Marshall McLuhan as a Realist Philosopher

Marshall McLuhan, as a newcomer to the Catholic Church in 1937, accepted the realist philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas as its official philosophy. He contributed to the philosophy through a language-based total approach to reality which reconciled the separation between the humanities and the sciences. The root of the separation was in two versions of logic, an older idea logic still prevalent among philosophers and theorists of science, and a newer speech logic developed by the Stoic (Porch) philosophers in the late fourth century BCE, which established the current default position that we grasp reality through language and not through direct access to thoughts and ideas. The old logic remained dominant because paradigm shift is difficult; speech logic was reduced to the role of grammar as a practical skill without relevance to truth and reality. McLuhan expanded philosophy by retrieving the simple Porch grammatical principles and applying them to the whole of reality.

Although Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) avoided the terms ‘philosophy’ and ‘metaphysics’ in his major texts such as The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media (1), there can be no doubt that as a faithful newcomer to the Catholic Church in 1937 he accepted the realist philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas as the Church’s official philosophy. His becoming a Catholic was influenced by two popular Catholic writers, G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), who became a Catholic in 1922, and Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953). McLuhan held in the highest regard the major Thomist thinkers of his day, Etienne Gilson (1884-1978), founder of the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Toronto, and Jacques Maritain (1882-1974), the leading Catholic philosopher. McLuhan came to St. Michael’s College, Toronto, as an English professor in 1946 hoping to engage them in discussion. Maritain was highly sympathetic to his efforts only cautioning McLuhan that he overestimated the importance of what Aristotle (384-322 BCE) called material causality (2). Gilson, a prodigious scholar with 1000 publications over half a century, recognized McLuhan’s genius (3) but pointed out that he needed a book to predict the end of books (4).

McLuhan regarded his work as not only philosophical but the expression of his commitment to God’s will through faith (5). McLuhan believed in aphorisms, jokes and one liners as a way to stimulate discussion. Some of his best one liners are called McLuhanisms. One that he kept repeating was that fish know nothing about water (6). I take it to mean that people assume that they are dealing directly with ideas forgetting that the expression of ideas depends on physical language. Fish are unaware of water forgetting that their lives depend on it. Without language there is no expression of ideas and, as T. S. Eliot might point out (7), without the right words the expression of ideas is flawed and imperfect. Those who claimed to be interested in ideas rather than language failed to see the contradiction in their own assertion. Without the right words, there could be no correct expression of ideas.

Words strain/ crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place
Will not stay still.

T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton”

Logicians like Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) also downgraded the importance of language. His logic was directly a logic of ideas with language needed only to record and share the ideas. The logicians failed to see that, although the languages of logic and mathematics might use unusual symbols, they remained physical languages subject to the basic rules of language: subject (being about something), predicate (saying something about it) and sentence (the judgment affirming the predicate of the subject).

McLuhan had uncovered the difference between the literary approach to reality, the one that we take for granted, and another approach which assumes that we can deal directly with thoughts and ideas. I believe, as I have said, that he had recovered the existence of two kinds of logic, the idea logic of those who assumed there was no difference between ideas and language, and the speech logic of the Stoic Porch philosophers at the end of the fourth century BCE, who recognized the role of language in expressing ideas (8). Both the idea logicians and the Porch speech logicians used the word ‘logic’ for their discipline and this double use of the term caused endless confusion and disagreement.

In my opinion, Stoic Porch philosophy, founded by Zeno of Citium (ca. 335-263 BCE), introduced a literary, language-based approach to reality which replaced the earlier idea logic approach which assumed that there was no difference between words and ideas. It is the literary approach to reality that we take for granted. We grasp reality through ideas only in the sense that we use words to express our ideas. We have access to ideas not directly but only indirectly through our words. Ideas exist only as the meaning of what we say. If our words are not clear, then our ideas will not be clear and if there are no words, there are no ideas.

