe, which were considered as a book to be read and interpreted, the famous ‘Book of Nature’. Incredible as it may seem, the job had never before been done. Certainly, there were — and are — plenty of histories of philosophy, for example, and histories of literature as well as accounts of rhetoric. But when each of these (arts of the trivium) is viewed not singly but as one of a set of Siamese triplets, the perspective changes enormously as does the entire significance of every development in their histories.” Eric probably got the phrase ‘Siamese triplets’ from a caption in the University of Toronto Varsity newspaper, October 5, 1979, 6.

Taking Lodge to Cambridge and beyond

Rupert Lodge’s 1934 ‘Philosophy and Education1 gave McLuhan a series of deep ideas which he took with him to Cambridge. All would remain with him his whole life, but it would take him decades to understand their implications. Better, since understanding is not a momentary individual event, but an ongoing collective enterprise, it would take him decades to perceive how it might be possible to begin investigation of their implications.

On the plurality of truth and its practical effects:

Our conclusion then is that realism, idealism, and pragmatism remain fundamentally distinct [approaches to experience]2, and that the positions constructed by philosophers [reflecting and analyzing these distinctions] are of direct concern to educationists in the pursuit of their profession [along with everybody else in pursuit of their professions].3

On the object of philosophy:

[Philosophical] “speculations” seem remote, but are merely technical formulations of those backgrounds which affect our outlook in every detail of class-room and laboratory procedure [in education — and similarly in every other field]. Philosophers merely try to bring these [backgrounds] out into the open, so as to focus attention upon them. It is surely better to realize how they affect our thoughts and actions, than to leave them to work obscurely in the background.

On the spectrum of the forms of experience as defined by its extreme ends and middle:

when the realist sets up Einstein’s position in place of Newton’s, he shows how and why Einstein’s is better as a picture of the physical world. With the idealist, what looks at first like realist logic and objective information becomes transformed into (…) dialectic and (…) the transcendental realms of the spirit (…) The pragmatist avoids both extremes [of “the physical world” vs “the transcendental realms of the spirit”]

On the community as the multitude of these forms and their permutations:

The community (…) is never wholly realist, idealist, or pragmatist in type (…) the community [includes] all differences of background and outlook (…) all powers of insight and initiative (…) every alternative4

  1. Dalhousie Review, 14:3, 1934, 281-290. The citations below are taken from this essay.
  2. It is impossible to formulate what “realism, idealism, and pragmatism” are without deploying one of them in doing so. Hence they may variously be termed ‘approaches to experience’, ‘forms of reality’, ‘kinds of truth’, ‘sorts of hypotheses’, etc. This self-referential circularity is an essential aspect of the problem complex at stake here.
  3. Lodge wrote books on The Philosophy of Education (1937), The Philosophy of Business (1945) and Applying Philosophy (1951).
  4. Decades later McLuhan would come to call this the “emotion of multitude” after Yeats’ 1903 little essay of this title. See Lévi-Strauss on method in anthropology for citation and discussion.

McLuhan and Lodge (‘Philosophy and Education’)

In 1933 McLuhan obtained his bachelor’s degree from the university and won a University Gold Medal in Arts and Science. (…)  McLuhan’s gold medal along with recommendations from professors such as R.C. Lodge — who called McLuhan his “most outstanding” student — ensured that he would have no problem being accepted at Cambridge. (Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger, 32 and 34.)

From the very first note included in his published Letters — McLuhan to his mother, Elsie, on February 19, 1931 — it appears that McLuhan had decided as a nineteen year-old that Rupert Lodge was an exceptional talent1 at the University of Manitoba and that he needed to work with him:

Next year2 I shall throw myself into Philosophy and leave the English for the summers. I shall certainly attend very few lectures in English. (Letters 9)

Then, in his job-seeking letter from December 1935 to E.K. Brown, the new head of the UM English department (appointed after McLuhan had left Winnipeg in 1934), McLuhan would write from Cambridge: 

I wish merely to introduce myself as one of the products of some of the leanest years of the Manitoba English Department. The last year was somewhat relieved by the presence of Dr. Wheeler3, but I had directed my energies to philosophy, and did my best work for Professor Lodge. (Letters 79)

The two letters were written almost five years apart and yet they show a remarkable continuity. Halfway through his third year at UM (second in English), McLuhan had identified the path that he would follow over the next three years as he completed his B.A. and M.A. degrees there — namely, he would work chiefly with a professor outside his major, Rupert Lodge in philosophy.

A close personal and intellectual relationship grew up between the two.4 Since both had a strong theoretical bent, their personal and intellectual relations could hardly have been strictly compartmentalized, but McLuhan (as he came to realize himself at Cambridge) had further to grow personally in order to understand (and thereby to share) Lodge’s intellectual insights.

A remarkable portrait of McLuhan is preserved in a paper which Lodge published in 1934 in the Dalhousie Review, ‘Philosophy and Education‘. In the paper Lodge characterized what he held to be the three basic forms of all human experience — realism, idealism and pragmatism5 — in terms of education. Some one of these basic forms must always already be in place to the exclusion of the other two, he held, whenever any sort of human experience unfolds. His idea in ‘Philosophy and Education’ was to illustrate these three forms in terms of the fundamentally different kinds of pupils, teachers and education administrators which are pro-duced from their varying assumption.

Here is Lodge describing what he termed “the idealist pupil” (as contrasted with “the realist pupil” and “the pupil with a pragmatist outlook”):

He feels drawn toward persons rather than subjects, and has a tendency toward hero-worshipMerely to associate with some of the teachers, altogether apart from taking courses with them, seems to help him.6 Others, he avoids.7 However great their objective knowledge, he feels that he has “nothing to learn” from them. When he looks back over his school life, in later years, he finds that the books which were “vital” were not the painfully accurate, up-to-the-last-minute textbooks which bristled with objective footnotes, but the books which, whatever their objective shortcomings, had about them some touch of greatness.

In this portrait of “the idealist pupil” there seems to have been a two-way influence between Lodge and McLuhan. For Lodge almost certainly formulated his description of how an ‘idealist” student thought and behaved taking McLuhan as his model. And McLuhan eventually accepted this description from Lodge as an accurate depiction of how he had experienced the world at the University of Manitoba. At the same time, Lodge’s insistence on the plurality of truth served as a way-marker to McLuhan of how he would have to grow if he were to overcome his provincial limitation to a singular “idealist” bent of mind and become e-ducated — that is, be ex-posed to multiple truths.8

Confirmation of these rather surprising claims may be found in letters McLuhan wrote to his mother, Elsie, and to E.K. Brown (already cited above) in the fall of 1935 when he had entered his second and last undergraduate year at Cambridge.

The great difficulty about Truth is that it is not simple [he wrote to Elsie] except to those who can attain to see it whole [that is, in its fundamental plurality]. The very definition of an enthusiast is that he has seized a truth which he cannot and would not if he could, relate to other truths of life. He is invariably unsympathetic and lacking in humanity. l have some elements of enthusiasm which have been more than occupied in hero-worship —- e.g. Macaulay and Chesterton. Them days is gone forever but I shall always think that my selection of heroes was fortunate. Both were calculated to suppress effectively any tendency I had towards harping on one truth at a time. (McLuhan letter to his mother, September 5, 1935, Letters 72)

McLuhan returned again and again in this letter to Lodge’s view that “truth (…) is not simple”, that there are always “other truths of life”, that there is something both blind and wrong about “harping on one truth”.  Further, in specifying that he had “some elements of enthusiasm which have been more than occupied in hero-worship” he was identifying the way he had been at UM  (now “gone forever”) with Lodge’s portrait of “the idealist pupil” and its “tendency toward hero-worship”.

He made a similar admission in his letter to Brown three months later:

until I came to the Cambridge English School, my principal qualification was a boundless enthusiasm for great books, great events, and great men. Dr. Richards and Dr. Leavis have proved to be a useful supplement and corrective to that attitude.  (McLuhan letter to E.K. Brown, December 12, 1935, Letters 79)

At Manitoba McLuhan had self-admittedly been Lodge’s “idealist pupil”, with “a tendency toward hero-worship“, for whom the books which were ‘vital’ (…) had about them some touch of greatness“. Indeed, in articles he wrote in the Manitoban, only months before he would leave UM for Cambridge, he gave clear evidence of this “idealist” commitment:

Shakespeare (…) no more questioned the health and value of the great traditions that he inherited than a flower disputes the value of the ambient air or the nature of the soil beneath. Men become great only when they accept with gusto a great tradition made by millions before them. (‘George Meredith, Feminist?‘, Manitoban, Nov 21,1933)

Two years ago certain active and noble-spirited students voluntarily undertook to make a comprehensive report of the state of that vital community within the [general] community which is our university. It [“that vital community”] is to the [general] community what the head is to the body. (‘Stupid Student Apathy‘, Manitoban, February 13, 1934)

Whoever reads Newman or “Q”9 on education will discover the simplicity that is the effect of  profundity in the minds of a few great men.  (‘Adult Education‘, Manitoban, Feb 16, 1934)10

According to Lodge, such emphasis on the “vital” and on “greatness” and “hero-worship” was typical of “idealism” — but “idealism” was only one of multiple possible basic approaches to experience. So when McLuhan began at Cambridge to appreciate other manners of experience11 as a “supplement and corrective to that attitude” he had had at Manitoba, it was actually first of all Lodge, not Richards or Leavis or anyone else there, who was his mentor and spur in this process.12

Whether McLuhan appreciated the fundamental role played by Lodge in his education is questionable (although correspondence in the Ottawa papers shows that the two remained in touch until at least 1945). But Lodge and McLuhan himself frequently argued that the dominants of our experience are rarely conscious.


  1. Lodge and Henry Wright were the two professors in the UM philosophy department and co-taught some of its offerings, each taking one semester of a year-long course. As well as from Lodge, McLuhan certainly learned much from Wright, especially concerning the centrality of communication and environment for human beings, in ways that would profoundly affect him for the rest of his life. But McLuhan’s relation with Lodge was more personal and even more influential.
  2. “Next year” — probably the next school year beginning in the fall of 1931.
  3. See Lloyd Wheeler.
  4. In his letter to Brown, McLuhan clearly suggests that Lodge is the person at UM Brown should contact about him.
  5. For discussion of Lodge’s philosophy, see The Comparative Method of Rupert Lodge.
  6. Marchand: “McLuhan (…) noted in his diary that Lodge did not try to slip away from him after lectures” (20).
  7. McLuhan in the letter to Elsie cited above: “I shall certainly attend very few lectures in English.”
  8. It is indicative of how much work McLuhan had yet to do on himself and on his thinking that at Cambridge he directed Lodge’s critique of monolithic living (“one truth at a time”) back against Lodge himself: “Lodge is a decided Platonist and I learned (to think) that way as long as I was trying to interpret Christianity in terms of comparative religion. Having perceived the sterility of that process, I now realize that Aristotle is the soundest basis for Xian doctrine” (McLuhan to his family, February 1935, Letters 53). In fact, however, McLuhan never grew away from Lodge’s ideas and continued to investigate them, consciously and unconsciously, for the rest of his life.
  9. Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863–1944), the doyen of the Cambridge English School, about whom McLuhan frequently reported in letters home from Cambridge. Reference to him in this Manitoban article shows that McLuhan was boning up on the school before leaving UM to study there. It may be that McLuhan was referring here to Q’s 1920 book, On the Art of Reading and particularly to its chapter ‘On a School of English‘.
  10. A few months before this ‘Adult Education’ article in the Manitoban, McLuhan had another piece on education, ‘Public School Education’ (Oct 17,1933). His work with Lodge at a time when Lodge was writing ‘Philosophy and Education’ can hardly have been incidental to McLuhan’s interest in these topics.
  11. McLuhan to Elsie from Cambridge only a few months into his career there: “How rapidly my ideas have been shifting and rearranging themselves to make room for others!” (January 18, 1935, Letters 51)
  12. McLuhan’s religious conversion in 1937 surely resulted in part from this e-ducational process in which he learned, personally, that fundamental assumptions are plural and are therefore subject to transformational change.

Lloyd Wheeler

McLuhan knew Lloyd Wheeler as a professor in the English Department at the University of Manitoba only for a year or two. Some sources say he came to UM in 1931, but Wheeler’s obituary has him coming to UM in 1933 and in a 1935 letter (cited below) McLuhan specified that he knew him only in his “last year” there, 1933-1934. In any case, it was Wheeler who helped McLuhan to his first job in 1936-1937 as a teaching assistant at the University of Wisconsin, where Wheeler had done his doctoral work and begun his own teaching career.1

McLuhan mentioned him in his letter from Cambridge to E.K. Brown when he was looking for a job at the end of his undergraduate career there:

I wish merely to introduce myself as one of the products of some of the leanest years of the Manitoba English Department. The last year was somewhat relieved by the presence of Dr. Wheeler, but I had directed my energies to philosophy, and did my best work for Professor Lodge. (…) I have been advised, and feel personally the desire for some practical teaching experience before undertaking any research. I should be very happy indeed to work under you and Dr. Wheeler. (December 12, 1935, Letters 79)

Here is Wheeler’s obituary in the Winnipeg Free Pressage 34:

Arthur Lloyd Wheeler, formerly of Winnipeg, died in Halifax on June 7, 1970. Professor Wheeler was born in Victoria [in 1898], served in the First World War, taught school in Barkerville, B.C., and studied in Vancouver, Toronto and Madison, Wisconsin, where he began lecturing in English literature. He came to Winnipeg with his wife, the late Helen Bennett of Victoria, in 1933 to join the Department of English at the University of Manitoba. He was chairman of the department from 1946 to 1963 at which time he retired from his post and became Visiting Professor of English at Dalhousie University until 1969. He was laid to rest on Lynn Island, Lake of the Woods.

For a time Wheeler was Chairman of the Radio Broadcasting Committee of the University of Manitoba. A report from him in this capacity was included in The University of Manitoba President’s Report for the Year Ending 30th April, 1946, 106-107.

  1. McLuhan to his mother from Cambridge, September 5, 1935 (Letters 72): “I am waiting advice from Wheeler at present regarding what U’s in Canada and U.S.A. to apply to, and how to apply to them.”

Bradbrook’s School of Night and the dynamics of experience

Beyond posing the important question “if anything comes out of Shakespeare’s mind recognizably akin to what it was on going in” (153),1 Bradbrook’s 1936 School of Night had a series of further points that McLuhan would find of great interest for his future investigations.

For example, his entire Nashe PhD thesis from 1943, together with the associated ‘Ancient Quarrel’ essay from 1946,2 amounted to a huge expansion of Bradbrook’s observation:

There appears to have been a kind of literary ‘war’ between [Ralegh’s] school [of night] and the faction of Essex, not unlike the dramatists’ ‘war’ of 1598-9, or the earlier one between Harvey and Nashe. (7)

As tutored by Rupert Lodge in philosophy in Winnipeg,3 and as he found also in Coleridge in his English studies there, McLuhan arrived in Cambridge in 1934 with the idea that confrontation with plural possibilities is a perennial or synchronic feature of the exercise of mind. As he stated earlier that same year in his Manitoba M.A. thesis on George Meredith:

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.4

This insight was confirmed and deepened at Cambridge through his further study of Coleridge,5 combined with his new studies of Eliot and Richards there.6 As McLuhan reported in his first publication after leaving Cambridge, ‘The Cambridge English School’ (1938):

Donne, and the later Shakespeare, on the one hand, and the Romantics on the other, have been read at Cambridge as though they were contemporaries of Mr. Eliot — which of course they are. For the continuing life of the language itself is such as to constitute a medium in which they are all contemporary.

The “continuing life of the language itself” in this conception is a matter of dynamics. Like the vast diversity of the physical world which is based on a limited number of elementary structures (themselves the expression only of protons, neutrons and electrons), so here the diversity of language over space and time was imagined as eventuating out of some few basic possibilities.

In the allied 1936 studies of Francis Yates7 and Bradbrook8, McLuhan found these dynamics described as a “civil war of wits”.9 Then in Etienne Gilson, particularly in his Unity of Philosophical Experience from 1938, McLuhan found a comparable use of this same imagery with the superlative advantage for him at that time that it was integrated into Gilson’s unparalleled knowledge of Catholic theology:

In a metaphysical system wherein the whole of reality is included, such a doctrine does not limit itself to ideas, it applies to things. The conflict between philosophies then becomes a conflict between philosophers; the “battlefield of endless controversies” described by Kant under the name of metaphysics is, therefore, a battlefield of men, where each philosopher, as a  particular moment of the universal law, has to be the antithesis of another, until both are resolved into the synthesis of a third. That which is contradiction between ideas is war between men, and in such a world, war is by no means an accident. It is law.10

Bradbrook cited Nashe in this context of mind’s position before incompatible synchronic possibilities:

In all points our brains are like the firmament, and exhale in everie respect the like grose mistempered vapors and meteors. (175)11

McLuhan must have been flabbergasted to find in Bradbrook’s citation of Nashe here with its “the like grose mistempered vapors and meteors” what he had offered far less flamboyantly a few years before in his Manitoba M.A. thesis as “consistency of conformation”:

There are (…) in all times and places, definite types of temperament displaying consistency of conformation. 

Focusing on the contesting disciplines of the classical trivium, McLuhan’s Nashe thesis, together with his following ‘Ancient Quarrel’ article, would attempt to trace this “civil war of wits” over the two and a half millennia from Socrates in fifth century BC Athens to ‘modern America’.

Not incidentally, the last chapter of Bradbrook’s book, ‘Shakespeare, the School, and Nashe’, put forward the notion that the writings of Nashe might supply particular illumination on the quarreling ‘schools’ of the 1590s. McLuhan would take up this idea, but reverse it. To understand Nashe, he suggested, it was first of all necessary to understand the wars of mind which are continually waged in all human experience:

No sound evaluation of a writer can be given in terms which exclude his basic assumptions as an artist. Nashe has never been considered on his own [basic] terms (The Classical Trivium — The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time, 2006, 4).

The war between these literary camps is basically the opposition between dialectics and rhetoric to control the modes of literary composition; and the ramifications of this opposition stretch into the realms of ethics and politics, both in antiquity and in the Renaissance.  For example, the ethical, political, and stylistic opposition between Machiavelli and Castiglione, between Harvey and Nashe, are at bottom and on the surface, owing to a reconstitution of ancient rivalries between dialectics and rhetoric. While Harvey and Nashe are scarcely commensurate with the others, their relevance to this study is such as to make it important to bring them into the focus of [such] discussion… (Ibid, 42)

Nashe was thus a fulIy enlightened protagonist in an ancient quarrel (…) It was not a quarrel between Catholic and Protestant, but a dispute about methods of exegesis in theology and preaching, concerning which some [on each side of the divide between] Catholics and Protestants held patristic views and some held to scholastic positions. (Ibid, 226)

But to understand the “civil war of wits” between dialectics and rhetoric, it was necessary to start from the third position, or superposition, of the trivium in which the complete grammar of ‘trivial’ possibilities was arrayed:

In studying the history of dialectics and rhetoric, as indeed, of grammar, it is unavoidable that one adopts the point of view of one of these arts12 and the history of the trivium is largely a history of the rivalry among them for ascendancy. (…) The essential opposition between the arts of the trivium being such, then, as frequently to pit the one against the other, with results of the greatest importance, it is useful to recognize that the present exposition of the history of the trivium is being made from a  grammatical point of view. Exposition and interpretation of stated doctrines are grammatical problems… (Ibid, 41-42)

  1. For discussion and citations see “Food for the mind is like food for the body”.
  2. ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’, Classical Journal, 41:4, January 1946, 156-162. Reprinted in The Interior Landscape.
  3. See The Comparative Method of Rupert Lodge for discussion and citations.
  4. The last part of the last sentence was a nod to Lodge, the first part a nod to McLuhan’s continuing allegiance to literature.
  5. I.A. Richards published Coleridge on Imagination in 1934, the year McLuhan arrived in Cambridge and began hearing Richards’ lectures.
  6. McLuhan to E.K. Brown, December 12, 1935: “You probably know all about the very exciting and thriving time that the Cambridge English School is experiencing. Dr Richards has been a great stimulus, even to his opponents (!), and  the easy accessibility of Willey, Tillyard, Lucas and Leavis (editor of Scrutiny) makes for an intellectual variety that not even my wildest hopes had prefigured.” The exclamation point is original. (Letters, 79)
  7. F.A. Yates, A Study of Love’s Labour’s Lost, Cambridge, 1936.
  8. M.C. Bradbrook, The School of Night, Cambridge, 1936.
  9. Yates, 158. Cf, Understanding Media, 48: “this civil war (in the world of art and entertainment) affects us in the depths of our psychic lives, as well, since the war is conducted by forces that are extensions and amplifications of our own beings. Indeed, the interplay among media is only another name for this civil war that rages in our society and our psyches alike.”
  10. Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience, 1938, reprint 1955, 250.
  11. Without attribution, Bradbrook cited here from Nashe’s 1594 tract on dreams, Terrors of the Night.
  12. “Unavoidable that one adopts the point of view of one of these arts” because they are treated by McLuhan, following Rupert Lodge, as both basic and incommensurate.

“Food for the mind is like food for the body”

McLuhan and Muriel Bradbrook seem to have become friends during his first stint in Cambridge.1  During his second stint, immediately after his marriage with Corinne, Bradbrook advised him on his PhD thesis on Nashe before leaving Cambridge for war duty in London. 

Bradbrook’s 1936 book, The School of Night, which McLuhan probably read the year it was published, is referenced in a note in the thesis (212,n7), along with a book on a related subject which was published that same year by Francis Yates, A Study of Love’s Labour’s Lost.2 The School of Night has not aged well: it’s proposals about a school around Sir Walter Ralegh (Bradbrook’s spelling) have largely been discarded by contemporary scholarship. Nonetheless, the book had profound effect on McLuhan that was still strikingly evident 35 years later.

Here is Yates:

One must never forget to reckon with the subtlety of Shakespeare and with the fact that he was intensely creative. The imaginative artist uses but does not exactly reproduce his experience. (19)

Two decades later, Gombrich’s Art and Illusion (1960, but based on 1956 lectures) demonstrated this thesis in detail, helping to spur McLuhan to his 1960 breakthrough:

Early in 1960 it dawned on me that the sensory impression proffered by a medium like movie or radio, was not the sensory effect obtained.3

Bradbrook sharpened Yates’ point:

It may be questioned if anything comes out of Shakespeare’s mind recognizably akin to what (…) was (…) going in. (153)4

And here is McLuhan in Take Today, 35 years later:

sensations and concepts [involve] (…) the continual transformation of sensory inputs into outputs of quite different kinds. Food for the mind is like food for the body; the inputs are never the same as the outputs! This pattern of non-lineality is evident in every human activity. (Take Today, 137)


  1. A note in McLuhan’s Letters, doubtless from Corinne McLuhan, says that McLuhan and Muriel Bradbrook met only in 1939 (462, n1). But the index to the same Letters volume identifies Bradbrook with references to a “Miss B” in McLuhan letters from 1935 (Letters 67 and 120). In fact, there is an unindexed mention of a “Miss B” even earlier than this, in a Dec 6, 1934 letter to McLuhan’s family (Letters 41). But this “Miss B” is called “Margery”, not “Muriel”. An interesting possibility is that “Margery” was a Freudian slip mixing McLuhan’s erstwhile girlfriend back in Winnipeg, Marjorie Norris (mentioned earlier in the same letter), with someone else, perhaps Muriel. The name “Margery” would then say ‘girlfriend (Marjorie) — changed (Margery)’. However any of this may have been, McLuhan and Bradbrook remained correspondents for the rest of his life.
  2. The Classical Trivium — The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time, 2006, 212,n7: “M. C. Bradbrook, The School of Night, Cambridge. 1936; F. A. Yates, A Study of Love’s Labour’s Lost, Cambridge, 1936. As Miss Bradbrook points out (page 16) the ‘school’ chafed against those exegetists of Scripture who held that the literal interpretation was divinely inspired. Ramist rhetoric was, of course, a godsend to the rationalists; for, once all figures had  been planed away from the text, it could mean anything or nothing.”
  3.  Project in Understanding New Media. For discussion and citations from Art and Illusion, see Ernst Gombrich.
  4. Bradbrook: “It may be questioned if anything comes out of Shakespeare’s mind recognizably akin to what it was on going in.”

Aesthetic Pattern (singular) in Keats’ Odes

McLuhan’s 1943 essay, ‘Aesthetic Pattern in Keats’ Odes’,1 treats aesthetic patterns in Keats’ odes: why, then, his specification of the singular “aesthetic pattern” in the title?

Instead, however, of oscillating “up” and “down” movements, there is in this ode a single motion of expanding awareness…  (112)2

The answer to this question goes to the very heart of McLuhan’s project and may be put simply: from early on McLuhan sought what in physics is termed a superposition that would define at once what a work of great culture achieves and what rigorous criticism must be able to recognize as present or absent in particular works (be they aesthetic works or works in education, commerce, politics or religion).3 Such a superposition embraces all the possibilities available before any individual work (in multiple senses of ‘before’) and is therefore able to explicate in terms of their complete range the achievement, or lack of achievement, in that work. McLuhan would later come to call such a superposition “the emotion of multitude” from Yeats’ short 1903 text of this title.4

Without as yet knowing how to specify such a superposition (or, therefore, the individual positions subsumed by it), McLuhan’s 1943 Keats essay5 repeatedly gestured towards it in the following terms:

  • the high place which the odes have held in the regard of those who care for poetry is owing to qualities (…) of intense organization arising from the strict discipline of a critical intelligence. (99)
  • a basis of stability [is achieved] (…) resolution in “rational” wakefulness. (100)
  • there is something basically characteristic of Keats’s artistic mode arising from his preoccupation with these paradoxes or conflicts in the very heart of experience. How very far he was from refusing to undertake their resolution with the full intellectual energy of a great artist has been quite insufficiently recognized. (102)
  • the achievement of a patterned economy (104)
  • an equilibrium born of previous conflicts  (107)
  • one notes a harmonious conjunction and assimilation of the themes of depression (…) and the flight on the “wings of Poesy” (…). That is, the first “down” movement and the second “up” movement recur6 together as a new thing. (107)
  • [there is] a change of tone. The poem is now, for the first time, at the level of explicit rationality, and it is at this level that the resolution of the conflicting claims of all the other modes of life in the poem is effected. (110)
  • The “meaning” of this poem is only to be apprehended in terms of this complex structure and the reverberation and interaction of its delicately modulated themes. (111)
  • the stability was achieved not by espousal or rejection of life, nor by affirmation nor negation, but by a mode of being which Keats, himself , called “negative capability“. Keats’ definition of this phrase is (…): “. . . when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason. (112)7
  • Instead, however, of oscillating “up” and “down” movements, there is in this ode a single motion of expanding awareness…  (112)8
  •  Rossetti, Swinburne, Pater, and Tennyson (…) had only a small share of that artistic toughness of fiber which made Keats finally reject anything less than a total view of his experience. It is just such a totality (…) which is the concern of these odes. (113)


  1.  University of Toronto Quarterly, 12:2, January 1943, 167-179.
  2. This and all references below are to the reprinting of the essay in The Interior Landscape (where the Keats essay is the earliest piece included in the collection).
  3. Formulation of a superposition is critical in art and science both individually and in their mutual connection, according to McLuhan, but also to religion and to social, even world order. However, the larger the claim, the more the imperative for precise definition and open investigation. Hence the need for McLuhan’s work for the 20 years between 1940 and 1960 to be directed to the question of how to specify a superposition such that the required collective study might at last begin.
  4. For discussion see Lévi-Strauss on method in anthropology.
  5. Probably McLuhan had been drafting studies of Keats over many years going back at least to the late 1930’s, if not to the middle 30’s in Cambridge. Using these drafts he must have brought the Keats essay to completion in parallel to his Nashe thesis by 1942 at the latest. What is here called his gesture towards a superposition is called in the thesis the “grammar” component of the trivium: “The essential opposition between the (rhetorical and dialectical) arts of the trivium being such, then, as frequently to pit the one against the other, with results of the greatest importance, it is useful to recognize that the present exposition of the history of the trivium is being made from a grammatical point of view. Exposition and interpretation of stated doctrines are grammatical problems; and derivative philosophy and almost all histories of philosophy are the products of grammarians” (The Classical Trivium — The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time, 2006, 42). Hence, Keats’ “negative capability” can be defined in ‘trivial’ terms as follows: it unfolds “when a (hu)man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, (grammar) without any irritable reaching-after-fact (rhetoric) & reason (dialectic)“. Such a “capability” may therefore be termed an incomplete (hence its “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts” ) intuition of a complete domain. So, for example, when the elements of geometry or of chemistry were first hypothesized, millennia apart, they were not by any means known in their complete range. But the implicated intuition of those ranges was wondrously accurate, so that they were able to supply frameworks for endless investigation in the future. Endless investigation, that is, exactly of their “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts”. McLuhan’s 1960 proposal for “understanding media” represented a comparable flyer.
  6. McLuhan’s considerations of a superposition would increasingly turn on ‘repetition’ verbs like ‘recur’, ‘retrace’, ‘recognize’, ‘retrieve’. Implicated questions were: when does this repetition take place? how? ‘who’ does it?
  7. Keats’ “negative capability” from a December 1817 letter to his brothers would have been generally familiar at Cambridge. It is noteworthy, however, that McLuhan’s friend and sometime adviser, Muriel Bradbrook, cites it in her 1936 School of Night: “(Ralegh) possessed the faculty which Keats thought of the first necessity for a man of achievement, ‘negative capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’.” (64) There are many reasons to believe that Bradbrook’s little book, although it is not in McLuhan’s library at UT, and whose theses have largely been rejected by scholarship, influenced McLuhan decisively for the rest of his life.
  8. This formulation is particularly close to the superposition specification in physics of orientation in quantum particles.

Lodge in Dalhousie Review

McLuhan’s mentor at the University of Manitoba, Rupert Lodge, published two essays in The Dalhousie Review in 1934 and 1936:

Philosophy and Education, Dalhousie Review, 14:3, 1934, 281-290

Plato’s Secret, Dalhousie Review, 16:1, 1936, 36-40

McLuhan was working closely with Lodge when the first of these was published. And from courses with Lodge, he knew more than enough about Lodge’s Platonism to criticize it in letters home from Cambridge.1

Lodge must have established some kind of connection with the Dalhousie Review editor, Herbert Leslie Stewart, in the early 1930s.2 Perhaps they met or re-met at a conference or learned in some other way of a common interest in philosophy and education (to judge from Lodge’s first paper in the Review).3 Since Lodge was encouraging McLuhan to publish in philosophy at the time (perhaps hoping to turn him from literature), he may well have recommended McLuhan to Stewart for a submission. If so, it may be that McLuhan came to publish in Dalhousie Review not through Gerald Phelan, as previously conjectured4, but through Lodge.

The choice of an essay on Chesterton would, however, hardly fit with Lodge’s philosophical interests or with the idea of promoting a possible career in philosophy for McLuhan. It is not impossible, therefore, that the Dalhousie Review connection came about in some fashion through Lodge and Phelan. At a guess, if McLuhan first came to Stewart’s attention though Lodge, and if McLuhan then proposed a paper on Chesterton, Stewart may well have turned to his old Halifax friend, Fr PheIan, for input on the notion. Phelan’s interest and expertise in Chesterton was well known. In this case, the profound influence Phelan came to exercise on McLuhan’s life (encouraging his study of Phelan’s Toronto colleagues Maritain and Gilson, guiding his conversion, obtaining his first full-time teaching position at SLU, bringing him back to Canada to teach with the Basilians at Windsor and, finally, securing his position in Toronto at St Mike’s) may in some small part have originated through McLuhan’s old Winnipeg connection with Rupert Clendon Lodge.



  1. “Lodge is a decided Platonist and I learned (to think) that way as long as I was trying to interpret Christianity in terms of comparative religion. Having perceived the sterility of that process, I now realize that Aristotle is the soundest basis for Xian doctrine” (McLuhan to his family, February 1935, Letters 53).
  2. It turns out that both Lodge and Stewart began their North American teaching careers at the same place, Dalhousie, in the same year, 1913! As recorded in the Dalhousie Gazette from November 1913 (p 44), Stewart’s mother took ill just when he was to take up his Dalhousie appointment, with the result that he could not teach his first term there in the fall of 1913. Lodge filled in for him. So they certainly knew of each other from that time and in all probability met personally when Stewart finally arrived to take up his duties. For a picture and biographical information for Lodge see his entry in The Database of Classical Scholars.
  3. Lodge enlarged his DR paper into a book on Philosophy of Education in 1937 (revised edition 1947); cf, also Plato’s Theory of Education, 1947, reprint 2000.
  4. For discussion see McLuhan and Father Gerald Phelan 1934-1936.

McLuhan’s 1963 Dalhousie book review

McLuhan published his first article (outside of University of Manitoba student publications) in The Dalhousie Review in 1936: ‘Chesterton: A Practical Mystic’. But in 1963 he also published a review1 there of a new translation of Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism.2

Here is McLuhan’s review:

Art and Scholasticism and The Frontiers of Poetry
Jacques Maritain

A new translation by Joseph W. Evans
New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons [Toronto: S. J. Reginald Saunders], 1962. Pp. 234. $5.00

Scholastic philosophy was for Maritain, as for James Joyce, an aesthetic discovery in itself. Maritain first presented his discovery of scholastic precision and inclusiveness to his readers under the title “The Philosophy of Art”. The scholastic definition of the imitative faculty as offering a dramatic enactment of nature itself in sua operatione came most acceptably to the 1920’s. The age of mathematical physics was quite prepared to approach art, not as a visual representation of any recognizable surfaces, but as a live model, as it were, of processes not otherwise to be apprehended or experienced. The rediscovery of scholastic definitions, already familiar to readers of The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, came like the rediscovery of the letters of the alphabet as plastic and sculptural forms by Bracque. Maritain’s rehearsal of scholastic definitions similarly recovered for aesthetic thought and language a kind of sculptural and tactile firmness and richness that was new and exciting. Comparable novelty and relevance today attaches, not to the observations of Aquinas so much as to the archetypal dramas of Ovid’s Metamorphoses as they were assimilated by Dante and Joyce and Eliot and St. Jean Perse.
Maritain’s familiarity with the work of the symbolist poets and the painting of his time provided him with a sensibility that gave him access to scholasticism, not as an historical, but as a contemporary, mode of awareness. The present volume stresses this fact by combining the study of scholastic aesthetic with his essays on contemporary poetry and art.
Professor Evans has made a fine translation that brings a wide range of Maritain’s essays into a unified style.
Marshall McLuhan
St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto 

  1. Dalhousie Review, 42:4, 1963, p 532. A search at the Dalhousie Review website for ‘McLuhan’ as ‘author’ returns only the 1936 article. Apparently book review authors have not been tagged in the otherwise excellent database.
  2. Art and Scholasticism was first published in 1920, translated in 1923, and read by McLuhan at Cambridge.

The Keats essay from 1943

McLuhan’s January 1943 essay on Keats1 is an important milestone on his way in many respects. For one thing, it was doubtless organized by Father Gerald Phelan as part of a plan to secure an appointment for McLuhan in Toronto. Three years later the plan would be brought to completion and McLuhan would then spend the remaining three and half decades of his life teaching there.

For another, the Keats essay was exemplary of a whole series of portraits in English literature written by McLuhan. These had begun when McLuhan was not yet 20 with ‘Macaulay: What a Man!‘ (for the The Manitoban student newspaper).2 Then his first published paper outside of Manitoba student organs was another portrait of another Englishman, ‘G. K. Chesterton: A Practical Mystic’ in 1936.3

At Cambridge and in his first teaching positions at the University of Wisconsin and St Louis University, McLuhan continued to draft such portraits which came to include (often focused on a single work) Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, Byron and Shelley as well as Keats. Together these portraits were called Character Anthology and are preserved today in McLuhan’s papers in Ottawa. In the 1940s, although he may never have brought it into definitive shape, the ambition was to publish the anthology and McLuhan solicited the aid of Sigfried Giedion and Cleanth Brooks and doubtless others in this hope — which was never fulfilled. It may be that his 1944 Kenyon Review essay on Hopkins began its life in this same context, as in all probability did his three published pieces on Tennyson.4

Also preserved in Ottawa are a great many finished and unfinished pieces on Eliot, few of which ever saw the light of day. McLuhan intended to bring them together in a portrait volume to be called Great Tom. He also did many pieces on Wyndham Lewis, at least three of which were published.5

In all of this, McLuhan was continuing the work of his mother, Elsie.  What she had done in sound portraits, he did in visual literary ones. But he, too, loved to imitate the voices of people like Eliot and Lewis. It may be, indeed, that around 1960 he was finally able to realize his project of ‘understanding media’, when he came to perceive how sound and sight are not alternate modes of information coding, but are both present in all human experience as a co-variable ratio:

The break-through in media study has come at last, and it can be stated as the principle of complementarity: that the structural impact of any situation is subjectively completed as to the cycle of the senses. (McLuhan to Bernard Muller-Thym, February 19th, 1960)6 

It is remarkable that one of the central points of this thesis — that the eye and the ear together might serve to focus the collective study of experience — was already present in germ in the Keats essay. McLuhan noted “the delightful visual and auditory life” (103) in Ode to a Nightingale and the associated contrast in it of “the superior senses of eye and ear”  to “the lower senses of taste and touch” (ibid). 

Important steps on his way in the next two decades would be the realization that he himself in his pursuit of the literary life was dominated by the eye and by print — by the Gutenberg galaxy — and that he therefore needed to balance that dominance with an appreciation of “acoustic space”. This would not come for another decade with Carl Williams’ suggestion of this possibility in a 1954 meeting of the culture and communication seminar. But already in the Keats essay, as a kind of unconscious directive to himself, he observed:

In the case of these odes it is necessary to grasp that the relations between their parts rather resemble the internal structure of a fugue or a sonata than a paragraph of statements. (100)

It was not enough, however, simply to step up appreciation of the auditory relative to the visual. It was also necessary, indeed it was even more important, to realize that it was the hinge between them, their variable relation, that first allowed the required specification and resulting collective study. This was exactly that “complementarity” and “cycle of the senses” that McLuhan would finally come to perceive early in 1960. 

This variable hinge was the medium [that] is the message — a phrase which McLuhan began to emphasize beginning in 1958 — again as a kind of directive to himself that he came fully to understand only two years later. This hinge was often called ‘tactility’ by McLuhan as the nominally sensory7 joint between the eye and ear. Such ‘tactility’ was not one of the lower senses” as he had suggested of touch in the Keats essay, but the very heart of the sensorium through which it ceaselessly transformed.

