Media and Formal Cause by Marshall McLuhan & Eric McLuhan


 Marshall McLuhan (1911 – 1980) attended the University of Manitoba and there earned a B.A. and M.A. in English (1934). He then attended Cambridge University and received the B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in English (1944).

He taught at the University of Wisconsin, the Saint Louis University, Assumption University (Windsor, 1944) and St. Michael’s College (Toronto,1946-1980), where he headed the interdisciplinary Centre for Culture and Technology. Besides many hundreds of articles in a broad variety of magazines and journals, he has written over twenty books. These include The Mechanical Bride: The Folklore of Industrial ManAlfred Lord Tennyson: Selected PoetryThe Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic ManUnderstanding Media: The Extensions of ManThe Classical Trivium: The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of his TimeVoices of Literature (three volumes; with Richard Schoeck); Verbi-Voco-Visual ExplorationsThe Medium is the MassageWar and Peace in the Global VillageThrough the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting (with Harley Parker); The Interior Landscape: The Literary Criticism of Marshall McLuhan, 1943-1962Counterblast(designed by Harley Parker); Mutations 1990Culture is Our BusinessFrom Cliché to Archetype (with Wilfred Watson); Take Today: The Executive as Drop Out (with Barry Nevitt); City as Classroom: Understanding Language and Media (with Kathryn Hutchon and Eric McLuhan); D’oeil a OreilleAutre homme autre chretien a l’age electronique (with Pierre Babin).

Posthumous publications include the following: Letters of Marshall McLuhanLaws of Media: The New Science (with Eric McLuhan); The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century (with Bruce Powers); Marshall McLuhan: The Man and His MessageEssential McLuhanForward Through the Rear View Mirror: Reflections on and by Marshall McLuhanThe Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion and MediaThe Book of ProbesUnderstanding Me: Lectures and Interviews;McLuhan UnboundTheories of Communication (with Eric McLuhan); and the present volume, Media and Formal Cause (with Eric McLuhan).

Marshall McLuhan is recognized as the inventor of the field of media study. In Laws of Media, he showed the seamless relation between literary criticism and understanding new media and artifacts, and he demonstrated that the new tools for media study had dissolved the long-held division between the arts and the sciences. This book concerns one of the principal such tools. 

Eric McLuhan received his B. Sc. in Communication from Wisconsin State University in 1972. He got the M. A. and Ph. D. in English Literature from the University of Dallas in 1980 and 1982. An internationally-known lecturer on communication and media, he has over forty years’ teaching experience in subjects ranging from highspeed reading techniques to English literature, media, and communication theory, and has taught at many colleges and universities in both the United States and Canada.

He has published articles in magazines and professional journals since 1964 on media, perception, and literature, and assisted Marshall McLuhan with the research and writing of The Medium is the Massage, War and Peace in the Global Village, Culture is Our Business, From Cliché to Archetype, and Take Today: The Executive as Drop-Out. He is co-author: with Marshall McLuhan and Kathryn Hutchon, of City as Classroom (Irwin, 1977); with Marshall McLuhan, of Laws of Media: The New Science (University of Toronto Press, 1988); and with Wayne Constantineau, of The Human Equation (Toronto: BPS Books, 2010).

Eric McLuhan is the author of The Role of Thunder in Finnegans Wake (University of Toronto Press, 1997);Electric Language: Understanding the Present (Stoddart, 1998); and Theories of Communication (New York: Peter Lang, 2010). He is the co-editor of: Essential McLuhan (Stoddart, 1995), and Who Was Marshall McLuhan? (1994; Stoddart, 1995), and the editor of: The Medium and the Light (Stoddart, 1999); the academic journal, McLuhan Studies; and editor, for Gingko Press, of: Understanding Media, Critical Edition(2003); McLuhan Unbound (2004); and The Book of Probes (2004), and was consulting editor for Voyager/Southam’s “McLuhan Project,” which produced Understanding McLuhan (1997), a CD on Marshall McLuhan and his work.

Media and Formal Cause by Marshall McLuhan and Eric McLuhan






No one understood causality, whether Aristotelian or electric, like Marshall McLuhan.  Now, in Media and Formal Cause, no one reveals understanding of formal cause in the digital environment better than McLuhan’s protégé son, Eric.  In the foreword, Lance Strate writes that M. McLuhan’s Understanding Media was one of the most important books of the 20th century.  For anyone who wishes to understand how things truly work, Media and Formal Cause is one of the most important books of the 21st.    Arguably formal cause has been the least understood but and the most intellectually important of all of Aristotle’s four agents or processes of causation. This small volume proffers a large understanding of this formative, previously mysterious level of invisible creation.  Three essays by Marshall (one with co-author Barry Nevitt) and a powerful new essay by Eric give new meaning to ye olde cliché, “like father, like son”.  While reading writing that is engaging, encyclopedic, and electric, we discover that formal cause is not what you think…  but it is vital to how you think. 


– Thomas Cooper, Professor of Visual and Media Arts, Emerson College; author of Fast Media/Media Fast

In Media and Formal Cause Eric McLuhan updates an important part of his father’s work that is often overlooked, the quixotic role of causality in making sense of how new media change the way we construct our environment and our communication.  How does novelty cause antiquity?  When do effects precede causes?  Read on, and you shall find out.

– David Rothenberg, Professor of Philosophy and Music, New Jersey Institute of Technology; author of Why Birds Sing and Thousand Mile Song

Like his mentor, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Marshall McLuhan was often accused of indulging in mere paradox. But Media and Formal Cause demonstrates the profound understanding that underlies the work of both Chesterton and McLuhan, the understanding that we live in a paradoxical world. Both McLuhan and Chesterton attempted to jar readers loose from what Cardinal Newman called “paper logic” into a recognition of the total situation in which we find ourselves. This very readable and accessible volume should greatly assist new readers of McLuhan and remind long time students of just how challenging and exhilarating his explorations were.