At the same time, however, the old idea logic did not go away. Paradigm shift is never easy.  Idea logic was the original logic; we have a seemingly natural, instinctive, intuitive tendency to imagine that we have direct access to ideas and, most misleading of all, we habitually use the language of direct access. There is no harm in using the language provided we don’t take it literally, provided we recognize that we are using figurative language. For example, we still use the language of sunrise and sunset long after learning that the phenomenon is due to the rotation of the earth. We recognize that we are using figurative language in speaking of sunrise and sunset. We don’t take the language literally.  Taking it literally would put us back into the geocentric pre-Copernican universe of Aristotle (384-322 BCE). Taking the language of direct access to ideas literally would return us to a state prior to the recognition that ideas depend totally on language. By language, we mean not just spoken language but the body language of gestures, cries and facial expressions, which remains our basic means of communication, our basic way of expressing our thoughts and ideas, even after we add spoken language communication. We will return to the subject of body language below.

The logic of ideas has been always ready to reassert itself over the centuries and to restrict speech logic to concern with correctness of language rather than the truth and reality of actual things. In other words, idea logic strives to restrict speech logic to being grammar as we understand it today.  For the Porch philosophers, speech logic was about truth and reality. The Porch divided reality into two constituents, physical bodies, ‘ta somata’ and their purposes, meanings or formal qualities, ‘ta asomata’ (9). Each word illustrates this division between physical body and meaning or purpose since each word has a physical component of sounds, written characters and, in our day, electronic pulses and a component of meaning or purpose. In other words, each word consists of a physical medium and a message.

McLuhan summed up his philosophy in the dictum that the medium is the message. Without a physical medium, there is no message; without a clear medium, there is no clear message. I believe Porch philosophy helps us to understand McLuhan and McLuhan helps us to understand Porch philosophy.

In his Cambridge thesis (1943) published by Gingko Press as The Classical Trivium, McLuhan attempted to trace the whole history of grammar, logic and rhetoric (10). I have mentioned to Eric McLuhan that grammar, logic and rhetoric should have been the Porch trio of grammar, speech logic and rhetoric but at the first appearance of the trivium in Martianus Capella, The Marriage of Mercury and Philology (11), in the fifth century CE, idea logic has already intruded into the place of speech logic. I believe this is why Marshall McLuhan had to turn to rhetoric and its five divisions for the emphasis on physical language that was part of his thinking. McLuhan saw in his work on the trivium that grammar acted like physics opening up the book of nature, which existed alongside the book of the Bible, while logic preferred a methodical presentation of its subject which could be memorized and reproduced without the adventure of discovery and original description.  The role of McLuhan as a teacher is well presented in Elena Lamberti’s recent book, Marshall McLuhan’s Mosaic (12). McLuhan noted that the early Christians writing in the Porch literary tradition had a better and more pleasing style than the Medieval Latin writers, who were unaware that in speaking of thoughts and ideas they were taking figurative language literally.

We speak as if we had direct access to ideas but we only have direct access to the language process itself. What we observe directly and physically is the language process by which we communicate with each other through sounds and written characters leading to certain visible effects. The centurion says go and his subordinate goes. What we say about ideas, thoughts and unseen inner states is indirect; it is based on the physical evidence of the language process.  We can say that our descriptions of the language process are literally true because based on direct physical observation but our conclusions about inner states are only indirectly true.  They are not literally true in the same sense as our statements about directly observable things. This difference between literal and non-literal or figurative language is clear in the case of sunrise and sunset, as we have said. It looks like the sun is rising and setting but we know it is just the earth rotating that causes it to seem that way. The same is true for the language of direct access to thoughts, ideas and inner states. It is only figuratively true. It is literally false. Like sunrise and sunset, there is nothing wrong with using figurative language as long as we realize that it is figurative and do not take it literally.

Thoughts and ideas can be regarded strictly as the meaning of language and denied any separate existence of their own except in a figurative, non-literal sense.  We have no access to thoughts and ideas except through language. Idea logic, favored by many philosophers and scientists, is simply an illusion and a misunderstanding. McLuhan took a total approach to reality through language that resolved the longstanding split between the humanities and the sciences famously described by C. P. Snow in 1959 (13). The split goes back to Plato (ca. 427-ca.347 BCE) and Aristotle (384-322 BCE) who imagined they could give a special status to ideas; it was resolved by Zeno of Citium and the Porch philosophers. The conflict between the two approaches to reality reappears time and again as the old paradigm reasserts its dominance over the new paradigm. Grammar, the grammar school and Porch philosophy remained dominant from the end of the fourth until the middle of the first century BCE. Then the unity of the Porch philosophical approach was lost leading to an encyclopedic division of subjects, the ‘engkyklios paideia’, the childhood circle of school subjects (14). Simply learning to write effective prose tended to dominate the curriculum as it does even now. The rhetorical tradition of the Roman elite leading to the law court and public life allowed some relief from the writing desk.