But here again the Keats essay was prescient and directive. In its concluding remarks on Keats’ Ode to Autumn:

There is here a world of rich organic and tactual awareness… (113)

  1.  University of Toronto Quarterly, 12:2, January 1943, 167-179.
  2. October 28, 1930.
  3. The Dalhousie Review, January 1936. See the Chesterton posts and Innis and McLuhan in 1936 for further discussion.
  4. On Hopkins: ‘The Analogical Mirrors’, The Kenyon Review, VI:3, 1944, 322-332. On Tennyson: ‘Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry’, Essays in Criticism, I:3, 1951, 262–282; ‘Introduction’ to Alfred Lord Tennyson: Selected Poetry, 1955, v-xxiv; ‘Tennyson and the Romantic Epic’, in J. Killham (ed), Critical Essays on the Poetry of Tennyson, 1960, 86-95.
  5. ‘Wyndham Lewis: Lemuel in Lilliput’, Key Thinkers and Modern Thought: St. Louis University Studies in Honour of St. Thomas Aquinas, Volume 2, 1944, 58-72; ‘Wyndham Lewis: His Theory of Art and Communication’, Shenandoah 4.2-3, 1953, 77- 88; ‘Wyndham Lewis’, Atlantic Monthly, December 1969, 93-98.
  6.  Cited in Gordon, Escape into Understanding, 313-314. What McLuhan called “complementarity” and “the cycle of the senses” was just sound and sight as a co-variable ratio of the two in all human experience — like the proton and electron in all physical material.
  7. ‘Nominally sensory’, because the essence of McLuhan’s way of “understanding media” was that “the cycle of the senses” cannot be read from their input, but only from their output.  Hence television was no a visual medium although its input was visual, but ‘tactual’. Symphonic music was not auditory although its input was auditory, but ‘visual’. And so on.

McLuhan on “dichotomizing” in 1944

McLuhan’s first sentence in ‘Kipling and Forster’ (1944)1 named its chief matter: “facile dichotomizing”. He returned to it again and again in the essay:

  • The glib assumption that art and life stand apart, and that either one is a substitute for the other, suggests a reversible, inversible mechanism of mentality not at all friendly to artistic production. (332)
  • To take only the Plain Tales From the Hills, it is easy to see that Kipling is amphibiously living in divided and distinguished worlds. (333)
  • The ‘double vision’ (…) is admittedly the vision of all Forster’s novels. It is the vision of action vs feeling, England vs India, youth vs age. (339)
  • Is it not possible, however, that an essential intellectual obtuseness lurks behind the dichotomizing habit of Forster’s mind? In accepting as absolutes such well-worn clichés as art vs reality, spontaneity vs caution, pedantry vs experience, courage vs respectability, highbrow vs lowbrow, intelligence vs stupidity, hasn’t Forster really swallowed his own world, making an act of faith of an unconsidered bolus? No artist is bound to accept his world as the material of his art in this way; but having done so he has no resource beyond a whimsical and ironical espousal now of one of the absolutes, now of another. (337-338)
  • Of course, the conflicts and cleavages of melodrama can never yield new insight because they are mechanically predetermined. In fact, melodrama, like the split man, is not an artistic achievement but the by-product of cultural neurosis. The hypnotized acceptance of rigid distinctions is necessary to any kind of violent clash between characters in such a world — characters which are always stiffly and stupidly dull because born of a bogus parentage. With such counters as he accepts from the ready-made dichotomies of his world, Forster, like Kipling, can only go through the motions of testing, assaying and judging, because everything has really been decided in advance. The sheep and the goats carry well-known brands. (343)

There is little analysis in McLuhan’s essay.  But it looks backward and forward in his career and therefore provides a useful vantage over it.

Looking backward, in its suggestion of the possibility and need for a genuine criticism of “testing, assaying and judging”, where everything would not be “decided in advance”, it recalls his work with Lodge and Wright in Winnipeg and with Richards and Leavis in Cambridge. All were attempting to understand “the interior landscape” of human being (verbal) in a rigorous way and this would be the goal of McLuhan’s lifework in his turn.

Looking forward, the essay raises questions which McLuhan would have to address along his future way. For example, ‘world’ is used strangely in it as something which seems to be both given (“living in divided and distinguished worlds”, “ready-made dichotomies”and constructed (“own world”, “his world”). But how to consider these without “espousal now of one of the absolutes, now of another”? How avoid the reduction of world to an objectively given singularity without setting loose an endless series of mirrored ‘worlds’ in which even the “apparent world” is abolished?  Or, conversely, how put a stop to the endless mirroring of worlds without the arbitrary assertion of one ‘true world’?

Again, how was “the dichotomizing habit” to be rigorously understood without implicating one more dualism between that “habit” and the understanding of it?  Between assertions “born of a bogus parentage” and ‘legitimate’ ones?

Aside from problems like these requiring novel consideration, the observation that “hypnotized acceptance of rigid distinctions is necessary to any kind of violent clash” looks ahead two decades to McLuhan’s ever-repeated warning in the 1960s that disturbed identity precipitates violence.  On the one hand, threats to identity can lead to a hardened “dichotomizing” between ‘them’ and ‘us’ — and to violence based on this perception. On the other, the dissolution of identity (self-dichotomizing?) can itself be expressed in violence in an anguished attempt to regain it.

Finally, the suggestion that there is something suspicious in “dichotomizing”, something unthought in it, would prove to be a fertile line of inquiry for McLuhan and, beyond McLuhan, for quantum physics. For McLuhan, the questions were: how did this “split” first arise and develop? how was it then multiplied in the Gutenberg era and with what effects in education, science, commerce, politics, warfare and religion? and how was it transformed again in the nineteenth century with the symbolists in the arts and with new technologies like the telegraph and electric lighting? These were the questions which would animate his two great books in the early 1960s, The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media.

For quantum physics, these questions were generalized — the medium is the message — as concerning the range of possible values between zero and one. The “dichotomizing” formulation zero or one was found to apply neither in the domain of the very small nor of the very large. Instead of such bare opposition, a superposition needed to be considered that covered the entire range of the possibilities between zero and one. 

Now a superposition was exactly what McLuhan in common with the New Criticism was attempting to define as both what great art can achieve and as what criticism should expose as present or absent in particular works.

The merger of art and science foreseen by McLuhan was no soft image, but an exacting need of each for the other.

In the ‘Kipling and Forster’ essay this need was hardly mentioned, let alone defined. But it was indicated:

The ‘two world’ view (…) is especially useful to the artist who cannot localize or understand his dissatisfactions nor overcome the dualism of his experience.  Santayana pointed out that Henry James overcame the crude split and limitations of the genteel tradition in the classic way — by understanding them.  (332-333)

it is noteworthy that both men [Kipling and Forster] regarded as insurmountable the contradictions and cleavages between art and action. Neither man penetrated his data nor resolved his experience. (336-337)

In ‘Kipling and Forster’ McLuhan did not attempt to provide the required understanding, penetration and resolution. But he ended his essay by promising them elsewhere:

Another essay will attempt to peer behind these blind conflicts to which Kipling and Forster bring their characters and from which they find no escape. (343)

McLuhan was probably thinking here of ‘Poetic and Rhetorical Exegesis:  The Case for Leavis against Richards and Empson’, which was published that same year (1944) in the same journal (Sewanee Review).2 But in January 1943, in a UTQ article on Keats3, he had already identified the position (or superposition) that he would spend the next 20 years looking for a way to specify and to communicate.

  1.  Sewanee Review, 52(3), 332-343, 1944, reprinted in E.M. Forster: critical assessments, ed John Henry Stape, vol 1, 1998, 131-139.
  2.  Sewanee Review, 52(2), 266–76, 1944
  3. Aesthetic Pattern in Keats’ Odes’,  University of Toronto Quarterly, XII:2, 167-179, 1943, reprinted in The Interior Landscape, 99-113.

Lévi-Strauss on method in anthropology

the emotion of multitude (…) is a state in which we live constantly, that is, on the border. We live constantly in two worlds… (Canada: the Borderline Case, 1967)

the principle of poetic organization is not narrative but interface based on the resonant interval. Yeats refers to it as the “emotion of multitude”, and Joyce calls (…) language the mirror of the mind of man, the square wheel without spokes which encompasses all cycles of human experience in a simultaneous present. (McLuhan, Discontinuity and Communication in Literature, 1970)

In 1903, W. B. Yeats, meditating on the “emotion of multitude,” explained that it is achieved by a discontinuous parallel between two actions (…) Depth awareness is created by parallel suggestion, not by connected statement. (McLuhan to The Listener, 1971)1

Here is Claude Lévi-Strauss in 1949:2

anthropology cannot remain indifferent to historical processes and to the most highly conscious expressions of social phenomena. But if the anthropologist brings to them the same scrupulous attention as the historian, it is in order to eliminate, by a kind of backward course, all that they owe to the historical process and to conscious thought. His goal is to grasp, beyond the conscious and always shifting images which men hold, the complete  range of unconscious possibilities. These are not unlimited, and the relationships of compatibility or incompatibility which each maintains with all the others provide a logical framework for historical  developments, which, while perhaps unpredictable, are never arbitrary. In this sense, the famous statement by Marx, “Men make their own history, but they do not know that they are making it,” justifies, first, history and, second, anthropology. At the same time, it shows that the two approaches are inseparable. (…)
It would be inaccurate, therefore, to say that on the road toward the understanding of man, which goes from the study of conscious content to that of unconscious forms, the historian and the anthropologist travel in opposite directions. On the contrary, they both go the same way. The fact that their journey together appears to each of them in a different light — to the historian, transition from the explicit to the implicit; to the anthropologist, transition from the particular to the universal — does not in the least alter the identical character of their fundamental approach. They have undertaken the same journey on the same road in the same direction; only their orientation is different. (…) A true two-faced Janus, it is the solidarity of the two disciplines that makes it possible to keep the whole road in sight.

Lévi-Strauss put his finger here on a series of fundamental points which were basic also to McLuhan (despite the seeming wide disparity of their work) and at exactly this same time around 1950 (when McLuhan was fascinated by the multi-leveled epyllion3 form):

  • There are two realms each with their own time (one particular-historical-conscious-actual and the other universal-logical-unconscious-possible) which must be understood both in their difference and in their interconnection — the latter realm supplying the “framework” for the former and the former realm being the always particular expression of the latter.  A science of human being — Lévi-Strauss’s “anthropology” — cannot have a different structure from the physical sciences, all of which have this same “two-faced Janus” relationship between levels of theory and factual instance which are yet knotted in their mutual “solidarity”.
  • Because there cannot be an understanding of a ‘part’ aside from the ‘whole’ of which it is a part, both history and its “framework” must be grasped in their “complete range”. To compare, chemistry approaches all of material being with a complete theory of its elements and their interactions. But both this chemical theory and the material being which is the object of its investigations remain radically open. Indeed, it is a central aspect of the birth of any science to revise for its domain just what ‘complete’ and ‘incomplete’ entail in it and how they relate to each other there. A ‘complete’ explanation is suddenly seen — but the investigation of that ‘complete’ explanation, if it turns out to be valid, can and will go on forever.
  • Because reality itself has this dynamic possible/actual structure, so must investigation of it be correspondingly “structural” (relational, doubled, a ratio). And this is especially the case in the sciences of human being where the study always amounts to some representation of an individual or collective representation.   

Now McLuhan was aware4 of these points very early — in his late twenties and early thirties around 1940 when he was teaching at St Louis University. In his first publication there, in 1938, describing ‘The Cambridge English School’ he was explicit about the plurality and multiple levels of time:

Donne, and the later Shakespeare, on the one hand, and the Romantics on the other, have been read at Cambridge as though they were contemporaries of Mr. Eliot — which of course they are. For the continuing life of the language itself is such as to constitute a medium in which they are all contemporary.

Here “language itself” as a “medium” which is always “contemporary” is just Lévi-Strauss’s “complete range of unconscious possibilities” supplying “a logical framework for historical  developments”. 

A couple years later (probably in 1941, although publication followed only in 1944) he ended his paper on ‘Poetic and Rhetorical Exegesis: The Case for Leavis against Richards and Empson’5 by characterizing Leavis’ work as implementing:

the program which Mr. Eliot (…) indicated but relinquished (…) the arduous stage of the journey which remains to be accomplished before winning an overall view, which is plenary critical judgment.

Here again, then, is to be seen the need for “overall” or “plenary” specification of the “complete range of unconscious possibilities” which would supply “a logical framework for historical  developments” — and hence the springboard for the sort of “critical judgment” made, constantly and universally, in every science.6

McLuhan did not know it at the time, but he would come to see W.B. Yeats as the modern progenitor of this insight in his 1903 ‘Emotion of Multitude’.7 In a 1970 lecture, ‘Discontinuity and Communication in Literature’,8 McLuhan read the complete 2-page text of ‘Emotion of Multitude’ by way of saying, ‘Here is the font — consider it well’: 

I [WBY] have been thinking a good deal about plays lately, and I have been wondering why I dislike the clear and logical construction which seems necessary it one is to succeed on the modern stage. It came into my head the other day that this construction, which all the world has learnt from France, has everything of high literature except the emotion of multitude. The Greek drama has got the emotion of the multitude from its chorus, which called up famous sorrows, even all the gods and all heroes, to witness as it were, some well-ordered fable, some action separated but for this from all but itself. The French play delights in the well-ordered fable, but by leaving out the chorus, it has created an art where poetry and imagination, always the children of far-off multitudinous things, must of necessity grow less important than the mere will. This is why, I said to myself, French dramatic poetry is so often a little rhetorical, for rhetoric is the will trying to do the work of the imagination. The Shakespearian drama gets the emotion of multitude out of the sub-plot which copies the main plot, much as a shadow upon the wall copies one’s body in the firelight. We think of KING LEAR less as the history of one man and his sorrows than as the history of a whole evil time. Lear’s shadow is in Gloucester, who also has ungrateful children and the mind goes on imagining other shadows, shadow beyond shadow, till it has pictured the world. In Hamlet, one hardly notices, so subtly is the web woven, that the murder of Hamlet’s father and the sorrow of Hamlet are shadowed in the lives of Fortinbras and Ophelia and Laertes, whose fathers, too, have been killed. It is so in all the plays, or in all but all, and very commonly the subplot is the main plot working itself out in more ordinary men and women and so doubly calling up before us the image of multitude. Ibsen and Maeterlinck have on the other hand created a new form, for they get multitude from the Wild Duck in the Attic, or from the Crown at the bottom of the Fountain, vague symbols that set the mind wandering from idea to idea, emotion to emotion. Indeed all the great masters have understood that there cannot be great art without the little limited life of the fable, which is always the better the simpler it is, and the rich far-wandering many imaged life of the half-seen world beyond it. There are some who understand that the simple unmysterious things living as in a clear noonlight are of the nature of the sun, and that vague, many-imaged things have in them the strength of the moon. Did not the Egyptian carve it on emerald that all living things have the sun for father and the moon for mother, and has it not been said that a man of genius takes the most after his mother?

How early McLuhan had first set off on this way may be seen in texts we have from 1934:

There are (…) in all times and places, definite types of temperament displaying consistency of conformation. (McLuhan’s University of Manitoba M.A. thesis on Meredith)9

Of late I have been wayfaring among the work of T.S. Eliot (…) the poems I am reading have the unmistakable character of greatness. They transform, and diffuse and recoalesce the commonest every day occurrences of 20th century city life till one begins to see double indeed — the extremely unthinkable character, the glory and the horror of the reality in life… (McLuhan letter to his family from Cambridge, Dec 5, 1934)10

The need, specified by here by McLuhan when he was 23, is just that of Lévi-Strauss: “to grasp, beyond the conscious and always shifting images which men hold, the complete range of unconscious possibilities”, extending from “glory” to “horror”. But this not in some spectrum separated from life, but is exactly “the reality in life”, as perceived through a near “unthinkable” focus that is “double indeed” yet “recoalesce[d]”:

A true two-faced Janus, it is the solidarity of the two disciplines that makes it possible to keep the whole road in sight.

  1. Oct 8, 1971, Letters, 444.
  2. ‘History and Anthropology’, the first chapter of Structural Anthropology (1963), originally published as “Histoire et Ethnologie,” in Revue de Metaphysique et de Morale, LIV:3-4, 363-91, 1949. Structural Anthropology was one of the books on the reading list for McLuhan’s communications seminar.
  3. See The Road to Xanadu for discussion and references.
  4. Being aware and requiring further investigation go together. Awareness is never definitive, but may be — though rarely — originary.
  5.  Sewanee Review, 52:2, 266–76, 1944.
  6. Not that sciences cannot make errors (of course).  But it is exactly because every observation and prediction made in a science is supposed to be a universally valid example of ‘critical judgment’ that any failure is revelatory!
  7. Originally in Ideas Of Good And Evil (1903); usually cited by McLuhan from Essays and Introductions (1961).
  8. Originally a lecture given at University College, Nov 21, 1970, published in P. R. Leon, ed, Problèmes de L’Analyse Textuelle/Problems of Textual Analysis, 189-199, 1971.
  9.  This is Lévi-Strauss’s “transition from the particular to the universal”.
  10.  Letters 41; emphasis on ‘in’ is original.

Heine on ‘Plato’ and ‘Aristotle’

Heinrich Heine, On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany (1835):1

Plato and Aristotle! These are not merely two systems, they are types of two distinct human natures, which from time immemorial, under every sort of disguise, stand more or less inimically opposed. The whole medieval world in particular was riven by this conflict, which persists down to the present day, and which forms the most essential content of the history of the Christian Church. Although under other names, it is always of Plato and Aristotle that we speak. Visionary, mystical, Platonic natures disclose Christian ideas and the corresponding symbols from the fathomless depths of their souls. Practical, orderly, Aristotelian natures build out of these ideas and symbols a fixed system, a dogma and a cult. Finally the Church embraces both natures, one of them entrenched in the clergy and the other in monasticism, but both keeping up a constant feud. 

In his 1934 M.A. thesis McLuhan noted Coleridge’s remark in his table talk “that all men (…) are born either Platonists or Aristotelians”2 and, shortly thereafter, he referred to ‘the’ contrast between them in discussing religion in letters to his family from Cambridge.3

But this sort of typology is useless for purposes of rigorous investigation and this for many reasons:

  • Figures like Plato and Aristotle, or Goethe and Schiller — or Shakespeare by himself — are no singulars. Like everybody — but more consciously than us mortals — they are massive conglomerates of types, whole worlds. What cannot be said to be ‘Shakespearean’?  Styling something according to such types is similar to saying of physical materials that they are ‘air’ or ‘water’ or ‘earth’ or ‘fire’. The great need is to break through such congeries to the underlying elements.
  • Further, such great figures were well aware of the type problem and considered it in various ways. While they of course exemplified psychological types like every human being at every moment, they were also the greatest theoreticians of it. It is upside down when we attempt to use them as types. Instead, they use us.
  • Since we cannot function aside from psychological type, what we take to be ‘Plato’ or ‘Aristotle’ (or ‘the whole medieval world’ or ‘the Christian Church’ or ‘the clergy’ or ‘monasticism’) remains arbitrary so long as the elements of psychological being (verbal) remain undefined and uninvestigated. It was exactly such arbitrary groundlessness that Nietzsche exposed as our ‘longest error’ that would necessarily terminate in nihilism. For the cogency of anything decided by fiat depends upon the prior authority of the fiat. Can the truth and reality of the fiat of arbitrary will be certified by — the fiat of arbitrary will?
  • As has been exposed by centuries of consideration of the ‘interior landscape’, it is not less complicated than the exterior one. No human activity exemplifies a single type over time (or even at any moment?) any more than a sample of physical material ever exemplifies a single element.  Here, too, it may be expected that compound complexes are the invariable rule and that these are as subject to dynamic change as any weather system or the body of any plant or animal. Even if ‘Plato’ and ‘Aristotle’ were in fact “two distinct human natures” (which of course they are not), the question of the dynamics of these types would remain. As can be seen in chemistry (or any science), elements by themselves explain little or nothing: it is equally important to understand the valence of their relations.4 
  1.  Jung used this passage from Heine as the epigraph for Psychological Types.
  2. See On the “necessary conjoint” of Platonists and Aristotelians.
  3. See McLuhan’s realism 5: Cambridge 1934-1935.
  4. The elements of any language might be taken as the always limited number of phonemes used by it in the construction of its meaningful sounds (like words, but not only words). Grammar is the consideration of how those sounds are compounded into complexes (like conjugations or sentences) carrying meaning. Comparative grammar is, of course, much more revealing than comparative phonetics.

McLuhan’s course books

At the back of Who Was Marshall McLuhan there is a list of books he used in his seminar. Students were told to read 3 of them and to report back what they had learned.  They were not to report what was in the books, but the effect on them from the books.

Here is the list from 1966-67 “with additions” presumably from later seminars (marked below with an asterisk).  The printed list has no information other than author and title; publishing information has been added here.

Noteworthy for their absence are any titles from T.S. Eliot, Etienne Gilson, James Joyce, I.A. Richards, A.N. Whitehead and Bernard Muller-Thym, all of whom influenced McLuhan himself significantly. It may be that many of these were felt more fitting to McLuhan’s English courses.

Ruth Nanda Anshen, ed, Language: An Enquiry into Its Meaning and Function, 19571
Silvio A BediniThe scent of time: a study of the use of fire and incense for time measurement in Oriental countries, 1963
Claude BernardAn introduction to the study of experimental medicine, translation 1949, orig. 1865
Norman O. Brown, Life against Death, 19592
Elias CanettiCrowds and Power, translation 1962, orig. 1960
Milic CapekThe Philosophical Impact Of Contemporary Physics, 1961
H.J. Chaytor, From Script To Print, 1945
Colin Cherry, On Human Communication, 1957
C.W. Churchman and P. RatooshMeasurement: Definitions and Theories, 1959
H.F. Sloan and H.S. ClarkClassrooms In The Factories, 1958
Tobias Dantzig, Number: The Language of Science, 1930
Karl W. Deutsch, The Nerves of Government: Models of Political Communication and Control, 1966
Alexander Dorner
, The Way Beyond Art, 1958
Constantinos Doxiadis, Architecture in Transition, 1963
Peter F. Drucker, The Age of Discontinuity: Guidelines to Our Changing Society, 1966
Hugh D. Duncan, Language and Literature in Society, 1953
J. T. Dunlop , ed, Automation and Technological Change, 19623
Anton EhrenzweigPsychoanalysis of Artistic Vision and Hearing: an Introduction to a Theory of Unconscious Perception, 1953
Jacques EllulThe Technological Society, 1964
Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, 1962
Pedro Entralgo, Mind and Body, Psychosomatic Pathology: A short history of the evolution of medical thought, 1955
Pedro EntralgoThe Therapy of the Word in Classical Antiquity, 1970*
Jack Fincher, Human intelligence, 1976*
Michel FoucaultMadness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, translation 1964, orig 1960
Sigmund FreudThe Interpretation of Dreams, 1900
Erich Fromm, The Forgotten Language, 1951
R. Buckminster FullerUtopia or Oblivion, 1963
R. Buckminster Fuller, Ideas and Integrities, 1963
R. Buckminster Fuller, Operating Manual For Spaceship Earth, 1968*
Sigfried GiedionSpaceTime and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition, 1941
Sigfried GiedionMechanization Takes Command, 1948
Sigfried Giedion
The Beginnings of Architecture, 1964
E.H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion, A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, 1960
E. T. HallThe Silent Language, 1959
E. T. Hall, The Hidden Dimension, 1966
E. A. Havelock, Preface to Plato, 1963
E. A. Havelock, Prologue to Greek Literacy, 1971
E. A. Havelock, Origins of Western Literacy, 1976
W. HeisenbergThe Physicist’s Conception of Nature, translation 1958, orig, 1955
J. HuizingaHomo Ludens, translation 1949, orig. 1938
Harold Innis, The Bias of Communication, 1951
W. IvinsArt and Geometry: A Study in Spatial Intuitions, 1946
Julian JaynesThe Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, 1976*
T.S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962
Frank Leavis, New Bearings in English Poetry, 1932
Claude Lévi-StraussStructural Anthropology, translation 1963, orig. 1958
Wyndham Lewis, Time and Western Man, 1927
Jacques Lusseyran, And There was Light, translation 1963, orig. 1953
George Mandler and William Kessen, The Language Of Psychology, 1959
Bruce Mazlish, ed, The Railroad and the Space Program: An Exploration in Historical Analogy, 19654
Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization, 1934
J.R. Pierce, Symbols, Signals and Noise, 1961
Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation, 1944
Ezra PoundThe ABC of Reading, 1934
Edgar Rubin, Visual Figures, 19155
Donald A. Schon, The Displacement of Concepts, 1963
Hans Selye, The Stress of Life, 1956
A.T.W. Simeons, Man’s Presumptuous Brain: An Evolutionary Interpretation of Psychosomatic Disease, 1961
Erwin StraussThe Primary World of Senses: a vindication of sensory experience, 1963
A.P. Usher, A History of Mechanical Inventions, 1929
J.Z. Young, Doubt and Certainty in Science: A Biologist’s Reflections on the Brain, 1951
Lynn White, jr, Medieval Technology and Social Change, 1962

  1. Essays included in the volume: Part 1 — The Principle. Language as idea / Ruth Nanda Anshen; The nature of language / Kurt Goldstein; The origin of language / N.H. Tur-Sinai; Aum: the word of words / Swami Nikhilananda; Language and the theory of sign / Jacques Maritain; Symbols and history / George Boas; The word of God / Paul Tillich; The language of silence / Richard P. Blackmur. Part 2 — The Application. The cardinal dichotomy in language / Roman Jakobson; Squares and oblongs / W.H. Auden; Mysticism and its language / Charles W. Morris; Symbolic language of dreams / Erich Fromm; Language of poetry / Leo Spitzer; Language of jurisprudence / Huntington Cairns; Language of politics / Harold D. Lasswell; Language of the theater / Francis Fergusson; Art as symbolic speech / Margaret Naumburg; A philosophy of translation / Jean P. de Menasce; Language as communication / Ruth Nanda Anshen.
  2. Brown was doing his PhD in classics in Madison when McLuhan was a teaching assistant there in English in 1935-1936.  It is not known if they met.
  3.  Essays included in the volume: Introduction — Problems and potentials / John T. Dunlop; The impact of technology: the historic debate / Robert L. Heilbroner; Educational and social consequences / Lee A. DuBridge; Psychological and organizational impacts / Floyd C. Mann; Managerial decisions / Melvin Anshen; Collective bargaining / George W. Taylor; Some economic considerations / W. Allen Wallis; Employment / Ewan Clague and Leon Greenberg; International aspects / Richard N. Cooper; The technology behind productivity / Francis Bello; Perspective / Henry M. Wriston.
  4. Essays included in the volume: Historical analogy: the railroad and the space program and their impact on society / Bruce Mazlish; A technological frontier: the railway / Thomas Parke Hughes; Railroads as an analogy to the space effort: some economic aspects / Robert William Fogel; The economic impact of the railroad innovation / Paul H. Cootner; The railroads: innovators in modern business administration / Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., and Stephen Salsbury; The social impact of the railroad / Thomas C. Cochran; Political impact: a case study of a railroad monopoly in Mississippi / Robert L. Brandon; The impact of the railroad on the American imagination, as a possible comparison for the space impact / Leo Marx.
  5. There does not seem to be an English translation of Rubin’s 1915 thesis in Danish, Synsoplevede Figurer. It may be that McLuhan had some kind of handout for his students. The 1949 publication of Rubin’s Experimenta psychologica: collected scientific papers in German, English & French included two papers in English: ‘Taste’ and ‘Some Elementary Time Experiences’.

“If it can be done, it must be done.”

We can, if we choose, think things out before we put them out. (Understanding Media, 1964, 49) 

a burning would is come to dance inane. (FW 250 and the title of McLuhan’s 1970 documentary directed against the Spadina expressway.)1

Starting in the 1960s, both McLuhan and George Grant criticized what McLuhan called the “technological imperative” and Grant “the autonomy of technique”. This is the imperative that ‘If something can be done, it must be done’.

It is unclear which of the two first came up with the phrase or if both of them got it from someone else.2 Harold Innis, for example,  must have formulated something of the sort decades before.

George Grant, ‘Protest and Technology’, 1966

The supreme example of the autonomy of technique is surely the space program. Vast resources of brains, money, materials are poured out in the US and in the USSR to keep this fantastic program proliferating. And it is accepted by the masses in both societies not only as necessary but as one of man’s crowning glories. One leader of the United States’ space program said that as we cannot change the environment of space, we will have to change man, and therefore we will have to produce beings with organs, half-flesh and half-electronic. If it can be done,  it must be done and it surely will be done. This is what I mean by the autonomy of technique. The question whether technique serves human good is no longer asked; it has become an end in itself.3

McLuhan cited on ABC News in 1969

Bill Moyers: Mr. McLuhan said earlier that if something can be done it will be done.4 

McLuhan, ‘Liturgy and the Microphone’, 19745

The ordinary evolutionary and developmental attitude towards innovation assumes that there is a technological imperative: “If it can be done, it has to be done”; so that the emergence of any new means must be introduced, for the creation of no matter what new ends, regardless of the consequences.

  1. McLuhan: “Joyce’s phrase ‘a burning would is come to dance inane’ is the essential theme of the Wake” (From Cliché to Archetype, 73). Joyce’s phrase was cited over and over again by McLuhan, four times in From Cliché to Archetype alone. A “burning would” is, perhaps, a ‘can’ presenting itself forcibly as a ‘must’?
  2. Perhaps it was simply in the air. Charles Coulston Gillispie uses the phrase, apparently positively, to describe Galileo and his predecessors in his 1977 ‘The Liberating Influence of Science in History’: “knowledge finds its purpose in action and action its reason in knowledge, that if a problem can be solved, it should be solved, that if something can be  done it should be done.”
  3. Note from Grant’s CW3, 393: This address was entitled ‘Revolution, Responsibility, and Conservatism’ when it was delivered at the Toronto International Teach-ln held at Varsity Arena 8-10 October 1965. The CBC broadcast the speech on 10 October as ‘Revolution and Response’ on the radio series CBC Sunday Night; the Globe and Mail published excerpts on 12 October under the title ‘Stand on Guard for Independence’; and the entire speech appeared under the title ‘Realism in Political Protest’ in Christian Outlook 21:2 (Nov. 1965), later appearing with minor alterations as ‘Critique of the New Left’ in Our Generation 3:4-4:1 (May 1966): 46-51. The full text of the original address appeared again as ‘A Critique of the New Left’ in Canada and Radical Social Change, edited by Dimitrios l. Roussopoulos (Montreal: Black Rose Books 1973), 55, 57-61, and finally in William Christian and Sheila Grant, eds, The George Grant Reader (Toronto: University of Toronto Press 1998), 84-90.
  4. Apollo 11: As it Happened, ABC News Panel on Moon Landing at 02:09f. Discussion panel in July 1969 with Howard K. Smith, Bill Moyers, Marshall McLuhan, and Ian McHarg, introduced by ABC News anchor Frank Reynolds.
  5. The Medium and the Light, 114.

Jung on Schiller 2

Jung identifies Schiller as a representative of “the psychology of the introverted thinking type”.  He then asks the reader:

to remember that the hypothesis I have just advanced underlies my whole argument. This reminder seems to me necessary because Schiller approaches the problem from the angle of his own inner experience. In view of the fact that another psychology, i.e., another type of man, would have approached the same problem in quite another way, the very broad formulation which Schiller gives might be regarded as a subjective bias or an ill-considered generalization. But such a judgment would be incorrect, since there actually is a large class of men for whom the problem of the separated functions [in this configuration] is exactly the same as it was for Schiller. If, therefore, in the ensuing argument I occasionally emphasize Schiller’s one-sidedness and subjectivity, I do not wish to detract from the importance and general validity of the problem he has raised, but rather to make room for other formulations. Such criticisms as I may occasionally offer have more the character of a transcription into another language which will relieve Schiller’s formulation of its subjective limitations. (CW6, 69)

Several points in this passage are of great importance.

First, Jung notes that the identification of a certain type “underlies my whole argument”.  Just as in chemistry in the realm of material being, so analysis of any sample in the realm of psychology/experience/human being (understood verbally) must begin with the identification of its elementary type or compound types. It is this identification which brings the analysis (so to say) ‘into science’. On this basis, other scientists can know what kind of stuff is at stake (or claimed to be at stake) and how investigation of the sample can be expected to relate to other work in the field. What Kuhn called ‘normal science’ can begin. This is collective work done on the basis of a properly assumed “general validity”.1

Second, although the notion of elementary types underlying all  experience seems, as Jung says, to limit it in advance to some or other variety of  “subjective bias”, this “bias” itself now becomes subject to open collective research. And once “bias” itself becomes subject to research on the basis of an acknowledged classification, the relativity of all possible human being (verbal) ceases to be disabling and becomes instead the very source of a whole new sort of knowledge concerning humans and their universe.2 Relativity becomes an illuminating object of study instead of its disabling subject.

Third, types of human being (verbal) themselves make sense only within a certain “species” (Schiller) or table or spectrum. A type is inherently one unit of a collective — McLuhan’s cliché. This is what is at stake in Jung’s requirement of “a transcription into another language which will relieve Schiller’s formulation of its subjective limitations.” In chemistry, an elementary type is one expression of the general series formulated in Mendeleev’s table.  The table represents a formula which can be expressed over a defined range (EnPn, say, where ‘n’ represents some matching number of electrons and protons from 1 to 118). What makes any specification of type in chemistry true, in the end, is its anchorage in the general table. Because it is true, so also are its expressions. Similarly, in regard to human being (verbal), its various types must be anchored in the range of a general formula representing the basic truth of the field.

Fourth, Jung notes that “another psychology” amounts to “another type of (hu)man”. This applies as much to the ‘same individual’ as it does to family, social and national groups. The implication is that there is something to human being (verbal) that is deeper than psychological type, something that permits ‘identity’ across types even when those types are ‘elementary’. This medium below fundamental types has critical implications for morals (since as grounded on this medium there is nothing human that is ultimately foreign to me) and for ontology (since this medium must be).

Fifth, just as important as what Jung says in this passage is what he does not say — what remains unspoken. Namely, that the types of human being (verbal) are its ‘basic truth’ — its being.  This at once introduces a new way to interrogate types and to assess their “general validity”, for ontology has powerful laws of its own. Considered ontologically, Jung’s types remain subjective and hence defective in a way that Schiller’s do not. This is a decided limitation in a series of ways to be explored elsewhere.  Suffice it to note here only that the world now clings to a precipice defined by its nihilism — by a suffocating subjectivity that explodes all value and truth and ends by imploding itself.  And perhaps the world along with it. The specification of the types of human being (verbal) may represent the one way out of this dead end.


  1. In science, “general validity” is, of course, questionable. But this is rarely done and, even less rarely, successfully done. In any case, the questionability of basic propositions is an aspect of science and does not at all contradict its possibility.
  2. Since the physical sciences are examples of human being (verbal), the study of the types of human being introduces a new way to address problems in physics and, in fact, in all the physical sciences.

Jung on Schiller 1

Jung’s long commentary on Schiller’s Aesthetic Letters (in CW6, 67-135) is valuable for an assessment of both — and of their relative contributions to an understanding of the drame intérieur. 

Schiller belongs to the introverted type (…) Because of this identification, an inevitable limitation is imposed on his formulations, a fact we must never lose sight of if we wish to gain a fuller understanding [of psychological types and their interactions]. It is owing to this limitation that the one function is presented by Schiller in richer outline than the other, which is still imperfectly developed in the introvert, and just because of its imperfect development it must necessarily have certain inferior characteristics attached to it. At this point the author’s exposition requires our criticism and correction. It is evident, too, that this limitation of Schiller’s impelled him to use a terminology which lacks general applicability [allgemeiner Verwendbarkeit]. (CW6, 68)

Jung has put his finger on a series of critical points here:1 

  • any attempt to specify the types and dynamics of the drame intérieur must account for its own type and for the solution it brings forward, implicitly or explicitly, to the self-reference inherent in this requirement
  • the demand for “general applicability” cannot be gainsaid. A fitting beginning to the investigation of the interior landscape can be made only when anyone following explicit rules can identify the type or types at play in any given sample (just as chemistry was finally initiated when the rules governing the identification of its elements became defined in the course of the nineteenth century)
  • at the same time the demand for “general applicability” implies that any sample of psychological activity whatsoever be subject to the suggested analysis (just as chemistry would not be chemistry if some material samples were excluded from its analysis)
  • further, “general applicability” applies to time and space. There can be no time or space in which the analysis has not, is not and will not be applicable.

These requirements stand before a new science of human being (verbal), or sciences, both as hurdles and as path markers.

  1. It is another question how far Jung himself met the requirements set out by him for the specification of psychological types. His typology is notoriously complicated and hardly unambiguous even as deployed by Jung himself. However, to make a decisive contribution to the rigorous investigation of the drame intérieur it is not necessary to solve all of its difficulties at once. It is enough to shed further light on some area of great potential importance.

The “new level” of art

A 2012 film Nema Aviona za Zagreb (No Flights to Zagreb) by Louis van Gasteren includes a scene shot in 1964 in which McLuhan opens an exhibit of ‘tele-creation’ art by van Gasteren. The exhibit in Amsterdam was opened by McLuhan in Toronto via ‘tele-vision’.

A blurb for the film informs that “van Gasteren began filming Nema Aviona in 1964 but did not complete it until 2012, making it the longest film in production of all time.” Further: “The film includes the only professional color sound motion picture footage ever filmed of Meher Baba.”

McLuhan’s remarks opening the exhibit were featured on the cover of Tele-Creation, Auto-Sculpture by Louis van Gasteren, the catalogue for the exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. These remarks were captured on film and presumably were part of the ‘tele-creation’ exhibition in 1964.

In the film McLuhan stands in an elevator before television cameras and says:

Painting now moves from representation to a direct encounter with the environment. The environment itself is just as mobile as the old easel painting was at one time. As new environments form around old environments, the old environments become art forms.
The whole mechanical technology, including the motorcar on the road, the whole mechanical technology now has an electronic environment around it which turned these old forms into art forms.
The planet itself has a satellite information environment which turned our planet into an art form. The planet is now being programmed as a teaching machine, as an art form. This kind of revolution is reflected now in painting, too.  The direct encounter with the environment as art form, is a formal violence, that helps us to discover our identity.
The artist by his direct facing of the present environment creates a kind of interface that is somewhat startling and violent and this helps us in turn to develop a sense of identity, which we would otherwise not have a chance of doing.1

The elevator door then closes on McLuhan: he is moving on to ‘another level’ and another identity, leaving the exhibit he has just opened to the crowd.

  1. Aske Land, proprietor of Antiquariaat Gemilang in Bredevoort, The Netherlands, kindly provided a rare copy of the catalogue for the 1964 tele-creation exhibit at the Stedelijk Museum. Many thanks, Aske!

