Should Old Aquinas Be Forgot?



The card at left is from McLuhan’s Distance Early Warning card deck (1969)

Should old Aquinas be forgot
And never brought to mind?
Should old Aquinas be forgot
In these days of Wittgenstein?

This is not a new Marshall McLuhan-related item on the Internet, but it’s one that I’ve only just discovered. Thanks to Ken A for pointing it out. Thomas Aquinas was a major influence on the thought of Marshall McLuhan and this site will help you understand why. The article was written by painter, illustrator, and philosopher Hugh James Francis Joseph McDonald (see ). Only a portion of this article is reproduced here; follow the link at botton for the rest……..AlexK

McLuhan as a Thomist – some notes

First posted August 10, 1999 – a work in progress! Last updated August 24, 1999

This collection of notes is a response to some readers who cannot find other material showing the influence of Thomas Aquinas on Marshall McLuhan. This page will be constantly updated, and I expect it to be unfinished for quite a time, so check it out periodically.

For Greek citations I use the Windows “symbol” font, and for those who do not have this, a little guesswork may be required. My apologies.

  • Prefatory Remarks
  • Formal Causality, forgotten since the Renaissance in the new mechanical universe;
  • Figure and Ground McLuhans application of formal causality
  • Analogy, overshadowed by the precise measurements of the physical sciences;
  • Participation, hot and cold media
  • The Common Sense, which is the ancient term for the sense that compiles all the other senses, and which is affected in various ways by media.
  • The Media, as “Medium” is a term that has a very large philosophical charge in the philosophy of Aquinas and Aristotle.
  • Bibliography

Prefatory Remarks

Many regard the thought of Marshall McLuhan as eclectic and inaccessible. He wrote aphoristically and was not averse to using puns. In some cases, his work is like a Rorschau test. The reader encounters undefined terms and must fill in the gaps himself.

The gist of McLuhan’s thought is perhaps summed up in his aphorism: “the medium is the message”. The medium of communication, regardless of the content, has its own effect upon our psyche. The use of books creates a certain sort of personality, and from this a certain sort of culture and political order, no matter what the actual content of the books may be. The telegraph, the radio, television, and now the Internet, all create new cultures. McLuhan also pointed out that the effects of the media are all but invisible, since we are immersed in them like a fish in water. A fish does not know what water is until he is beached. Because they are invisible, it is all the more important that we study the effects of the media.

My interest in the thought of Marshall McLuhan was first aroused by two professors at St. Jerome’s College, Dr. Gerry Campbell who worked McLuhan’s thought into his course of introduction to philosophy, which was basically the thought of St. Thomas, and Dr. Donald DeMarco. Of course, as a Canadian, it was impossible even for a child not to be immersed in the thought and aphorisms of McLuhan during the 1960s and 1970s.

Many years later, I had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of Joseph Keogh at Niagara University. Professor Keogh was Marshall McLuhan’s assistant for several years. He passed me an article by Brigid Elson, called “In Defence of the Human Person – The Christian Humanism of Marshall McLuhan” published in the Canadian Catholic Review of Mary 1994. Elson’s article makes the point that “Thomistic philosophy eventually provided him with the necessary categories for handling form, cause and effect, and change.” Joe Keogh also introduced me to Bruce Powers, Professor Emeritus at Niagara University, and co-author with McLuhan of “The Global Village”. Dr. Powers was very generous in his time, in explaining difficult points in that same book.

Formal Causality

The philosophical tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas identifies four varieties of causes: the efficient cause, the formal cause, the final cause, and the material cause. Today, when we speak of cause it is of efficient cause, the agent who does something to effect a change. This is sometimes confused with material cause, as the scientific tendency to present things in terms of their component parts, and treat this presentation as an explanation. The formal cause is more elusive to the modern mind, possibly due to an environment saturated by nominalism. According to nominalism, at the risk of oversimplification, there are no intelligible forms of things, but only measurements, shapes and weights and the like, and the forms that are signified by generic names such as “dog”, “lily” and so forth are just convenient handles for certain somewhat similar patterns or arrangements.

This appeals to the modern mind, because we respect the physical sciences above all, and so we admire precision. Quantities can be precisely signified. However, although everyone knows a dog when they see one, no one can adequately define what it is they mean by a dog. If we ask a scientist for help in the matter, we might get some precise statements about structure, or even DNA, which has very little to do with what we are seeking.

The result is an impoverishment of language and thought. The most important things, including “importance” itself, are outside the range of scientific precision and discourse. The most important things can only be spoken of in everyday language, a point recognized by St. Thomas and McLuhan.