If we can skip over nine or ten centuries, we come to the period of my specialty, the twelfth century (15), and the debate over universals between Peter Abelard (1079-1142), the logician, and his teacher, William of Champeaux (ca. 1070-1122), the grammarian. Abelard claims to have won the debate handily, a conclusion that has generally been accepted as true by modern scholars, but to me it is one more case of the old logic reasserting itself over the new. A time of greater peace in Europe brought a flood of students to Paris who overwhelmed the grammar schools. The grammar school teachers were used to small numbers of students over a period of years and they had let their subject become lost in detail.  Abelard succeeded in making idea logic the core subject in Paris and it remained dominant at the secular arts level in the University of Paris while at the theological level the speech logic of Champeaux and the literary tradition remained dominant.

The origin of the discipline of grammar has been a subject of much discussion. It emerged from the difficulty of disentangling sentences with the increasing use of written prose texts in the late fourth century BCE. Poetry texts raised fewer difficulties because readers were guided by the rhythms of the poetry. Socrates (470-399 BCE), a hundred years earlier had taken a completely oral approach in dialoging with his fellow citizens. Plato captured that style in his dialogs with Socrates generally as the main character.  Written prose led to the difficult business of disentangling sentences from one another in texts without punctuation, capitals or spaces between words; the discipline of grammar emerged from this process. A person who could speak fluently in an oral debate might have much greater difficulty reading the same words from a written prose text. McLuhan no doubt experienced this in teaching undergraduates to write and made it part of his distinction among preliterate, literate and post-literate media.

McLuhan’s total approach to reality is an advance on the philosophical and scientific theories that he encountered. Yet, in another sense, he simply recovered the speech logic of the Porch philosophers, expanding its simple rules once more to matters of truth and reality. The New Criticism that he learned from his Cambridge masters meant letting the evidence of the physical text speak for itself (16). McLuhan had an acute sense of being always on display, of living off his personality like his mother, who was a professional entertainer (17), and like his hero G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), to whom he attributed his becoming a Catholic (18). His faith gave a sharp focus to his life.

Most of my writing is Menippean satire, presenting the actual surface of the world we live in as a ludicrous image.

— Marshall McLuhan

For McLuhan, doing God’s will was his first concern and he regarded his career as a matter of fulfilling God’s will. In the face of relentless opposition to his total approach to reality and breaking down of traditional boundaries, he used the gentle resources of Menippean satire to disarm his critics (19). His criticism of the media, as Gordon points out, was not something new but simply a continuation of his literary criticism (20).  He rejoiced in metaphor. “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or” not “what’s a heaven for?” but “what’s a metaphor?” “Should old Aquinas be forgot,” was another of his word plays. When others were forgetting Aquinas after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), he was not. The total approach to reality, a phrase with the delightful flavor of inner contradiction proper to a McLuhanism, removed the separation between the humanities and the sciences.

Let me add some detail to the agreements between McLuhan and Porch philosophy.  I prefer to call it Porch philosophy rather than Stoicism because the latter term has become unfairly loaded with connotations of pessimism and fatalism and badly infected with interpretations from the old logic. McLuhan’s probes, which he referred to so often, are his name for judgments, ‘logoi’, ‘sententiae’. Porch philosophy is based on treating human acts as acts of judgment. Judgments have three components: 1) something real or treated as real studied in physics, ‘ta physika’, 2) something descriptive, ‘ta logika’, and 3) something judgmental, ‘ta ethika’, deciding if the description is adequate to the reality in question. Since the description is never perfect, always provisional, judgment  cannot be completed without the assent of the will to the goodness of the judgment. Porch philosophy, then, is made up of physics, speech logic and ethics, each part devoted to an aspect of the indivisible human act of judgment. We live by our judgments, which always have an element of uncertainty; the uncertainty principle of human life goes back to the Porch philosophers. McLuhan gently satirized the specialists, who tried to turn any of the three parts of philosophy into its whole: the physicists, the literary critics, or the moralists, instead of recognizing that wise decision, ‘orthos logos’, ‘recta ratio’, depends on the interaction of the three.