Jung’s drame intérieur

In the 1935 preface to the second edition of a 1916 paper, Jung noted that:

The present essay (…) is (…) the expression of a long-standing endeavour to grasp and — at least in its essential features — to depict the strange character and course of that drame intérieur, the transformation process of the unconscious psyche. This idea of the independence of the unconscious, which distinguishes my views so radically from those of Freud, came to me as far back as 1902…(CW7, 123)

In a slightly earlier piece from 1932, Jung used this same phrase of a drame intérieur in an essay on Picasso:

The descent into ancient times has been associated ever since Homer’s day with the Nekyia. (…) Seldom or never have I had a patient who did not go back to neolithic art forms or revel in evocations of Dionysian orgies. [Picasso’s] Harlequin wanders like Faust through all these forms, though sometimes nothing betrays his presence but his wine, his lute, or the bright lozenges of his jester’s costume. And what does he learn on his wild journey through man’s millennial history? What quintessence will he distill from this accumulation of rubbish and decay, from these half-born or aborted possibilities of form and colour? What symbol will appear as the final cause and meaning of all this? In view of the dazzling versatility of Picasso, one hardly dares to hazard a guess, so for the present I would rather speak of what I have found in my patients’ material. The Nekyia is no aimless and purely destructive fall into the abyss, but a meaningful katabasis eis antron, a descent into the cave of initiation and secret knowledge. The journey through the psychic history of mankind has as its object the restoration of the whole man (…) This man stands opposed to the man of the present, because he is the one who ever is as he was,1 whereas the other is what he is only for the moment. With my patients, accordingly, the katabasis and katalysis are followed by a recognition of the bipolarity of human nature and of the necessity of [an encounter with] conflicting pairs of opposites. After the symbols of madness experienced during the period of disintegration there follow images which represent the coming together of the opposites: light/dark, above/below, white/black, male/female, etc. (…) This state of things in the psychic development of a patient is neither the end nor the goal. It represents only [the stage of] a broadening of his outlook, which now embraces the whole of man’s moral, bestial, and spiritual nature without as yet shaping it into a living unity.  Picasso’s drame intérieur has developed up to this last point before the dénouement. (CW15, 139-140)

McLuhan began to read Jung along with Freud and Adler in the 1930’s in Cambridge. He does not seem to have used the phrase le drame intérieur himself, but le paysage intérieur appears very frequently in his writings in both French and English2  — most prominently as the title of the 1969 collection of his essays in criticism, The Interior Landscape. And recourse to ‘drama’ and the ‘dramatic’ is, of course, even more common in his work.

McLuhan traced the attempt to specify the interior world of the psyche to nineteenth century France:

The first Romantics sought to recover the oral tradition of the ballad form as part of their program of moderating the extreme development of the picturesque. Yet, their use of the outer landscape as a means of defining and expressing emotion gave further stress to visual continuity and perspective. It led inevitably to the isolation of single emotions and single feelings as the basis of organizing  a work of art. It was only with the second Romantic Movement (Baudelaire and after) that the artist emancipated the Western world from the uniformities and specialisms of outer visual space by a sudden shift to what [the French physiologist] Claude Bernard called “le milieu intérior“. It is strange indeed that both poetry and medicine shifted their attention from outer to inner at the same time. T.S. Eliot’s familiar opening lines of Prufrock capture both of these events [of the first and second Romantic Movements]:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table.
The first line leads to the cult of the romantic landscape, and the second to the precise activities of the surgeon exploring the interior of the patient.3

As cited above, Jung asked in this context: “What quintessence will [Picasso] distill from this accumulation of rubbish and decay, from these half-born or aborted possibilities of form and colour?” Comparatively, McLuhan saw the contemporary world as reduced to garbage4 and over and over again cited Yeats:

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

McLuhan repeatedly cited these lines from Yeats’ The Circus Animals’ Desertion (1938) in his late texts: in Take Today, in ‘Man as the Medium’ (the introduction to his 1975 commentary on Sorel Etrog’s film, Spiral) and, especially, in From Cliché to Archetype where they are cited twice, along with the first lines of this poem:

I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily for six weeks or so.
Maybe at last, being but a broken man,
I must be satisfied with my heart, although
Winter and summer till old age began
My circus animals were all on show,
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.

No specification of human being or of being itself can ignore “the foul rag-and-bone shop” the former “broken man” unaccountably represents within the latter. On the one hand, this is a proofstone against which any attempt to formulate the truth of these must be tried. No sleight of hand can force lipstick on this pig. On the other, since their truth would inescapably infold this “mound of refuse”, the stunning wonder would be that even this, even the stench and horror trailed along by us, would be enfolded in that strange “quintessence”. More yet, as Yeats discerned, it would even turn out that this “mound of refuse” equally embraced that  “quintessence” as the place “where all the ladders start”. There would thus be a double infolding, Dante’s “forma universal di questo nodo”…5

  1. Jung repeatedly has recourse to the plurality of time in this passage. He begins by referring to “the descent into ancient times” and to “man’s millennial history”. Then the contrast between “the whole man” and the split “man of the present” is described as the difference between “the one who ever is as he was” and “the other (who) is what he is only for the moment”. Time as times is the great path marker followed in the twentieth century by Einstein, Husserl, Jung, Heidegger and others, including Innis and McLuhan, in the attempt to understand the possibility of truth — and only so the truth of human beings and their surrounding cosmos.
  2. McLuhan usually translated le paysage intérieur as the interior landscape, but in ‘Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry’ from 1951 he has “le paysage interieur or the psychological landscape”.
  3. ‘Discontinuity and Communication in Literature’, in P. R. Leon, ed, Problèmes de L’Analyse Textuelle, Problems of Textual Analysis, 1971, 189-199. This was a lecture given by McLuhan at University College, UT, on Nov 21, 1970.
  4. For references and discussion, see Planet polluto, garbage apocalypse.
  5. The modern human being is defined by the inability to believe in such truth. In the decision between our own importance, even if only negative, and what would be the strangest and most marvelous power of being itself, we insist on us.

Reading Schiller (and others)

On the road to science (the times of science #3) the nature of the domain to be explained remains unclear, as does, of course, just how the new science will go about its explaining — with what units acting and interacting in what ways. These questions get answered — progressively answered — only when the new science finally takes off as an open collective enterprise.

In the event, decisive advances made along that road must be read as oracular prophesies delivered in a kind of code.  The expositor does not know the goal, or the way by which it is to be reached or, of course, what particular steps might lead along that way. She quite literally does not know what she is talking about. And yet, through a kind of second sight, through some sort of strange intuition, decisive perceptions are attained which anticipate that goal and can even make contributions that will prove to be important when the new science eventually is able to undertake its investigations in the unknown future.

As an example, consider this sentence from Schiller’s sixth aesthetic letter:

Einseitigkeit in Übung der Kräfte führt zwar das Individuum unausbleiblich zum Irrthum, aber die Gattung zur Wahrheit.

One-sided exercise of its energies leads the individual inevitably into error, but the species into truth.

As may particularly be seen in countless absurd readings of Schiller (and even more of Hegel), it is tempting (as more than two centuries of responses to Schiller and Hegel amply demonstrate) to read Schiller here as characterizing the human species as some kind of mystical ‘world spirit’. The relation of the erring individual to that specter is imagined as if the species, so conceived, were to come into its truth through us erring individuals, or as it being already in truth but somehow requiring our recognition of this, or as it somehow finding its truth despite us, behind our backs, so to say, in a kind of ruse — etc etc etc.1

But Schiller was no more accurately seeing the actions of some mega-spirit here than were alchemists accurately investigating dragons and green lions. What Schiller was seeing through a glass darkly was rather the elementary structure of experience whose range or species is composed of ‘individual’ expressions of it — just as the table of chemical elements is composed of individual instances of the same basic structure (or ‘species’). Further, he was seeing that it is through identification and specification of that elementary structure alone that the factual level of individual and collective experience can at last be understood (through ongoing collective investigation).

Of course, if experience comes in different units of the same basic structure, the question must be posed how one of these, or a compound of these, comes at any moment to be the form of my experience — or the form of anyone’s experience. This has to do with the difference between the elements of physical nature and the elements of experiential nature. And here, too, Schiller exercised great penetration:

Der Wille des Menschen steht aber vollkommen frei zwischen Pflicht und Neigung, und in dieses Majestätsrecht seiner Person kann und darf keine physische Nöthigung greifen. Soll er also dieses Vermögen der Wahl beibehalten und nichts desto weniger ein zuverlässiges Glied in der Causalverknüpfung der Kräfte sein, so kann dies nur dadurch bewerkstelligt werden, daß die Wirkungen jener beiden Triebfedern [Pflicht und Neigung] im Reich der Erscheinungen vollkommen gleich ausfallen und, bei aller Verschiedenheit in der Form, die Materie seines Wollens dieselbe bleibt, daß also seine Triebe mit seiner Vernunft übereinstimmend genug sind, um zu einer universellen Gesetzgebung zu taugen. (Aesthetische Briefe, # 4)2

Schiller seems to be talking in quasi-Kantian terms here about concrete human beings and the conditions of their acting morally. But what may be discerned between the lines of this passage is the elementary form of experience which can be expressed as the range over which the ratio of A to B (here inclination and duty) extends, as marked by a relative preference for the one and/or the other. It is such differentiated weighting that Schiller calls ‘the human will’, the ‘magisterial (right of) personality’, and the ‘power of (re)solution’: these mark the elementary forms of human experience in a way that the elementary forms of physical nature are not marked. What differentiates the individual expressions of the general A/B ratio — unlike the difference in number of electron/proton which differentiates the chemical elements — is exactly the different marking or weighting or valorizing that may be exercised on that ratio in the spectrum between A at one of its ends and B at the other where all of the points between these ends are co-variable A/B ratios.

Again, when Schiller speaks of ‘universal legislation’, he is using Kantian language. But what is at stake is a whole new way of humans understanding themselves and deciding on their individual and collective actions through open research. Once the elementary structure of experience is exposed for collective investigation, humans will understand their actions —  and thereby pursue their actions — in a whole new way. They will know in advance the predictable effects of their experience, know it to be optional (ie, variable through the ‘magisterial right of personality’) and know its available alternatives along with their effects: 

Er kommt zu sich aus seinem sinnlichen Schlummer, erkennt sich als Mensch eine Wahl, deren er damals nicht fähig war, und verfährt nun nicht anders, als ob er von vorn anfinge und den Stand der Unabhängigkeit aus heller Einsicht und freiem Entschluß mit dem Stand der Verträge vertauschte. (Aesthetische Briefe, # 3)

The human being [both individual and collective] comes to itself out of its waking sleep, recognizes a choice which it could not make before, and sets to work as if beginning anew, exchanging the state of bondage by and for one of insight and free determination…

  1.  Such ‘dialectic’ may then be taken to represent the relation of the individual to God since the question arises whether the species, you and me and all the rest of us, might not actually be God. As a PhD project, somebody at some point will audit how much money has been spent over the last couple centuries paying professors to excogitate upon such idiocies. Such an accounting will demonstrate the enormous resources we have dedicated, not only to drivel, but to attacking ourselves and driving ourselves nuts.
  2.  Bartleby translation (with corrections and clarifications in brackets): “But the will of man is perfectly free between inclination and duty, and no physical necessity (can or ought to interfere) in this magisterial (right of) personality. If therefore he is to retain this power of (re)solution, and yet (also be an admitted) link in the causal concatenation of (internal and external) forces, this can only be effected when the operations of both these impulses (of inclination and duty) are (equally subject to expression) in the world of appearances. (And this) is only possible when, with every difference of form (in the relation of inclination and duty), the (differentiating) matter of man’s volition (so) remains the same (that the relation of these three factors is) sufficient (to give birth to the possibility of) a universal legislation.”

The Toronto school and Schiller

The relevance of Schiller to an investigation of the Toronto school does not have to do with its consideration of his work. There was no such consideration. Instead, the relevance has to do with the fact that Schiller, particularly in his Aesthetische Briefe, took up themes — and investigated those themes deeply — which the Toronto school would later also do. On the one hand, this gives an indication of a tradition within which the Toronto school participated, consciously or unconsciously1; on the other, Schiller’s work supplies clues for ways in which the Toronto school may usefully be examined. It is often the case in intellectual history, or always, that what can be found in a particular work or collective movement depends upon what is first of all brought to it.2

Here is Schiller in the sixth of the Aesthetische Briefe:3

Die mannigfaltigen Anlagen im Menschen zu entwickeln, war kein anderes Mittel, als sie einander entgegen zu setzen. Dieser Antagonism der Kräfte ist das große Instrument der Kultur, aber auch nur das Instrument; denn so lange derselbe dauert, ist man erst auf dem Wege zu dieser. Dadurch allein, daß in dem Menschen einzelne Kräfte sich isolieren und einer ausschließenden Gesetzgebung anmaßen, gerathen sie in Widerstreit mit der Wahrheit der Dinge und nöthigen den Gemeinsinn, der sonst mit träger Genügsamkeit auf der äußern Erscheinung ruht, in die Tiefen der Objekte zu dringen. Indem der reine Verstand eine Autorität in der Sinnenwelt usurpiert und der empirische [Verstand] beschäftigt ist, ihn den Bedingungen der Erfahrung zu unterwerfen, bilden beide Anlagen sich zu möglichster Reife aus und erschöpfen den ganzen Umfang ihrer Sphäre. (…) Sollte uns die Natur durch ihre Zwecke eine Vollkommenheit rauben können, welche uns die Vernunft durch die ihrigen [Zwecke] vorschreibt? Es muß also falsch sein, daß die Ausbildung der einzelnen Kräfte das Opfer ihrer Totalität nothwendig macht; oder wenn auch das Gesetz der Natur noch so sehr dahin strebte, so muß es bei uns stehen, diese Totalität in unsrer Natur, welche die Kunst zerstört hat, durch eine höhere Kunst wieder herzustellen.

That “the manifold aptitudes” of human being were set at odds by the Greeks and that this opposition was the motor of the whole western tradition was, of course, exactly the position reached by the Toronto school (along with I.A. Richards) by the late 1940s.4 So, too, the idea that the undoubted positive results of this tradition had brought with them fundamental problems which that tradition now had to solve (or potentially perish). As Schiller put these two points, the “rival directions [unloosed by the Greeks] arrive at the highest possible development, and exhaust the whole extent of their sphere”. McLuhan, for his part, had already been considering this constellation as an undergraduate at the University of Manitoba, particularly in his work with Rupert Lodge. As he wrote in his master’s thesis on Meredith:

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.

These “Idealist” and “Realist” positions were just Schiller’s “pure understanding [which] usurps authority in the world of sense, and empiricism [which] attempts to subject this intellect [of pure understanding] to the conditions of [sense] experience”. As Lodge had insisted, and as Schiller explicitly stated, “it must be false that the Ausbildung of particular faculties [eg, of “understanding” and “sense”] renders the sacrifice of their totality necessary”. This must be false, that is, if it is true that these form a complex totality and not an unthinkable seamless singularity of some sort of one of them alone. It then followed for the Toronto school, as much as it did for Schiller, that the outstanding goal of western civilization must be to “re-form” (reformulate and thereby reinstitute) the “totality of our being” — especially including the medium enabling this complex.

This was what McLuhan called going ‘from the ivory tower to the control tower’. Not ‘control tower’ in the sense of some center manipulating lesser marginal entities through management from above, however, but ‘control tower’ in the sense of having an overview of independent entities each requiring attention and respect on its own, but just as much requiring communication between and among the ensemble. McLuhan expressed this notion to Jackie Tyrwhitt in this way:

With electronics, any marginal area can become centre, and marginal experiences can be had at any centre.  Perhaps the city needed to coordinate and concert the distracted sense programs of our global village will have to be built by computers in the way in which a big airport has to coordinate multiple flights.5

For Schiller, the demand was to understand “play” as the initial condition of such independence and coordination.  The overview depended upon an ability to allow “play” this priority.  Otherwise it would degrade into management via the rear-view mirror: a superiority would be assumed for which marginal entities could have neither genuine independence nor, as a result, effective coordination among themselves.6 

For McLuhan this priority of Schiller’s “play” was “the medium [that] is the message”. 

  1. The Toronto school was hardly unconscious of tradition and traditions. But as it itself was acutely aware, the great question was how to identify traditions and define them for further investigation. History played a major role in Innis’ economics; Innis named the subject of his work the “History of the Greek Mind”; and the single topic of McLuhan’s lifetime labor was the history of human communication. All realized that the cogency of their efforts depended upon the theorization deployed in their work; but they all equally realized that theory had to arise from the facts under study and could never be simply imposed on them.  All struggled with the chicken and egg problem implicated here. The suggestions of this blog is that there is a tradition of the consideration of this chicken and egg problem and that examination of it can supply interesting ways to approach both the contributions and the limitations of the Toronto school. Schiller was an important link in this further tradition whose foundation was laid by its two greatest representatives, Plato and Aristotle.
  2. The chicken and egg problem again — see the previous note.
  3. The translation at Bartleby: “There was no other way to develop the manifold aptitudes of man than to bring them in opposition with one another. This antagonism of forces is the great instrument of culture, but it is only an instrument; for as long as this antagonism lasts, man is only on the road to culture. It is only because these special forces are isolated in man, and because they take on themselves to impose an exclusive legislation, that they enter into strife with the truth of things, and oblige common sense, which generally adheres imperturbably to external phænomena, to dive into the essence of things. While pure understanding usurps authority in the world of sense, and empiricism attempts to subject this intellect (= pure understanding) to the conditions of experience (= the world of sense), these two rival directions arrive at the highest possible development, and exhaust the whole extent of their sphere.  (…) (But) can nature snatch from us, for any (particular) end whatever, the perfection (Vollkommenheit) which is prescribed to us by the (end) of reason (as opposed to understanding)? It must be false that the perfecting (Ausbildung) of particular faculties renders the sacrifice of their totality necessary; and even if the law of nature had imperiously this tendency, we must have the power to reform (re-form) by a superior art this totality of our being, which (inferior) art has destroyed.”
  4. This antagonism was formulated as sight versus sound, dialectic vs rhetoric, literacy vs orality, etc. Compare Schiller: “Der todte Buchstabe vertritt den lebendigen Verstand, und ein geübtes Gedächtniß leitet sicherer als Genie und Empfindung.” (Aesthetische Briefe, #6)
  5. McLuhan to   Tyrwhitt,  December 23, 1960, Letters 277–278.
  6. If speech were enforced along these lines, it would never have been initiated in history and could not be learned by a child today.

Lodge, Richards and Schiller’s Aesthetic Letters

Here is McLuhan’s mentor at the university of Manitoba, Rupert Lodge, at the beginning of his ‘Comparative Method in Philosophy’:1

Human knowledge is the product of two factors, sensation and intelligence. From sensation we derive the ultimate constituents of experience, its elementary qualities, its reds and blues, louds and softs, roughs, smooths, and the rest. These are not invented or originated by us, but are pure discoveries, sought after by us with interest, as gifts from the hand of nature which we may learn to use wisely and with discrimination. From the intellect with its spontaneous demand for unity, order, and system, we derive the formal patterns of logic and mathematics, in terms of which we seek to compare, distinguish. and arrange the sensory content of experience in such elementary relationships as apart or together, before or after, larger or smaller, more or less intense, to the right or to the left of, etc. These two factors are not found in complete isolation from one another, separated as if with a hatchet. In the simplest sensory experience there is at least a minimum of inference, as when we “separate” and “contrast” red and blue and “identify” this or that quality as belonging to the visual or auditory “system”. So, too, intellectual elaboration occurs only on the occasion of some stimulus which is sensory in origin and in its associations. Yet, since they differ in function, the one factor being essentially receptive and the other essentially originative, it is convenient as well as usual to regard them as distinct. While both are present in concrete knowing, each of these factors shows a considerable range of variation. At the one extreme it is possible for the sensory factor so to predominate as completely to overshadow the presence of intellectual factors. (…) At the other extreme it is possible for the intelligence (…) to predominate…


McLuhan’s library preserved at the University of Toronto does not have Ogden and Richards’ 1922 Foundations Of Aesthetics, which they co-authored with the painter James Wood. But he would certainly have read it at Cambridge along with its closely related Meaning of Meaning (Ogden and Richards, 1923), which McLuhan’s library has in a first edition copy with his marginal annotations. Given his training with Rupert Lodge at the University of Manitoba, immediately before his studies at Cambridge with Richards, he would have found the discussion of Schiller in the Foundations of great interest. For Lodge’s method, which set the program for McLuhan’s entire career, was a variation on Schiller’s as described in the Aesthetische Briefe of 1794.2

Here are Ogden and Richards on Schiller in The Foundations Of Aesthetics:

it was Kant’s view of the relations of Art and Play which led Schiller in his Briefe Uber die Aesthetische Erziehung der Menschen to elaborate a theory of harmonious activity in which a balance or equipoise is maintained. There are, according to Schiller (Letter 2), two opposing demands in man — that of the sense-impulse, and that of the form-impulse.3 (…) Harmony can be attained without diminution of either. And here the function of Play is introduced. The object of the sense-impulse is life, the object of the form-impulse, shape (Letter 15). The object of the play-impulse, expressed in a general proposition, can then be called living shape, or in its widest signification, Beauty.

Beauty, then (Letter 16), results from the reciprocity of two opposite impulses, and from the union of the opposite principles: we must seek its highest ideal in the most perfect possible equipoise.

“The scales of a balance stand poised”, he proceeds (Letter 20), “when they are empty; but also when they contain equal weights. Thus the mind passes from perception to reflection by an intermediate state (Stimmung) in which sense and reason are active at the same time, but thus mutually destroy their [one-sided] determining power and effect a [potentially positive] negation through an opposition [in which mere opposition is countered by relation] (…) if we call the condition of sensuous determination the physical, and that of reflective determination the logical and moral condition, we must call the condition of real and active [mutual] determinableness [Bestimmbarkeit]4 the aesthetic condition.”5

Modernity for Schiller, and then for Nietzsche a century later, and the Toronto school a half century later again, is the time when the balanced pans of a scale before a weighing (the precondition of any trustworthy weighing) are perceived as being only empty; and the difference between the two pans is perceived only as an antagonism. The great question posed by them all was how to restore perception, as McLuhan put it over and over again (including to the Ontario Dental Association), that “the gap is where the action is”.

It is here in the precondition of balance, and in the precondition of balance alone, that the play of the Spieltrieb is to be found already at work.


  1. In Manitoba Essays, ed Lodge, 405-432, 1937. For further citation and discussion, see The Comparative Method of Rupert Lodge and Rupert Lodge: Synthesis or Comparison?
  2. Schiller is mentioned by Lodge, but only in an off-hand manner, and seems never to have been discussed (or considered?) by him in detail. But this makes the parallels between them that much more remarkable.
  3. John Paul Russo in his detailed study of Richards has pointed out that the treatment of Schiller in The Foundations of Aesthetics is not entirely fair (I.A. Richards: His Life and Work, 106-107, but cf 712n62).  Indeed, it is particularly misleading to suggest, as Ogden and Richards do at this point in Foundations, that Schiller attributed “antagonism” to a prevalence of the sensuous drive over the rational one: “Whenever the form-impulse prevails (Letter 12) ‘there is the highest amplitude of being’. But if we subordinate (Letter 13) the sensuous to the rational, we get mere antagonism and no harmony.” Instead, Schiller was clear that “antagonism” results from the prevalence of either drive over against the other. “Antagonism” is exactly the absence, or at least the diminution, of mutual “play”. Ogden and Richards apparently did not see in this context how Schiller played off “highest amplitude” with “subordinate”: that is, in essential contrast to Heraclitus’ way up and down — “play” — he took “antagonism” to be the way up or down.  Schiller put this crucial point in the same Letter 13 cited by Ogden and Richards as follows: “The office of culture is to watch over them (the sensuous and rational drives) and to secure to each one its proper limits; therefore culture has to give equal justice to both, and to defend not only the rational impulsion against the sensuous, but also the latter against the former. Hence she has to act a twofold part: first, to protect sense against the attacks of freedom; secondly, to secure personality (“freedom”) against the power of sensations.”
  4. Schiller here plays off his earlier Stimmung (translated as “intermediate state” by Ogden and Richards, but in German has meanings ranging from ‘mood’ to ‘tuning’ and could even be ‘medium’ in this context) with Bestimmbarkeit. While it is not entirely mistaken to offer ‘determinableness’ as a translation of Bestimmbarkeit, the key move made by Schiller with his use of this term is to suggest that Stimmung is inherently plural such that any example of it has undergone a process of limitation and definition and only so has become distinct (bestimmt in German). The conclusion follows that any attempt to understand the role of play and beauty in human life, hence the role of any medium at all, must first of all be to assess that plurality and the ways in which it can become particularized. The same point concerning essential plurality is made by Schiller’s repeated use of the word ‘Gemüth’ (disposition) in this letter: ‘müth’ is cognate with English ‘mood’ and ‘Ge’ marks a collective.
  5. Die Schalen einer Wage stehen gleich, wenn sie leer sind; sie stehen aber auch gleich, wenn sie gleiche Gewichte enthalten. Das Gemüth geht also von der Empfindung zum Gedanken durch eine mittlere Stimmung über, in welcher Sinnlichkeit und Vernunft zugleich thätig sind, eben deswegen aber ihre bestimmende Gewalt gegenseitig aufheben und durch eine Entgegensetzung eine Negation bewirken. (…) wenn man den Zustand sinnlicher Bestimmung den physischen, den Zustand vernünftiger Bestimmung aber den logischen und moralischen nennt, so muß man diesen Zustand der realen und aktiven Bestimmbarkeit den ästhetischen heißen.”

Schiller’s Aesthetic Letters and nihilism

As soon as man is only form, he has no form, and the [autonomous] personality vanishes with the condition. In a word, it is only inasmuch as he is [genuinely] autonomous, that there is reality [also] out[side] of him, that he is receptive; and it is only inasmuch as he is receptive that there is reality in him…1 (Schiller, Aesthetic Letters, #13)2

At the midway point of his 1794 Aesthetic Letters (letter 13 of 27), Schiller foresaw what Nietzsche would specify almost a century later in his ‘History of an Error: How the true world became a fable’ (in Twilight of the Idols). When a human being becomes trapped in a hall of mirrors (all form or image, no outside reality), or, worse, a whole society (if that word can still be said to apply), or even a whole world (ditto), reality is lost — the ‘person’ as much as the ‘world’:

The true world — we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we also have abolished the apparent one!!3

The only way out of the hall of mirrors is finally to understand that it, too, is merely “apparent” and utterly vacuous.

In this way, such nihilism functions, or can function, as a direction marker. When the abysmal emptiness of a way of thinking and living is exposed, a new way can, at last, be discerned. What is lacking in most modern scholarship (if that word can still be said to apply) is the passion required for this exposure — and for the implicated dissolution of its own vacuity. Undergoing4 dissolution, alone, makes it possible to turn away from the hall of mirrors and to take another way — a way that may lead to reality, external and internal and, first of all, to the way between the two.5

Nihilism is the prompt exposing a new (though most ancient) ‘first of all’: the way between. Schiller’s play.

  1. Schiller’s point is that a psychotic (or an associate professor) who is unable to recognize the claims of an external reality has just to that extent also lost itself.
  2. Emphasis added. Translation is from Bartleby. The original (with emphasis added) reads: Sobald der Mensch nur Form ist, so hat er keine Form, und mit dem Zustand ist folglich auch die (selbständige) Person aufgehoben. Mit einem Wort: nur insofern er selbständig ist, ist Realität außer ihm, ist er empfänglich; nur, insofern er empfänglich ist, ist Realität in ihm…
  3.  Die wahre Welt haben wir abgeschafft: welche Welt blieb übrig? die scheinbare vielleicht?… Aber nein! mit der wahren Welt haben wir auch die scheinbare abgeschafft!! For discussion, see  Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters 2: What Mallarmé saw.
  4. Cf, “Zarathustra’s Untergang”: “Als Zarathustra dreissig Jahr alt war, verliess er seine Heimat und den See seiner Heimat und ging in das Gebirge.” Here away from his personal and geographical Heimat he addresses the sun as follows: “Du grosses Gestirn! Was wäre dein Glück, wenn du nicht Die hättest, welchen du leuchtest! (…) Ich möchte verschenken und austheilen, bis die Weisen unter den Menschen wieder einmal ihrer Thorheit und die Armen einmal ihres Reichthums froh geworden sind. Dazu muss ich in die Tiefe steigen: wie du des Abends thust, wenn du hinter das Meer gehst und noch der Unterwelt Licht bringst, du überreiches Gestirn! Ich muss, gleich dir, untergehen, wie die Menschen es nennen, zu denen ich hinab will. So segne mich denn, du ruhiges Auge, das ohne Neid auch ein allzugrosses Glück sehen kann! Segne den Becher, welche überfliessen will, dass das Wasser golden aus ihm fliesse und überallhin den Abglanz deiner Wonne trage! Siehe! Dieser Becher will wieder leer werden, und Zarathustra will wieder Mensch werden.”
  5. In order to be found, this way must first be taken.  This is the knot of thinking and time and being itself. See The times of science for discussion. Here is Heidegger: “Was heißt Denken? Was z.B. Schwimmen »heißt«, lernen wir nie durch eine Abhandlung über das Schwimmen kennen. Was Schwimmen heißt, sagt uns nur der Sprung in den Strom. Die Frage »Was heißt Denken«? läßt sich niemals dadurch beantworten, daß wir eine Begriffsbestimmung über das Denken, eine Definition, vorlegen…” (Was heißt Denken).

The times of science

In regard to the object, the working, the realization and the precondition of science, it is necessary to differentiate between a series of different times:

  1. the time of physical and psychological events in history (Voegelin’s “factual level of history”1) as the explanandum of science.2
  2. the time of laws below history that account for such events as their explanans (Voegelin’s “level of essence”) — eg, H + O => H20, which is always the case at the level of essence, but at the factual level will be expressed only within a complex of other factors which may or may not modify that expression.3
  3. the time of the discovery of such laws, which is a different time from the expression of laws at the factual and essential levels (even though the discovery happens in factual time and consists of insight into the essential level) — eg, all physical events have always obeyed the laws of chemistry, but chemistry itself was discovered only in the nineteenth century.
  4. the time of reality itself that enables such correlations between the factual and essential levels as well as the discovery of the laws of those correlations. The latter is another sort of correlation — between human insight and the correlations of the factual and essential levels of history. Now in order for these different sorts of correlations to be, they must themselves first of all be real possibilities. That is, such dynamics must be rooted in the nature of reality itself and this implicates another sort of time, since it cannot be the case that reality either holds seamlessly to itself or that it only fragments away from itself. In the first case, nothing else would be. In the second, correlation would not be. Reality itself is both irreducibly plural and integral, such that its very form is this dynamic knot of going out from itself while remaining correlated to itself. But dynamically going out from itself while staying correlated to itself is just what time is. Time ‘marches on’ as time. All time goes out from itself as its way of remaining itself. There is, then, a fundamental relation between being and time — both go out to go in — and it is this dynamic figure that underlies all the other times of science together with their correlations.4 

The time of the “factual level of history” is ever-changing or horizontal; the time of the “level of essence” is always the case or vertical; the time of discovery is horizontal/vertical, the moment in horizontal time when insight into timeless laws is achieved; the time of reality is the expression of all of these senses at once in a knot that is at once ‘on its own’ and yet tied through a possibility that is anything but its own. 

The history of philosophy, and of all the human sciences, might be told in terms of confusions between these different times. This is particularly to be seen in the reading of Hegel where the third level has nearly always been confused with the fourth, leading to the supposition that he either properly, or absurdly, foresaw “the end of history”. Instead, what Hegel foresaw is that the laws of the psychological/spiritual field would come to be known in a similar fashion to the way the chemical laws of physical materials began to be uncovered in his lifetime. What would end would not be all history, but the history of our ignorance of the interlocked factual and essential levels of spiritual reality. Not only would history not end, but a whole new history turning on this discovery would thereby begin. This would lead to ever-increasing insight into these spiritual levels and this, in turn, would lead to ever-increasing insight into all of the levels of time(s), but especially into level four — since our reflections about reality itself would at last be open to collective research.5

The times of the developments foreseen by Hegel are particularly knotted (hence also his exposition of them) since the eventual actualization of insight into the laws of spiritual reality depends on the prior possibility of this event in reality itself.  But this prior possibility in reality itself can be seen only after the actualization of such insight. As McLuhan often remarked, the effect comes before the cause. Such is the knot of time(s).

In fact, the Greeks had already come across these abysmal questions (perhaps in train of millennia-old traditions) and attempted to formulate them. When Whitehead observed that the history of western philosophy was a series of footnotes to Plato, he might equally have said that the dire history of our wars and social problems is a history of our continuing failure to understand the complications of times and therefore of our continuing inability to investigate that history scientifically.

The very existence of the human species, and perhaps even of the biosphere itself, may depend, as Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus remarks, on our awaking at last from the nightmare of this — correlated? — history of ignorance.

  1.  See Voegelin and the question of “intelligible units” for citation and discussion. See this same post for explanandumexplanans and Voegelin’s “level of essence”.
  2. All of the times considered here are knotted. At the factual level, for example, everything that happens is an expression of laws at the essential level.  But these are never known completely and may remain without theoretical elaboration for great stretches of time: most modern sciences have been known only for a small fraction of the time the human species has existed. And, indeed, how many undiscovered disciplines may be implicated in the factual level of events without our knowledge of them? As DNA-based genetics did until recently. And this complex of times could itself not exist except as something in being. The identity of times, their knot, must therefore always be borne in mind as their differences are interrogated.
  3. This is the difference between Saussure’s “langue” vs “parole”.
  4. Cf Schiller’s Aesthetic Letters (letter 11): “It is only in the absolute subject alone that its external determinations remain with it even as they flow out of it.” Original: “In dem absoluten Subjekt allein beharren mit der Persönlichkeit auch alle ihre Bestimmungen, weil sie aus der Persönlichkeit fließen.”
  5. Hans-Georg Gadamer used to call this imperatively needed collective research into fundamentals the “Dialog der Weltreligionen” or, in short, “die Sprache”.

The breakthrough insight at “the level of essence”

My own approach, following Harold Innis, is a transformation theory, thus homeostasis of the perceptual factors (…) requir[ing] much redistribution of emphasis among the senses. (McLuhan to Hans Selye, 1974, full citation and discussion below.)

Throughout the 1950s (hence his delay in completing The Gutenberg Galaxy that whole decade), McLuhan was puzzled by the fact that the movement in new media analyzed by Havelock, Innis, Richards and himself beyond the eye and back towards the ear, somehow seemed to have occurred through intensely visual innovations like photography, film, comics and, above all, television. How had the eye come to trump the eye?

An answer came to him at last at the start of the following decade. As he reported in Project in Understanding New Media: “Early in 1960 it dawned on me that the sensory impression proffered by a medium like movie or radio, was not the sensory effect obtained.” That is, the effects of media were not to be found in their sensory input toward us (eg, of television or telephone), but in the shape of the subsequent sensory output from us (eg, a demand or even a need in an electric age for participation).1

This revolution in focus from input to output implicated2 the notion that media had to be understood on two fundamentally different (though interconnected) levels, the literal level (Voegelin’s “factual level of history”3) where media were found objects (like newspapers and computers, or like spoken languages, or even like abstractions such as orality and literacy) and the level of formal cause (Voegelin’s “level of essence”4). The former was the level of the explanandum, that which required explanation, as opposed to the latter level of the explanans, that which would explain.

Studying with Rupert Lodge at the University of Manitoba in the early 1930’s, McLuhan had imbibed the notion that human experience was differentiated into three fundamentally different types and that the multilevel study of these types as explanans could help solve the explanandum of practical problems in education, commerce and politics.5 His PhD thesis awarded in 1943 put forward the notion that these types could be identified and investigated in terms of the three arts of the trivium. But through his exposure to the ‘synaesthesis’ of I.A. Richards at Cambridge,6, then to Catholic theology7 and finally to the work of Harold Innis (itself also influenced by Eric Havelock and I.A. Richards), he came to think by 1950 that the dynamic order of the senses might be the best way to characterize the “level of essence” and therefore also the “factual level of history” via the linked working of these explanans/explanandum strata. 

In 1974 he wrote to Hans Selye:

My own approach, following Harold Innis, is a transformation theory, thus homeostasis of the perceptual factors in a rapidly changing environment requires much redistribution of emphasis among the senses. For example, a blind or deaf person compensates for the loss of one sense by a heightening of activity in the others.  It seems to me that this also occurs in whole populations when new technologies create new sensory environments.8

Communication via media did not occur through the ‘transportation’ of some meaning through a ‘pipeline’ or linear chain, but though instantaneous “transformation” as when a child first learns to speak.9  In this understanding, all mental activity may be imagined as a series of Gestalts10 which displace each other so completely from moment to moment that there is little or no explanatory power to be derived from looking at their series.11  Instead, understanding came from investigation of the Gestalts themselves and the key here was to define what Voegelin called “theoretically justifiable units”12. In his note to Selye, McLuhan called the unit of experiential Gestalts the “homeostasis of the perceptual factors” and the dynamism accounting for differences between the units he termed the “redistribution of emphasis among the senses”. That is, the unit of experience which is expressed at the “factual level of history” as explanandum, and which explains at the “level of essence” as explanans, is the constant (in sum) but dynamic relation or ratio of “the perceptual factors” — the elementary structure of the senses together in some or other “distribution of emphasis among the senses” = the variable Gestalt of “common sense”.13

To compare, the explanans in chemistry is the constant relation, or “homeostasis”, of electrons and protons which expresses itself in Mendeleev’s table as a “redistribution” between the two. This “redistribution” takes place in chemistry through the increasing number of the two which yet always remains in homeostatic balance.14 Meanwhile the explanandum of chemistry is the entire universe of physical materials.

In the case of media, the  constant (though dynamic) relation or “homeostasis” between the eye and the ear, as the elementary structure of communication, varies not through a changing  matching number (as the chemical elements do), but through the co-variance of the two.15 Here, although their total does not change, the relative contribution between the eye and ear varies over a spectrum stretching between all eye at the extreme end on one side of the spectrum and all ear at the other extreme. Along the spectrum between these extremes each point is defined by a different “redistribution of emphasis among the senses”, but is always equal to 1 (= the dynamic constant of the Gestalt of “common sense”). The full spectrum, in similar fashion to Mendeleev’s table, defines the complete range of the possible forms of elementary media. Meanwhile the explanandum of McLuhan’s “new science”, or sciences, is the entire universe of human experience.