A typical quote from Thomas on this matter:

Multitudinis usus, quem in rebus nominandis sequendum philosophus censet, communiter obtinuit ut sapientes dicantur qui res directe ordinant et eas bene gubernant. Unde inter alia quae homines de sapiente concipiunt, a Philosopho ponitur quod sapientis est ordinare.
The way most people use words, which the philosopher says should be followed when naming things, commonly terms wise those directly order things and govern them well. Thus among all the other things that men think of the wise man, the Philosopher sets forth that it is the role of the wise man to order things.

Despite that hair-splitting associated with Scholastic philosophy, Thomas followed Aristotle in building his definitions step by step from common language. It was otherwise in modern philosophy. McLuhan notes the role of Descartes in the language of modernity:

The print in its clumsy woodcut-phase reveals a major aspect of language; namely, that words cannot bear sharp definition in daily use. When Descartes surveyed the philosophical scene at the beginning of the seventeenth century, he was appalled at the confusion of tongues and began to strive toward a reduction of philosophy to precise mathematical form. This striving for an irrelevant precision served only to exclude from philosophy most of the questions of philosophy; and that great kingdom of philosophy was soon parceled out into the wide range of uncommunicating sciences and specialties we know today.
Understanding Media Marshall McLuhan, ch. 16 “The Print”

McLuhan here refers to “irrelevant precision”, and this expression takes us back to Aristotle’s Ethics. Aristotle tells us: “It is the mark of an educated mind to expect that amount of exactness (akribeia) in each kind which the nature of the particular subject admits. It is equally unreasonable to accept merely probable conclusions from a mathematician and to demand strict demonstration from an orator.” (Nicomachean Ethics, I, iii, 1094b20 ff). Thomas Aquinas uses the term “certainty” (certitudo) instead of “precision” to render the Greek akribeia.

Deinde cum dicit: eodem utique modo etc., ostendit quod auditorem oportet acceptare in moralibus praedictum modum determinandi. Et dicit, quod debitum est, quod unusquisque recipiat unumquodque (eorum) quae sibi ab alio dicuntur eodem modo, id est secundum quod convenit materiae. quia ad hominem disciplinatum, idest bene instructum, pertinet, ut tantum certitudinem quaerat in unaquaque materia, quantum natura rei patitur. non enim potest esse tanta certitudo in materia variabili et contingenti, sicut in materia necessaria, semper eodem modo se habente. et ideo auditor bene disciplinatus nec debet maiorem certitudinem requirere, nec minori esse contentus, quam sit conveniens rei de qua agitur. propinquum enim peccatum esse videtur, si aliquis auditor acceptet aliquem mathematicum persuasionibus rhetoricis utentem, et si expetat a rhetorico demonstrationes certas, quales debet proferre mathematicus. utrumque enim contingit ex hoc, quod non consideratur modus materiae conveniens. nam mathematica est circa materiam, in qua invenitur omnimoda certitudo. rhetorica autem negotiatur circa materiam civilem, in qua multiplex variatio accidit.

McLuhans “Thomistic” theory of formal causality is related to his own theory of participation in various media, the distinction between hot and cold media. The various media change the way we see the world, and the media, in a certain way, stand in place of our sensus communis. These views were developed by Walter Ong (who wrote his PhD under McLuhan’s direction)in such works as Ramus’ Method and the Decay of Dialogue (Harvard U. Press). With print came an emphasis upon efficient causality. Electric media (the telegraph and subsequent technologies) re-introduce a sensitivity to formal causality. McLuhan writes to Peter Drucker (Letters, p. 259, Dec. 15, 1959):

” … I refer to formal cause not in the sense of the classification of forms” (the taxonomies of Linnaeus? – HM) “but their their operation upon one another.”

Kantian philosophy had a place for formal causality, which had been shelved in the centuries leading up to Kant, but its place was not in the world, in things, but in the human mind. The world of his time recognized only efficient causality. McLuhan writes to Drucker:

“…my media studies have gravitated toward the centre of formal causality, forcing me to re-invent it.”

McLuhan obviously had been trying to establish a dialogue with the Thomists in this matter. He writes:

“Two years ago I began to query the local Schoolmen about formal causality, only to discover they had no use for it whatever. As one of them said the other day, ‘the danger of formal causality is relativism. We prefer platonism with its static universals as less dangerous.”

A decade later, McLuhan reiterates his interest in formal causality (Letters, to J. G. Keogh, p. 412, July 6, 1972):

“…my approach to media is metaphysical rather than sociological or dialectical…my metaphysical approach is not moral” (McLuhan analyzed and described, but did not moralize. This showed respect for his readers, who are capable of drawing their own moral conclusions, but many thought that McLuhan’s descriptions of the effects of media were endorsements as well) “…I am not in any way interested in classifying cultueral forms. I am a metaphysician, interested in the life of the forms and their surprising modalities. I have no interest at all in the academic world and its attempts at tidying up experience.”


The doctrine of analogy is at the center of the thought of Thomas Aquinas. Marshall McLuhan weaves analogy into his own thought.

Read the rest here:

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