Our task is not to grasp reality through our thoughts and ideas, as most of us imagine, but to make our descriptions, ‘ta semeia’, ‘ta semainonta’, adequate to the realities described, ‘ta semainomena’, ‘adaequatio verbi ad rem’. To talk about “signs” rather than “descriptions” can be confusing in this context since signs must be physical in order to exist and yet some thinkers speak seriously of mental signs as if there were some way to detect them. Speaking of mental signs is a category error, like speaking of green syllogisms. We learn our native external language, ‘ho logos prophorikos’, from our mother and other native speakers and then carry on the same language with ourselves, ‘ho logos endiathetos’, and, adds McLuhan, with God (21). McLuhan is clear that we are not engaged in a thought process but in a physical language process. To speak as if we dealt directly with our thoughts is figurative language which is true in a figurative sense but not to be taken literally. McLuhan uses a memorable image in explaining how the physical tactility of language helps us grasp reality in a new way: “The spoken word was the first technology by which man was able to let go of the environment in order to grasp it in a new way.” (22) The sentence, ‘logos’, ‘sententia’ consists of the predicate as its active principle informing the subject as its passive principle.

Porch philosophy, as we have said, divided all of reality into passive bodies, ‘ta somata’, and active meanings, purposes or formal principles, ‘ta asomata’. Each word consists of a physical medium (of sound, written characters or, in our day, electronic pulses) and a meaning or message. This combination of medium and message applies to all of reality as produced by the divine ‘logos’ on a universal scale and by the human ‘logos’ on a human scale.  Everything is the joining together of a physical material with a meaning, purpose, or formal element. In other words, all of reality, and each of its manifestations, is a meaningful physical expression, materially speaking, and a physically expressed meaning, formally speaking. A plaster statue, for example, is physical plaster with an impressed form materially speaking and a form impressed on plaster formally speaking. For McLuhan, the Logos, the God that he worshiped, the second person of the Blessed Trinity, was beyond any distinction of active and passive principles (23).

The Porch philosophers embrace a completely artistic conception of reality. This is to say that everything that exists is a work of art, an artificial reality, an artifice or an artefact. We and the divinity are ourselves works of art, ‘logoi’, as well as makers, poets and artists, ‘poietes’, ‘homines fabri’ in all our activity. All our human activity consists in giving meaning to physical media, whether the product remains an internal dialog or issues in some external activity.  While respecting the complexity of the divine artificer in comparison to our human efforts, the Porch philosophers eliminated the distinction between nature and art, between theory and practice and between science and technology since every act required all of these elements: something real or treated as real (“the mind” is something treated as real), something descriptive and something judgmental. Aristotle’s hylomorphic theory of the joining of matter, ‘hyle’, and form, ‘morphe’, we may note in passing, works well for artificial things where we can see the matter being given form by the maker but not so well for the complicated creations of the divine artificer, which can be called natural in comparison to human art.

McLuhan, like the Porch philosophers, annoyed his critics by eliminating traditional distinctions among subjects. Any distinction between science and technology is an illusion since the same elements of human activity are required in both. Media become technologies when they are put to human uses. Media exert their message apart from the message the technologist intends. Furs, for example, (24) were a staple product whose gathering upset the balance of humans and the natural world beyond the deliberate intentions of the traders. At some point, however, eliminating all the furs made the native people so vulnerable that they could be forced onto “reserves,” allowing politicians to take undisturbed possession of the native lands. Global warming may not have been intended for the purpose but it gives climate deniers the opportunity to eliminate most of the world’s population. With the advent of electronic technology, information, as McLuhan points out, becomes the only commodity of any value. Whether the poor of the world can use it for their own survival remains to be seen.