  1. Nevertheless, McLuhan all too often confused (or at least disguised) this insight by talking about the input from media: the 360 degree field of sound, the assembly line of letters on the printed page, the ‘charge of the light brigade’ of television, etc. His purpose in doing so was doubtless to help along the closer inspection of all media as surrounds, as directives, as dynamic formal causes, whose properties are then their effects. Thus, sound as a surrounding field in ordinary experience could be taken as exemplifying any medium considered at the level of formal cause, even print. However that may have been, so far at least, 40 years on from McLuhan’s death, this purpose has gone unrealized and the technique has proved to be only misleading and counter-productive.
  2. The implication here was triggered by the idea that the “factual level” did not provide satisfactory explanation either through “the units thrown up in the stream of history” (Voegelin) or through their sequence in that stream. Therefore the implication that other units at another level had to be isolated. And this seemed further to imply that instead of one “stream of history” there must be at least three: the “stream of history”, the stream of “essential units”, and the stream of their interconnection.
  3. See Voegelin and the question of “intelligible units” for citation and discussion.
  4. Ibid.
  5. See The Comparative Method of Rupert Lodge and, in general, these Lodge posts.
  6. ‘Synaesthesis’ was treated by Richards and his co-authors in The Foundations of Aesthetics and The Meaning of Meaning from the early 1920s, but remained a central concern of his for the rest of his life as, eg, ‘complementarity’.
  7. Here McLuhan was prompted especially through his study with Bernie Muller-Thym of Muller-Thym’s ‘Common Sense, Perfection of the Order of Pure Sensibility’ (1940), but also through his related reading of Maritain, Gilson and Phelan (where Muller-Thym served as his expert guide).
  8. McLuhan to Selye, July 25, 1974, cited in Gordon, Escape into Understanding, 150.
  9.  McLuhan to Marshall Fishwick: “I have the only communication theory of transformation — all the other (communication) theories are theories of transportation.” (July 31, 1974, Letters 505)
  10. Similarly, quantum physics is based on the notion that momentary Gestalts at the quantum level and their series in time are so fundamentally incompatible that it is impossible to have both at once.
  11. Voegelin: “the self-formation of movements in history, institutionally and ideologically, is not (the same thing as) theoretical formation. The investigation inevitably will start from the phenomena, but the question of theoretically justifiable units in political science cannot be solved (simply) by accepting the units thrown up in the stream of history at their face value.” See Voegelin and the question of “intelligible units” for citation and discussion. Study of historical series is necessarily study mainly of the past (so far as one knows it) and is therefore an exercise of what McLuhan called the “rear-view mirror” (which is both a framework and the deployment of such a framework).
  12. See the preceding note.
  13. Just as the electron and proton are only two of many different particles in the atom, but are central for investigation and explanation, so the eye and the ear are only two of the five senses — but are central for investigation and explanation.
  14. The “homeostasis” of electrons and protons is always preserved in elements. But ions, of course,  are constituted by its loss. The latter are the key to valence and to investigation of the huge variety of chemical combinations, but are dependent on a prior understanding of the nonionic elements.
  15. For discussion, see Relativity and topology.

Voegelin and the question of “intelligible units”

the epiphany of structures in reality — be they atoms, molecules, genes, biological species, races, human consciousness, or language — is a mystery inaccessible to explanation.  (Voegelin, In Search of Order)1

McLuhan and Voegelin exchanged four letters in 1953.2 But the most important aspect of their brief correspondence may have been what they did not discuss (at least not directly). For the two of them, although on separate tracks, were pursuing a strategy that was then, and remains today, almost 70 years later, what may be the one way out of the global crisis in which the planet was and is ensnared.3 This is a crisis that expresses itself everywhere along the whole register of human activity — extending to our alienated relation with God.

As indicated in the titles of Voegelin’s 1953 New Science of Politics and McLuhan’s (posthumous) 1988 Laws of Media: The New Science, both saw that science could and should be pursued in the social sciences. And both saw this possibility as crucial to human survival in a planetary condition of “continuous  warfare” (as  Voegelin already observed in his New Science and as has been hideously maintained ever since).4 Regarding our situation in “continuous warfare”, Voegelin specified:

The causes of this phenomenon will receive careful attention in the course of these lectures; but their critical exploration presupposes a clearer understanding of the relation between theory and reality.5 

Voegelin’s New Science originated in his 1951 Walgreen lectures entitled ‘Truth and Representation’.  Now the key in any area of inquiry to the relationship of theory and reality or of representation and truth (relations which are not necessarily the same)6 is, as may be seen particularly in the birth and development of chemistry in the nineteenth century after the identification of its elements, the specification of what Voegelin called “theoretically justifiable units” . He made this point particularly in an exchange with Hannah Arendt early in 1953 — the very year in which Voegelin and McLuhan conducted their brief correspondence — concerning her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism:

I shall do no more than draw attention to what we agree is the question at stake, though Arendt’s answer differs from mine. It is the question of essence in history, the question of how to delimit and define phenomena of the class of political movements. Dr. Arendt draws her lines of demarcation on what she considers the factual level of history; arrives at well-distinguished complexes of phenomena of the type of “totalitarianism”; and is willing to accept such complexes as ultimate, essential units. I take exception to this method because it disregards the fact that the self-formation of movements in history, institutionally and ideologically, is not [the same thing as] theoretical formation. The investigation inevitably will start from the phenomena, but the question of theoretically justifiable units in political science cannot be solved [simply] by accepting the units thrown up in the stream of history at their face value. What a unit is will emerge when the principles furnished by philosophical anthropology are applied to historical materials. It then may happen that political movements, which on the scene of history are bitterly opposed to one another, will prove to be closely related on the level of essence.7

In 1981, almost thirty years later, a few years before his death in 1985, Voegelin again commented on “theoretically justifiable units”, here called “intelligible units”, in a letter to Gerhart Niemeyer:

Now let me thank you…for your contribution to the Festschrift8 on ‘intelligible units’ of history. (…) While I agree with your condemnation of the misuse of ‘intelligible units’, I wonder whether one can9, and perhaps must, use the concept without misusing it. What shall we do with ethnic cultures, empires, religions, sects, ideological movements, national states? Are they not intelligible units? Did Augustine not treat the Roman Empire as an intelligible unit in history? And what, after all, is Christianity?10 The problem seems to be [that of] a critically tenable conception of intelligibility…11

The characterization of “the question of theoretically justifiable units” as that of “a critically tenable conception of intelligibility” pointed to a logical and temporal circularity in the question at stake: what was to be achieved later, as a goal, namely “a critically tenable conception of intelligibility”, had to be already active earlier in order to make ‘a critically tenable’ beginning of the required process to that goal. Voegelin: “this invisible harmony is difficult to find, and it will not be found at all unless the soul be animated by an anticipating urge in the right direction” (NSP, 103); “the openness of the soul is experienced through the opening of the soul itself” (101). This was at once confounding and potentially indicative. For the fact that discovery of “a critically tenable conception of intelligibility” would itself require the exacting exercise of “intelligibility” (otherwise, the conception could hardly be “critically tenable” and could certainly not reach its goal) served to illuminate the requirement that that discovery be at once sudden and revolutionary in effecting a decisive break in time and yet also applicable to the whole chronological experience of human beings, especially to the past as the laboratory in which any proposed intelligibility would have to demonstrate itself.12 

In the same way, the discovery of the elementary structure in chemistry and of the structure of DNA in genetics served to break inquiry into a definitive ‘before’ and ‘after’ in their respective fields, and yet did so in a manner that was just as applicable to the ‘before’ as to the ‘after’. At such a moment, illumination is suddenly and for the first time possible — of what has always taken place and always will take place.13 It is the stupendous reach of such conceptions somehow occurring to utterly finite minds that underlies Voegelin’s wonder at “the epiphany of structures in reality” as “a mystery inaccessible to explanation”.  

What was ultimately at stake in Voegelin’s remarks to Arendt and Niemeyer, then, was just such a break in the history of the social sciences that would reveal itself as being “critically tenable” through its application as much to the past as to the present and future. Furthermore, this was a break that would occur as much subjectively (in the before and after of the discoverer) as objectively (in the before and after in research in the domain).14

What happens to our knowledge in such a case is that it goes through a kind of wormhole, only to emerge on the other side with a revolutionary new appreciation of what had always been going on, on the other side of the wormhole, leading up to it. The implicated figure is

A >< B

where a real knowledge of A (representing the entire cultural history of the world to this point) is obtained only through the exponentially expanding findings of the new science, or sciences, suddenly enabled in B.15

The enormous practical effects of this sort of scientific breakthrough may be seen by comparing the world in 1800 to the world today after only two centuries of chemistry and the derivative sciences chemistry has enabled. It is, indeed, just such revolutionary effects — resulting from collective open research — which at once offer hope in the face of the contemporary world crisis and account for the intense resistance to such science from the bellicose partisans of the status quo. 

Certain indications for authentic contemporary research in the humanities and social sciences seem to follow. First, history and commentary should be abandoned except as they are pursued as modes of searching for “theoretically justifiable units”.  As is plain from the genesis and development of sciences like chemistry and genetics, all history and commentary will have to be recast on the basis of such units when they are, at last, isolated and demonstrated.16 In the event that units of this sort remain manifestly lacking (since the practice of science they would enable is manifestly lacking), history and commentary are at best premature and at worst  themselves part of the “crisis of Western civilization” they often purport to address.17 Second, the primary focus of research in the humanities should be on candidates for “theoretically justifiable units” that have been suggested in the past, particularly by its single greatest mind, Plato.18 The “recovery”19 that is fundamental to science involves, as Voegelin was clear in his reply to Arendt, a complete reformulation of history and this would necessarily  include a reassessment of whether or not Plato (for example) did indeed put forward “a valid formulation of principles”.20 To compare, once chemistry received its proper conceptualization in the course of the nineteenth century, it became possible to sort out for the first time who in the past had had genuine insights into chemical processes and who had not. The central questions here are: if proposals for “theoretically justifiable units” have been made, what was deficient in them that they failed to yield the required intelligibility? how might these deficiencies be cured? Further, were there deficiencies in the appreciation of such proposals? And how might these be cured?21 If “theoretically justifiable units” can be isolated for the humanities and social sciences, dedicated work on these two fronts of definition and appreciation offer the one hope for doing so.22

The history of the physical sciences shows that crises can be revelatory. An essential step is acknowledgement of the crisis and of the need to address it with adjusted subjective and objective presuppositions. A kind of subjective-objective Rubik’s cube needs to be manipulated with a passion until, at last, the tesserae reveal their pattern and, with it, the way to and from it.

Both because of the inherent interest of such a breakthrough in the investigation of human being and of its potential importance in addressing the dire situation of the contemporary world, intense focus on the question of “theoretically justifiable units” is indicated.


  1.  Order and History 5, CW18, 31. As McLuhan was very much aware, such an epiphany is already operative in the first use of language, phylogenetic or ontogenetic. Language is nothing other than the recognition of “structures in reality”. In fact, Voegelin’s list of structures has application to language but little to science. Scientifically, structural comparison between “atoms” and “biological species” or “races” is misleading at best.
  2. For discussion, see McLuhan and Voegelin 1953.
  3. The one way out of the crisis — that is, the one way out that is in our control. Heidegger, for one, saw only the possibility of a divine solution: Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten.
  4. The full passage at this point in NSP is eerily prescient of the state of the world today almost 70 years latter: “Our own foreign policy was a factor in aggravating international disorder through its sincere but naive endeavor of curing the evils of the world by spreading representative institutions (…) to areas where the existential conditions for their functioning were not given. Such provincialism, persistent in the face of its consequences, is in itself an interesting problem for the scientist. One cannot explain the odd policies of Western democratic powers leading to continuous warfare, with weaknesses of individual  statesmen — though such weaknesses are strongly in evidence. They are rather symptomatic of a massive resistance to face reality, deeply rooted in the sentiments and opinion of the broad masses of our contemporary Western societies. Only because they are symptoms of a mass phenomenon is it justified to speak of a crisis of Western civilization” (NSP, 1987 ed, 81). As for McLuhan, he wrote to Ezra Pound in 1951 (the same year Voegelin delivered the lectures behind NSP) as follows: “2nd (World) War produced great discovery of war as new way of life. Financial pages simply chortling these days over prosperity rooted in 3rd (World) War. Ordinary guy eats this up. Total war = total security he figures. THAT is the scale of imbecility now current.” (McLuhan to Pound, Jan 1951, Letters 219, emphatic ‘THAT’ in original.) See McLuhan and Voegelin 1953 for further citation and discussion.
  5. Ibid.
  6. The relations of “theory and reality” and of “truth and representation” may be considered as the same or as different. They are the same when “reality” and “truth” are brought together and contrasted to the “theory” or “representation” that would give access to them and so enable their collective study. They are different when truth is considered as a potential property of theory and representation in their relation to reality. The important thing in this context is only that the question of the relation between the two relations be left open and not decided in advance.
  7. Voegelin, Concluding Remark‘ (to Arendt), The Review of Politics, 15:1 (Jan., 1953), pp. 84-85. Voegelin included an offprint of his initial review of Arendt in his second letter to McLuhan. It appears that he did not include Arendt’s reply to his review or his reply to her reply. But McLuhan may, of course, have gone on from Voegelin’s review to look into the further pieces by Arendt and Voegelin that continued from it.
  8. The Philosophy of order: essays on history, consciousness, and politics (For Eric Voegelin on His Eightieth Birthday January 3, 1981), ed Peter J. Opitz and Gregor Sebba, 1981.
  9. Voegelin (not improperly, but strangely in combination with “perhaps must”): “cannot”.
  10. This late letter seems to show that Voegelin may never have seen the fundamentally important distinction broached in note #1 above between linguistic and scientific units — even though his own reply to Arendt in 1953 was prescient in differentiating historical or linguistic units from essential ones!
  11. Voegelin letter to Gerhart Niemeyer, February 24, 1981, Selected Correspondence 1950-1984, CW30, 862-863. This reference was kindly supplied by Fritz Wagner.
  12. At least at this point in his career, Voegelin seems also to have argued that such discovery is oriented only to the future: “this center (of the human psyche) is not found (by the Greeks) as if it were an object that had been present all the time and only escaped notice. The psyche as the region in which transcendence is experienced must be differentiated out of a more compact structure of the soul; it must be developed and named. With due regard for the problem of compactness and differentiation, one might almost say that before the discovery of the psyche man had no soul. Hence, it is a discovery which produces its experiential material along with its explication” (NSP, 101). Just what was at stake in this passage would, however, have to be gleaned in comparison with his statement later in NSP that “we must distinguish between the opening of the soul as an epoch in experiential differentiation and the structure of reality which remains unchanged” (208).
  13. The isolation of definitive structures in a scientific discipline does not at all entail that research into those structures is no longer required. Far rather, research is only now properly grounded and guided. Future research might well, indeed, require modification or even overthrow of those ‘definitive’ structures at some point — such is ‘the structure of scientific revolutions’.
  14. In the early 1950s, at least, Voegelin himself may not have realized the implications of his own insight into “theoretically justifiable units” as effecting a scientific revolution. As previously noted above, he began NSP by observing that the field of politics will “prove amenable to theoretization as an intelligible succession of phases in a historical process” (NSP, 1987 ed, 21). A process was postulated “through (…) degrees (!) of compactness and differentiation — from rite, through myth, to theory” (52). But this is exactly how a new theoretization in science does not take place. Instead, the possibility of “theoretically justifiable units” must first of all be ontologically based. This entails the presence of abysmal borders or gaps in the deepest level of reality that accounts for real plurality (“essential units”) and that prohibits gnostic conflation into seamlessness. A scientific revolution occurs when research aligns itself, at last, with the transitive borders of reality so as to formulate revolutionary insight into a field (which only now becomes rigorously identifiable). Such insight does not result from “an intelligible succession of phases in a historical process”, but from an unaccountable leap, “a mystery inaccessible to explanation” (as Voegelin himself would put it 30 years later). Strangely, however, in just this same context at the start of NSP, Voegelin correctly saw the ontological crux of the matter: his “new science” was to arise from “the principles of order in general” (21). Hence his definition of “science as a truthful account of the structure of reality” (26). It may be that the remainder of Voegelin’s long career amounted to an attempt to understand the problems and opportunities which arise at this point where the “mystery” of “the epiphany of structures in reality” crosses with “historical process”. His 5-volume main work would begin to be published in 1956, a few years after NSP, and would be called Order and History.
  15. The information available in B increasingly exceeds that in A, both because B’s research into every aspect of A always increases while at the same time new events occur in B with research into these new events always increasing as well.  This increase in entropy accords with the second law of thermodynamics and correlates closely with Voegelin’s and McLuhan’s arguments against gnosticism. Whereas gnosticism always attempts to compress complexities into simplicities (eg, historical time and eschatological time into the end of history), the scientific figure of A >< B obviates this possibility through an ever increasing complexity — ie, through entropic resistance to compression. Cf, Voegelin: “Can the monadism of such representation not be broken by questioning the validity of the truth in each case?” (NSP, 92)
  16. As cited above from his reply to Arendt, Voegelin was clear about this: “What a unit is will emerge when the principles furnished by philosophical anthropology are applied to historical materials. It then may happen that political movements, which on the scene of history are bitterly opposed to one another, will prove to be closely related on the level of essence.”
  17. See the preceding note.
  18. With a counterfactual faith in “advancing articulation” (67) through “the very historicity of human existence” (22), Voegelin maintained in NSP: “One cannot restore political science today through Platonism, Augustinianism, or Hegelianism. Much can be learned, to be sure, from the earlier philosophers concerning the range of problems, as well as concerning their theoretical treatment; but the very historicity of human existence, that is, the unfolding of the typical in meaningful concreteness, precludes a valid reformulation of principles through return to a former concreteness” (22). But this was to make the very mistake of confusing historical with essential units that Voegelin rightly found in Arendt. Essential units may well have been formulated in the past by Plato, and/or by others, but then not have been appreciated as such and thereby conformed to historical ones.
  19. A restoration of political science to its principles implies that the restorative work is necessary because the consciousness of principles is lost. The movement toward re-theoretization must be understood, indeed, as a recovery” (NSP, 3-4). For discussion see McLuhan and Voegelin 1953.
  20. As cited above, Voegelin’s phrase is “a valid reformulation of principles”.
  21. It may be that Aristotle should be read as addressing exactly these questions in reference especially (but not only) to the work his mentor, Plato.
  22. On account of the circularity of the deployment of intelligibility in the specification of “a critically tenable conception of intelligibility”, it is inevitable that definition and appreciation work together —  first of all in the individual researcher working toward such definition. The moment of insight comes only when each of these, intelligibility and appreciation, come together to inform the other.

Lodge and Wright in Faces of Reason

In The Faces of Reason, their 1981 history of philosophy in Canada, Leslie Armour and Elizabeth Trott include a chapter on ‘The Fragmentation of Reason: Rupert Lodge and Henry Wright’.1 They begin:

Lodge and Wright arrived at the University of Manitoba in the same year, 1920, and served as joint heads of the Manitoba philosophy department for fourteen years. Both spent their whole careers there, though after 1934 Lodge became sole head of the philosophy department while Wright went to the [newly established] psychology department.
Lodge had come to Manitoba from England [graduating from Oxford], by way of Germany, [the University of] Minnesota, and [the University of] Alberta. He had already distinguished himself as the author of a work on modern logic 2, was an expert on Locke3, and the translator of the now largely forgotten Italian Bernardino Varisco. Despite this array of interests, he continued to be a proponent of the Oxford idealism.
Wright had been educated at Cornell, taught there briefly, and then became professor of philosophy [and acting president] at Lake Forest College in Illinois where he had written books on ethics and religion and distinguished himself as an expert on self-realization theories.4 He, too, had been reared on the moderate kind of idealism, sustained at Cornell by Jacob Gould Schurman.5 

Armour and Trott comment in regard to Wright’s move from the Chicago to Winnipeg: “in a way, Schurman’s idealism had come home” (405) to Canada from Cornell. Jacob Gould Schurman was born in PEI and, after studying in England and Europe, taught at Acadia and Dalhousie before becoming the chair of philosophy at Cornell, the founding editor of Philosophical Review there and eventually the longtime Cornell University president.6 To compare, Wright was born in Michigan on the Canada/US border and reversed Schurman’s itinerary by studying at Cornell7, teaching in the US, and ultimately becoming acting president at Lake Forest University in Chicago — before ending up in Winnipeg. 

Armour and Trott remark further:

Both [Lodge and Wright] wrote continuously and extensively and remained amongst the most productive philosophers in Canada for nearly thirty years. (405)

McLuhan took courses from both Lodge and Wright at the University of Manitoba and, in fact, his whole career may well be seen as a combination of the work of the two of them. From Wright he took the notion that modes of “intercommunication” — aka media — are decisive across the spectrum of human activity from psychology to sociology, politics and religion. Further, that the mechanical media of communication necessarily build on the foundation of the complex human psyche.8 From Lodge he took the notion that the forms of human experience are fundamentally plural and that it is the business of the humanities and social sciences to probe that plurality.9 Arising from both Wright and Lodge are the great questions: if experience is irreducibly plural, what experience is fitted to study it? how arrive at this enabling experience?  how demonstrate its suitability to the task? how communicate its findings? and what do these questions have to do with the media deployed by humans, from oral language to electronic devices?

Both Lodge and Wright emphasized the practicality of these questions for non-academic life. This is particularly to be seen in what Armour and Trott call Lodge’s “practical philosophy books”: The Philosophy of Education (1937), The Philosophy of Business (1945) and Applying Philosophy (1951). McLuhan, too, would come to see practical problems in education and business as keys to his enterprise. Unlike the academy, especially business had no incentive to leave problems unsolved. Furthermore and all importantly, solving actual problems there could serve to establish the study of communication beyond mere argumentation. And this, in turn, might solve the world-historical problem of how to communicate about communication.

  1.  It might well be asked what sort of genitive is in play in the phrase ‘the fragmentation of reason’. Is this a fragmentation affecting reason as an object? Fragmentation of what? Or is fragmentation in some sense fundamental to reason itself as a subject? Fragmentation belonging to whom? While both Lodge and Wright were hardly oblivious to historical and sociological effects on human experience, both treated the types of reason as inherently plural and hence as fundamentally fragmented in this subjective way. But this was a fragmentation for both that did not contradict communication across its divide (or divides). Further, given that analysis (to break down) and synthesis (to bring together) are central to the deployment of reason, fragmentation might be thought to be inherent to reason in other senses as well, both methodological and creative.
  2.  An Introduction to Modern Logic, 1920.
  3. Lodge published The Meaning and Function of Simple Modes in the Philosophy of John Locke in 1918. Meanwhile Wright’s 1899 BPh thesis at Cornell was on Locke’s Theory of Knowledge.
  4. Henry Wilkes Wright, Self-Realization: An Outline of Ethics (1913).
  5. A preview of The Faces of Reason is available in googlebooks. This passage is from p 405 there.
  6. Cf, ‘Hegel in Canada’ by John Burbidge in Hegel and Canada: Unity of Opposites? (2017): “There is some evidence, indeed, that this Canadian tradition (of Scottish Hegelianism) spilled over into the United States. Jacob Gould Schurman, born in Prince Edward Island and educated in Nova Scotia and London, England, was offered the chair of philosophy at the recently founded Cornell University in 1885 on the strength of his Kantian Ethics and the Ethics of Evolution: A Critical Study (1882). A comment in his Belief in God: Its Origin, Nature, and Basis (1890 as cited by Armour and Trott) noted that Hegel was right to insist ‘that identity and difference are both necessary to the being of the infinite spirit’. In 1892 Schurman became president of Cornell, and, in due course, American ambassador to (in succession) Greece-Macedonia,  China, and Germany. One of his graduate students, James Edwin Creighton from Nova Scotia, became first co-editor with him, and then editor of the Philosophical Review, which provided a forum for a number of Canadian authors.” (52)
  7. One of Wright’s teachers at Cornell was James Edwin Creighton, who was born in Pictou NS and was was the founding president of the American Philosophical Association. The 1917 Festschrift for Creighton, Philosophical Essays in Honor of James Edwin Creighton, has an introduction by Schurman and an essay by Wright: ‘Is the Dualism of Mind and Matter Final?’.
  8. For citations and discussion, see Henry Wilkes Wright and Henry Wilkes Wright 2.
  9. For citations and discussion, see The Comparative Method of Rupert Lodge and Rupert Lodge: Synthesis or Comparison?

Communications Programme at UBC

McLuhan participated in a ‘Communications Programme’ at UBC in 1958 and in 1959. In May 1958 he delivered the keynote address at a conference sponsored by the programme on ‘Radio in the Future of Canada’. In the summer of 1959, he led an extended ‘Communications Seminar’ there.

Aside from McLuhan, the programme included Wilbur Schramm from Stanford and the participation of national and international advertising agencies, Cockfield-Brown and Foote Cone & Belding. The NAEB supplied some materials and local and national broadcasters were involved both in funding the programme and participating in it.

This was a critical time in McLuhan’s career when the foundations for “Understanding Media” were being laid. It was in 1958 that he began work with the NAEB and in 1959 he was already at work on the research project with the NAEB that would be published the next year as a ‘report on new media’. With this report, the parameters were set for McLuhan’s work over the remaining 20 years of his life.

In his UBC President’s Report for 1959, Norman MacKenzie described this programme as follows:

Communications Programme

ALTHOUGH IT SEEMS INEVITABLE that the major means of communication between scholars will remain human contacts,  books and journals, it may well be that communication between scholars and the general public will take other forms. Believing that popularization is important and that the newer media of radio and television are worth studying in themselves, the University was happy to begin in 1957 an experimental communications programme, financed by a grant from the B.C. Association of Broadcasters.

The grant was intended to enable the University to investigate its own role in the field of broadcasting and, more particularly, to explore means by which those in the broadcasting industry could improve their services to the public. Initially the programme had three objectives: (a) To provide a regular series of night classes, conferences, short courses and seminars for broadcasting personnel in British Columbia; (b) to develop the facilities of the University for working in all kinds of mass communications; (c) to begin work in such areas as audience research, media studies, and the communication of the fine arts.

The whole programme was designed with one principle in mind, that the handling of the technical means of broadcasting such as television cameras, broadcasting schedules, film production, etc., should not become separated from the more theoretical kinds of investigation. 

Under the programme, we have organized a considerable number of lecture series, seminars, etc. The following is a representative rather than a complete list, but it does give some idea of the scope of our activities and the degree to which we have been able to work with various university departments on the one hand and the broadcasting industry on the other.


Introduction to Television — Mr. James Patterson (CBC)
Film Production — Mr. Robin Pearce (UBC Extension)
Speech for Broadcasting — Dr. P. Read Campbell (UBC Faculty of Education)
Introduction to Radio — Mr. John Ansell (CKWX)
Research Methods and Measurement — Dr. D. T. Kenney (UBC Psychology)
Commercial Writing for Broadcasting — 
Mr. Sam Fogel (Cockfield-Brown [Advertising Agency])
News for Broadcasting — Mr. Dorwin Baird

Summer School, 1959

Communications Seminar — Dr. Marshal McLuhan, Department of English, St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto
Speech for Broadcasting — Dr. P. Read Campbell
Film Production — Mr. Ronald Kelly

Conferences and Short Courses

Radio in the Future of Canada — Financed by the grant previously mentioned and the Koerner Foundation, the Conference was attended by representatives of the CBC, BBC, American broadcasting agencies and Canadian private stations.
Short Course on Communications — Conducted by Dr. W. S. Schramm, Director of the Institute of Communications Research, Stanford University; Mr. Albert Shea, Canadian Research Agency, Toronto; and Mr. Gene Duckwall, Foote Cone Belding, Los Angeles.

In cooperation with the Extension Department and with other departments in the University, we have provided a series of lectures on the CBC and have helped private stations use material prepared by the National Association of Educational Broadcasters.


The University continues to take a serious interest in broadcasting, in view of the profound influence it has on our lives and society. We hope that U.B.C. can become a major centre for the study of communications. Already we have learned much about the history and operation of broadcasting in Canada and have developed with members of the industry relationships which we expect to be profitable both to them and to us.

The medium is the message in 1958

McLuhan seems to have begun using his trademark slogan, “the medium is the message”, at a conference in Vancouver on  Radio in the Future of Canada’. This was early in May 1958:

Print, by permitting people to read at high speed and, above all, to read alone and silently, developed a totally new set of mental operations. What I mentioned earlier [although not in these same words] becomes very relevant here: the medium is the message. The medium of print is the message, more than any individual writer could say.1

He continued to develop the point at the end of the same month at an educational TV meeting in Washington DC:

We should long ago have discovered that the medium is the message. The effect of reading is far more decisive than anything that gets said from moment to moment on the page. The page is not a conveyor belt for pots of message; it is not a consumer item so much as a producer of unique habits of mind and highly specialized attitudes to person and country, and to the nature of thought itself (…) Let us grant for the moment that the medium is the message. It follows that if we study any medium carefully we shall discover its total dynamics and its unreleased powers.2

McLuhan stressed this notion over and over again in his many public and private interactions with the NAEB (National Association of Educational Broadcasters) which began that year, perhaps as a direct result of the Washington meeting.  For the meeting was co-sponsored by the NAEB and attended by Harry Skornia, the president of the NAEB who would become the moving force in the conception, funding and organization of McLuhan’s project with the NAEB on “Understanding New Media”.3 It may well be that McLuhan and Skornia first met at this May 1958 event. Furthermore, the funding for that project would come from the other sponsor of this meeting in Washington, the US Office of Education.

In that same year of 1958, Otis Pease, a professor of history at Stanford, published his Yale PhD thesis, The Responsibilities of American Advertising, Private Control and Public Influence, 1920-1940. The cover of the book edition shortened the title to American Advertising.  Although McLuhan had written extensively on this topic, especially in The Mechanical Bride (1951) and ‘The Age of Advertising’ (1953), his work was not mentioned by Pease. But McLuhan wrote an unpublished review of Pease’s book which is preserved in his papers in Ottawa. In it he continued to flesh out the notion that “the medium is the message”.

Professor Pease states a basic fact, namely that the techniques of advertising and politics have never been separate from each other. (…) It is one of the prime qualities of this book that it sees advertising as having scope and affect far beyond the mere conveying of information about available goods.

In his review McLuhan concentrated on these wider implications of advertising: its “scope and affect far beyond the mere conveying of information”. The question was, how does advertising function, not as an informational message, but as a medium.4

Now the affects and effects of a medium are variously located. In the first place, they express themselves in and on the external landscape. Just as cars require an extensive infrastructure of factories producing their components and assembly, roads, gasoline production and distribution, roadside amenities like restaurants and hotels, etc, etc, and just as it is this whole medium of implicated infrastructure that constitutes the real message of the automobile, so advertising exists in “scope and affect far beyond the mere conveying of information” by functioning within a broad nexus including politics, economics and culture.5 It is this nexus — or medium — which advertising at once enables and is enabled by.

Secondly, that external landscape could not be constituted and could not continue to function aside from a parallel manipulation of society’s “interior landscape”:

It has been the task of the ad men, as Professor Pease puts it, “to persuade the individual citizen to conceive of himself primarily as a consumer of goods.” This, he shows, was not an easy task in a semi-frontier world of self-reliance and contempt for sissie comforts. Moreover, there was the huge establishment of Puritan asceticism to be liquidatedIt is the feeling of Professor Pease that the attitudes of American Protestantism were deeply modified by the ad campaigns for consumer goods: “Advertising… is almost the only force at work against puritanism in consumption. (…) In the 1920s the business leaders of America were still steeped, it appeared, in the ethic of producers, who considered thrift and frugality to be virtues.

Advertising worked to convert the dominating impulses in the internal landscape as an essential factor in the transformation of the external one. As McLuhan further cited Pease: 

“National advertising in the period 1920-1940 became a continuous powerful technique for mass persuasion, employed to inculcate specific goals and values. It grew in response to the needs of an industrial society which had achieved efficient methods of mass production and distribution, but which had not yet developed standards of consumption sufficiently lavish to maintain that production.” 

McLuhan concluded:

Of course this meant that the manufacturer sought control of the politics and social ends of the whole society as the natural reward of his technological ascendancy.

Advertising was an essential means — or medium — toward that end.

  1.  Radio in the Future of Canada, UBC, May 5-9, 1958. For information on UBC’s communications programme at this time, see  Communications Programme at UBC.
  2. McLuhan’s talk at the Conference on Educational Television, sponsored by the US Office of Education and the NAEB, Washington, D.C., 26 May 1958, was titled ‘The Role of Mass Communication in Meeting Today’s Problems’. It was issued in mimeograph by the Office of Education and then printed as ‘Our New Electronic Culture’ in the NAEB Journal, 18:1, October 1958.
  3. McLuhan wanted the project to be called “Understanding Media” and, indeed, some copies of the research report were issued with this title. (For an image of this cover see McLuhan on ‘effect’ in 1946.) His argument was that the identification of a medium depended on identification of the class of media. To study any one medium it was necessary to study more than one. But Skornia at the NAEB argued that the Office of Education was specifically interested in new media and that the application to it for a research grant should be aimed at that interest. Without changing his mind on the methodological point, McLuhan agreed.
  4. As McLuhan came increasingly to stress, concentration on the message of advertising, or of any medium, served to hide awareness of its effects as a medium: “Professor Pease provides a well-documented account of the complicated story of public criticism of the ad industry. (…) It is here that we learn the pathetic story of the muckrakers and their exposure of dishonesty in ads and adulteration of products. (This is a ‘pathetic story’, not because such dishonesty and adulteration do not occur, but) because the concentration on this Simple Simon approach to the ad world has rendered literate people quite helpless in the face of the icon power of the ad world.  For that power is non-verbal and subliminal.”
  5. McLuhan as regards advertising and culture: “It has perhaps escaped the attention of Professor Pease that not only does no ad have its meaning alone, but that the advertising industry would have been a puny thing these past forty years were it not for the movies. The drama of consumption staged by the magic of the movie camera in the name of entertainment has been far more effective in boosting consumption [than advertising in the strict sense.”

McLuhan and Voegelin 1953

…the beginning will reveal itself only if the paradox is taken seriously… (Voegelin, In Search of Order)1

In the spring of 1953 McLuhan read Eric Voegelin’s New Science of Politics (1952) and, as was not uncommon for him, immediately wrote to Voegelin. He had done the same thing  with Harold Innis in 1951 after he had read Empire and Communications, and with Norbert Wiener in 1952 after reading Wiener’s The Human Use of Human Beings. In the summer of 1952, McLuhan and Voegelin exchanged four letters, two on each side, and then the correspondence ceased, a month or so after it had begun.2 Unlike the case with Wiener, however, McLuhan and Voegelin knew each other (they had met when McLuhan visited Cleanth Brooks at LSU in 1945) and had many essential convictions in common, especially the determination that religion was not only not opposed to modernity and to science, but remained, in fact, fundamental to them.

This precipitated the question for both Voegelin and McLuhan of just how this insight were to be communicated to a civilization (if this remained the applicable term) in which it had generally been lost. Built into all their incessant work (both wrote hundreds of thousands of pages over their careers, much of it unpublished during their lifetimes) was therefore always a double task: how to communicate about anything, in such a way as to re-establish communication at the same time?

Voegelin made this point plainly enough in The New Science:

A restoration of political science to its principles implies that the restorative work is necessary because the consciousness of principles is lost. The movement toward re-theoretization must be understood, indeed, as a recovery… (3-4)

For his part McLuhan was, if anything, even more possessed by this problem than was Voegelin. He had been writing about the eclipse of principles for more than a decade and now in the early 1950’s was intensely focused on the double problem of communication about the loss of communication — especially concerning the loss of consciousness that “the consciousness of principles is lost”. As he wrote in letters to Ezra Pound in 1951 (describing a situation that remains in potentially fatal effect today, 70 years later!):

Current illusion is that science has abolished all natural laws. Nature now pays 5 million %. Applied science now the master usurer. To hell with our top soil. We can grow potatoes on the moon tomorrow. How you goan3 to expose that while there is still human “life” on the planet? 2nd [World] War produced great discovery of war as new way of life. Financial pages simply chortling these days over prosperity rooted in 3rd War. Ordinary guy eats this up. Total war = total security he figures. THAT is the scale of imbecility now current. (McLuhan to Pound, Jan 1951, Letters 219, emphatic ‘THAT’ in original)

The word has been used to effect a universal hypnosis. How are words to be used to unweave the spell of print?4 Of radio commercials and ‘news’-casts?5 I’m working on THAT problem. The word is now the cheapest and the most universal drug. Consider the effect of modern machinery in imposing rhythm on human thought and feeling. Archaic man got inside the thing that terrified him — tiger, bear, wolf — and made it his totem god. To-day we get inside the machine. It is inside us. We in it. Fusion. Oblivion. Safety. Now the human machines are geared to smash one another. You can’t shout warnings or encouragement to these machines.6 (June 22, 1951, Letters 227, emphatic ‘THAT’ in original)

Voegelin ended his New Science lectures with the admonition that our “fate is in the balance”. McLuhan certainly agreed.  But, as he wrote to Voegelin, everything depended on finding a way out of a global environment in which communication had been lost — via communication:

all is clear now. Except what to do!7

there are strategies which need to be adopted in these affairs. And I’m floundering at present.

Voegelin took McLuhan to be making a personal complaint. As he wrote to Robert Heilman on the same day that he replied to McLuhan’s second letter to him:

In recent weeks I had two letters from McLuhan. Rather touching—because apparently he too has found out about the all-pervasive Gnosis in literature, and runs into the difficulty that the vast majority of his colleagues does not care in the least about his discovery. He seems to be rather isolated; and has not yet adjusted himself to the consequences of being more intelligent than other people. He wails about the twenty years of his life that he has wasted in the pursuit of wrong ideas. I must write him a comforting letter that he is not the only one to whom it happens; and that a life is not wasted if one sees the light in the end.8

But McLuhan was far too busy to wail about his personal fate. He and his wife had just had their sixth child (hardly a sign of needing “comforting”, at least in the sense contemplated by Voegelin). Beside his normal teaching load he was leading a weekly interdisciplinary seminar on culture and technology sponsored by the Ford Foundation and co-editing its Explorations journal. And, finally, he was publishing an extraordinary amount of work. In 1953, aside from many book reviews and shorter contributions to journals and magazines, McLuhan published major essays on ‘The Later Innis’ (Queen’s Quarterly), ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’ (Thought), ‘Culture Without Literacy’ (Explorations), ‘Wyndham Lewis: His Theory of Art and Communication’ (Shenandoah), ‘Maritain on Art’ (Renascence) and ‘The Age of Advertising’ (Commonweal). Through all this, he was casting about for a way to re-establish communication which he saw as nothing less than a matter of survival. It was in regard to this general world-historical issue, not personally, that he was “floundering” and could not see “what to do”.  It was in regard to it that he hoped Voegelin might have some helpful pointers. 

McLuhan’s turn toward “understanding media” was just beginning and it would be another six or seven years before he would perceive how this might work to restore communication.  But it was a turn he could not have made — as Voegelin noted 30 years later in the passage cited from In Search of Order at the top of this post — without utterly “floundering” away from his previous work.9

  1. Order and History 5, CW18, 31.
  2. With the permission of the Voegelin and McLuhan estates, the four letters between the two — only one of which is currently available in Voegelin’s Selected Correspondence 1950-1984 — will be published in VoegelinView.
  3. In his letters to Pound, and occasionally to others who also knew Pound, McLuhan affected Pound’s epistolary style.
  4. McLuhan was already thinking of print as a medium here, a medium evoking its own characteristic “spell”.  But he was thinking at the same time that print is a technology for the multiplication of words.  So his question was: how unweave the spell of words by words?
  5. Radio was another medium with a “spell” of it own.  But it, too, represented a technology to disseminate words and therefore raised the same question as did print: how unweave the spell of words by words?.
  6. “You can’t shout warnings or encouragement to these machines” because (a) they are machines, not human beings, (b) words have lost their meanings, (c) words of “warnings or encouragement” cannot be heard in the din of warnings and encouragements.
  7. This and the following snippet are from McLuhan’s two letters to Voegelin in June and July, 1953.
  8. Voegelin to Heilman, July 17, 1953 in Selected Correspondence 1950-1984, CW30, 2007, 172 and in Robert B. Heilman and Eric Voegelin: A Friendship in Letters, 1944-1984, 2004, 120.
  9. McLuhan was well aware of this critical point: “Managing The ‘Ascent’ from the Maelström today demands awareness that can be achieved only by going ‘Through the Vanishing Point’.” (Take Today, 13) ‘The Ascent from the Maelström’ was, of course, McLuhan’s ano-kato play on Poe’s ‘A Descent into the Maelström’.

