The Toronto School of Communication: Eric A. Havelock (1903 – 1988)


File:Eric A Havelock.jpg Eric Havelock, while at Yale

Harold Innis and Ted Carpenter have been documented on this blog as key figures in the McLuhan Galaxy. I want to document the other principal figures associated with the Toronto School of Communication, specifically Eric Havelock and David R. Olson, along with some of the key members of the Centre for Culture & Technology such as Jacqueline Tyrwhitt, Donald Theall, Dorothy Lee, Tom Easterbrook, Sigfried Giedeon, Ashley Montagu, Karl Polyani, Arthur Porter and others.

Eric Alfred Havelock  (June 3, 1903 – April 4, 1988) was a British classicist who spent most of his life in Canada and the United States. He was a professor at the University of Toronto and was active in the Canadian socialist movement during the 1930s. While at Toronto, Havelock began formulating his theory of orality and literacy, establishing the context of a later movement at the University interested in the critical study of communication, which Donald F. Theall has called the “Toronto School of Communications.” Havelock’s work was complemented by that of Harold Innis, who was working on the history of media. The work Havelock and Innis began in the 1930s was the preliminary basis for the influential theories of communication developed by Marshall McLuhan and Edmund Snow Carpenter in the 1950s.

In the 1960s and 1970s, he served as chair of the classics departments at both Harvard and Yale. Although he was trained in the turn-of-the-20th-century Oxbridge tradition of classical studies, which saw Greek intellectual history as an unbroken chain of related ideas, Havelock broke radically with his own teachers and proposed an entirely new model for understanding the classical world, based on a sharp division between literature of the 6th and 5th centuries BC on the one hand, and that of the 4th on the other.

Much of Havelock’s work was devoted to addressing a single thesis: that all of Western thought is informed by a profound shift in the kinds of ideas available to the human mind at the point that Greek philosophy converted from an oral to a literate form. The idea has been very controversial in classical studies, and has been rejected outright both by many of Havelock’s contemporaries and modern classicists. Havelock and his ideas have nonetheless had far-reaching influence, both in classical studies and other academic areas. He and Walter J. Ong (who was himself strongly influenced by Havelock) essentially founded the field that studies transitions from orality to literacy, and Havelock has been one of the most frequently cited theorists in that field; as an account of communication, his work profoundly affected the media theories of Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan. Havelock’s influence has spread beyond the study of the classical world to that of analogous transitions in other times and places. (Source: )

Preface to Plato

Donald Theall wrote of Havelock’s influence on McLuhan and Innis:-

The foundation of the Toronto School begins with Havelock and the way he interpreted Aeschylus’s play, Prometheus Bound, as a commentary on the dilemma of the rise of technology and its creation of a new sense of space, time and memory in a post-technological world dominated by a shift from orality to writing – an argument he was later to develop at great length in a book McLuhan praised highly, The Preface to Plato.

Innis openly admitted Havelock’s influence on his own work with his interest in communication technologies and the shift in biases toward time and space which resulted in various media. McLuhan’s early work in his Cambridge doctoral thesis, Thomas Nashe and the Learning of his Time, and his first book, The Mechanical Bride, provided him with a unique access to Havelock’s work, presenting possibilities of reinterpreting, expanding and critiquing many of Havelock’s, and later Innis’s, insights. McLuhan was able to use the history of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric and their impact on shaping the poetic and directing learning from Greece to Elizabethan England to extend Havelock’s history of Greek culture to that of the history of culture from the Roman Empire to the Reformation. (Source: )

One Response to “The Toronto School of Communication: Eric A. Havelock (1903 – 1988)”

  1. 1 Eric A Havelock | torontoschoolofcomm

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