McLuhan took his students to the Art Gallery of Ontario to look at works of art, to discover the meaning that could be drawn from the physical evidence left by the artist. He wanted students to understand the process and not simply give back course information on exams. I remember a lecture in which he posed a question to the students that went deeper than any of their courses, “Who am I? Is there a me? Do I exist?” He was inviting the students to find human answers in an environment contaminated with the illusion that an overly logical approach to reality is the best that they can hope for. For the Porch, all inquiry is through language. This approach eliminates the difference among terms such as logical, linguistic, language-based, dialectical and grammatical. St. Augustine calls his Porch language book De dialectica (25). Any distinction between the grammatical sentence and the logical proposition is an illusion.

Porch theory solved the differences between Plato’s and Aristotle’s approaches to reality.  The word as a bare subject was vague, ambiguous and uncertain, showing its origin in the senses as Aristotle required, but the same word acquired a perfectly clear meaning in the complete sentence, as Plato required. This change of meaning made possible by the physical sameness of the word throughout its changing meanings made no sense to the old logic. They equated words with their meanings and neglected the physical medium without which the word cannot exist. In a sentence, the reality in question (the bare subject), the meaning of the word expressing it vaguely, and the perfect meaning in the complete sentential judgment must all be the same for us to grasp the reality in question. This is a whole noetic theory of how we grasp reality which we take for granted but which the logicians simply choose to ignore. The logicians regard the differences among the thing, the word, and the judgment as too great to be regarded as the same.

Zeno made his understanding of the difference between ideas and language clear in speaking of the impression or appearance, ‘phantasia’ in Greek, and confirmed or comprehensive impression, ‘phantasia kataleptike’. The impression is the physical impression which becomes a confirmed impression through repetition until the person experiencing the impression grasps its meaning. The mother makes her impression on the newborn by her total embrace and repeats the impression until the newborn comprehends its meaning. The mother’s embrace is the beginning of the communication process through gestures, cries and facial expressions, which we call body language and which remains our basic means of communication throughout life even after we add other media of communication. Zeno of Citium was the first to recognize that reality begins for us not with ideas but with the physical impression made on us by our physical surroundings beginning with our mother’s embrace as we emerge from the womb.  The child soon learns to distinguish its mother from all other persons, embracing its mother and rejecting the stranger.  This power of judgment is called
comprehension, ‘synaeresis’ ‘comprehensio’ or in Latin simply understanding ‘intellectus’ or first principles, ‘prima principia’. We survive and live our lives by our judgments which, as we have said, always contain an element of uncertainty. We could hardly be wrong about our mother but are easily mistaken in learning to distinguish identical twins.

The literary tradition, like fish knowing nothing about water, is something that we take so much for granted that we fail to recognize its importance.  The general view is that St. Augustine (354-430) can be understood through his acceptance of Platonic philosophy and St. Thomas (1225-1274) through his acceptance of Aristotelian philosophy.  I believe that both thinkers were firmly in the literary tradition of Porch philosophy. St. Augustine was a grammarian and a rhetorician by trade. St. Thomas speaks in a short hand, elliptical manner which may give the impression of being directly about ideas but he is taking for granted the language context of the discussion. In grammatical terms, the language is elliptical rather than literal.  Existence, ‘esse’, according to St. Thomas, emerges in the judgment, ‘logos sententia’. The axiom is that the intelligible in act, ‘intelligibile in actu’, is the intellect in act, ‘intellectus in actu’.  What it means is not something about ideas and interior states but that the reality of the subject, which cannot be accessed without linguistic expression, emerges in the complete sentence, the complete sentential judgment. Thomas avoids the grammatical language of subject, predicate and sentence because the language had been so misused by the logicians, and this gives the mistaken impression that he is dealing directly with ideas, something that he recognized as impossible.

The great division in our understanding of the world is between those who believe like the logician, Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), and, in fact, most of us that we have direct access to the certainty of ideas and those like the traditional realist philosopher, Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), that we have access to ideas only through language beginning with body language. We begin our lives not with ideas but with our mother’s physical embrace as we emerge from the womb.

McLuhan offended academics by his ability to entertain his audience, a talent which conferred celebrity status upon him. He was regarded as the perfect guest on the early TV shows. “What’cha doin’ Marshall McLuhan?” became a media slogan. His critics questioned what entertainment had to do with their serious academic business. He offended those who believed that faith was out of place in dealing with worldly knowledge; he, however, felt that his faith gave him a settled basis to observe the world around him. He offended those who, without seeing the contradiction in being fish knowing nothing about water, regarded themselves as concerned with the substance of things while McLuhan’s efforts to give the best possible description to reality were beside the point.