Irish Bull

McLuhan was Scotch-Irish and the son of two great raconteurs.  He came to the topic of the Irish bull frequently in Take Today:

Our fathers sometimes encountered paradox in the jocular form of the “Irish Bull”: “When you see three cows standing in a pasture, the one that is sitting is the Irish Bull.” (106)

One of the chapter headings shortly before this reads:

If you Take the Bull by the Horns You’ll Get a Lot of Bull (93)

Later, giving what is surely the formal cause of these bull stories, he refers to the “ebullient Bucky Fuller”. (117)

In the same year that Take Today was published, 1972,  McLuhan presented more Irish bull in ‘End of the Work Ethic’:

We live in a world of paradoxes because at electric speed all facets of situations are presented to us simultaneously. It used to be the specialty of “the Irish bull” to do this. For example, a recent example mentions an exchange between two chiropodists. One says: “I have taken the corns off half the crown heads of Europe.” 

As detailed in Lodge on ‘Science and Literature’, McLuhan’s mentor in the early 1930s at the University of Manitoba, Rupert Lodge, told the story about the Irishman who asked whether a fight were private or if he might join in. This was repeated 40 years later by McLuhan in Take Today (212):

Is this a private fight, or may anyone join in?
– An Irishman

McLuhan had remembered Lodge in his Speaking of Winnipeg interview with Tom Easterbrook in 1970 and it may be that these Irish bull stories written shortly thereafter came to mind in this way.  But McLuhan had cited Harold Innis on Irish bull long before this in The Gutenberg Galaxy:

Improvements in communication, like the Irish bull of the bridge which separated the two countries, make for increased difficulties of understanding. (216, citing ‘Minerva’s Owl’ from The Bias of Communication, 28)

And much earlier still, in a letter to Allen and Caroline Tate in 1951, he had complained of Vanguard Press, the publisher of The Mechanical Bride, as having “suspected my Irish bulls to be Papal ones.”1

  1.  McLuhan to Allen and Caroline Tate, October 2, 1951. For the full passage, see On The Mechanical Bride.

Ransom to Tate and Guerry on McLuhan

The Selected Letters of John Crowe Ransom1 has an April 1946 letter from Ransom to Allen Tate concerning McLuhan:

Marshall McLuhan now at Assumption College, Windsor Canada2 ought to make a good editor for the Sewanee Review. Brooks, who was here for three days not long ago, knows him personally and thinks he has a lot and “is one of us” — though he’s Catholic. I believe he wants to get back into this country, but I am sure his status financially is a modest one, as he must be young. You saw his Hopkins piece with us, I suppose. (…)
PS Would Heilman of LSU be up to the mark?3

Tate had been the editor of the Sewanee Review for a couple years but was leaving the post. The “Hopkins piece” was ‘Analogical Mirrors’  which appeared in the Kenyon Review, edited by Ransom, in the summer of 1944. Heilman at LSU was Robert Heilman, a close friend of Eric Voegelin and a member of the English department there then, along with Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren.4 McLuhan met Heilman and Voegelin when he visited Brooks at LSU5 in 1945 and became a sometime correspondent with both. 

A few months later, Ransom wrote a similar letter to Alexander Guerry, vice-chancellor of the University of the South (where The Sewanee Review was published):

I am flattered by your invitation to advise as to the right editor of the Sewanee Review in Allen Tate’s place; I only wish I could reply with some certainty. There’s a good man who has written for this Review [Kenyon] and yours [Sewanee] too, if I’m not mistaken, and is excellent — Marshall McLuhan, now visiting professor at Assumption College, Windsor, Canada. He is an American6, either a Catholic or ex-Catholic, but a thinker of his own; studied at Cambridge, England, among other places; and Cleanth Brooks knows him personally and thinks very highly of him.  He is as good in the general prose field and the field of ideas as he is in the criticism of poetry. I would suggest that you write Brooks at Louisiana State for full information about him if you are interested. I have an idea McLuhan wants to get back into this country, and I predict he will have a distinguished career.7 

In his biography of McLuhan, W.T. Gordon includes some snippets from letters of Ransom to McLuhan from this same time period:

We haven’t had anything of yours for a long time and I hope it won’t be much longer before we can see something. I talked with Cleanth Brooks a short while ago; he is an admirer of yours and told me of some smart things you had talked with him [about].8 

I wish you didn’t rely on ambiguous terms like dialectic, rhetoric and grammar.9

  1. The Selected Letters of John Crowe Ransom, ed T.D. Young and G. Core, 1985.
  2. Ransom’s letter has ‘Conn’ here, perhaps as a typo for ‘Can’ or for ‘Ca-On'(tario).
  3. Letter from April 22, 1946, Selected Letters of John Crowe Ransom, 324-325.
  4. All would soon leave: Brooks and Warren to Yale, Heilman to the University of Washington in Seattle.
  5. On the same trip, McLuhan visited Tate in Sewanee, TN.
  6. Sic. Since Ransom would not have commented on McLuhan being an American, he plainly meant to write ‘Canadian’ here. Conversely, or additionally, he could have been thinking that, since McLuhan’s wife was American, he would be able to work in the U.S. with no problem.
  7. Letter from June 28, 1946, Selected Letters of John Crowe Ransom, 328.
  8. Ransom to McLuhan, January 12, 1946, in Gordon, Escape into Understanding, 386n49.
  9. Ransom to McLuhan, August 31, 1947, in Gordon, Escape into Understanding, 386n49. It must have been deeply thought-provoking to McLuhan that even such an accomplished and sympathetic reader as Ransom did not understand his central ideas.

Planet as art-form before the satellite

McLuhan frequently attributed to satellites the translation of the physical environment of the earth into an art-form:

The McLuhan DEW-LINE, 1:5, November 1968
From the first moment of the satellite [in 1957], the earth ceased to be the human “environment”. Satellites automatically enclose the old Darwinian “Nature” environment by putting the planet inside a man-made environment. They are just as much an extension of the planet as is clothing an extension of the skin.

But he himself had seen this transformation before the satellite:

Culture Without Literacy, 19531
But the fact that with with modern technology the entire material of the globe as well as the thoughts and feelings of its human inhabitants have become the matter of art and of man’s factive intelligence means that there is no more nature. At least there is no more external nature. Everything from politics to bottle-feeding (…) is subject to the manipulation of conscious artistic control.

Notes on the Media as Art Forms, 19542
technology has abolished ‘nature’ in the old sense and brought the globe within the scope of art…

Nihilism Exposed, 19553
And now in the twentieth century when nature has been abolished by art and engineering, when government has become entertainment and entertainment has become the art of government, now the gnostic and neo-Platonist and Buddhist can gloat: “I told you so! This gimcrack mechanism is all that there ever was in the illusion of human existence.”

  1. In Explorations 1.
  2. In Explorations 2.
  3. In Renascence, 8, Winter 1955.

Past the vanishing point

Muriel Bradbrook was a friend of McLuhan during his first stint in Cambridge (1934-1936) and was an adviser on his PhD thesis when he returned for a year in 1939-1940. A review of her School of Night (1936) in the NYT (June 6, 1937) may have caught McLuhan’s attention for a series of reasons. Beside his friendship with Bradbrook and his deep interest in her book, the review in the paper of record repeatedly refers to her as ‘Mr Bradbrook’ and uses ‘he’ and ‘his’ throughout. This would have prompted considerable merriment among her friends.

McLuhan almost certainly had already read her book when it was first issued in the spring of 1936. He was still in Cambridge then and may have attended an event, or events, celebrating its appearance. Indeed, he seems to have taken Nashe as the subject for his PhD thesis in good measure from it.1 For Bradbrook writes in her introduction: 

there has been a growing interest in the literary activities of Ralegh, and in particular in the society founded by him, and known now by Shakespeare’s nickname “The School of Night”. There appears to have been a kind of literary “war” between this school and the faction of Essex, not unlike the dramatists’ “war” of 1598-9, or the earlier one between Harvey and Nashe.2 

McLuhan’s PhD thesis, The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of his Time was completed 7 years later with Bradbrook as his unofficial adviser. Nominally focused on Nashe, it would actually be an extended examination of the history of just such “wars”, characterized as occurring between the arts of the trivium, over the two millennia from 400 BC to 1600. 

McLuhan would consider wars of this sort for the rest of his life.3 One of the puzzles about them was the nature of the borders or gaps between the contesting parties.  For if such a “quarrel” were fundamental, as deep as it gets, what kind of ground could such gaps have if they were neither a contesting party themselves (these were what they separated) nor based upon anything deeper (since there was nothing deeper)? 

As McLuhan would later insist in 1972:

Managing The Ascent from the Maelstrom4 today demands awareness that can be achieved only by going Through the Vanishing Point. (Take Today, 13)

Going Through the Vanishing Point was the condition of considering the contest of fundamentals in its plurality.5

The first sentence of the School of Night review in the NYT, 35 years before Take Today, was:

There are some historical characters who dwindle in perspective as time goes by until they have passed the vanishing point.


  1. The last chapter of Bradbrook’s book is titled ‘Shakespeare, the School (of Night), and Nashe‘. But Nashe was generally in the air at this time in Cambridge. McLuhan read Lewis’ Time and Western Man during his first period in Cambridge and ‘Nash’ has more than passing mention in it.
  2. The School of Night, 1936, 7.
  3. See “Ancient quarrel” and its synonyms (1940’s) and “Ancient quarrel” and its synonyms (1950’s). It will take some point to complete the documentation for these decades and then to add it for the ’60s and ’70s as well. Suffice it to note here only that appreciation and study of the plurality of foundations is a red thread running through McLuhan’s work from start to finish.
  4. The Ascent from the Maelstrom is, of course, McLuhan’s ano kato play on Poe’s The Descent into the Maelstrom.
  5. The contest of fundamentals in its plurality => the fundamental contest of fundamentals in its fundamental plurality.

“Ancient quarrel” in Lewis

Lewis in The Lion and the Fox (1927):

tragedy is not the purest art. The contests of pure art would be like the battles of the norse heroes in heaven. They would ride back after the battle to Valhalla or some more congenial Elysium, the wounds and deaths abolished by magic at the termination of each day. Only heroes would participate; and no reality would mar their vigorous joys.1

Lewis was favorably disposed to Catholicism, but never converted. The reason may have been given in this passage with “no reality would mar their vigorous joys”.

Lewis’ “battles (…) in heaven”, like McLuhan’s “ancient quarrel”, was a reflex of Plato’s gigantomachia in the Sophist. There, too, an unending battle of superhuman forces is always taking place.  But the third ancient power in Plato’s telling is the philosophical child “begging for both” who would join the other two endlessly warring parties in a basic harmony.  Similarly with McLuhan:

Paul Claudel, of course, is not bound by these dichotomies of space and time, the vertical and horizontal. (…) Claudel’s thought and poetry obviously move freely in both (…) He values equally [ie, grammatically] the resources of dialectic and continuous discourse [ie, rhetoric]. He can therefore be both (…) for [him] Time and Space are not sectarian problems.2

Lewis apparently thought that the unending force and beauty of the fundamental powers could be preserved only through their isolation and complete separation from “reality”. In fundamental contrast, the “both” of Plato, and of Claudel in McLuhan’s telling, was not restricted to one power of the three in the “ancient quarrel”, but instead also characterized the essential outpouring of that quarrel and of all its protagonists into crass “reality”. It was exactly this fundamental urge to manifestation linking possibility with actuality that Aristotle expressed in his dynamics and that was carried over into Christianity as “incarnation”.

  1.  The Lion and the Fox , 1951 ed, 198.
  2. ‘Eliot and The Manichean Myth As Poetry’, 1954. For the full passage see “Ancient quarrel” and its synonyms (1950’s).

“Ancient quarrel” and its synonyms (1950’s)

From Eliot to Seneca (Review of The Senecan Amble: A Study in Prose from Bacon to Collier) (1953)

Professor Williamson has written a technical discussion of the battle of the prose styles from Bacon to Collier.

the natural and age-old antipathy of Senecan and Ciceronian is rooted in diversity of aim and method in communication.

Quarrels between Senecans and Ciceronians are inevitably the result of the triumph of specialized temperament over general intelligence.1 

Eliot and The Manichean Myth As Poetry (1954)

The crime of Professor Cleanth Penn Ransom is to attempt to invent a machine for reducing the time-world of the arts to the space-world of the sciences.  Time and space thus appear as two gods, one light, the other dark. Time is heavenly, space is infernal.  Since this is not and never has been a Catholic quarrel, the shifting terms in which the quarrel has been conducted through the centuries seem both familiar and unreal to Catholic ears.  Socrates abandoned the outer world of Ionian science and sophistic rhetoric for the inner world of the dialectical quest.  The division between inner and outer, between astrology and alchemy, between philosophy and magic is a familiar one.(…) Naturally the roots of these divisions are Light and Dark, Spirit and Matter.

If we grant that human existence is the state of damnation, two possibilities follow.  Either we can learn to retrace the stages of our fall into matter [in order to extricate our individual personality from it], and so escape, or we can devise some means of extinction of [individual] personality.  The pagan art and culture of the world, past and present, is divided in the pursuit of these alternatives. On one hand art is followed as a continuous labyrinth in which by blind, dogged persistence we may struggle upward by means of will power and ethical struggle. On the other hand there is the intellectual course presented by Mr. Eliot, in which we move from one intensity to another, towards a final flash of awareness and extinction [of mere individuality]. In the one art — that linked with Plato’s cave man — time, continuity, dialectic, are of the essence. In the other, time is lost in simultaneities and juxtapositions. (…)  The one proceeds by linked statement in time, the other by discontinuous arrangement in space.  In the broader cultural terms, the one view tends to locate human value in the [individual] will, the other in the [common] intellect. (…)  Generally speaking, both of these positions are Manichean so far as they postulate not just a Fallen Man, but a Fallen World.

Basic, however, for the understanding of vertical and horizontal, time and space, as these terms structure and agitate philosophy, aesthetics, anthropology and sociology, is the peculiar Manichean theory of communication. (…)  Vertical symbolism is of the dualistic variety, setting the sign or the work of art as a link between two worlds, between Heaven and Hell. It is concerned with the world as Time process, as becoming, and with the means of escape from Time into eternity by means of art and beauty. Vertical symbolism asserts the individual will against the hoi polloi. (…) Horizontal symbolism, on the other hand, sets the work of art and the symbol a collective task of communication (…) the horizontal, or space school, appeals to intuition, emotion and collective participation in states of mind as a basis for communication and of transformation of the self. The vertical school seeks to elevate the [existing] self above mere existence. The  horizontal symbolists seek to transform the self…

A Catholic poet like Paul Claudel, of course, is not bound by these dichotomies of space and time, the vertical and horizontal. (…) Claudel’s thought and poetry obviously move freely in both time and space. As a symbolist he avails himself to the utmost degree of the spatial techniques of inner and outer landscape for fixing particular states of mind. This procedure makes available to him all the magical resources invoked by the Romantics for using particular emotions as immediate windows onto Being, as techniques of connatural union with reality. But he values equally the resources of dialectic and continuous discourse [ie, rhetoric]. He can therefore be both Senecan or symbolist — and temporal. That would seem to be an inevitable program for any Catholic for whom Time and Space are not sectarian problems. 

(To be continued through all of McLuhan’s work.)

“Ancient quarrel” and its synonyms (1940’s)

The central matter in McLuhan’s work from start to finish was “an ancient quarrel” he identified as enabling “an overall view, which [enables]1 plenary critical judgment.”2

The Classical Trivium (PhD thesis on Nashe) (1943)

the history of the trivium is largely a history of the rivalry among [its three disciplines] for ascendancy. The war between these literary camps is basically the opposition between dialectics and rhetoric3 to control the modes of literary composition; and the ramifications of this opposition stretch into the realms of ethics and politics, both in antiquity and in the Renaissance.  For example, the ethical, political, and stylistic opposition between Machiavelli and Castiglione, between Harvey and Nashe, are at bottom and on the surface, owing to a reconstitution of ancient rivalries between dialectics and rhetoric. (…) The essential opposition between the arts of the trivium being such, then, as frequently to pit the one against the other, with results of the greatest importance…(41-42)

the points at issue in these prolonged quarrels are ineradicable. The controversies stirred up in America by President Hutchins and Professor Adler, and the educational theories which have been put into practice at St. John’s, Annapolis, have given us a contemporary taste of these ancient disputes. (Ibid, 62)

The quarrel between the ancients and the moderns is a revival, or continuation, of the quarrel which Cicero waged with the philosophers, and which the medieval dialecticians waged against the grammarians. So deeply ingrained is the Ciceronian ideal in the pattern of our culture that even Wordsworth can be seen in relation to it. His antipathy to the Ciceronian, Dr. Johnson, and his emphasis upon the feelings, rather than the words, of poetry led him to range himself on the side of the moderns and scientists. A consideration of the Ciceronian ideal and tradition, therefore, has claims to being one of basic importance in the history of Western culture, and its comparative neglect must be ascribed to the impercipience of the ubiquitous…  (Ibid, 68)

Nashe was thus a fulIy enlightened protagonist in an ancient quarrel (…) It was not a quarrel between Catholic and Protestant, but a dispute about methods of exegesis in theology and preaching, concerning which some Catholics and Protestants held patristic views and some held to scholastic positions. (Ibid, 226)

(To be continued through all of McLuhan’s work.)

  1. McLuhan: “which is”.
  2. ‘Poetic and Rhetorical Exegesis: The Case for Leavis against Richards and Empson’, Sewanee Review, 52(2), 1944.
  3. The two extremes of the three-part or trivial “quarrel” do not recognize the possibility of their peace, which is the third party to it. Therefore the frequent manifestation of the quarrel as involving only two powers: “dialectics and rhetoric”, “ancients and the moderns”, etc. Further, the two extreme powers, although fundamentally opposed to each other, share a common structure of “opposition” to the other extreme. Hence McLuhan sometimes speaks of another sort of two-party “dispute” between the two of them ( “dialectics and rhetoric”), exemplifying that common monolithic structure, and the third “grammatical” power with its polylithic structure embracing the extremes despite their difference: “specialized temperament” vs “general intelligence”.

Review of Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism

Have with You to Madison Avenue or The Flush-Profile of Literature by Marshall McLuhan [Review of Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism]1

It is natural for the literary man to underestimate the relevance of Professor Frye’s archetypal approach to literature. The man of letters expects the literary form to offer a good deal of private consumer satisfaction, and there is nothing private or consumer-oriented in Professor Frye’s approach. The Frye’s approach to criticism as a science turns from the training of taste and discrimination by literary means to the collective producer-orientation of the new mass media of the electronic age. The archetypal approach is the groove of collective conformity and of group-dynamics, which may explain why a uniquely opaque and almost unreadable book should have become a book-of-the-month choice.

In the same way, the off-Madison Avenue of the run-of-the-mill graduate student finds it quite unimportant that he does not understand Professor Frye. He knows that Frye is “with it” and that group participation or togetherness in the aura of such leadership is far more satisfying than private interpretation.

Professor Frye has interpreted the message of the new media aright. Print had in the sixteenth century commanded private interpretation. The fixed stance of the private silent reader, identical with perspective in painting, suggested subliminally the need for an individual viewpoint in all matters. Hamlet confronted by his father’s ghost asserts that “thy commandment all alone shall live within the book and volume of my brain.” Then he snatches his “tables”: Meet it is I set it down, that one may smile and smile and be a villain; At least I’m sure it may be so in Denmark.”

It had occurred to Montaigne that the snap-shotting of the impressions of the mind was the real message of the printed and written form. Shakespeare certainly made that point in this scene, even joking over the Montaigne technique of doubt, “At least I’m sure it may be so in Denmark.” For four centuries we have been conditioned by the printed word as snap-shot of the postures of the individual mind. Segmental analysis of all motion, mental and industrial, has long been for us the norm of education and of civilized life.

But in recent decades Western culture has spawned totally new techniques of snap-shotting the postures of the group-mind. Statistical charts of group postures reached a kind of lyric pause or “moment out of time” with the discovery of the “flush-profile” which put the shaky intuitions of individual students of public attitudes on a scientific basis. The flush-profile which hoicks the poet out of his ivory tower and puts him in the partners’ room of B.B.D. and O., as it were, is derived from the data of the city water engineer. At program breaks the additional water used in toilet-flushing was seen to provide a reliable archetype of the group posture of mind for that program.

Now it is obvious that such 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.

It is natural, therefore, that Professor Frye should have betaken himself to the anthropologist and to the folk-lorist for his profiles of literature. These students of pre-literate man provide the scientific archetypes or snapshots of the postures of collective man which now recommend themselves to many keen spirits in the post-literate age of conformity and of global stereotypes. For the characteristic mode of learning and knowing since the telegraph offers a pattern of instantaneous inter-cultural x-ray, very different from the enclosed spaces of literature. Man is no longer monad but nomad.

A literary man describing a people past or present adopts a slant, a point of view. He selects. He structures his image with syntactical bonds of perspective in the style of Hume, Gibbon, or Macaulay. But a century ago, with the photograph, there came new presentation. The photo, as William Ivins explains in Prints and Visual Communication, permits total statement without syntax. And the student of pre-literate man found this kind of non-personal recording of collective social behaviour very needful. Not the personal point of view, nor the partiality of perspective and self-expression, but the catalyst role of the non-personal chemical medium became the natural bias of the social sciences and symbolist artists alike.

That is why the archetypal profiles of literature offered as a new science of criticism may strike literary people as too much like the world of Mighty Mouse, of Space Cadet, and of the Madison Avenue portraitist of public postures. They are not quick to see that Professor Frye has devised a kind of nomadic bookcase for the cosmic man of today who is inevitably a mental D.P. A bedouin’s rug of timeless patterns which include all possible arrangements of human experience is indispensable equipment today.

Seen from the split-level picture-window House of Archetypes, the receding world of Western literature may look appallingly like a silent movie on a late TV show. But for those who recognize the importance of aligning all education with the dynamics of the new mass media, the deft and decent burial of literature provided by the Anatomy of Criticism will come as an exhilirating climax to the slower-paced preliminaries of the literary centuries.

Professor Frye is not, perhaps, sufficiently cognizant of one major resource adjacent to his enterprise. The world of ancient and medieval rhetoric was vibrant with archetypes referred to as “the figures of rhetoric.” These figures are, it is true, postures only of the individual mind which had become accessible to observation and control after phonetic writing. The written word arrested the mental and verbal flux of the fast-talking Mediterraneans and gave them the means of classifying hundreds of mental postures such as chiasmus, catachresis, and scatalogie. These figures or postures of the mind were like so many whales left immobilized amidst the shallows and sands of the written word. And in due time their odor began to be abroad in the land. Writing, however, as a means of capturing, or perhaps of fashioning, the postures of the individual mind has proved to be fatally committed to the fostering of individual expression and eloquence. It is flawed by preference for the humanistic and might well prove to be but a feeble prop for a scientific enterprise such as that of Professor Frye. As it is, even without the aid of such a pipe-line of natural gas from the farther shores of rhetoric, Frye has secured a vehicle which by-passes all rhetorical expression of this personal type, and makes possible the deploying of the total resources of pre-literate culture on to the Madison Avenue testing ground. This in turn will greatly hasten the mopping up of remnants of private awareness and expression such as now give a confused and unsettled character to the literary and educational scene. So that what has here begun as a momentary flush-profile of literary postures will develop into a genuine chain reaction, and the remnants of a decadent form of personal expression can be dispatched down the drain.

  1. This review has been published online in a post called Frye‑McLuhan Rivalry? in The Educated Imagination – A Website Dedicated to Northrop Frye. It is given here simply as a backup.

Lewis citing Hutton’s Aretino on calumny

Predicting the present with pinpoint accuracy, Lewis in The Lion and the Fox (1927) cites from Edward Hutton’s Pietro Aretino: The Scourge of Princes (1922):

Something evil and corrupt had entered into the civilisation of all Europe at this time, and not least of Italy. The Middle Age which had held out to humanity so great a promise, had in some inexplicable way and for some inexplicable reason failed, failed in endurance and in life. The fifteenth century had been full of disaster almost everywhere save only in Venice, and even Venice could not escape the spiritual disaster which that century made apparent. For with the sixteenth century we are face to face with the spiritual break-up of Europe and European society. Something evil, depraved, venal and mean appears. The pen is bought and sold, futile praise and blame are purchased by popes, kings and prelates, and we see a monster appear, a monster of genius blackmailing and blackmailing successfully every authority, every power. (…) An epoch had appeared which was an anarchy, in which everything was questioned, everything doubtful; in which anything might happen and anything might be thought to be true; an epoch without principles and without authority; in which a charlatan of genius might do anything, might destroy the unity of Europe or the spiritual and philosophical basis upon which Europe stood, by one multiple weapon — calumny. (74/75)

Statement by Pound signed by McLuhan

In 1953 a statement appeared in the Montreal journal CIV/n with the notation from the signatories to it: “As our means of disseminating this statement are limited, we ask those who receive it to give it what publicity they can, especially by reprinting in full, and to express their agreement or dissent in as lively a manner as possible.”1 

ALARMED by the neglect of Greek and Latin classics, milleniar source of light and guide in judgment of ideas and forms in the Occident; by lack of curiosity concerning what is current in contemporary foreign languages both in the west and in the orient; by growing carelessness in the use of language both private and public, and insensitiveness to the values of the literary arts which serve to maintain language in a healthy condition for civilized use; by the torpor of a pseudo-scholarship which does not mean any activity of the mind but mere retrospect.

WE URGE, TOWARD A REORIENTATION, that instead of hunting out the provenience of every bit of rubble used in the construction of literary works, the student of literature ask, and answer on the basis of evidence supplied by the works themselves, these three questions:

  1. To what degree of awareness has the given author attained?
  2. What was his aim and purpose in writing at all?
  3. What part of his discoveries is of use now, or is likely to be of use tomorrow, in maintaining the life of the mind here or elsewhere?


Clark Emery (University of Miami)
Ashley Brown (Washington and Lee University)
Hugh Kenner (University of California)
Rudd Fleming (University of Maryland)
L.R. Lind (University of Kansas)
Amiya Chakravarty (University of Kansas)
H.M. McLuhan (University of Toronto)
W.F. Stead (Trinity College)
Margaret Bates (Catholic University of America)
Robert Stallman (University of Connecticut)


  1. CIV/n published 7 issues between 1953 and 1955. Pound’s statement appeared in #4 from October 1953.  The same statement later appeared in Poetry, 84:2, p 119, May 1954. Both the CIV/n and Poetry statements were accompanied by this note: “Any communications regarding this manifesto should go to W. James, P. 0. Box 6964, Washington, D.C.” But the Poetry reprinting did not include the request for reprinting. The address given for inquiries was also the address of Pound’s ‘Square Dollar Series’.

Lewis on the fate of the West

The Lion and the Fox (1927!):

To-day, as though the never-properly-silenced paradoxes of the greek sophists had been released once more, or all the perplexing questions of the mind (allied with new forces of nature and their troubling physical interpretations) had been marshalled for its overthrow, the imposing newtonian structure is no longer secure. Quite another type of order has set about charting the universe and its world-ways. On the one hand to-day we have Newton’s superseded structure (still there and still useful, though nothing more, or a “beautiful myth” if you like) — a material universe ruled by immutable grandly conceived roman laws of absolute space and time. In opposition to it rises a universe far more vivid, co-ordinated from the infinite facets of individual experience. In the first, the newtonian system of classical mechanics, each man is ruled by the changeless laws of the revolving suns. A musical ride of the spheres (with music by Kepler) is in progress. In the second, the system of the relativity theory, to a  complex geodesic frame of flowering events each man contributes his widow’s mite of necessary reality. So the fine order of our civilized ideas is in disarray. The façade put up by our very  practical, very roman grandfathers is cracked from top to bottom. With the triumph of this subtler science the day of anglo-saxon, and generally of west european, ascendancy is finished. (48-49)

Reversal 1

In The Lion and the Fox (1927) Lewis observed:

the modern Irishman, led by Shaw, repudiates both the sentimental and the ineffectual, unpractical imputations [cast upon the Irish]. The irish-american business man is pointed to, his great energy and success, to controvert this picture. The tables are turned, the sentimentalism of the Saxon or German is contrasted with the good sense and unemotional wit of the Irish. The difference is maintained in its full integrity, but its qualities reversed.1  

McLuhan cited The Lion and the Fox frequently in his 1944  ‘Lemuel in Lilliput’ essay on Lewis.  Presumably he read it along with other Lewis books after first meeting Lewis in Windsor in 1943. But he may, of course, have read it before this in connection with his work on Shakespeare. However this may have been, in another 1944 essay, ‘Edgar Poe’s Tradition’, McLuhan wrote (at the very acme of his rhetorical game):

The inverted Byronic dandyism of Whitman is evident enough as soon as one applies the cipher of reversal. Put uncritical embrace of all social facts in place of fastidious scorn and withdrawal. Put pose of noble and omnivorous yokel for pose of satiated aestheticism of the worldling. Put tones of “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world” for the elegant scorn of a Byronic hero excoriating mankind from a midnight crag. Put boisterous adolescent athleticism for the world-weary flaneur, and the pattern is complete. That is why Whitman was so eagerly accepted by the aesthetes who had only to make one simple adjustment, that of reversal, in order to fraternize with him.

Now McLuhan certainly didn’t first discover “the cipher of reversal” in Lewis, since this was more or less exactly what his mother exercised in her one-woman plays and impersonations. He grew up with this. But Lewis may well have reinforced his consciousness of a problematic which was implicated not only in his mother’s theatrics but in Rupert Lodge’s “comparative method” and, as doubtless carried over from Lodge, in McLuhan’s M.A. (Manitoba) and Ph.D. (Cambridge) theses.  Namely, if (as he wrote in his Manitoba thesis on Meredith) “there are (…) in all times and places, definite types of temperament displaying consistency of conformation”, types he characterized by the arts of the trivium in his Cambridge thesis on Nashe, what is the mechanism through which people ‘put on’ one of these types?  And what is the mechanism through which one type is ‘put off’ and another ‘put on’ in the ‘same’ individual or group over time?

If the agent of this “cipher of reversal” might be called the ‘hero’2, and the “definite types of temperament displaying consistency of conformation” her ‘roles’, then the subtitle of The Lion and the Fox — ‘the role of the hero in the plays of Shakespeare’ — might be taken to define an important problem in the arts, social sciences and, indeed, in “the presentation of self in everyday life”.3 But with this, the meaning of ‘role’ is doubled (or more).  For now it seems to be a role, namely that of the hero, that manages roles. So who is it that puts on “the role of the hero”?4 


  1. The Lion and the Fox, 1951 edition, 325. Earlier in the book Lewis cites Machiavelli’s Prince as follows: “it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And (…) to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite” (82). Lewis’ citation is from chapter XVIII of The Prince.
  2. Lewis and McLuhan use Shakespeare’s ‘hero’ and ‘king’ interchangeably. On the first page of The Lion and the Fox Lewis says that his study will treat “the role of the hero or king in Shakespeare’s plays” and later he writes of “the king-hero with which Shakespeare’s dramatic work had so much to do” (100).
  3. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is, of course, the title of one of the major works of Erving Goffman, a central figure in the Winnipeg school of communications. Like McLuhan, Goffman was born in Alberta, grew up in Manitoba and attended the University of Manitoba. Like Elsie McLuhan, Goffman’s mother was active in the theatre. Both McLuhan and Goffman took with them from Winnipeg to their careers in the east the notion that everything humans do is staged. This gave both of them new ways to approach perennial questions in their respective fields of literature/media and sociology.
  4. Cf, The Lion and the Fox: “what was the nature of Shakespeare’s identification — if such existed — with that of his characters? (…) Such a complicated person as he, would be in hourly danger of disappearing into nothingness and becoming a ghost, haunting, without dimension, only the glimpses of the moon. (…) He is, if anything, too much everything to be any particular man; and sees round and behind things so much that he presents them too completely, too universally.” (18, 20) Compare McLuhan: “In his study The Lion and the Fox Lewis considers the process of desacralizing the King.  The process of desacralizing the King, of reducing the charismatic and corporate image of the monarch to secular, individual status — this is a familiar theme in Shakespeare.  The process by which the corporate lion is destroyed by the private and individual fox is one of fragmentation. (…) The private wits or senses of man were unleashed from their corporate restraints. The Fox was pitted against the Lion. The individual found new means of rivalry with collectively organized energies.”(‘The Lewis Vortex: Art and Politics as Masks of Power’, in Letteratura/Pittura, ed G. Cianci, 1982, prepared around 1970 for a L’Herne volume but never published there. Most of ‘The Lewis Vortex’ was published as ‘Masks and Roles and the Corporate Image’, University of Toronto Varsity Graduate, 11:2, 61-64, May 1964.)

On The Mechanical Bride

McLuhan to Elsie McLuhan, undated from 1951 or 1952:

[The Mechanical Bride] is really a new form of science fiction, with ads and comics cast as characters. Since my object is to show the community in action rather than prove anything, it can indeed be regarded as a new kind of novel. (Letters, 217)

McLuhan to Ezra Pound, January 1951

Current illusion is that science has abolished all natural laws. Nature now pays 5 million %. Applied science now the master usurer. To hell with our top soil. We can grow potatoes on the moon tomorrow. How you goan to expose that while there is still human “life” on the planet?
2nd War produced great discovery of war as new way of life. Financial pages simply chortling these days over prosperity rooted in 3rd War. Ordinary guy eats this up. Total war = total security he figures. THAT is the scale of imbecility now current. (…) I have tried, in forthcoming (March ) Mechanical Bride to devise a technique for elucidating this scene. It can’t be satirized. (Letters, 219)

McLuhan to Allen and Caroline Tate, October 2, 1951

The Folklore book is a youthful indiscretion held over till my middle age.  I hope it pays off better than most indiscretions. But Vanguard has made it nauseous to me.  The book would have appeared 6 years ago in more lively and timely guise had it not been for their bungling and boggling.  The suspected my Irish bulls to be Papal ones.1

McLuhan to Elsie McLuhan, January 22, 1952

Apropos of getting Gilson to write a plug for The Bride. He said to Fr Shook, you write it, I’ll sign it. So I wrote [for Shook for Gilson]: “An important and entertaining analysis of the effects of technology on daily life.” (Letters, 230)

McLuhan to Walter Ong, January 23, 1953:

Your review2 of the Bride literally the only review that made any sense. You were generous, but you saw what was up. The absence of serious study of these matters is total, ie, universal emotional and intellectual illiteracy. And so unnecessary. (Letters, 234)

McLuhan to Wyndham Lewis, December 9, 1953:

As for my book. It owes much to you of course. But it was so long in the publishing (6 years) that I had lost interest in its approach before it appeared. Now I see that I was trying to prop up the standards of book culture when we have passed out of the Gutenberg era.3 (Letters, 241)

McLuhan to Wyndham Lewis, February 7, 1954

our group [in the culture and technology seminar] is split over time and space. We have both the vertical and horizontal doctrinaires to contend with. Only a year ago did I find out the religious basis of these, to me, almost meaningless quarrels. The Mechanical Bride was written in all innocence of such knowledge. The world of the arts and of science has taken on a much more intelligible character for me since this self-initiation. For the present, at any rate, it has simplified but not ennobled the scene. (Letters 242)

Unpublished Review of Pease’s American Advertising, 19584

it is doubtful whether it will ever be possible to write a book about the ads of radio and television. (…) The literate world today is quite unable to cope with the electronic forms of information pattern. Professor Pease has written a book about a departed era in terms acceptable to the victims of culture-lag.5

Stearn Interview, 1967

When you talk back to ads as I did in The Mechanical Bride, they become your servants. Since you cannot survive the effects of media if you huddle or hide, you must rush out and kick them in the guts — give them what for — right in the midriff. And they respond very well to this treatment. Media, after all, are only extensions of ourselves. The road to understanding media effects begins with arrogant superiority. If one lacked this sense of superiority — this detachment — it would be quite impossible to write about them. It would be  like an octopus attacking the great pyramids.6

  1. For McLuhan and Irish bull see The Irish Bull.
  2.  In Social Order, II:2, February 1952, 79-85. Reprinted with revisions in McLuhan: Hot and Cool, 1967, 82-92.
  3. The critique made here by McLuhan of himself was fleshed out by him a few years later in an unpublished review of Northrop Frye’s 1957 Anatomy of Criticism: “The world of ancient and medieval rhetoric was vibrant with archetypes referred to as “the figures of rhetoric.” These figures are, it is true, postures only of the individual mind which had become accessible to observation and control after phonetic writing. The written word arrested the mental and verbal flux of the fast-talking Mediterraneans and gave them the means of classifying hundreds of mental postures such as chiasmus, catachresis, and scatalogie. These figures or postures of the mind were like so many whales left immobilized amidst the shallows and sands of the written word. And in due time their odor began to be abroad in the land. Writing, however, as a means of capturing, or perhaps of fashioning, the postures of the individual mind has proved to be fatally committed to the fostering of individual expression and eloquence. It is flawed by preference for the humanistic and might well prove to be but a feeble prop for a scientific enterprise such as that of Professor Frye. As it is, even without the aid of such a pipe-line of natural gas from the farther shores of rhetoric, Frye has secured a vehicle which by-passes all rhetorical expression of this personal type, and makes possible the deploying of the total resources of pre-literate culture (…) to (those of) Madison Avenue (…). This in turn will greatly hasten the mopping up of remnants of private awareness and expression such as now give a confused and unsettled character to the literary and educational scene. So that what has here begun as a momentary flush-profile of literary postures will develop into a genuine chain reaction, and the remnants of a decadent form of personal expression can be dispatched down the drain.”
  4. Otis A Pease, The Responsibilities of American Advertising, Private Control and Public Influence, 1920-1940 (1958). McLuhan’s review is in his papers in Ottawa.
  5. McLuhan’s review does not mention The Mechanical Bride, but it is clear that his remarks apply to it and highly probable that he had it at least as much in mind as Pease’s book.
  6.  Gerald Stearn, ed., McLuhan Hot and Cool , 1967, 285.