– Philip Marchand, author, Marshall McLuhan:  The Medium and the Messenger

This insightful book entices the reader to engage the legacy of McLuhan.  The paradox of formal cause resonates with our post-literate environment.  The reader who truly wishes to understand media will recognize the value of these essays.

– Catherine Waite Phelan, Chair and Professor of Communication, Hamilton College; author of Mediation and the Communication Matrix

This well-chosen collection of essays is essential reading for anyone who wants to think critically about how to understand the pervasive role of media in our world.  A provocative and highly innovative perspective on modernity is provided by the use of the notion of formal causation, while new light is also shed on the Aristotelian tradition in which the notion was first developed.  This neglected conception of causality remains of profound importance today.
 Paul Franks, Senator Jerahmiel S. and Carole S. Grafstein Chair in Jewish Philosophy, University of Toronto

Questions about the nature of causality have puzzled philosophers for a very long time.  In this collection of papers by and about Marshall McLuhan, we see how these issues can gain new and wider relevance in today’s media-focused age.  The book illustrates and elucidates McLuhan’s thoughts on formal cause, a concept that he believed could help us to grasp the complex relations between media and their effects.  In addition to three of McLuhan’s own characteristically challenging papers, the associated commentary from Eric McLuhan and Lance Strate help to clarify and contextualize these vital ideas for scholars, artists, and anyone else interested in the fundamental issues of human communication.

– Gerald Erion, Professor of Philosophy, Medaille College

For an explanation of Aristotle’s 4 Causes see:

3 Responses to “Media and Formal Cause by Marshall McLuhan & Eric McLuhan”

  1. 1 Mark Stahlman


    For some reason (gee, I wonder why?) none of those above choose to mention the obvious — Aquinas and “the medium is the message.” One was crucial for helping introduce McLuhan to FORMAL CAUSE and the other has become its most popular expression.

    McLuhan wasn’t just a Catholic, he was, like many of his generation and in particular his own mentors, GK Chesterton and (his own mentor) Hilaire Belloc, a Thomist.

    The refocusing on medieval St. Thomas, who Chesterton famously called a “Dumb Ox,” was initiated by Pope Leo XIII, who was deeply concerned about the social and human impact of the Enlightenment and its “esoteric” political organization, Masonry. One of the more damaging of these impacts was the deliberate abandonment of Formal Causality by Descartes and his successors — as an integral part of their attack on the Church.

    McLuhan was also very concerned about these impacts on Christianity, albeit in an age where these “survivors” had clearly been victorious in political terms over the Church and even replaced by “new arrivals.” In Germany, at the time of Leo, where the Jesuits were about to be “banned” (again), the conflict between the Church and the Masons (and others) was known as KULTURKAMPF, which we simply refer to as “Culture War.”

    Underneath his apparently non-committal exterior, McLuhan was, after all, an “intellectual thug,” as he famously proclaimed to Ezra Pound. Jokes are, as McLuhan was sure to inform us, a concrete representation of grievances. McLuhan was, as many have observed, always joking.

    It was perhaps the greatest of the Thomist scholar Etienne Gilson (with whom McLuhan later worked at St. Michaels and, reportedly did not get along) who was among the primary sources for McLuhan’s Cambridge PhD, “The Classical Trivium” — which was long passed around as samizdat and is now a “hidden ground” of McLuhan scholarship.

    While many chortle over the presumed “influence” of his later acquaintances (i.e. the non-Catholics) like communications theorist Harold Innis, the truth is that McLuhan’s views were largely formed the 1930’s — leading up to his Catholic conversion in 1937 at the age of 26.

    It was also Aquinas’ theory of communication, not Innis’, that McLuhan embraced — the details of which will presumably be elaborated in Eric McLuhan’s forthcoming “Theories of Communication.” It was also Aquinas’ understanding of Christ in human affairs, not the neo-Pagan version professed by Teillard de Chardin (yes, nominally a Jesuit), despite the confusion of Tom Wolfe and others.

    The most obvious outcome of McLuhan’s Thomist acceptance of centrality of Formal Causality in society is his phrase “the medium [i.e. formal cause] is the message and the user [i.e. the effect] is the content.”

    The fact that this has been “missed” by so many McLuhan enthusiasts is both a reflection of their Enlightenment-derived education (i.e. anti-Christian and classically pitiful) and their Masonic-inspired (i.e. neo-Pagan) sympathies. Have we all become “dumb asses?”

    Or, as McLuhan offers on his 1969 Dew Line deck of playing cards, the THREE (yes, deliberately selected to represent the TRINITY) of DIAMONDS (yes, deliberately selected to represent the timeless INDESTRUCTIBILITY of the Catholic Church) says —


    The cards are a rarity and reported fetch $100’s but were scanned here —

    2 of Spades

    No — he should not! And, how many McLuhan “experts” can claim to have studied the SUMMA . . . ?

    Mark Stahlman
    Brooklyn NY

  2. I was looking at some of your posts on this internet site and I think this site is really instructive! Keep on putting up.

  3. 3 SB

    “the medium [i.e. formal cause] is the message and the user [i.e. the effect] is the content.”

    After studying Aquinas, Aristotle and the like for several years, I have to say that this view is both strange and almost certainly incorrect. The medium is the material through which form is transmitted, the form being the arrangement of particulars into a coherent message that is received by viewers. The material certainly matters and effects ‘how’ the message is received, its potentiality and actuality, but it seems a mistake to call it formal cause in the same sense that Aristotle and Aquinas used the term.

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