Despite his avoidance of moralizing, McLuhan had a most serious purpose. He was deeply concerned that we understand our world in order to escape its harmful effects and move beyond its present limitations. His faith told him that, despite the trials of rubbing shoulders with one another in the global village, we have a future full of hope as members of the Mystical Body of Christ. McLuhan used the phrase, in a letter to I.A. Richards, “macroscopic gesticulation,” by which I think he meant seeing God face to face and all of us living and dead sharing in the Communion of Saints. (26)


1. Logan, Robert K., McLuhan Misunderstood: Setting the Record Straight, (Toronto: The Key Publishing House, 2013), pp. 53-55.

2. Maritain, Jacques, Unpublished Letters, May 15 and August 10, 1969.

3. Gordon, W. Terrence, Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding. A Biography, (New York: Basic Books, 1997), p. 138.

4. Gilson, Etienne, Linguistique et philosophie (Paris: Vrin, 1969), p. 260, n. 95.

5. Gordon, Marshall McLuhan, pp. 132-133.

6. McLuhan, Marshall to Clement McNaspy, Letters of Marshall McLuhan. Molinaro, Matie, Corinne McLuhan; and William Toye, eds.,  (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 180.

7. Eliot, T. S., Collected Poems, 1909-1962 London (Faber and Faber, 1963); Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton,” II.

8. Von Arnim, Joa. Stoicorum veterum fragmenta. 4 Vols. (Stuttgart, 1964 repr. (SVF); Long, A. A. and David N. Sedley, eds., The Hellenistic Philosophers, Vol. 1, Translations with Commentary (Cambridge: University Press, 1987); The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics, ed. Brad Inwood (Cambridge: University Press, 2003), especially “Stoic Epistemology,” R. J. Hankinson, pp. 59-84; “Stoic Logic,” Susanne Bobzien, pp. 85-123; “The Stoic Contribution to Traditional Grammar,” David Blank and Catherine Atherton, pp. 310-327.

9. Long, A. A., The Hellenistic Philosophers, passim with excellent indexes and cross-referencing and citations to Von Arnim, Joa. Stoicorum veterum fragmenta. 4 Vols. (Stuttgart, 1964 repr. SVF). I give an interpretation separating what I call the old from the new logic.

10. McLuhan, Marshall, The Classical Trivium: The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of his Time, ed. W. Terrence Gordon (Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press, 2006.

11. Martianus Capella, Libri de nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii, ed. A. Dick (Leipzig, 1925).

12. Lamberti, Elena, Marshall McLuhan’s Mosaic (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012).

13. Snow, C. P., The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, Rede Lecture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959, repr., 2013).

14. Brill Reference Online, “The term enkyklios paideia is only attested to 50 BC. Diogenes Laertios (2, 79; 7, 32) and Stobaeus (2, 206, 26-28; 3, 246, 1-5) seemingly ascribe the expression to Hellenistic philosophers, but perhaps it was only an attempt to provide ancestry for their own terminology.”

15. Petrus Helias, Summa super Priscianum, ed. Leo Reilly (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1993).

16. Gordon (Marshall McLuhan, p. 48) quotes from John Paul Russo’s I. A. Richards, His Life and Work (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1989), p. 295, words which describe McLuhan so well: “The Richardsian method, analyzing the poet’s sense, imagery and metaphor, rhythm, form, intention, attitude and irony, was fully prepared to handle compression, ambiguity, self-referentiality, obscurity and allusiveness.”

17. Gordon, Marshall McLuhan, p. 818. Ibid., p. 54.

18. McLuhan, Letters, p. 5

19. “Most of my writing is Menippean satire, presenting the actual surface of the world we live in as a ludicrous image.”