Media definition

McLuhan to Harry Skornia, Sept 3, 19601

Media are the parameters of all enterprises, whether private or collective. They impose, they are the assumptions. Mostly, therefore, they are subliminal just because they are constitutive and pervasive.  But to a number-sodden age, it may be more effective to say “Media are the parameters” rather than that “the medium is the message”.2 

Media are not things like books or devices. Neither are they  physical senses or combinations of senses.  Neither are they a form of language use like orality or literacy. Neither are they a mode of technology like the mechanical or the electrical.  However much they may be like these (just as some physical materials are like chemical elements) they are, instead, “assumptions” or “basic structures” that give shape to “the sending and receiving of information”, the “pattern[s] in which the components [of communications] co-exist”.3

Earlier exchanges within the NAEB project throw further light on McLuhan’s notion of just what media are:

McLuhan to Harry Skornia, January 1, 1959

I am not an apriorist in these matters — not committed to any doctrinaire approach beyond the assumption that man’s reasoning equipment is what we are seeking to elicit and strengthen in education.4 But I don’t think of reason as divorced from our total sensibilities.5

McLuhan to Harry Skornia March 30, 1959

Apropos of recent telephone comment about my “philosophical approach”.  Remember that when one approaches the intelligible aspects of media patterns one is in danger of philosophy.  But my concern is with light through the media onto our situation, not light on the media from our theories. But unified field of awareness of inter-action of media does need some verbalized articulation. Has not the effect of media over the centuries been kept at the sub-verbal level precisely by such philosophical assumptions [as underlie the Gutenberg galaxy]…?

McLuhan speaking to the NAEB ‘research committee’ in September 1959

it is (…) confusing at first for some to learn that the mosaic of a [visual] page of telegraph press is ‘auditory’ in basic structure. That, however, is only to say that any pattern in which the components co-exist without direct lineal hook-up or connection, creating a field of simultaneous relations, is auditory, even tho some of its aspects can be seen.

  1. All citations in this post are taken from the McLuhan folders in the Unlocking the Airwaves project.
  2. McLuhan added: “I do not revoke the latter formula.”
  3. The phrase “the sending and receiving of information” is from McLuhan’s letter to Harry Skornia, January 1, 1959; “basic structure” and “pattern in which the components co-exist” are from McLuhan speaking to the NAEB ‘research committee’ in September 1959. All these passages are cited in full above.
  4. When the human “reasoning equipment is what we are seeking to elicit and strengthen”, this can be accomplished in no other way, of course, than by deploying our “reasoning equipment”. A difficult circularity is thereby introduced into the task, since it appears that the object at stake — namely, “reasoning equipment” that has been elicited and strengthened — must already be active in the subject in any appropriate approach to that object. Beyond this knotted problem of a ‘future perfect’ time, where a future finding must already be active in the initial way to it, a further problem is constellated. Through this same circularity of the exercise of our “reasoning equipment” on our “reasoning equipment”, all our experience would appear to be locked “inside a human box” (as McLuhan put the point). See Planet polluto, garbage apocalypse for the reference and further discussion.
  5. The association of “our total sensibilities” with our “reasoning equipment” is not a “doctrinaire approach” because, according to McLuhan, it can be demonstrated. But it is all important in this context to note that “our total sensibilities” cannot be understood literally — any more than the discovery of the chemical elements could have been based on a literal understanding of physical materials.

Unlocking the Airwaves

A decisive contribution to McLuhan research, and to media research in general, has been made by a massive project called “Unlocking the Airwaves: Revitalizing an Early Public and Educational Radio Collection.” This admirable project is a collaboration among the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Communication Arts, and the Wisconsin Historical Society. It is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities through a Humanities Collections and Reference Resources grant. Four folders posted to the Internet Archive by this project have particular relevance McLuhan studies: Project in Understanding New Media. These folders detail the genesis and development of the NAEB (National Association of Educational Broadcasters) project with McLuhan which began in 1959 and eventuated in the publication of the Report on Project in Understanding New Media in 1960.

Planet polluto, garbage apocalypse

New life is born from garbage and ashes. (Innovation is Obsolete, 1971)

Apropos of recent telephone comment about my “philosophical approach”.  Remember that when one approaches the intelligible aspects of media patterns one is in danger of philosophy.  But my concern is with light through the media onto our situation, not light on the media from our theories. But unified field of awareness of inter-action of media does need some verbalized articulation [through what might be called ‘philosophy’]. Has not the effect of media over the centuries been kept at the sub-verbal level precisely by (…) philosophical assumptions [of a certain kind]…?1

As described by McLuhan in the CKLN tapes, humans have enclosed themselves and their planet in a “human box”:

Since 1957 when Sputnik went up and ever since that satellite arch went around the planet, the planet ceased to be nature. What we used to call nature is gone. The planet is now contained inside a human box. There is no more nature. What remains is simply whatever we make of this planet by programming. There is no nature anymore.  (23:51ff)

With Harold Innis, McLuhan saw this as a problem both of world-subjugating “empire building” and world-annihilating solipsism. Indeed, it is distinctive of the Toronto school (including John O’Neill along with Innis, Havelock and McLuhan) to have seen solipsism, not only as the effect of a profound crisis of soul, but also as the strange opening to the only possible unloosening of the death grip of empire.2

In the view of the Toronto school, if we are to turn away from global war and the looming annihilation of the biosphere, solipsism must be deeply probed as the one way to recover the possibility of peace. Solipsism was at once the greatest of all dangers, the death of life itself, and the threshold to the one possibility of a reversal out of our political, social and spiritual catastrophes.

McLuhan brought imperialism and ecological disaster together with solipsism as the “eco-box”3 in his frequent recourse (concentrated between 1968 and 1973) to a series of overlapping images: the “satellite surround”, the “garbage apocalypse” and “planet polluto”:

The McLuhan DEW-LINE, 1:5, November 1968
From the first moment of the satellite, the earth ceased to be the human “environment”.
Satellites automatically enclose the old Darwinian “Nature” environment by putting the planet inside a man-made environment. They are just as much an extension of the planet as is clothing an extension of the skin.
Satellites are equivalent to enclosing the Earth in a Bucky Fuller “dome” of acoustic space.
The consequent process of archetypalization of Nature ensures that the Earth is now an old “booster-stage”. . . a quaint form of Camp. . . a sort of archaeological museum affording immediate access to all past cultures simultaneously on a classified-information basis.4
The Satellite Decides For Us That Our Future Relation To The Planet Is One Of “Program”.
The satellite is also the shift from the planet as a homogeneous continuum or visual space, to the planet as a “chemical bond” or mosaic of resonating components.
Thus, the Earth has become a “national” or tribal park. It is already a teaching machine, a universal playground for advertisers and teenagers.

Address to Author’s Luncheon, 19695
Put a fast rim spin around a slow one and the slow one disintegrates. Put a satellite ring around the planet and all arrangements on the planet disintegrate. It becomes garbage. Garbage means clothing [‘garb‘] — look up the Random House dictionary and you’ll find the fifth definition of garbage is old nose cones and capsule boosters. The new clothing of this planet is that sort of [space] garbage. (…) Satellites as a new garbage or climate surround around the planet are moving information at speeds that the planet cannot cope with and have created not a global village but a global theatre.6

From Cliché to Archetype, 1970
The classification of “garbage” concerns a host of misconcep­tions. The term itself literally signifies clothing. The cultures of the world have been clad in and constituted by retrieved castoffs: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” (…) The
Random House Dictionary of the English Language (1966) assigns the fifth meaning of “garbage” to that new global environment of cast-off nose cones, boosters, and other ballistic flotsam and jetsam.7

McLuhan On Russia, 19718
The new surround of 
satellites, beginning with Sputnik in 1957, scrapped Nature itself. The planet went inside a man-made environment. Art replaced Nature. The total programming of the earthly environment is all that remained. It’s planet Polluto from here on. The giant rimspin impels all.

Innovation is Obsolete, 1971
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. It is a kind of proscenium arch, turning the globe into a theater. With Sputnik, Earth became an eco-box. (…) The satellite environment has transformed the planet itself into an art form. The total scrapping of the old Nature, and the planet itself, has created a garbage apocalypse, turning the earth into Planet PollutoThe computer programmer is naturally concerned with the task of tackling the entire planetary environment as a problem in programming. Nothing less now confronts us as the immediate task. 

The Hardware/Software Mergers, 19729
Sputnik — 1957. Nature was junked. Result was planet polluto. When you put one environment around another, the outer one scraps the inner one, as the suburb scraps the city. (…) When you scrap nature, then everything looks like pollution, including nature. When you go into spaceship Earth, anything that is not programmed is pollution. (…) The spaceships were the first totally programmed human environments. You had to take “nature” with you if you were going to leave this planet. We have thus learned how to program environments totally. When you begin to program the total human environment it is like restoring a ruined Rembrandt. All the previous tinkerings look like defacements. Since Sputnik, the new information environment supersedes hardware and experience alike. Only knowledge remains. That is another simple corollary of moving into the software environment of information: experience is useless. (…) Every technological innovation creates an extension of our bodily senses that translates all our inputs of experience into its specific new form. That literal fact is what is meant by “the medium is the message.” Thus, the new environment of satellites around the planet processes the entire human situation anew. The planet itself is “transplanted” through the new satellite surround, and the new message is “pollution.” Nature itself is now seen to be an utter mess.

The Planet as Art Form, 197210
When Sputnik went around the planet, nature disappeared. Nature was hijacked right off this planet. Nature was enclosed in a man made environment and art took the place of nature. This was one of the biggest hijack jobs conceivable. When you put a new service environment around, say TV, with hologram or what-not, you will find that TV has been completely hijacked, that a new service environment has come in. It isn’t in yet. But, when you put TV around the movies, movies were hijacked. The whole service industry of movies was hijacked and another service industry went around it. When Sputnik went around the planet, the planet became an art form. Nature disappeared overnight and planet polluto took the place of the old nature. Planet polluto, discovered to be in a very bad state, needing a great deal of human attention – art form.

Take Today, 1972
Since the satellite surround, beginning with Sputnik in 1957, there has come the sudden awareness that
nature itself has dropped out. Old experience is no longer relevant, and man must now assume responsibility for the total programming of his planetary environment through new knowledge. “Experience,” said Erasmus, “is the schoolmaster of fools.” That is, the rates charged by this ruthless pedagogue are outrageous, and few have ever survived his instruction. As the criminal said on his way to execution: “This will teach me a lesson!”11

Take Today, 1972
At High Speeds Art Replaces Nature, And Nature Goes To School. To The Artist On Planet Eco-Polluto Nothing Exceeds Like Excess12

The Argument: Causality in the Electric World, 1973:
There are no more spectators in lab or life, only participants in the Global Electric Theatre. Sputnik created a new proscenium arch that transformed our awareness of planet Polluto — a limited figure against the ground of limitless space. The Apollo age has scrapped Greek Nature as we assume full responsibility for orchestrating our total environment on human scales beyond ideologies.

The problem of solipsism is that of the fly in the flybottle.13 If “what remains is simply whatever we make (…) by programming”, what can we “make by programming” of that “programming”? What can we “make by programming” of this “we”?

From “inside a human box” there is no access to ground and to reality, only to the confines of the box: “what we used to call nature is gone”.

the new information environment supersedes hardware and experience alike. Only knowledge remains.14

The stipulation of the real and the true can be made only through the knowledge of a “we” whose own ground and reality can be stipulated by nothing other than the knowledge of that same “we”.15 This vicious and ultimately vacuous circle is the solipsistic box in which we are locked. Deeply considered (a rare enough occurrence) the box itself utterly “disintegrates”, together with its contents: the “we” and all of its “knowledge” => the “we” and all of its “knowledge”.

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned. (Marx)16

The true world — we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we also have abolished the apparent one!! (Nietzsche)17

McLuhan described this implosion as follows: 

In King Lear Shakespeare opens his play with the King himself launching a program of fragmentation of his external kingdom.  The reverberation of this deed quickly reduces all the social roles of his society to chaos. Finally, the inner kingdom and pattern of his own consciousness feel the same disruption of fragmented functions.18 

The problem the Toronto school set for itself was how to penetrate solipsism to establish contact with demonstrable reality and truth. “Nothing less now confronts us as the immediate task.”19 This was the same question for the Toronto school of how the planet and the human species belonging to it might be rescued from the explosive effects of empire in which we are ensnared.  The root cause of the imperial attempt at limitless inflation was seen to lie in the implosive deflation of solipsism.20 Hence it was in the “garbage” of the “eco-box” of planet polluto that the required solution had to be sought.

How to elicit creativity from these middenheaps has become the problem of modem culture.21

Metro Garbage May One Day Be Used As Building Blocks22

Scrap is a useful resource but you have to start from scratch.23

The imperative “to start from scratch” was the great clue. Following the method of phenomenology as exercised across multiple disciplines from philosophy and linguistics to physics, namely, to “start with output and ask what input leads to such output”24, the need was to start with solipsism as output “and ask what input leads to such output”. For solipsism, too, was first of all a possibility.  And if possibilities were inherently plural, retracing solipsism to its root would equally expose other roots with other outputs.25 A different output than solipsism was exactly the imperative need.26

Only solipsism as output was fitted to this end because there is nothing actual or possible between actuality and possibility, just as there is no possibility between possibilities. These borders between actuality and possibility and between possibilities are the “new frontier” and “the new frontier is pure opacity”.27 Solipsism along with the garbage to which it reduced the planet and everything on it exposed this “new frontier”. It was this no man’s land of universal nihilism, the disintegrated precipitate of solipsism, and this alone, that gave access to the required life-renewing possibility:

it is precisely the courage of [Wyndham] Lewis in pushing the Cartesian and Plotinian angelism to the logical point of the extinction of humanism and personality that gives his work such importance28 

Managing The ‘Ascent’ from the Maelstrom today demands awareness that can be achieved only by going ‘Through the Vanishing Point’. (Take Today)29

  1. McLuhan to Harry Skornia, March 30, 1959 in Unlocking the Airwaves.
  2. For the death grip of empire and the term “empire building”, see ‘The subjugation of the human spirit‘. In the Toronto school, it was Harold Innis, of course, who first placed “empire” in question.
  3. See the passage from ‘Innovation is Obsolete’ above: “With Sputnik, Earth became an eco-box.”
  4. “A classified-information basis” leads inevitably to solipsism since it is impossible to get outside of ‘classifications’ in order to know for any sample of knowledge how much comes from the classification and how much from its object. When the unknowable object is the nature of classifications themselves, the whole procedure, as McLuhan said, “disintegrates”. Nietzsche had, of course, detailed the problem as precipitating nihilism almost a century before this.
  5. YouTube recording 12:50ff. The date given for this address is 1966. But as is clear from many references in it — like McLuhan mentioning The Love Machine by Jacqueline Susann, which was published in 1969, or describing his return from the May 1969 Bilderberg conference in Denmark — this date is mistaken and should be 1969.
  6. The global theatre is a “box” with a “proscenium arch” where everybody plays only some “role”
  7. From Cliché to Archetype, 183. McLuhan continues this passage to cite from a New York magazine article titled “The Garbage Apocalypse”.
  8. ‘McLuhan On Russia: An Interview’, Abraxas, A Journal for the Theoretical Study of Philosophy, the Humanities and the Social Sciences, 1:2, Winter 1971.
  9. ‘The Hardware/Software Mergers: How Successful Have They Been?’, Educational Technology, Hearings, Ninety-second Congress, second session, on H.R. 4916, House of Representatives, Committee on Education and Labor, Select Subcommittee on Education, September 13, 1972.
  10. McLuhan on the David Frost Show, ABC Television, 30 May 1972, video and transcript at Marshall McLuhan Speaks.
  11. Take Today, 1972, 6.
  12. Take Today is composed of aphoristic segments. This is the title of a segment on p 81.
  13. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, #309: “What is your aim in philosophy?—To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.”
  14. ‘The Hardware/Software Mergers’, 1972, full passage cited above.
  15. Cf, ‘Notes on the Media as Art Forms’, Explorations 2, 1954: “The habitual contemplation of the media of communication as art forms necessarily invokes the principle that the instruments of research are also art forms, magically distorting and controlling the objects of investigation. Critical awareness of this fact has saved the modern scientist from many blunders, but such awareness has arrived tardily in the popular sphere.” McLuhan saw “the popular sphere” here as including everything outside of the research of “the modern scientist”, so not only politics, commerce and entertainment, but education as well — and especially the humanities and social sciences.
  16. The Manifesto of the Communist Party. The original reads: “Alles Ständische und Stehende verdampft, alles Heilige wird entweiht…”.
  17. Twilight of the Idols. The original reads: “Die wahre Welt haben wir abgeschafft: welche Welt blieb übrig? die scheinbare vielleicht?… Aber nein! mit der wahren Welt haben wir auch die scheinbare abgeschafft!!
  18. The Lewis Vortex: Art and Politics as Masks of Power’, in Letteratura/Pittura, ed G. Cianci, 1982. Written around 1970 for a L’Herne volume but never published there.
  19. ‘Innovation is Obsolete’, full passage cited above.
  20. We may end ourselves (…) because we think we have nothing left in ourselves to respect.” Havelock, The Crucifixion of Intellectual Man, 1950, 6.
  21. From Cliché to Archetype, 1970, 184.
  22. Headline from the Toronto Telegram of March 5, 1969 cited in From Cliché to Archetype, 1970, 182.
  23. ‘The Hardware/Software Mergers: How Successful Have They Been?’. See note 9 above for the reference.
  24. McLuhan to Harry Skornia, Sept 3, 1960 in Unlocking the Airwaves.
  25. Cf, McLuhan, ‘The Role of Mass Communication in Meeting Today’s Problems’, NAEB Journal, vol 18 (Oct, 1958): “Let us grant for the moment that the medium is the message. It follows that if we study any medium carefully we shall discover its total dynamics and its unreleased powers.”
  26.  What McLuhan called “media dynamics”, with its explicit reference to Aristotle’s investigations of possibility, was the field dedicated to the investigation of such root assumptions. For media as root assumptions, see Media definition.
  27. Take Today, 1972, 90. See McLuhan on Malthus and “unpopulous margins”: “It seemed obvious to Malthus that population pressed outward upon the means of subsistence. (…) For an industrializing England the means of subsistence were increasingly at the margins of the population structure. But the awareness of margins was itself a novelty of an exploding or expanding economy. To have identified the remote and unpopulous margins of an economy with the limits of the means of subsistence was a stroke of artistic genius” (‘The Electronic Age – The Age of Implosion’, 1962).
  28. ‘Nihilism Exposed’, Renascence, Vol.8, Winter, 1955
  29. Take Today, 13. “The ‘Ascent’ from the Maelstrom” is, of course, McLuhan’s ano-kato play on Poe’s ‘A Descent into the Maelström’.

The Beginnings of Gutenberg Galaxy 4

In letters written in the context of the NAEB1 project to research new media, McLuhan reported news of what was then titled The Gutenberg Era:2

December 1, 1958 to Harry Skornia3:

Do you think I should put in for a second year?4 For two years right off? I could then put out The Gutenberg Era as preliminary volume to the [project] Handbook.  I have even toyed with the thought of writing down that material (on which I have spent ten years and more) in the first three months anyway.  I work very fast once I start to roll.

April 12, 1959 to Harry Skornia:

I have been given a full time private secretary for the next 3 months, so hope to finish up that book: The Gutenberg Era, which is indispensable as a general public introduction to the [Understanding New Media] project.

May 29, 1959 to Harry Skornia:

Shall spend much of the summer getting things lined up for your committee so that they can give us maximum aid.  Shall send many memos and suggestions of possible procedures. Also, the Gutenberg Era can be circulated in mimeo to all of them.  (…) I don’t think any better approach to Understanding Media could be developed than the Gutenberg Era mss.

June 5, 19595 to Harry Skornia:

Gutenberg Era going fast now. Let’s hope it will bulldoze aside most of the 19th century movie lot set mentalities that surround us. I can guarantee that it will contain more new ideas, more new perceptions of old situations and present problems than any book I’ve had the luck to encounter in my life. I shall take pains to make it acceptable in mode to the literary and conventional mind.

June 23, 1959 to Samuel Becker6:

I think my Gutenberg book will offer a sufficient quantity and continuity of testimony on the effects of the forms of writing and printing to make this completely convincing, because one has only to consult the changes in the arts of poetry, and prose, and painting under the impact of various developments in print technology, to trace the exact lines of force which that technology exerts. This raises a very basic question about media research. I mean the factor of translation from one language into another as revealing7 the properties of both.

  1. National Association of Educational Broadcasters.
  2. All of the letters cited below from McLuhan’s correspondence with Harry Skornia and Sanuel Becker in the context of their NAEB project are to be found in the Unlocking the Airwaves project. For reference see Unlocking the Airwaves.
  3. Skornia was a professor at the University of Illinois and the president of the NAEB
  4. That is, as part of the NAEB project grant application.
  5. McLuhan’s letter is undated, but it was received at the NAEB on June 5. Presumably it was written a few days before.
  6. Samuel Becker was a professor at the University of Iowa and a member of the NAEB research committee overseeing McLuhan’s project.
  7. McLuhan: “as a revealer of the properties of both.”

Wakese 3: “A word is a single shot of a process”

In a letter to Harry Skornia, December 1, 1958, McLuhan wrote:

An image of an entire process is a myth.  Myth (e.g., Cadmus, Gorgon, Trojan Horse) is a single image of an entire process.  A word is a single shot of a process. A language or medium is a macro-myth which may include all sorts of derivative myths, etc.1

Every word is a “derivative myth” within the “macro-myth” of some language. An “entire process” lies behind its appearance and activity there. This is the process through which — but not in clock time! — that word has come to be selected out of all the other words which might have been used in its place.  Moreover, as McLuhan described, every word selected in this process has multiple meanings and here, too, selection must be exercised:

every word has a hidden ground of many many layers under every single word you utter (…) Every single word you use whether it is ‘cat’ or ‘dog’ or whatever has layer after layer of hidden meanings that are not [all] used, but when you use the word, all of them are put into resident activity. Whenever you use the word it doesn’t matter whether you know the [complete range of its] meaning or not, the whole word is in resident activity. It echoes. The totality of the word is put into action by just using it. You don’t have to know [all] that it means — just hearing it is enough. So this again is an example of the hidden ground as part of our ordinary perceptual lives. (45:50ff)2

In fact, even individual letters and sounds must be selected in a process that precedes every use of a word (but does not precede them in clock-time).

to the structural linguist the fact that the letter “k,” for example, as written, may suggest a single sound, does not hide from him the fact that there are several quite distinct “k” sound-structures mastered by every child by two or three years of age. For the “k” in “quick” Is not the “k” in “chalk.” Using the fill-at-once approach of electronic tape, the linguist becomes aware of the interpenetration of the alphabetic sounds and the consequent modification of letters that look alike in the one-thing-at-a-time world of the written word. So he doesn’t hesitate to say that written letters, insofar as they pretend to point to distinct sounds, are a very crude gimmick for reducing couples and subtle qualities of sound to mere averages.3

On the way to speaking or writing, ‘run’ may be selected as against ‘ran’ and even ‘rune’ in order to express one sort of action (running not rune-ing) and when that action took place and whether it was finished (perfected) or not. Nearly always, this grammatical process is entirely ignored as it is made. But it need not be ignored and Wakese never does so. The sort of vague touch ‘rune’ has with ‘run’ is always implicated. But this sort of implication need not be explicitly marked and, indeed, usually is not in Wakese — just as it is not explicit in ordinary language use. The difference is that Wakese works with the constant admonition that this sort of implicated history may be in play at any moment and therefore must always be considered even if Joyce did not bother to do so! The lesson is that language works through an implicated range of interpretation and the business of Wakese is nothing other than to magnify this range as a way of revealing its necessary presence in any language use at all.

What is always overlooked in the usual uses of language simply cannot be overlooked in Wakese because, absent such attention to its synchronic process of selection, its words and hence its lumpy narrative — make no sense. Tellingly, the etymology of ‘sense’ has to do with ‘direction’ and ‘pathway’, as in ‘send’ (in English) or ‘sens unique’, ‘senso unico’, ‘sentiero’ and ‘sendero’ (in French, Italian and Spanish). ‘Sense’ is always and only arrived at by following a pathway whose usually subliminal understanding is what it is to know a language.

  1. This letter is in the Project in Understanding New Media folders posted to the Internet Archive by the massive project called “Unlocking the Airwaves: Revitalizing an Early Public and Educational Radio Collection.” This admirable project is a collaboration among the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Communication Arts, and the Wisconsin Historical Society. It is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities through a Humanities Collections and Reference Resources grant.
  2. For further discussion, see Wakese 2: McLuhan on the “potencies” of language.
  3.  Unlocking the Airwaves — see note 1 above.

The subjugation of the human spirit

McLuhan from the CKLN tapes1:

We don’t understand information movement and image making as warfare at all: we call this ‘advertising’. Actually Madison Avenue is a major military operation vastly aggressive and out to conquer empires, territories, within the human heart and human senses. It is a huge military operation of empire building and icon making. If we had the slightest consciousness of social responsibility instead of this sort of a private subconscious totally inadequate to our technology, we would teach our children in our schools how to protect themselves against media fallout and advertising fallout. It is simply fantastic the unconsciousness of our western world with regard to the forces that we release upon it. The little areas in which we permit ourselves any consciousness or responsibility are minute compared to the real areas of impact. Advertising is a vast military operation intended openly and advisedly intended to conquer the human spirit. The critics of advertising miss the bus entirely by complaining about false claims. Nothing could be less important than the false claims of advertising. It is the total icon making activity that matters. (31:16ff)

This was from the 1970s, the last decade of McLuhan’s life.  But he had had something of this view from the beginning. Here he is in 1938 in one of his first published papers:

What sort of motive, what complexion of intelligence is likely to be concerned with the output and control of Little Men? For almost a century now, the intelligence of the ablest men has been systematically bought and set to work to exploit the weakness and stupidity of the rest of mankind. This is the exact reverse of the traditional procedure of all civilizations. Hitherto the ablest men have been selected to govern, to educate, rather than to exploit, the others.2

Or again in the ‘preface’ to The Mechanical Bride, which was written in 1950 at the latest and more probably in the late 1940s:

Ours is the first age in which many thousands of the best-trained individual minds have made it a full-time business to get inside the collective public mind. To get inside in order to manipulate, exploit, control is the object now. And to generate heat not light is the intention. To keep everybody in the helpless state engendered by prolonged mental rutting is the effect of many ads and much entertainment alikeSince so many minds are engaged in bringing about this condition of public helplessness, and since these programs of commercial education are so much more expensive and influential than the relatively puny offerings sponsored by schools and colleges, it seemed fitting to devise a method for reversing the process.3

And again from 1953 in ‘The Age of Advertising’:

The ads are a form of magic which have come to dominate a new civilization. 

  1. For details on these CKLN tapes, see Wakese 2: McLuhan on the “potencies” of language.
  2. ‘Peter or Peter Pan’, Fleur de Lis, 37:4, 1938.
  3. The Mechanical Bride, Preface, p v.

Wakese 2: McLuhan on the “potencies” of language

start with output and ask what input leads to such output (McLuhan to Harry Skornia, Sept 3, 1960)

On November 19, 1984, a radio broadcast from CKLN in Toronto  presented a collage of audio recordings of McLuhan in which “language [a]s the metamorphic power” was discussed by him from a variety of different angles.1 The key to this power as considered by McLuhan in respect to its internal2 reach within language was the relation of words and sounds to their underlying possibilities. Every aspect of language could be different and therefore could be understood as a choice made on the way to its expression (whether orally or in some other medium).  In recent history, this notion went back to Saussure and raised the questions of when and where and how such choices were made (since they were certainly not made consciously in ordinary time and space in the course of our normal activities).

Shortly after Saussure, but with explicit roots in Aristotle and implicit ones in many of Aristotle’s predecessors, the importance of a consideration of possibility was recognized in many fields. For Heidegger in Sein und Zeit (1927) possibility ‘stands higher’ than actuality so that the project of phenomenology needed to explicate itself as one possibility among others.  To begin, it needed to account for itself as not being what it otherwise might be. In that same year of 1927 Born and Heisenberg recognized the mathematics of quantum physics as probability waves, as graphs of possibilities. Explorations of color and form in art and of different scales and rhythms in music were likewise attempts to probe underlying possibilities of those areas.

Finnegans Wake was begun in the middle 1920s and the strange Wakese it employs is a language in which possibilities intrude on its surface level in a way they do not in everyday life — so far as we notice. But by this time, Freud and Jung had been looking at the ‘psychopathology of everyday life’ in similar fashion for decades.

In the context of this broad return to Aristotelian dynamics3, McLuhan’s remarks in the tapes broadcast over CKLN provide an introduction to Wakese as a language in which possibilities are highlighted in what McLuhan termed their “resident activity”:4

one reason that you have to guess when you’re looking at any word whatever is that it has dozens of meanings that are not being used at that particular moment. When you look up the word ‘read’ you’ll find many columns of meanings for the word and beside the word ‘read’ is the word ‘run’. He who runs may read; well, ‘run’ means ‘rune’, ‘run’ comes from ‘rune’, which means a cryptic puzzle and reading and rune-ing are close. (39:50ff)

Reading and rune-ing in this passage are used in the double sense of words in the dictionary and the skills necessary to access a dictionary (or, in fact, to carry out any human activity). McLuhan was doing what he was talking about and talking about what he was doing.  He was using his wits in a consideration of wit. Media study, just like phenomenology according to Heidegger, had to account for its actuality in terms of its underlying possibilities.

the fact that reading is guessing means that every word has a hidden ground of many many layers under every single word you utter (the word ‘utter’ is a very good example of
this multilevel of hidden meanings [like ‘outer’ in English and ‘uttar’ in Hindi]). Every single word you use whether it is ‘cat’ or ‘dog’ or whatever has layer after layer of hidden meanings that are not [all] used, but when you use the word, all of them are put into resident activity. Whenever you use the word it doesn’t matter whether you know the [complete range of its] meaning or not, the whole word is in resident activity. It echoes. The totality of the word is put into action by just using it. You don’t have to know [all] that it means — just hearing it is enough. So this again is an example of the hidden ground as part of our ordinary perceptual lives. Now under conditions of electronic technology the hidden acoustic ground of language has awakened enormously. Words are much more in the level of consciousness [now] than they ever were for many centuries thanks to our living in an acoustic age. (45:48ff)5

the sounds6 of the environment are filtered through the language or transformed in the language: language is the metamorphic power (6:20ff)

all art forms really resonate from hidden grounds that are there in depth all the time. All the possible musics are latent (…) in the acoustic forms of the language itself and are just waiting [to be expressed] (12:08ff)

there is a hidden ground that makes possible any technological change (5:35)7

Visual man can suppress nearly all the meanings of a word. A highly literate person is offended when you pun using some other meaning of a word. He groans merely to hear the acoustic dimension of a word put into play: “Jung and easily Freudened”; “Though he might have been more humble there’s no police like Holmes” — James Joyce,  I’m quoting him from Finnegans Wake. (47:47ff)

  1. Most of these audio tapes came from seminars, lectures and interviews held in the 1970s, some later even than the publication of City as Classroom in 1977.
  2. Internal — that is, not considered in terms of the intimately related external reach of language in its manifest communication with others.
  3. It is not at all the case, as is usually assumed, that Aristotle’s dynamics represented a turn away from Plato. Instead Plato himself argued that forms were not mere abstractions and dynamics were Aristotle’s attempt to understand the metaphorical life of forms as an inherent urge to expression. Hence — ‘en-ergy’. McLuhan in a June 5, 1959 letter to Harry Skornia: “One new concept for us: media are ‘ideas’ in action.” This was exactly Aristotle’s notion of the dynamics of Plato’s forms or ideas. In fact, in a letter to Skornia two days later, and then repeatedly in letters to him thereafter, McLuhan calls this notion the “generalized theory of the dynamic-model” (June 7, 1959). (Both letters are in the NAEB materials referenced in Wakese 3.)
  4. All citations below are taken from the CKLN recordings referenced above. For “resident activity” see the segment cited from 45:48ff.
  5. Compare McLuhan’s letter to Innis from a quarter century earlier where possibilities are rendered as “potencies”: “Many of the ancient language theories of the Logos type which you (Innis) cite for their bearings on government and society have recurred and amalgamated themselves today under the auspices of anthropology and social psychology. Working concepts of ‘collective consciousness’ in advertising agencies have in turn given salience and practical effectiveness to these ‘magical’ notions of language. But it was most of all the esthetic discoveries of the symbolists since Rimbaud and Mallarmé (developed in English by Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Lewis and Yeats) which have served to recreate in contemporary consciousness an awareness of the potencies of language such as the Western world has not experienced in 1800 years.”
  6. Not only the sounds, but the sights, smells, tastes and felt tactility of the environment are all filtered though language. But ‘language’ here has multiple meanings. It might be taken to refer (as McLuhan often took it to refer) to a particular language like English.  He often discussed rock, for example, as a distillation from the particular language of English. Or it might be taken to refer to “language itself”, language in general, and this again in two senses: first, language as it is used to communicate in some fashion and, second, ‘language’ as the dynamic power generating actual expression out of a manifold of possibilities. It was this latter dynamism which is not restricted to language, but which is particularly to be seen in language, that he termed the “metamorphic power”.
  7. In this context it must be recalled that language itself, for McLuhan, is a technology. So not only any technological change in the narrow sense, but any change in human history whatsoever, individual or collective, has its hidden grounds. Just as the once hidden ground of chemistry makes possible (now and in the past and in the future) all the changes in the material world, or the once hidden ground of genetics makes possible (now and in the past and in the future) all the changes in the genesis of living beings, so all individual and collective cultural changes have their (still hidden) ground which it is the business of media study to probe and to attempt to bring to light.

Lodge in W.O. Mitchell’s Who Has Seen the Wind

In Who Has Seen the Wind1W.O Mitchell’s best-selling novel from 1947, Mr Hislop is the local minister, the “herder of God’s Presbyterian sheep”. Hislop’s thoughts record questions precipitated in Mitchell by his mentor2 at the University of Manitoba, Rupert Lodge:

Self and not-self; what was the relationship?3 He had separated himself from the phenomena of his experience. He could say to himself, “I see the yard — John Hislop sees the yard and the lawn-mower.” But — who was John Hislop? What was seeing? Was the chipped greenness of the mower a quality inherent in the mower, or was it only an element tied up with others that went to make up John Hislop? Was there a lawn-mower independent of his consciousness? And if there were, could his senses make the jump to it? Could there be an external world if there wasn’t something of the stuff John Hislop was made of, already in that outer world?

Later Hislop evinces further views that McLuhan, too, found in Lodge:

A gentle wind stirred the leaves on the poplars, setting disks of shadow dancing over Hislop’s earnest face. “They were no different from men today,” he was saying. “Just as imaginative – as sensitive. There hasn’t been any advance in the things that count – not in generalization — it was all there with Plato — with Christ.”

Compare McLuhan in his University of Manitoba M.A. thesis on George Meredith from 1933/34, a time when he was working closely with Lodge:

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.

In his 1943 PhD thesis and 1945 ‘Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’, McLuhan went on to develop the notion further that there were “definite types of temperament displaying  consistency of conformation” in human experience “in all times and places”. This implicated the conclusions that the ancients “were no different from men today”; that they were “just as imaginative — as sensitive”; that “there hasn’t been any advance in the things that count”; that “it was all there with Plato — with Christ”.

Later in Who Has Seen the Wind, Hislop’s successor as the local minister, Mr Powelly, is interrogated with questions straight from Lodge:

Is yours the Utilitarian viewpoint —the greatest happiness for the greatest number? Is it Stoic — the smallest? Do you follow Plato? Aristotle? Which side of the fence are you on? The empirical? The ideal? Do you perhaps sit on the top of it as a dualist? [Or] do you [doubt4] that there is a continuous fence at all — pragmatist?  

Compare Lodge:

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. In the nature of the case, these directions are divergent. To take one pathway, of itself precludes taking either of the others. If any one pathway is right, then the others are certainly wrong. So much is clear. But is any pathway right, and, if so, which? How are we to tell?5

Mitchell’s wind that no one has seen was McLuhan’s Logos6, a force as operative with the Stoics in 300 BC, in his view, as with Christianity.7 

After he left Manitoba for Cambridge in 1934, McLuhan began to discount what he considered to be the Platonism of Lodge’s views, especially his view of religion. But McLuhan never gave up the ideas that history is not, or is not only, “lineal”, that human experience is structured by identifiable ever-repeated types and that the Logos was operative “in all times and places” in and across those types.

Could there be an external world if there wasn’t something of the stuff John Hislop was made of, already in that outer world?

  1. Mitchell’s title came from Christina Rossetti’s poem from Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (1872):
    Who has seen the wind?
    Neither I nor you.
    But when the leaves hang trembling,
    The wind is passing through.
    Who has seen the wind?
    Neither you nor I.
    But when the trees bow down their heads,
    The wind is passing by.
    In the novel the last lines of Rossetti’s poem are recited by three of its boys. But instead of ‘But when the trees bow down their heads/The wind is passing by’ the boys give ‘But when the trees bow down their heads/Nobody gives a damn’.
  2. For documentation and discussion, see W.O. Mitchell on Rupert Lodge.
  3. McLuhan wrote a paper for Lodge on ‘The Non-Being of Non-Being’ that he submitted to the University of Wisconsin in 1936 as part of his successful application for a teaching assistantship there. It is in his papers in Ottawa. Lodge regarded logic as integral to his comparative method: questions like the relation of self to non-self and of being to non-being served to expose the fundamental differences between irreducible philosophical positions or (as McLuhan put the point in his 1934 M.A. thesis specifically to include art along with philosophy) “definite types of temperament”.
  4. Mitchell: “feel”.
  5. See The Comparative Method of Rupert Lodge for discussion and reference.
  6. Often designated by McLuhan as ‘water’, which we human fish are the last to notice.
  7. For documentation, see Pre-Christian Logos.

McLuhan vs Richards, Transformation vs Transportation

I.A. Richards in the ‘Introduction’ to his 1950 translation of Homer’s Iliad:

I have been haunted by the engineer’s diagram of a communication system [from The Mathematical Theory of Communication by Claude E. Shannon and Warren Weaver, University of Illinois Press, 1949]:

Here Homer (…) is the information source. I (…) am the transmitter. I encode certain things my information source seems to give me in a signal which [is sent] through the printed pages that follow. You (…) are the receiver. You take in the marks on the paper which you recode again as sentences and hand on to the destination [= understanding the source]. (…) Further reflection on this diagram makes us aware that its great central gap [of noise] is repeated; that between the information source and the transmitter [on the left-hand side of the diagram], between the receiver and the destination [on the right], as between the transmitter and the receiver [in the middle], come the noises (…) It has been my hope that by a certain simplification imposed on what I took from Homer, [i.e.,] by a certain generality imposed upon my signal [in its  language], I might diminish these noises.