20. Gordon, Marshall McLuhan, p.128.

21. McLuhan, Marshall, private conversation or unpublished lecture from my many years on campus while McLuhan was there.

22. McLuhan, Marshall, Understanding Media, ed. W. Terrence Gordon (Berkeley, CA: Gingko Press, 2003), p. 85.

23. McLuhan contrasted his belief in the Logos with all other forms of belief which to him would be ‘Mythos’. Some people made the logos out of what he would regard as mythos, like Auguste Comte (1746-1836), who made sociology his logos.

24. Innis, Harold, The Fur Trade in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, rev. ed. 1956); The Bias of Communication (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1951).

25. Augustine, De dialectica, ed. J. Pinborg (Dordrecht: Riedel, 1975.



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About the Contributor

A. Leo Reilly

Rev. A. Leo Reilly is a retired priest of the Basilian Fathers of Toronto, who received his PhD in medieval linguistics from the University of Toronto in 1975. He published Petrus Helias, Summa super Priscianum,Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in 1993. A longtime admirer of Marshall McLuhan, he is currently working on a book,"Realism in Philosophy." 


  1. “the current default position that we grasp reality through language and not through direct access to thoughts and ideas.”

    That may be a ‘default position’ in a small corner of philosophy (e.g., strong Whorfianism), but does not reflect the general view on psycholinguistics, or the ‘nature of meaning.’ Nor does it reflect the teachings of Jesus, who prioritized compassion and love in action, over words, beliefs, creeds and the found-meaning therein.

    • Howard Wetzel says:

      A telling dichotomy. Philosophy, psycholinguistics and meaning are concepts, and as such limited by fragmentation and objectivity. The teachings of Jesus are percept, understood by direct apprehension, without reason. Language is the hinge between both modes, and both are essential to healthily balance human culture.

  2. Howard Wetzel says:

    Very interesting old school scholarship. McLuhan’s understanding of media effects rested on the environmental and pre-linguistic effects of percept. Without a literary language to name and resist these effects, they remain for the user largely unconscious, and in the aggregate, shape the entire culture. ‘Speech logic’ can break the pre-linguistic trance, inoculate the user, and increase resistance to an otherwise automatic present. This is the problem at present: electric media undermine the formation of the literary sensibility.

    • “electric media undermine the formation of the literary sensibility.”

      Electronic media is a two-edged sword. Virtuality, over generations, shrinks a vast ideologically-fragmented world into a collective, shared conversation, no longer mediated by centrality or locality and its tribal taboos (although virtual mediation is, itself, a difficult issue and another conversation). This trend scares the hell out of academic-religious leaders, who see their top-down power shrinking.

      Suggest that the virtual, self-organizing, P2P conversation will develop (over generations) its own common language and sensibility, while abandoning those dynamics which kept us trapped in walled silos. The people of the world want to transcend their inherited borders (both physical and ideological) and learn greater human trust, love, companionship, transparency, charity, openness, and mutual working respect. If anything, we need new and powerful names and icons and images and metaphors of love. Respectfully, most people don’t care about ivory-towered semiotics or complex theories of comprehension or aligning themselves to some academic form of “literary sensibility.” It’s just not on their radar, and frankly it doesn’t have to be.

      The ultimate expression of humanity is not complex, and does not require academic training, and is certainly not mediated by complex linguistic theories. Alas, what we seek is so simple that a child can understand it. Everything we try to pile on top of this simple humanity is, for lack of a better word, religion.

      • Howard Wetzel says:

        You are too hard on print, and much too idealistic about virtuality. The literary sensibility is much more than academics, tho’ academics may indeed be the worst of it. Despite his academic background, McLuhan is an anti-academic par excellence. Top-down power should be obsolete – except so many are aligning themselves in this corporate age with powerful images like Putin or Trump to make top-down more powerful than ever. The entrenched weaknesses of centuries of print are painfully obvious in the electronic era; that does not mean every formal effect of print was bad. Nor does it mean that every formal effect of electronics is good. Yes, virtuality is shrinking into an invisible propaganda of dependency, complacency, isolation and simple minds. Is FB, Yahoo, Twitter, ceaseless monitoring and marketing, and strong men all over the globe threatening democracy your idea of an age of “greater human trust, love, companionship, transparency, charity, openness, and mutual working respect”? Human culture needs both involvement and detachment, corporate and private identity. Striking that balance has been a constant struggle throughout history and not simple at all.

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