Compare McLuhan in his 1974 lecture ‘Living in an Acoustic World’:

my kind of study in communication is a study of transformation, whereas information theory and all the existing theories of communication that I know of are theories of transportation. All the official theories of communication studied in the schools of North America are theories of how you move data from point A to point B to point C with minimal distortion. That is not what I study at all. Information theory I understand and I use, but information theory is a theory of transportation, and it has nothing to do with the effects which these forms have on us. It’s like a railway train concerned with moving goods along a track. The track may be blocked, may be interfered with. The problem in the transportation theory of communication is to get the noise, get the interference off the track and let [the goods, aka the message] go through. Many educators think that the problem in education is just to get the information through, get it past the barrier, the opposition of the young, just to move it and keep it going. I don’t have much interest in that theory. My theory or concern is what these media do to the people who use them. What did writing do to the people who invented it and used it? What do the other media of our time do to the people who use them? Mine is a transformation theory, how people are changed by the instruments they employ. I wish there were a lot more people in this field of transformation, but there are extremely few, and I would be embarrassed to mention more than two or three.1 

  1. McLuhan’s lecture is available online:
    The ‘1970’ date in the URL is mistaken.

3 forms of Being in Havelock’s Crucifixion

McLuhan read Havelock’s Crucifixion of Intellectual Man soon after it was published in 1951.1

In it Havelock pointed to 3 forms which contest as an “ancient quarrel” in the human soul, in society and in all history. McLuhan described a similar contest of 3 ‘trivial’ forms in his 1943 Nashe thesis and continued to do so all his life as, eg, the ear versus the eye and their integration in the sensus communis. Or, in a variation which confusingly cut across the former, as the antithetical dualism of the eye and the integration of such dualism in the ear.

The notion of the 3 forms of Being is at least as old as Plato2 (and was arguably many millennia old even then3).  Neither Havelock not McLuhan originated the idea, no did either of them first find it in the other.

Here is Havelock in Crucifixion:

If Prometheus be the [1] intelligence of man, the enemy he confronts bears a close resemblance to that other spiritual force, man’s [2] will to power. It [intelligence] is an influence equally operative along with [2] technology and [3] philanthropy in the history of human societies. (58)

for the dramatist, this creed of [2] power and force [in Zeus] is [also] an element in man himself, which shares with his [1] intelligence the responsibility for making his history. It is consistent with this view of Zeus [as exemplifying power, but not only power] that Prometheus should be able to foresee a [3] reconciliation with his tormentor [Zeus]. In this he imaginatively recognizes the principle that is, historically speaking, his other half, and can look forward to the day when the two sides of man’s nature [1: intelligence and 2: power] will be [3] harmonized. (58-59)

while the [2] practical present which decides what we do, what we vote, what we say, is treated as one closed system, the past, [1] explored, analyzed, interpreted, is treated as another closed system, which can be abstractly related to ourselves without ever [3] interpenetrating us. (…) Does this suggest that [1] historical science is self-defeating? That the more we know, the more foolishly we act? The equation is not quite so frustrating as that, but its terms can be calculated only when we are prepared to revise our notions of what the [1] intelligence of man really is, what procedures activate his brain in [3] harmony with his [2] living pattern, and what do not. (74) 

Whether it be the Greek [1] intellect or the Semitic [1] soul that is offered up [to crucifixion], the enemy is still the [2] will to power, as it exists in all men. And the solution to the conflict is foreshadowed, by Greek as by Hebrew insight, as an act of [3] reconciliation. (108)

The crucifixion [of Prometheus and of the foresight he personifies] remains true in spirit to the tragic humanism of the Greeks. Though the task of intellect as such is utopian and clean-cut, in actual history no utopia is offered to man, but a prolonged historical agony4 which arises out of the  [3]  dialectic between  [1] science and [2] power. This becomes a discipline for man, the logic of which he cannot escape. For neither can his soul be satisfied with relationships of [2]  force, nor can it surely attain, as the nineteenth century thought it could, the relationships of freedom, grounded in a liberal mood of [1] scientific humanism. (…) But the [1]  Promethean in man [namely, intelligence and foresight] cannot die. Once he has learned to face his universe without delusions (…) he may discover [3] new resources of moral strength in and for himself. If he reinforce the [3] courage of his [1] intellect, he may yet achieve a better [3] reconciliation between his  [2] will to power and his [1] scientific vision. (108-109)

  1. For references and discussion, see McLuhan reading Havelock’s Crucifixion.
  2. See McLuhan and Plato 8 – Gigantomachia.
  3. See Assmann on the battle between Horus and Seth.
  4. Compare Richards on Mill and Coleridge: “What Mill says is still true (…) a person is either a (2) Materialist or an (1) Idealist. It may be argued that these two opposite-seeming types of outlook are (3) complementary to one another: that, in the history of thought they have been dependent upon one another so that the death of one would lead by inanition to the death of the other; that as expiration is only one phase in (3) breathing (out and in), so the two (Materialist and Idealist) philosophies in their endless antagonism are a necessary conjoint self-critical process.”

Richards’ existential demand

I.A. Richards’ materialism did not impress McLuhan when he began his study in the Cambridge English school in 1934.1

But he very much did agree with Richards on the demand for self-examination implicated in great criticism:

It comes to this : Coleridge’s criticism is of a kind that requires us, if we are to study it seriously, to reconsider our most fundamental conceptions, our conceptions of man’s being — [including2] the nature of his mind and its knowledge. It is a chief merit of Coleridge’s work that it forces us to do this and it is no defect that he forces us to do so more evidently than other critics. Our aim is to understand his opinions, if we can, and in so doing to understand our own. Whether we agree or not with them is, in comparison3, of no importance.4

  1. For discussion see On the “necessary conjoint” of Platonists and Aristotelians.
  2. Richards specifies the mental aspects of human being here because he read Coleridge as “an extreme Idealist”. For reference and discussion see On the “necessary conjoint” of Platonists and Aristotelians.
  3. Richard’s meaning here was clearly that agreement with an opinion was of little value “in comparison” to understanding it. But for McLuhan, with his background in Rupert Lodge’s ‘comparative method‘, Richard’s admonition might be taken in an additional sense: “Whether we agree or not with them is, in comparison (as practiced by Lodge), of no importance.”
  4.  Coleridge on Imagination, 19. Richards continued this passage: “This is not an easy aim,  and it will be well, before proceeding, to recall another sentence from Mill (from his 1840 essay on Coleridge): ‘Were we to search among men’s recorded thoughts for the choicest manifestations of human imbecility and prejudice, our specimens would be mostly taken from their opinions of the opinions of one another’.” It would be necessary, therefore, to proceed slowly and carefully in the formulation of opinions about Coleridge’s opinions.

On the “necessary conjoint” of Platonists and Aristotelians

In his 1934 University of Manitoba M.A. thesis on George Meredith, McLuhan, then 22, defined the problem to which he would dedicate himself for the rest of his life: 

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.

This was a topic — that “there are (…), in all times and places, definite types of temperament displaying consistency of conformation” — which McLuhan would develop at length ten years later in his 1943 Cambridge Ph.D. thesis on Thomas Nashe. In it he would characterize the three fundamental types of temperament as dialectic, rhetoric and grammar from the classical trivium and describe the “ancient quarrel” they enact “in all times and places”.1

These two theses were submitted for English degrees, but both reflected the deep influence of Rupert Lodge in the Manitoba philosophy department. Looking for a university teaching job before his last term in Cambridge, McLuhan wrote to E.K Brown, then the new chair of the Manitoba English Department, on  December 12, 1935:

I wish merely to introduce myself as one of the products of some of the leanest years of the Manitoba English Department. The last year was somewhat relieved by the presence of Dr. Wheeler2, but I had directed my energies to philosophy, and did my best work for Professor Lodge. (Letters 79) 

For the rest of his life McLuhan would gnaw away at the question of temperaments — aka media3 — which he located as much in “artistic expression” as in “the philosophizing of the Idealist and the Realist”.

In the fall of 1934, beginning his two years in Cambridge, McLuhan encountered closely comparable views to those set out in his Meredith thesis in the work of I.A. Richards. Richards’ Coleridge on Imagination was published that same year. In it, Richards cited John Stuart Mill from his 1840 essay on Coleridge:

Whoever could master the principles and combine the methods of both [Bentham and Coleridge] would possess the entire English philosophy of his age. Coleridge used to say that everyone is born either a Platonist or an Aristotelian: it may similarly be affirmed that every Englishman of the present day is by implication either a Benthamite or a Coleridgean; [that he or she] holds views of human affairs which can only be proved true on the principles either of Bentham or of Coleridge.

Richards elaborated on this passage as follows:

What Mill says is still true — though we might change the labels again and say, that a person is either a Materialist or an Idealist. It may be argued that these two opposite-seeming types of outlook are complementary to one another: that, in the history of thought they have been dependent upon one another so that the death of one would lead by inanition to the death of the other; that as expiration is only one phase in breathing, so the two [Materialist and Idealist] philosophies in their endless antagonism are a necessary conjoint self-critical process. (18-19)

McLuhan would have immediately recognized a familiar pattern here. For his mentor in Manitoba, Lodge, characterized his ‘comparative method’ as founded on the notion of three fundamental views of reality, Materialist (or Realist), Idealist and Pragmatist — with the latter being some kind of “conjoint” of the first two that would “avoid all [such] abstract and one-sided theorizings”:

How many philosophical alternatives are there? Theoretically it looks as though the number of -isms [realism, idealism, etc] might be infinite. (…) The history of such speculation, however, (…) indicates that philosophical theorizings (…) flow in one of three well-defined channels. (…) Realism interprets experience as a kind of being, idealism as a kind of knowing. It is easy to see that, as indicated, both realism and idealism are one-sided. Experience has been split up into two aspects, and then the whole has been interpreted exclusively in terms of one of its aspects. It is all nature, or all mind. The extreme forms of these views have always invited criticism. To interpret the whole in terms of one of its parts, whichever part we take as fundamental, can hardly be sound. Obviously the only sound method is to interpret the whole in terms of the whole. Consequently a third type of philosophy has tended to develop: a philosophy which tries to be true to experience, and to avoid all abstract and one-sided theorizings. This attempt at interpretation has taken many forms. One of the best known is called “pragmatism”.4

Remarkably, however, Richards’ development of this view was exactly contrary to Lodge’s ever-repeated admonition that “to interpret the whole in terms of one of its parts, whichever part we take as fundamental, can hardly be sound.” For he, Richards, unaccountably continued his observation here (“as expiration is only one phase in breathing [with inspiration], so the two philosophies in their endless antagonism are a necessar[ily] conjoint (…) process”) as follows:

But, since to hold neither [one of “these two opposite-seeming types of outlook”] is to have no view [at all] to offer, exposition requires a temporary choice between them. I write then as a Materialist trying to interpret before you the utterances of an extreme Idealist [Coleridge] and you, whatever you be by birth or training, Aristotelian or Platonist, Benthamite or Coleridgean, Materialist or Idealist, have to reinterpret my remarks again in your turn. (19)

Lodge denied in principle that such a choice was required in order to have an informed view. In fact his method was exactly to ‘mind the gap’ between equally valorized views in a fundamental pluralism where even a position attempting “to avoid all abstract and one-sided theorizings”, like “pragmatism”, was treated only as a view among other possible ones. As discussed further in Rupert Lodge: Synthesis or Comparison? the heart of Lodge’s method lay in this admonition:

Comparative philosophy preserves, in its original purity, each of the three schools. (…) Comparison is not synthesis. What it objects to is the negation of any school, whether by (…) external condemnation, or by some form of synthesis which would radically emasculate all three.5

In a January 18, 1935 letter, at the end of his first term in Cambridge, McLuhan complained to his mother about Richards’ materialism:

Richards is a humanist who regards all experience as relative to certain conditions of life. There are no permanent, ultimate, qualities such as Good, Love, Hope, etc., and yet he wishes to discover objective, ultimately permanent standards of criticism. He wants to discover those standards (what a hope!) in order to establish intellectualist culture as the only religion worthy [of] a rational being and in proportion to their taste for which all people are “full sensitive, harmonious personalities” or “disorganized, debased fragments of unrealized potentiality”. When I see how people swallow such ghastly atheistic nonsense, I could join a bomb-hurling society.6

But McLuhan’s problem was not only that Richards did not see with such paragons of his like Chesterton and Eliot how “a rational being” could and should hold to traditional religion. He objected at the same time that Richards had no account for the possibility of what Richards himself had described so well:

these two opposite-seeming types of outlook are complementary to one another (…) in the history of thought they have been dependent upon one another so that the death of one would lead by inanition to the death of the other (…) as expiration is only one phase in breathing [with inspiration], so the two philosophies in their endless antagonism are [just as much] a necessar[ily] conjoint (…) process.

Richards had no account for this complementarity in “the history of thought”, only for the “endless antagonism” somehow joined to it. For he argued that, whatever might be the silent possibility of complementarity in history, humans had no access to it — in their case “exposition requires a (…) choice” between “the two philosophies”. He saw no third possibility. If there were a “necessary conjoint (…) process” between the two that was omnipresent in history, like breathing in and breathing out, this was not a possibility a human being might activate individually. While history did not need to choose between them, or could not, humans apparently did. As a result, a gulf was opened between humans and their larger historical environment which McLuhan saw as deeply implicated in Richards’ irreligion.

In contrast to Richards’ twofold either-or which obligated a fundamental singularity, Lodge’s threefold ‘comparative method’ supplied a “complementary” ontology that was fully compatible with McLuhan’s religion. At the same time it provided a framework for historical, social, psychological — even media — analysis. Going far beyond Lodge, but decidedly in tune with his ‘comparative method’, McLuhan would work for the rest of his life to understand its vast implications.

Strangely, Richards himself seems to have well understood this thrust in McLuhan’s work.  In his 1967 book, So Much Nearer, he would write:

Principle [!] of Complementarity: This immensely important topic— publicized recently by Marshall McLuhan… (63)7



  1. The Nashe thesis covered the 2000 year period from 400 B.C to 1600 A.D. A paper published early in 1945, ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’ brought the narrative into the present. The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) then extended it backwards from 400 B.C. to the presocratics, Homer and the ancient near east.
  2.  Lloyd Wheeler was a junior member of the Manitoba English department and a good friend of McLuhan. The two remained in touch when McLuhan left Manitoba for Cambridge and it was Wheeler who helped McLuhan to his first teaching position at the University of Wisconsin, Wheeler’s alma mater.
  3. As indicated by McLuhan’s early statement that “in all times and places, definite types of temperament display consistency of conformation”, he never considered “types of temperament” as belonging to subjects; instead, subjects belonged to them. Similarly with media, in what is often styled McLuhan’s ‘technological determinism’. In both cases, McLuhan’s demand was that we come to understand just what temperaments/media are and how we come to embody them.
  4. See The Comparative Method of Rupert Lodge for references and discussion.
  5. ‘Synthesis or Comparison?’, The Journal of Philosophy, 35:16, 1938, 432-440, here 440.
  6.  Letters 50-51.
  7. In a letter to Richards dated July 12, 1968, McLuhan thanked Richards for mentioning his work in So Much Nearer and for the stimulation Richards had given him in Cambridge and “since”. For discussion, see McLuhan to Richards July 1968. Notably, McLuhan directly associated Richards and Coleridge, presumably via Coleridge on Imagination: “I owe you an enormous debt since Cambridge days. I also owe a great deal to S.T.C.”

Wakese 1: On the quintessential extraction of language

The style [of FW] is exploded blarney. (Wm Irwin Thompson)1

As cited in Ellmann’s 1959 biography of Joyce, Stefan Zweig recalled a conversation in which Joyce said:

I’d like a language that is above all languages…2

Joyce may have had in mind that he wanted to write in a language which would be elevated “above all languages”, like a god above the world. For he continued his observation: “a language to which all will do service”. But if he played with the sense of an elevated language in the phrase “above all” —  perhaps referencing the logos tradition for which “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” — he also and mainly wanted to write in a language which was “above all languages” in the sense of being a language which was somehow also, and fundamentally, plural languages

I’d like a language that is above all languages, a language to which all will do service.

He imagined a language that would first of all be “languages” as expressing what it was that enabled any language — to be language. Hence, as he further continued the passage:

I cannot express myself in English without enclosing myself in a tradition.3

The key problem here lay in the word ‘a’.  Against this, the language and tradition Joyce imagined would “above all”, first of all, be the essence of languages and traditions, plural.

Beckett put the point in reference to Work in Progress as follows:

This writing that you find so obscure is a quintessential extraction of language…4

The goal in Finnegans Wake was to write in a language which would expose the roots of all language(s), just as PIE (proto Indo-European) exposes the roots of its daughter languages from India to Ireland. Such a language would be made, dreamed up, as Volapük and Esperanto were, but it would not be rule-governed in their manner of transparently forming a kind of linguistic crystal palace. Instead it would be idiosyncratically particular and limitlessly associative in order to demonstrate the idiosyncratic particularity and limitless associativity of any and all language — which are somehow combined with a power to communicate.

It is just this combination of ineradicable particularity with communication that is the quintessence of language.

Thompson went on in his essay to opine that:

It is dubious whether [Joyce’s] symbolist technique compensates for the symbolic inadequacies of the work. The difficulty is that most of the references are not to experience (and therefore capable of exciting imaginative participation in the mind of the reader); they are [references] to other parts of the book, or to Joyce’s life.5

When an infant first learns to speak, or when humans first spoke, ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny, what “experience” could elicit “imaginative participation in the mind” of the speaker? What could be present at all other than the inexplicable self-reference of the speaker, of the speaker’s language and, indeed, of the hearer’s understanding? And yet — language speaks. 

In this early essay,6 Thompson seems to have confused grad school hermeneutics with language.7 But these are far from the same thing. Language, all language, is somehow deeper than the idiosyncratic particularity, limitless associativity and ineluctable self-reference that characterize it. Unlimited in its outward and inward expansiveness, inevitably particular as regards the speaker, the hearer and the words between them, language yet communicates at such a deep level that it can be learned. Its communication can be communicated — even to babes in arms and to the rudest of rude savages, like you and me.

  1.  W. I. Thompson, ‘The Language of Finnegans Wake‘, Sewanee Review, 72:1, 1964, 81.
  2.  Quoted in Thompson, ibid, 73, from Ellmann, 1959, 410. Joyce’s ambition to express himself in “a language that is above all languages, a language to which all will do service” was anticipated, somewhat, in a letter Coleridge wrote to Humphry Davy on February 3, 1801: “what my heart within me burns to do, that is, to concentre my free mind to the affinities of the feelings with words and ideas under the title of ‘Concerning Poetry, and the nature of the Pleasures derived from it’. I have faith that I do understand the subject, and I am sure that if I write what I ought to do on it, the work would supersede all the books of metaphysics, and all the books of morals too.” I.A. Richards discussed this letter in Coleridge on Imagination, a book that was published in the year McLuhan arrived in Cambridge to study with Richards in the Cambridge English school.
  3. Such constriction would be ‘anal-phabetic’ without, however, being ‘an-alphabetic’.
  4. ‘Dante…Bruno. Vico…Joyce’, in Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, 1929.
  5. ‘The Language of Finnegans Wake‘, 86.
  6. Thompson’s essay appeared in The Sewanee Review in 1964, twenty years after McLuhan began publishing essays there in 1944.
  7. Thompson was studying at Cornell at this time.  He obtained his M.A. and Ph.D. there in 1964 and 1966.

Bohm on times

In March 1984 a conference was held at the Claremont Center for Process Studies on ‘Physics and the Ultimate Significance of Time’. David Bohm’s reply to the papers of John Cobb and David Griffin treated time as times as follows:

the notion of an implicate order underlying [chronological] time is suggested by modern quantum mechanical field theory in several ways. In particular, the quantum mechanical behavior of the gravitational potential implies that neither the distinction between past and future nor that between cause and effect can be maintained unambiguously at distances as short as 10-33. So presumably there would be no objection to introducing “timelessness” at such short distances, since these may represent the shortest possible actual occasions. (…) Because of this, it is possible to establish a relationship between time and the timeless. (…) In this new approach, one no longer implies that the ordinary level of experience has no fundamental kind of significance, nor does one imply that the timeless or the eternal is the only basic reality. Rather, what is crucial is the relationship between the two. (In religious terms, this would be the relationship between what has been called the “secular” and what has been called the “sacred”.) The quantum theory as seen through the implicate order has given an important clue here, in that such a relationship is possible because [diachronic or chronological] explicate structures are seen to have [synchronic or ‘allatonce’] implicate counterparts. 
In establishing such a relationship, it is clear that eternity or the timeless should not be considered as [purely] absolute. Rather, one may think in terms of what may be called “relative eternity.” For example, a moment may have the quality of eternity and yet not cover the whole of reality in full detail. For example, it has been said that Mozart was able to perceive the whole of a composition in such a moment, which was then unfolded in time [first in its detailed composition and then in its performance] in all its detail. The proposal is that a similar relationship between time and the timeless may be universal and that we may see it in many areas of experience. Such a relationship may then be the very essence of what is to be meant by freedom and creativity.1


  1.  Physics and the Ultimate Significance of Time, ed David R Griffin, 1986, 174-175. For the implication of freedom and creativity with times see Bohm on percept and concept.

Heisenberg on possibility

In his 1958 lecture, ‘Planck’s discovery and the philosophical problems of atomic physics’,1 Heisenberg traces the quantum physics doctrine of probability waves back to Aristotle:

the essence of matter [concerns] (…) the Greek philosophers’ old question of how it is possible to reduce to simple principles the motley and manifold phenomena surrounding matter and thus make [those phenomena]2 intelligible.3

the work of Bohr, [Hans] Kramers and [John Clarke] Slater contained the decisive concept, that the laws of nature determine not the occurrence of an event, but the probability that an event will take place, and that the probability must be related to a wave field that obeys a mathematically formulable wave equation.
This was a decisive step away from classical physics; basically a concept that played an important part in Aristotle’s philosophy was used. The probability waves of Bohr, Kramers and Slater can be interpreted as a quantitative formulation of the concept of “possibility” in Aristotle’s philosophy, Greek dynamis (potentia in the later Latin version).4 The concept that events are not determined in a peremptory manner, but that the possibility or “tendency” for an event to take place has a kind of reality — a certain intermediate layer of reality, halfway between the massive reality of matter and the intellectual reality of the idea or the image — this concept plays a decisive role in Aristotle’s philosophy. In modern quantum theory this concept takes on a new form; it is formulated quantitatively as probability and subjected to mathematically expressible laws of nature. The laws of nature formulated in mathematical terms no longer determine the phenomena themselves, but the possibility of happening, the probability that something will happen. (16-17)

  1. Die Plancksche Entdeckung und die philosophischen Probleme der Atomphysik’, lecture from the 13th conference of the Rencontres Internationales de Genève, September 4, 1958. Translation in On Modern Physics, 1962, 9-28.
  2. Translation: ‘them’.
  3. The circularity implicated in this passage is highly important to note. The Aristotelian tradition maintained that the answer to the question, ‘how it is possible to reduce to simple principles the motley and manifold phenomena surrounding matter and thus make them intelligible’, was to appeal to the range of possibilities underlying those phenomena. But how is it possible to access possibilities without already having done so? without having activated that possibility from the range of available possibilities that first gives access to that range?
  4. The translation reads: “interpreted as a quantitative formulation of the concept of dynamis, “possibility”, or in the later Latin version, potentia, in Aristotle’s philosophy.”

Heisenberg on ‘an ancient quarrel’

In his PhD thesis from the early 1940’s, The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time, McLuhan formulated the notion of “an ancient quarrel” which had played out in European cultural history over the two millennia between classical Athens and the end of the Elizabethan era. This ‘quarrel’ was depicted as arising between the three disciplines of the trivium: rhetoric, grammar and dialectic. In his paper from 1945, ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’, McLuhan then extended this description over the succeeding 400 years into our own time.

McLuhan’s three ‘trivial’ types1 were isomorphic with materialism (rhetoric), idealism (dialectic) and the interplay of these two (grammar). And like materialism and idealism, McLuhan’s forms were treated as fundamental types of reality — as ontologies.

Werner Heisenberg described a similar “ancient quarrel” which had been reborn in contemporary quantum physics:2

our purpose [in quantum physics] today is to solve problems that have faced humanity for a very long time [such] that the theoretical work of our era is related to the efforts undertaken by mankind3 thousands of years ago. (9)

It is remarkable that this old question of materialism and idealism [and of “a certain intermediate layer of reality, halfway between the massive reality of matter and the intellectual reality of the idea”]4 has again been raised in a very definite form by modern atomic physics and particularly by the quantum theory. (12)

the possibility or “tendency” for an event to take place has a kind of reality — a certain intermediate layer of reality, halfway between the massive reality of matter and the intellectual reality of the idea (16)

the science of nature does not deal with nature itself but in fact with the science of nature as mankind thinks and describes itThis does not introduce an element of subjectivity into natural science. We do not by any means pretend that occurrences in the universe depend on our observations, but we point out that natural science stands between nature and mankind (20)

It seems to me fascinating to think that there is today a struggle in the most diverse countries of the world and with the most powerful means5 at the disposal of modern technology to solve together problems posed two and a half millennia ago by the Greek philosophers (27-28)

  1. See McLuhan’s ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’ (1953).
  2. The cited passages are all from ‘Die Plancksche Entdeckung und die philosophischen Probleme der Atomphysik’, lecture from the 13th conference of the Rencontres Internationales de Genève, September 4, 1958. Translation in On Modern Physics, 1962 as ‘Planck’s discovery and the philosophical problems of atomic physics’.
  3. ‘Man’ in the translation of Heisenberg’s essay has been changed to ‘mankind’ throughout.
  4. See the next passage from p 16.
  5. Plato was clear in his depiction of the gigantomachia (Sophist 246-249) that the unending struggle of gigantic first principles in their gigantic differences with one another is the most gigantic of all disputes.

Ontology and physics

Machiavelli stands at the gate of the modern age, divorcing technique from social purpose. (The Mechanical Bride, 87)

The interrelation (or ratio) of ontology and physics may be imagined along a spectrum with the two as the extreme poles at its ends.  On one extreme, only ontology and no physics; at the other, only physics and no ontology. Along the spectrum between the two extremes towards its midpoint, the ratio of the two would represent decreasing exclusive emphasis until, at the midpoint, the two would be equally weighted. 

Between the extreme ontology end of the spectrum and its middle, the ratio between ontology and physics would always be weighted to ontology but, as the midpoint were approached, with decreasing relative importance accorded to ontology and increasing relative importance to physics . The physics side would exhibit the same configuration in reverse, with the ratio between the two always weighted to physics but tending to balance with ontology towards the middle of the spectrum.

Historically, it would seem that most societies have located themselves close to the ontology end of the range. Although it is probably impossible to have no inkling of physics (since a practical understanding of it is implicated in tasks like cooking), the overwhelming majority of societies have not attempted to develop a knowledge of physics independent of such practical activities and of their cultural tradition. In the history of mankind, the dominance of ontology over physics  has been by far the usual case.

Only in what is styled as ‘western civilization’ has the notion of a physics that would be independent of ontology taken root (from the seed of the ‘Greek miracle’) and then developed chiefly after Copernicus (1473–1543) and, not incidentally, his close contemporary, Luther (1483–1546). Copernicus himself (like many of his relatives) took orders in the church and may have been a priest (so the relative weight of ontology was preserved in his family and person).

With Galileo (1564-1642), a century later, and Newton (1642–1726)1, a century after that, the mutual implication of ontology and physics remained as something desirable, but not such that ontology was allowed to influence research in physics. Far rather, especially to be seen in Newton’s alchemy and religious writings, the hope was to develop or uncover a new formulation of ontology, using an analogous sort of scientific investigation to that of physics. Only gradually in the following two centuries did the notion arise that ontology was nothing but a hindrance to the proper discipline of science. What is called ‘the death of God’ is the sociological fact that all the tasks of life, and especially science, come to be practised with the explicit rejection of even the possibility of ontological input.

Now in the 21st century, this sociological and methodological fact appears to have led into a cul de sac. Problems at the individual and social level, exacerbated by discoveries in science, threaten to overwhelm civilization and even the biosphere itself.  And even in science, it may be that problems particularly in quantum physics cannot be solved absent a renewed consideration of ontology (dual genitive!).

Kurt Riezler (in Physics and Reality) and David Bohm with Basil Hiley (especially in The Undivided Universe: An Ontological Interpretation of Quantum Theory) have raised this possibility explicitly.  While their particular suggestions must of course be subject to rigorous testing, the idea that physics may be informed by ontology has a number of appeals.

In the first place, if humans were to have the possibility of ontological knowledge, physics (like any area of human life) could only gain by including input from it in its work. Werner Heisenberg has put the point as follows: “the physicist, too, can observe certain governing principles [= ontological principles] that allow a valuable insight into present problems”.2 

Secondly, and more importantly, if physics can genuinely (ie, demonstrably) be aided or even guided by ontology, this would constitute a new way to formulate ontology and, therefore, a new way to understand the relation of human beings to it. The bubble of nihilism would be popped. If Riezler (1882-1955), McLuhan (1911-1980) and Bohm (1917-1993) were correct, such a scientific formulation of ontology may represent the one way out of the potentially fatal problems in which the planet is currently ensnared.

  1. These are the old style dates of Newton’s birth and death. In the new style, 1643-1727.
  2. ‘Planck’s discovery and the philosophical problems of atomic physics’, 1958, in On Modern Physics, 1962, p 9. For further discussion see Heisenberg on ‘an ancient quarrel’ and Heisenberg on possibility. The translation of Heisenberg’s remarks has been slightly altered from “the physicist, too, can observe certain governing principles (= ontological principles) that allow him a valuable insight into his own present problems.”

Bohm and Hiley on “active information”

McLuhan was greatly struck by an observation in Norbert Wiener’s 1950 The Human Use Of Human Beings  concerning “the electron valve “:

it is no longer necessary to control a process at high energy-levels by a mechanism in which the important details of control are carried out at these levels. (173)

He had read Wiener’s book soon after it was published and then immediately wrote to Wiener relating this observation to his own field of English literature:

Your account of the uses of the vacuum tube in heavy industry is an exact description of the poetic techniques of Joyce and Eliot in constructing their works. Their use of allusion as situational analogy effects an enormous amplification of power from small units, at the same time that it permits an unrivalled precision. (McLuhan to Norbert Wiener, March 28, 1951, Norbert Wiener Papers M.I.T.)

In essays from the early 1950s1 McLuhan went on to specify further both how “a tiny amount of energy can be exactly controlled or stepped up instantly to very high potentials”2 and how this principle applied to language and communication in general. Wiener had traced the idea back to Edison3, but for McLuhan it could be seen at work throughout “the whole history of culture”:

When current is too weak for direct flow, it can, in a vacuum tube, be used as signal voltage on the grid of the tube. Then every variation in the shape of the wave will be faithfully reproduced in the output wave of the tube. Thus a tiny amount of energy can be exactly controlled or stepped up instantly to very high potentials. Now metaphor has always had the character of the cathode-anode circuit, and the human ear has always been a grid, mesh, or, as Joyce calls it in Finnegans Wake, Earwicker. But Joyce was the first artist to make these aspects of language and communication explicit. In so doing, he applied the principles of electronics to the whole history of culture.2

The central point was that control of an electric circuit or of sense requires a break through a repurposing takes place. As McLuhan would later put it: “the gap is where the action is”.

With electronification the flow is taken out of the wire and into the vacuum tube circuit, which confers freedom and flexibility such as are in metaphor and in words themselves.5

Such a break in flow occurs in all language and communication:

Metaphor means a carrying across. All speech is metaphoric because any oral sound is a gesture towards externalizing an inner gesture of the mind. (…) [Likewise] writing is metaphor for sound. It translates, or metamorphizes the audible into the visual. There is necessarily discontinuity in metaphor. There has to be a leap from one situation to another. (‘Radio and Television vs. The ABCED-Minded’, Explorations 5, 1955) 

Now Bohm and Hiley offer comparable considerations of what they call “active information” in The Undivided Universe:6

  • new properties of matter (…) are revealed by the quantum theory. The first of these new properties can be seen by noting that the quantum potential is not changed when we multiply the field ψ by an arbitrary constant.(…) This means that the effect of the quantum potential is independent of the strength (i.e. the intensity) of the quantum field but depends only on its form.
  • consider a ship on automatic pilot being guided by radio waves. Here, too, the effect of the radio waves is independent of their intensity and depends only on their form. The essential point is that the ship is moving with its own energy, and that the form of the radio waves is taken up to direct the much greater energy of the ship.
  • The basic idea of active information is that a form having very little energy enters into and directs a much greater energy. The activity of the latter is in this way given a form similar to that of the smaller energy.
  • consider a radio wave whose form carries a signal. The sound energy we hear in the radio does not come directly from the radio wave itself which is too weak to be detected by our senses. It comes from the power plug or batteries which provide an essentially unformed energy that can be given form (i.e. in-formed) by the pattern carried by the radio wave. This process is evidently entirely objective and has nothing to do with our knowing the details of how this happens. The information in the radio wave is potentially active everywhere, but it is actually active, only where and when it can give form to the electrical energy which, in this case, is in the radio.
  • in the process of cell growth it is only the form of the DNA molecule that counts, while the energy is supplied by the rest of the cell (and indeed ultimately by the environment as a whole). Moreover, at any moment, only a part of the DNA molecule is being ‘read’ and giving rise to activity. The rest is potentially active and may become actually active according to the total situation in which the cell finds itself. While we are bringing out (…) the objective aspects of [active] information, we do not intend to deny its importance in subjective human experience. [On the contrary]7, we wish to point out that even in this domain, the notion of active information still applies.
  • it seems that the general idea of something like active information is (…) needed for an ontological explanation of quantum theory.
  • The wave function is defined in the configuration space of all the particles. (…) Information is ordered in the configuration space rather than in the ordinary space of three dimensions.  The fact that the wave function is in configuration space implies that we have to look more carefully into the meaning of active information in such a context. First of all we may consider its implications for all the motions of the particles. These now respond in a correlated way to what is, in effect, a common pool of information. 

“Configuration space” considered as “a common pool of information” and as differentiated from three dimensional space is closely related to Bohm’s notion of the “implicate order” of possibility.8



  1.  Documented in Poetry as circuit control.
  2.  ‘Radio and Television vs. The ABCED-Minded’,  Explorations 5, 1955.
  3. The Human Use Of Human Beings: “The most flexible universal apparatus for amplifying small energy-levels into high energy-levels is the vacuum tube, or electron valve. The history of this is interesting, though it is too complex for us to discuss here. It is however amusing to reflect that the invention of the electron valve originated in Edison’s greatest scientific discovery and perhaps the only one which he did not capitalize into an invention.” (173)
  4.  ‘Radio and Television vs. The ABCED-Minded’,  Explorations 5, 1955.
  5. Historical Approach to the Media, 1955.
  6. The selections here are from The Undivided Universe, sections 3.2, 3.3 and 3.4.
  7. Bohm and Hiley: “however”.
  8. For further discussion of this important jigsaw piece, see The keyboards of existenceBohm on the spacetimes of consciousness  and Riezler on possibility.

Riezler on possibility

Kurt Riezler’s considerations of ontology and of possibility are closely bound together. He conceives of Being as the urge to realize particular form from out of the range of possible forms: “Being is intrinsically mobile”. It is this dynamic urge that is fundamental to all movement, especially the movement of creative insight.1 For this is insight which is creative just to the extent that it aligns itself, knowingly or not, with the prior urge of Being itself. Both are essentially unmotivated by anything prior to them.2

The selections below are from Riezler’s 1940 Physics and Reality  In them Riezler speaks in the name of Aristotle to modern physicists.3 The selections are given here in the order in which they appear in Riezler’s text.

Being is intrinsically mobile, changing. What does that mean?

Before we attempt an answer [to the question of Being and its mobility], we shall have to agree upon the meaning of the [word] ‘is’.4 Perhaps here at the very beginning lies the source of our dissension. Your meaning of this ‘is’ may not be mine, mine not yours. If I am not mistaken you recognize only one possible meaning of that ‘is’.

I see, however, discontent and resistance in your faces. I can guess what annoys you — that dangerous word ‘is’. You fear to get entangled with its secret. You have worked out a thesis intended to elude it. You do not want to (…) hear that this ‘is’ is doubtful.

You admit perceptions only if they can be confirmed by any possible perceiver. [But] you eliminate the particular individuality of the perceiving subject. You have taken great pains to cast out the individual. You assume one ever present anonymous observer [as] the [only] possible observer. Statements relative to him are for you ‘objective’ statements about reality. By such statements you establish your order of nature. You have, as a consequence of this assumption5, no right to pretend that you coordinate a totality of all possible or real perceptions with your model of nature [or] that your design of this model is confirmed by the totality of your perceptions. You have made a selection [from the range of possible perceptions and perceivers] and a very narrow one at that.

You have not eliminated the subject; you have eliminated merely the individual differences [of subjects] in favor of an [undifferentiated] anonymous subject (…) an odd creature, a robot without blood and heart, whose only being consists in reading numbers from the pointers of your instruments.  Your ‘objective’ reality is merely an (…) order relative to this robot observer. All that is not measurement is closed to him. Your most intimate and impressive experiences mean nothing to him. He has no part in the colorful fullness of Being.

So your objective world has become a strange world relative to a strange observer.

Everything [in your view] is unequivocally determined — [your] Real is the only Possible [one] and the [only] Necessary [one]. There is [for you] only one modality of Being.

Where is your criterion (…) that permits one world line and forbids another (…)? You have no such criteria.

Let us look at the relation between [your] kind of causality and the principium rationis. This causality [of yours] presupposes an axiomatic order that underlies the successions [you posit] in time and is built in a very particular way. From this (…) follows the causal relation [you investigate] between events or states. Thus [your] law of causality presupposes a specific axiomatic system. [But we] may deny6 this specific order and yet maintain the principium rationis. If there are other axiomatic systems able to cover the order of physical happenings the law of causality [you posit] would have to give way to another kind of determination. The principium rationis would not be shattered. 

In every moment the possibility of motion, even if not actualized, is present, inherent in your reality, as something lacking.7

Between moving and being moved, between the possibility and actuality of either, life is suspended. The absent mode is silently present as danger or as need. In the interplay of all these modes of motion you have your life — in their concordance, tension, disunity. All these emotions are knotted together. By their being so knotted they and you are concrete.

Instead of [merely] consulting your [set] scheme of nature [objectively] (…) question your own reality in your actions: your own selves as possibility are the ‘Whence’ [of] yourselves as actuality, the ‘Whither’ of your actions.8  The Whence and the Whither are different modalities of Being. The two modes are interconnected in a unity that is not to be divided. In between the two you are at every moment of your life. You are both. You are what you  are able to be.9 Your potentialities, even if not actualized now or ever, are nonetheless part of you. From your potentiality you reach out toward your actuality; from your actuality you are bent back to your potentiality. That is the to and fro motion and tension ever present, at every moment. When we pose the one without the other we disrupt the living reality. 

Your actuality at any given time is real in its relation to your potential actions10, all your possibilities being mutely present. But this potential Being is diversely articulated: [its range includes all] the possibilities of your own selves (…) and [all] the possibilities of the external world constituting11 your environment. One might say: internal and external  possibility. They too are interrelated. They move between harmony and discord. (…)  We have to consider the logos that conjoins them. You cannot comprehend one of its members by tearing it from the others. The detached part would cease to be. The parts exist only as a whole articulated within itself, only together. Each is silently present in the others.

Being is nothing without a world in which it is actualized,  vain is a world that does not reveal Being.

We can say that living beings are always ‘on the way’ from a Whence to a Whither — and that not because Time goes on. Forget Time for a while. In acting and being acted on this ‘being on the way’ has a different meaning. In pure acting the self-constituent being is ‘on the way’ from itself to itself, from its innermost potentiality to the actualization of this potentiality (…) In pure acting the Whence of Motion is somewhat like your inner nature, the Whither somewhat like its fulfilment. In my terminology the Whence is dynamis, the Whither the energeia of this dynamis. This motion is self-movement. It is the joy of all your joy. 

Measured and judged by that self~movement, undergoing action means to be moved. But we are finite beings. Pure acting is not our lot. In undergoing action we move not from ourselves to ourselves, but from one something to another something, neither of which is entirely ‘we’. We are acted on in so far as we are moved aside from the way we are on; in our acting, we are [at once] deprived of our possibilities [and] our actualities are stunted and shattered. Thus I say: in acting and being acted on the Whence and the Whither are not the same Whence and Whither. In acting they are yours, in being acted on they are not. But keep in mind that both acting and being acted on are only modes of one and the same Being, that we are always on both [these] ways. We are able to act only because we are beings who are acted on. And we are acted on only as beings able to act.

All (…) your actions imply undergoing action. Suffering may even be the larger part of your acting.

When our acting is pure acting, which it never is, we move from a potential self to an actual self. This is one of the two modes of our ‘being on the way’. We are all at every moment ‘in between’ our potentiality and our actuality. Do not, please, think of these two termini of our acting as cause and effect, or apply Time to them. (…) Put your mind on the  logical structure linking the two terms together in yourselves so that each is the one of the other. If the first term, the Whence, appears to be prior to the Whither, it is certainly not prior in Time, as is cause to effect. Its priority, if there is priority, is by nature not by time. 

In this reading the two terms [potentiality and actuality, dynamis and energeia] would be related as ‘reason’ to ‘consequence’. (…) This ‘reason’ is, as it were, the soil, the
ground, out of which the action grows. It is ratio essendiDisregard your ratio cognoscendi.

From Sappho come forth sweet sounds. Only in singing is Sappho what she is; her own actuality. Sappho silent, the potential singer, is not yet quite what she is: the fullness of her Being. Or better still, consider her language. This language, as [the] pure potentiality of singing, certainly is and [yet] is not [yet] something real. Only in singing does it become wholly itself, its very own reality become sure of itself and enjoying being real. Potentiality thirsts for actuality [= “Being is intrinsically mobile”]. Language wants to be spoken, to sound, Sappho wants to sing.

Sappho’s singing will make clearer what I mean when I speak of pure action: the actualizing of Sappho’s inner nature, passing from potentiality to actuality. In her singing Sappho moves herself, from herself to herself. In this kind of motion singing, not the song, is the Whither, the end.

Consider the kind of Being you must attribute to your language, when you are not actually speaking it. It exists in that mode of Being I call possibility. The essence of language is that it can be spoken. But language is not a mere sum of possible utterances, of vocabulary, and grammar. It is all [an] organized whole, a system, embracing an immensity of possible phrases, styles, all manner of good and bad speaking. This mode of Being, I confess, is not altogether easy to grasp. In its innermost life language seems to be animated and governed by something you call its spirit, a thing to be neither denied nor understood clearly. As beings capable of speech you can conceive of yourselves as being ‘in’ your language as in a field of possibilities. You yourselves are this field. Its inner life, its hidden spirit is part of you. When you speak you pass from possibility to actuality. You actualize the language and yourselves. 

The basis of what you call your inner nature, your Whence, is such a field of possibilities. A field of possibilities is a kind of axiomatic system, like one of your spaces, the three dimensional space of Euclid, for instance. The axioms govern the figures that can be actualized in such a space. In the same way the immanent axioms — which, taken together, are what [one may]12 call the spirit of your language — rule your speech. Of course you do not know these axioms of your inner nature; they remain secluded. They limit your possibilities; they also guide your actualizing. You may again note for later, that a moment ago I used the term ‘space’, [but this is] not yet your space of the order of the Many…

This field of possibilities has nothing to do with your electrodynamic and gravitational fields. We are dealing with something far more fundamental. In your view of reality there is no such thing as a field of possibilities or even possibility at all. You deal with actualities after having deprived reality of its reach into the realm of the possible. But the possible too is real in its way.

When you regard your inner nature you will recognize that something like a field of possibilities is part of your reality and that this field is endowed with a dynamic force. You yourselves as [related to] such a field are a ‘dynamic agens‘. There is something urging you from possibility into actuality. This very urge is the lifeblood of your existence.

Before leaving [discussion of] the Whence I should mention that it has to do with what I called matter. Matter is potentiality. It is not your matter.

Applying the concept or the Whence as a field of possibilities to our being among others in a common world we may say that your inner nature as a field of possibilities governed by an unseen system of laws or norms or axioms or codes, and endowed with that dynamic urge for actuality, is merely a field in a field or [a] space in space. (…) Your individual field of possibilities stands in a more general space, common to you and to others. You may think of this general space too as governed by laws, ordered by axioms valid for you as well as for others. There may even be, as in your geometry, a hierarchy of spaces of increasing generality leading to the odd conception of the still undetermined space of unlimited possibility, which awaits fashioning: a receptacle of axioms. That I call ultimate matter, but I do not mean your matter. It is this space Plato speaks of in the Timaeus

In this general space, which is neither your space nor your matter, you and the others-to-you are begotten. The  different individual fields are not side by side, unconnected.  They are in a more general field. It is in this field that you actualize yourselves as individual fields, and so do the others. Thus your moving changes the fields of the others [and] their moving changes yours. Referring to your possibilities you must distinguish between an inner and an outer possibility, the first expressing your inner nature, the other representing the situation that permits you to do A and restrains you from doing B.

Pure possibility is an abstraction. Possibility is nothing in itself. It is what it is through its relation to actuality. Your possibility is a momentum of your reality.

Your present individual actuality (…) may be [conceived as] your possibility actualized at the moment. It is by no means all your possibilities or the best. It is never quite your own. In this present actuality you ‘are’ all you are [currently] capable of, [but at the same time] you ‘are’ somehow [also] your not yet actualized possibilities. At any moment you may be said to be acting in so far as you move from yourselves to yourselves, actualizing and continuing to actualize your innermost possibility [from the range of possibilities]. Acting you enjoy your own selves — and the world.

Your potential being holds more than one actuality. Choosing means a movement from more than one to one.

To you [modern physicists] possibilities are not real. An observer who happened to be of your cast of mind would insist that the actuality expanded in actual space-time is the whole of reality. He would try desperately to connect the actualities located at different points of this space-time by means of your straight-line causality.

[We] move from the possible to the actual within the range of [our] possibilities, actualizing one of them, be it germane or more remote. In their action these two modes of being on the way [from the the possible to the actual and between actualities] are intermeshed.

The movement from actuality to actuality includes another movement from the potential to the actual. (…) This beginning [in the potential] and this end [in the actual], the Whence and the Whither of acting, are not separated by a stretch of time. They must be thought of as synchronous.

Your world is the plane of actuality. Your laws relate  actualities to one another. They are verified by experience in a stratum detached by the anonymous observer from the totality of phenomena. (…) But the plane of actuality is not the entire body of reality. Reality embraces both actuality and potentiality; the surface and the depth, in which the [identities we experience] are engendered [and] from which they strive to emerge. These [identities], called substances, relate [potentiality to actuality and] actuality to potentiality.  At every moment they are in between the concord and discord [of potentiality and actuality]. They move and are moved, act and are acted on.

There is only one foundation. Possibilities progress to  actuality. This is the primary movement.

The past is the actualized part of possibilities, the future the part waiting to be actualized. The past ever increases, the future decreases. It is beyond your power to change the past, an absolute impotence; you may be able13 to change the future, a relative weakness [but also a relative potency].

A certain movement is concealed that connects not only present with past and future actualities but also your potentiality with your actuality. In remembering you do not merely go back to past actualities. You remember what you were from the beginning, your potentiality, your inner nature with its secret rules and tendencies. The learning child remembers what he never knew. That is Plato’s Anamnesis. [When] you go back to the ‘Whence’ of your acting in every moment you are fully alive; when not, you lose yourselves.

You will never be able to comprehend the concrete interplay of past and future by merely connecting past and future as parts of your straight-line time of actualities. You must draw in possibility. Then you transcend your concept of time as a line of now points, to each of which belongs a given actuality.

Differentiate actual fields and fields of possibility, which are [fundamentally to be distinguished but are] related to each other. Perhaps that would help physics too and make it easier for you to deal with matter.

When you take hold of Matter — a bit of Matter here and now — it becomes to you nothing but a physical field of force. Thinking about the physical field of force and its changes you feel you need something that produces and agitates such a field: Matter reappears as a ‘dynamic agent’. So you endow Matter with a kind of double nature. In that you are right. But note: this double nature is not contradictory, nor is it something to get free from. The doubleness is unity, articulated within itself. The field of force is the present actuality of a field of possibilities which strive to actualize themselves. That is ‘matter’.

  1. ‘The movement of creative insight’ — a dual genitive!
  2. See Bohm on making and matching.
  3. Occasionally clarifications of Riezler’s words have been inserted — his English was very good, but it was not his mother tongue. The first word of a selection has sometimes been capitalized where it is not capitalized in the original. Reference page numbers have been omitted since the book is very short (121 pages) and several of the formats of the book available at the Internet Archive are searchable. Finding the original passages is very easy at the Archive site or by downloading the book in one of the searchable formats.
  4. Riezler: “We shall have to agree, before we attempt an answer, upon the meaning of the ‘is’.”
  5. Instead of ‘as a consequence of this assumption’, Riezler has ‘then’.
  6. Riezler: ‘You may deny’.
  7. Something lacking: Aristotle’s steresis (στέρησις).
  8. The two instances of ‘actions’ in this sentence have been substituted for Riezler’s ‘acting’.
  9. Instead of ‘what you are able to be’, Riezler has ‘what you are able to do’.
  10. Riezler has ‘acting’ here, not ‘actions’.
  11. Riezler: ‘concerning’.
  12. Riezler: ‘you’.
  13. Riezler: ‘unable’.

Riezler on ontology

Kurt Riezler was Kurator (regent) and professor of philosophy at the University of Frankfurt from 1928 to 1933, where he assembled an outstanding faculty including Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Max Wertheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Karl Mannheim, Paul Tillich and others. Riezler attempted to recruit Heidegger as well and although he did not succeed, the two became good enough friends that Heidegger stayed with Riezler when he visited Frankfurt.

As seen in his 1940 Physics and Reality lectures, given in New York after Riezler’s emigration from Germany, he was greatly influenced by Heidegger’s appeal to a renewed consideration of Being and to do so especially with Aristotle. Indeed, in these lectures, Riezler spoke in the name of Aristotle.  First person constructions in the selections below therefore relate to the Stagirite, while second person constructions refer to contemporary physicists.

The nature you talk about as scientists is not the nature you mean when you say ‘l am’. Nature is one, immutable,  eternally varying — the way of Being in all beings, revealed as eternal movement, formation, deformation, and transformation. You yourselves, [with] your desire for knowledge, you are Nature. And yet you have opened between your comprehension of yourselves and your knowledge of Nature a chasm that engulfs in darkness your common being.  

You cannot (…) find the way back to the unity of Being, to that one Nature in which you are kin to all beings, the eternally equal, which, imperturbable, conceals and reveals itself in all that is

You dispense with ‘is’.

A statistical law does not state anything about the nature of elementary events. It is from their inherent nature, preliminary to all aggregates, that the arrow of Time springs. Here must be its source. This source you cannot find.

The answer the world gives to your way of questioning is an order of [instrumental] pointer readings. (…) This answer is an answer neither of the world nor of your own Being. You can make it pass neither as one nor the other. You have not examined the ‘Being’ of the subject. Maybe from its knowledge of its own Being the subject would have given [and been given] an entirely different answer. [But] you have lost the ability to inquire in that way: you no longer even know that such a way of inquiry is possible and still less that you could obtain an objective answer to such questions. 

You know and accomplish a great deal, yet you have no picture of Nature, no total design of Being. 

You have cut science into parts. I am aghast, seeing that in your hands the specialization of sciences has resulted in dissecting the world into many worlds. I cannot make myself believe that this satisfies you. The world is one. Nature is one. One tie links all Being. That uniting logos of Being must be unearthed. My name for this task, ontology, has acquired ill fame. But what’s in a name? The task remains — soluble or not — yours [today] as [much as] it was mine [yesterday].

Thought, even when proceeding  without contradiction, remains empty unless it refers to Being. We must question Reality and listen patiently to what it condescends to tell us.

The logos of Being revealed in you and in the world surrounding you — that is the kind of knowledge Man by his very nature longs for.

In putting this question you must step back1 — far, perhaps so far as to revise the meaning of the’ is’ in your questions. 

I must go behind your very first assumptions. I return to the meaning of the tiny word ‘is’.

There is in your subjectivity an objective reality by virtue of which you ‘are’. That is what I am speaking of. It is the soil all beings are rooted in.

I court Being in this sense. On this quest you must not start from an order of the Many in space and time. 

The inward denseness, not the outward breadth, has to be grasped. What l am searching for I call ‘Being’, concreteness, [the] Being of beings so far as they ‘are’

Empty is this cosmos and all within it futile unless it is founded in this Being of Being. 

Only the whole ‘is’. In this whole the inner density of Being resides. 

My master and friend, Plato, said: all Nature is ‘born together’ [Menon 81d]. This statement, interpreted as a statement about the order of the cosmos, would mean: all the different beings that exist — stones, animals, plants, stars — were born together.2 That is not the primary sense of Plato’s words. Not the Many, distributed in time and space, were born together, but that logos by virtue of which every one of these Many has its being is a unity of ‘momenta’ that are born together.3 The body of this unity cannot be disjointed. Physis means the nature of Being qua Being. This nature is the same in all beings that ‘are’.

It is not the Many of the world ordered in space and time, but the oneness of Being folded within itself. It is this One that needs to be inquired into and comprehended before the Many can be brought into an order.

You must seek in a quite unaccustomed way. Nature is one. The little word ‘is’ [here] has a double meaning. Corresponding to this double meaning are two senses of the word ‘nature’. First yours: the order of the Many in time and space, Nature as world. Then mine: nature as  ‘Physis‘, the structure of concreteness so far as the concrete is concrete; Nature as Being.

Nature as world is ‘given’ as a compound of phenomena in the breadth of space and in the length of time. Nature as Physis is revealed to you in yourselves as [the] inner density of your existing, as [the] substantiality of your Being. Either is [= ‘can be’] experience. To each kind of experience corresponds a way of putting questions: To the first, the question concerning the order of the Many, the frame of this order, the relations connecting the Many, the laws governing these relations. To the second corresponds another way of questioning: inquiry into ‘Being as far as it is’, into that logos and that community of momenta in which reality is really real. To me the second question is the one to be put first. You lost sight of this question when you separated subject and object. Thus the double meaning of ‘is’ cleaves in two the meaning of the word ‘nature’, of experience, the framing of the question, the logos of an answer, and [of all] knowledge. And yet Nature is one in both senses of ‘is’, in both kinds of revelation, in both ways of putting questions. This unity is Nature’s own secret. To distinguish the two senses is not a whimsy of human thought and speech; the realness of reality imposes it. A Mystery divides and unites the two. It will not do to put the one question without also putting the other.

Being is nothing without a world in which it is actualized, vain is a world that does not reveal Being. Either reading of Nature remains devoid of meaning without the other. Only in each other ‘are’ they both. 

Being is a logical unity, the unity of a structure. (…) Each [particular one] is a One, however, not only by virtue of being countable as one but by that very unity of modes united in a logos whose wholeness is antecedent to its articulations.

Nature antecedes your separating subject and object. She embraces both. Their correlation is what is ‘given’ first. If you separate the two and break their unity she will elude you.

You receive reality from others as well as give it to others. In give and take, in to and fro, in the concord and discord of both, has your Being the wholeness of Being.

In between all these momenta, in their unity, tension, conflict, Substance ‘is’ and confers Being on things through relating them to itself. 

The order of the Many, called ‘world’, is a plurality of Ones. These Ones are Ones by nature not by human thought. They are autonomous Ones, substances. In Substance the substantiality of the One and of the Many is tethered. Substance unites World and Being. Through Substance World becomes Being, Being becomes World. All other categories are related to Substance. Like Substance they must (…) play a double role: they must order the Many and articulate the logos of Being. Charged with erecting the frame of the order of the Many, these categories should have a meaning in that logos of Being qua Being that is able to cover the inner concreteness [of all things]. 

Being includes the correlation between Subject and Object that is antecedent to your separating. 

I inquire into ‘Being’ — into the structure of the logos by virtue of which a being essentially ‘is’. 

Consider the kind of Being you must attribute to your language, when you are not actually speaking it. It exists in that mode of Being I call possibility. The essence of language is that it can be spoken. But language is not a mere sum of possible utterances, of vocabulary, and grammar. It is an organized whole, a system, embracing an immensity of possible phrases, styles, manners of good and bad speaking. This mode of Being, I confess, is not altogether easy to grasp. In its innermost life language seems to be animated and governed by something you call its spirit: a thing to be neither denied nor understood clearly. (…) You may think and speak of the different styles of a language as of spaces in space, fields in a field. (…) In this general apace, which is neither your space nor your matter, you and the others to you are begotten. The different individual fields are not side by side, unconnected. They are in a more general field. It is in this field that you actualize yourselves as individual fields, and so do the others. Thus your moving changes the fields of the others [and] their moving changes yours.

All these momenta of time, however, are ‘born together’; none can be isolated. Thus in articulating Substance we articulate Motion; in articulating Motion we articulate Time; but in all this articulating we meet one and the same logos of momenta, interconnected by an eternal necessity: the logos of Being. Nature’s very nature.

The logos of substance uniting the creator and the creature,  natura naturans and natura naturata, is the logos of Being — to be enjoyed and to be endured.

Relation is prior to the relata. You actually do not define one by means of the other but each by means of a whole that is articulated within itself.

The One is folded within itself.

Being is immortal; all beings die.

Reality has both an outward breadth and an inward density.4 (…) The two are correlated. They must be seen together. The one must help you to decipher the other. Their relation  precedes the relata.

So you [must learn to] know Being — the realness of reality. Try to grasp the iron logos welding together the inseparable joints of this Being; you will find it at the bottom of whatever you choose to look into.

  1. The step back — der Schritt zurück in German — has been considered in Germany at least since Schiller’s ästhetische Briefe and was an important topic for Heidegger.
  2. Riezler seems to have intended the phrase “born together” in the sense of ‘born joined’, not (or not primarily) as ‘born at the same time’.
  3. See the previous note. Logos for Riezler is the joint of things.
  4. See Riezler on possibility.

Riezler on the situation of the world

Kurt Riezler (1882-1955) may or may not have been read by McLuhan or Bohm.  But even if they did not, his 1940 Physics and Reality is important to consider in the context of their work in multiple perspectives.

Riezler’s short book is a consideration in the name of Aristotle of modern physics. Both for the sake of the dire situation of the world (not only on account of the then raging WW2) and for the sake of physics itself, Riezler recommended a return to the Greeks and to the notion (particularly developed by Aristotle) of the implication of possibility with actuality — or, in Bohm’s terms, of the implicate with the explicate order. Indeed, in the course of the book, Riezler raised a series of issues which are close to those found in McLuhan and Bohm and which, therefore, may be considered as additional jigsaw pieces for comparison to theirs. Further, Riezler had been close to Heidegger before emigrating to the US so that his work served to introduce little appreciated aspects of Heidegger’s thought without weighting them with Heidegger’s name or with the further complications of Heidegger’s difficult texts. Further yet, by applying Aristotle and Heidegger to modern physics, Riezler placed them in a context outside of philosophy where verification or falsification might be possible in a way, or ways, that are impossible within it.

Riezler’s analysis of the contemporary world closely matched those of McLuhan and Bohm:1

You are caught in a maze, snared by habits and trapped by methods from which you cannot free yourselves. (…) You have the most ingenious instruments, you use the most efficient methods, you know the most astounding laws. Your ships, automobiles, airplanes, and radios unite the globe and connect events. Your catapults pull down cities and upturn stones from the bottoms of your fields. You endow your rulers with superior technical means that choke all possibilities of opposition. (…) The most intense of all your experiences is your desire for knowledge; [but] in vain do I look for the place of this experience in your scheme of the Universe. There is no place [for it]. This, not your successes, is what astonishes me most. This experience has not and cannot have a place in your scheme. You have shut yourselves off from Nature. The further you penetrate into what you call nature the more elusive you become to yourselves. What, by Zeus, have you been doing? (…) You have opened between your comprehension of yourselves and your knowledge of Nature a chasm that engulfs in darkness your common being. You realize it. In all the splendor of your inventions this is your secret grief and the scandal of your science. (…) I must confess a tinge of admiration in my horror. This world [of yours], however, is merely the world of your anonymous observer: a world of [instrumental] pointer readings. (…) It is bleak and barren  and lacks sun despite its lucidity.  (…) I have been wondering how you are able to live in this world without freezing. (…) Your science is a mirror inadequate to the object to be reflected. There is something to which it is and must be blind. You are not able even to name this something, let alone detach it from the qualities of the mirror and separate the object from its reflection. (…) In this mirror neither everything that is can appear nor can everything appear as it is. The mirror both fails to reflect and distorts. This is its nature. In the image you cannot separate the qualities of the thing reflected from those of the mirror. You cannot know what is omitted and what distorted. Your mirror has begotten the image with the thing. You cannot distinguish the qualities of the [thing] parent in the [image] child. This inadequacy of the mirror to reflect the thing has led you up to now to conclude that the mirror must be ·transformed. From Newton to Einstein you have done this successfully. Now [today with quantum mechanics] there seems to be a limit beyond which you cannot go. (…) By the wonder of the harmony between calculation and observation Nature has led you astray from the reality you are yourselves into a net of concepts, in which you yourselves are futile, your weal and woes dumb, your experience a paper of ciphers you are neither able nor willing to read: World and Being are disconnected. You have no way of understanding the nature of yourselves in the light of Nature outside yourselves, no way of comprehending Nature as one and the same in ruling yourselves and in ruling the myriads of beings. Thus you feel homeless and isolated wherever you are. Amid your vast knowledge you miss the very knowledge you were born to desire. (…) You deal with abstractions, no longer with physical things. (…) Again and again just that in which the realness of reality resides will elude you. It must. (…) Here you are blocked, fenced in by your own procedure. (…) Your cosmos is a void. Reality has evaporated into numbers (…) into the void of bodiless abstractions. (…) When rulers of another breed run the enormous machines of your states and use your discoveries as means for their ends, and everywhere thought is banished into secret societies, you may one day be disposed to ask my question and ponder my answer [as proferred in this book].2 


  1. As well as those of Innis and Havelock.
  2.  Physics and Reality: pages 3, 3, 4, 4, 14, 14, 14, 28, 35, 61, 105, 105, 112, 115, 117.

Bohm on “the wrong turn”

Bohm’s 1980 dialogues with Krishnamurti published in 1985 as The Ending of Time begin as follows:

Krishnamurti: How shall we start? I would like to ask if humanity has taken a wrong turn.
Bohm: A wrong turn? Well it must have done so, a long time ago, I think.
K: That is what I feel. A long time ago… It appears that way —why? You see, as I look at it, mankind has always tried to become something.
B: Well possibly. I was struck by something I once read about man going wrong about five or six thousand years ago, when he began to be able to plunder and take slaves. After that, his main purpose of existence was just to exploit and plunder.
K: Yes, but there is the sense of inward becoming.
B: Well, we should make it clear how this is connected. What kind of becoming was involved in doing that? Instead of being constructive, and discovering new techniques and tools and so on, man at a certain time found it easier to plunder his neighbours. Now what did they want to become?
K: Conflict has been the root of all this.
B: What was the conflict? If we could put ourselves in the place of those people of long ago, how would you see that conflict?
K: What is the root of conflict? Not only outwardly, but also this tremendous inward conflict of humanity? What is the root of it?

McLuhan contemplated something like such a wrong turn in terms of the neolithic revolution and the institutionalization of visual space. For Innis and Havelock, too, the ascendancy of the eye relative to the ear introduced a dynamic of change in human history which has never yet been deeply understood.  Verstand in Hegel and Metaphysik in Heidegger introduce comparable concerns.

In all of these investigations, a key requirement is to understand what Krishnamurti calls “the root of conflict”. If there was some great change in human history, that change must have been rooted in some existing capacity for change, some dynamic as Aristotle put the point, that was already present in humans and that then came to particular emphasized expression. 

Not only outwardly, but also this tremendous inward conflict of humanity…

Indeed, time itself must have such possibility within it.  Or is time nothing other than such dynamic possibility for change?

K: …as I look at it, mankind has always tried to become something. (…)
What kind of becoming was involved?

The fundamental demand is to understand humans beings and their history in terms of potentials. What was — or is — already the case such that human history has unfolded as it has unfolded? As McLuhan wrote to Innis in 1951: 

I think there are lines appearing in Empire and Communications, for example, which suggest the possibility of organizing an entire school of studies. Many of the ancient language theories of the Logos type which you cite for their bearings on government and society have recurred and amalgamated themselves today under the auspices of anthropology and social psychology. Working concepts of “collective consciousness” in advertising agencies have in turn given salience and practical effectiveness to these “magical” notions of language. But it was most of all the esthetic discoveries of the symbolists since Rimbaud and Mallarmé (developed in English by Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Lewis and Yeats) which have served to recreate in contemporary consciousness an awareness of the potencies of language such as the Western world has not experienced in 1800 years.

McLuhan Bohm jigsaw pieces

Seemingly with no connection between each other, McLuhan and Bohm set out an astonishing number of parallel thoughts.1

These comparable thoughts may be taken to exemplify “the unintended parallelisms in methods” that Sigfried Giedion described in his introduction to the 1941 first edition of Space, Time & Architecture as “springing up” in the twentieth century between “the specialized sciences and the equally specialized arts”:

Unity, for us, will have to come about through the unintended parallelisms in methods that are springing up in the specialized sciences and the equally specialized arts. There are the indications that we are nearing a spontaneously established harmony of emotional and intellectual activities. In both contemporary science and contemporary art it is possible to detect elements of the general pattern which our culture will embody. The situation is a curious one: our culture is like an orchestra where the instruments lie ready tuned, but where every musician is cut off from his follows by a soundproof wall. It is impossible to foretell the events that will have to come before these barriers are broken down.

A number of questions ensue:

  • considered as similar pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, or puzzles, how do the individual pieces compare?2 how do they serve to augment or to modify or to clarify one another?
  • once one of these jigsaw pieces is put forward, is there a red thread which then leads an investigator on to others in the series?3
  • what pieces were taken by McLuhan on the one hand and Bohm on the other as particularly significant for putting the whole puzzle together?
  • how do the final ‘wholes’ compare?
  • what can be concluded from the repeated appearance of these pieces and their compound wholes throughout history?
  • how do these pieces and their compound wholes compare to other notions of the whole and their pieces?4 
  • how does this way of investigating compound wholes relate to the “comparative philosophy” of Paul Masson-Oursel5, Rupert Lodge (McLuhan’s first mentor) and others?


  1. A start on setting out these parallels has been made in posts on Bohm. Furthermore, many of these thoughts have recurred throughout the tradition in roughly similar form since the time of Plato and Aristotle (and arguably before them with the pre-Socratics). In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries,  many have been highly elaborated in the work of Hegel, Husserl and Heidegger. These comparable (not to say identical) further jigsaw pieces in philosophy must ultimately be examined with those of McLuhan and Bohm in the ways described in this post. In this context, see also the posts on Plato and on Riezler.
  2. As referenced in the preceding note, a start on this question in reference to Riezler and Bohm has been instituted elsewhere in this blog.
  3. Such a red thread might be considered as a kind of self-replication procedure belonging to the series itself. Or, in any case, as the activity of a kind of organic compound.
  4. This comparison of discrete ‘wholes’ — or galaxies — might be thought to be the question to which The Gutenberg Galaxy is an attempted answer.
  5. Paul Masson-Oursel published La philosophie comparée dedicated to his mentor, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, in 1923. It was translated into English in 1926 by F.G. Crookshank, who contributed an essay, along with one by Bronisław Malinowski, to Ogden and Richards’ The Meaning of Meaning (also from 1923).

Bohm on the spacetimes of consciousness

What is is always a totality of ensembles, all present together, in an orderly series of stages of enfoldment and unfoldment, which intermingle and inter-penetrate each other in principle throughout the whole of space. (183-184)1

one moment gives rise to the next, in which content that was previously implicate is now explicate while the previous explicate content has become implicate… (205)

  Here is Bohm’s description of the electron according to this model:

the electron is (…) to be understood through a total set of enfolded ensembles, which are generally not localized in space2. At any given moment one of these may be unfolded and therefore localized [in ‘normal’ space], but in the next moment, this [unfolded] one enfolds [= resumes its status as only enfolded] to be replaced by the [next unfolded] one that follows. The notion of continuity of existence is  approximated by that of very rapid recurrence of similar forms, changing in a simple and regular way…(183)3

In this representation, an electron can be said to be a series of (so to say) sparks4 where each spark is a certain position in spacetime. Below such “unfolded” spacetime is another space and another time, in which all possible spacetime positions are enfolded. The ‘path’ of the electron is a “very rapid recurrence of similar forms”, that is, it is the sequence of possibilities that are sparked into “unfoldment”, one after the other, such that a path of an electron appears (for a certain kind of measurement). Compare the keyboard of a piano that enfolds the possible notes of an infinite series of unfolded melodies. A particular melody results from the activation in a particular way of a particular order of particular keys. 

Here the “continuity of [the electron’s] existence” is the result of a particular sort of measurement or experience.5  Measured differently 

sequences of moments that ‘skip’ intervening spaces are just as allowable forms of time as those which seem continuous. (211)6

For Bohm, consciousness, like everything else, exhibits such an ontological movement between “enfoldment” in an implicit order and “unfoldment” in an explicit one.

each moment of consciousness has a certain explicit content, which is a foreground, and an implicit content, which is a corresponding background. We now propose that not only is immediate experience best understood in terms of the implicate order, but that thought also is basically to be comprehended in this order. Here we mean not just the content of thought (…) we also mean that the actual structure, function and activity of thought is [grounded] in the implicate order. The distinction between implicit and explicit in thought is thus being taken here to be essentially equivalent to the distinction between implicate  and explicate in matter in general. (204)

Consciousness exercised in what Bohm calls the mechanical order (= McLuhan’s “visual space”), restricted as it is to ‘one thing at a time’, is unaware of such multiple synchronic levels of reality. Or, more precisely, it is aware of them, but only as a fearsome and inexplicable “emptiness” that haunts it:

Whatever may be the nature of these inward depths of consciousness, they are the very ground, both of the explicit content and of that content which is usually called implicit. Although this ground may not appear in ordinary consciousness, it may nevertheless be present in a certain way. Just as the vast ‘sea’ of energy in space is present to our perception as a sense of emptiness or nothingness so the vast ‘unconscious’ background of explicit consciousness with all its implications is present in a similar way. That is to say, it may be sensed as an emptiness, a nothingness, within which the usual content of consciousness is only a vanishingly small set of facets. (210)


  1.  Wholeness and the Implicate Order (1980) was immediately reprinted with corrections in 1981 (UK) and 1982 (US). Page references are to the 1982 edition.
  2. This is ‘space’ as normally conceived. In Bohm’s conception, space, like time, is inherently plural. “Evidently, this leads to a fundamentally new notion of the meaning of time. Both in common experience and in physics, time has generally been considered to be a primary, independent and universally applicable order, perhaps the most fundamental one known to us. Now, we have been led to propose that it is secondary and that, like space, it is to be derived from a higher-dimensional ground.” (211)
  3. Cf, Bohm, Causality and Chance in Modern Physics, 1957: “if a free electron of high energy passes through a photographic plate, it leaves a record of its track in the form of small grains of silver (…) These grains of silver are deposited as a result of the interaction of the electron with atoms near which it passes (…) Thus, the grains of silver approximately localize the path of the electron. (…) According to our customary way of reasoning, we would suppose that the track of grains of silver indicates that a real electron moves continuously through space in a path somewhere near these grains, and by interaction caused the formation of the grains. But according to the usual interpretation of the quantum theory, it would be incorrect to suppose that this really happened. All that we can say is that certain grains appeared, but we must not try to imagine that these grains were produced by a real object moving through space in the way in which we usually think of objects moving through space. For although this idea of a continuously moving object is good enough for an approximate theory, we would discover that it would break down in a very exact theory. Moreover, if we tried to see by experiment whether an electron really moved between the points on the track, for example, by means of a very precise microscopic observation of the position as it passed some point, say P, we would discover that, because of the transfer of a quantum (in the process of observation), the track would change in an unpredictable and uncontrollable way and become another track. Thus, according to this view, the notion of a moving electron which supplies a continuous connection between the points at which a track is observed is at best a purely metaphysical one that could never be subjected to experimental verification.” (89-90)
  4. Cf, Bohm on the atom: “an atom is said to ‘jump’ from one state to another without passing through intermediate states and in doing this to emit an indivisible quantum of light energy” (David Bohm, ‘A new theory of the relationship of mind and matter’, Philosophical Psychology, 3:2, 1990, 271-286).
  5. The recording of a melody is subject to speed-up and other sorts of manipulation. The result is to change the temporal relationship of the notes so that they sound as (say) a linear measure or as a simultaneous chord.
  6. See the passages from Bohm in notes 3 and 4 above.

Bohm on the ratio of ratios

McLuhan saw the ratio of ratios, aka, the analogy of proper proportionality, as fundamental:

Perhaps the most precious possession of man is his abiding awareness of the Analogy of Proper Proportionality, the key to all metaphysical insight, and perhaps the very condition of consciousness itself. This analogical awareness is constituted of a perpetual play of ratios among ratios. A is to B, what C is to D, which is to say the ratio between A and B, is proportionable to the ratio between C and D, there being a [third] ratio between these [first two] ratios, as well. This lively awareness (…) depends upon there being no connection whatsoever between the components [of these various ratios]. If A were linked to B, or C to D, [or A:B to C:D], mere logic would take the place of analogical perception, thus one of the penalties paid for literacy and a high visual culture is a [loss of such perception through its] strong tendency to encounter all things through a rigorous [connecting] storyline… (Through the Vanishing Point , 1968)1

Twenty years before, in 1948, McLuhan had made the same point in a letter to Ezra Pound:

the principle of metaphor and analogy – the basic fact that as A is to B so is C to D – AB:CD (McLuhan to Pound, December 21, 1948, Letters 207)

Bohm’s 1980 explication of the ratio of ratios in Wholeness and the Implicate Order accords closely with McLuhan’s:

ratio is not necessarily merely a numerical proportion (though it does, of course, include such proportion). Rather, it is in general a qualitative sort of universal proportion or relationship. Thus, when Newton perceived the insight of universal gravitation, what he saw could be put in this way: ‘As the apple falls, so does the moon, and so indeed does everything.’ To exhibit the form of the ratio yet more explicitly, one can write:
A : B :: C : D :: E : F
where A and B represent successive positions of the apple at successive moments of time, C and D those of the moon, and E and F those of any other object.2
Whenever we find a theoretical reason for something, we are exemplifying this notion of ratio, in the sense of implying that as the various aspects are related in our idea, so they are related in the thing that the idea is about. The essential reason or ratio of a thing is then the totality of inner proportions in its structure, and in the process in which it forms, maintains itself, and ultimately dissolves. In this view, to understand such ratio is to understand the ‘innermost being’ of that thing.3
It is thus implied that measure is a form of insight into the essence of everything, and that man’s perception, following on (…) such insight (…) will thus bring about generally orderly action and harmonious living. In this connection, it is useful to call to mind Ancient Greek notions of  measure in music and in the visual arts. These notions emphasized that a grasp of measure was a key to the understanding of harmony in music (e.g., measure as rhythm, right proportion in intensity of sound, right proportion in tonality, etc.). Likewise, in the visual arts, right measure was seen as essential to overall harmony and beauty (e.g., consider the ‘Golden Mean’). All of this indicates how far the notion of measure went beyond that of comparison with an external standard, to point to a universal sort of inner ratio or proportion, perceived both through  the senses and through the mind. (21)4

  1. TVP, 240. This passage is from ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, the second of two essays that frame TVP at its beginning and end.
  2. Later in Wholeness and the Implicate Order: “Within this new Cartesian order of perception and thinking that had grown up after the Renaissance, Newton was able to discover a very general law. It may be stated thus: ‘As with the order of movement in the fall of an apple, so with that of the Moon, and so with all.’ This was a new perception of law, i.e., universal harmony in the order of nature, as described in detail through the use of coordinates.” (114)
  3. See Bohm on formal cause.
  4.  Wholeness and the Implicate Order (1980) was immediately reprinted with corrections in 1981 (UK) and 1982 (US). Page reference is to the 1982 edition.

Bohm on making and matching

The principle of complementarity is indispensable to understanding the unconscious effects of technologies on human sensibility since the response is never the same as the input. This is the theme of The Gutenberg Galaxy where it is explained that the visually oriented person stresses matching rather than making in all experience. It is this matching that is often mistaken for truth in general. (McLuhan to Robert J Leuver, July 30, 1969, Letters 388)

… “testing the truth” is not merely matching by congruence or classification; it is making sense out of the totality of experience (…) Making sense is never matching or mere one-to-one correspondence which is an assumption of visual bias. (…) matching the old excludes making the new. (McLuhan, ‘The Argument: Causality in the Electric World’, 1973)

In Wholeness and the Implicate Order1 Bohm contrasts ‘making’ with ‘matching’ in much the same way as did McLuhan:

it is crucial that man be aware of the activity of his thought as such; i.e. as a form of insight, a way of looking, rather than as a ‘true copy of reality as it is’. It is clear that we may have any number of different kinds of insights. What is called for is not an integration of thought, or a kind of imposed unity, for any such imposed point of view would itself be merely another fragment. Rather, all our different ways of thinking are to be considered as different ways of looking at the one reality, each with some domain in which it is clear and adequate. (…) When we deeply understand that our theories also work in this way, then we will not fall into the habit of seeing reality and acting toward it as if it were constituted (…) corresponding to how it appears in our thought and in our imagination when we take our theories to be ‘direct descriptions of reality as it is’. (7-8)

to say: ‘This is a fact’ implies that the content of the statement in question is true. However, the root meaning of the word ‘fact’ is ‘that which h