Was Marshall McLuhan Influenced by Bernard Lonergan, SJ in Writing Understanding Media (1964)?



Professor Thomas Farrell has provided an interesting commentary proposing that Marshall McLuhan was influenced by the Canadian Jesuit scholar Bernard Lonergan in his writing of Understanding Media (1964), regarded by many as his most important book. Specifically, he writes below that McLuhan “almost certainly had been influenced by Lonergan’s inward turn of consciousness [in his Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (1957)], at least to a certain extent”.  Dr.
Farrell is correct in asserting that no McLuhan scholar appears to have explored the possible connection between these two intellectual giants, who were located physically on the University of Toronto campus at the same time, between 1965 and 1975, when Lonergan was at St. Regis College; the latter is a short block south of St. Michael’s College and McLuhan’s Centre for Culture and Technology. Lonergan isn’t even mentioned in the two biographies of McLuhan (Marchand, 1989) and Gordon (1997) and he is mentioned in only one published letter, this one to another Catholic Jesuit intellectual, Walter Ong, dated Sept 21, 1957. In the postscript of that letter, McLuhan writes: “Find much sense in Bern. Lonergan’s Insight” (Letters, 1987, p. 251).   
Now another Jesuit influence on McLuhan that is clear is that of Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, whose name is mentioned several times in McLuhan’s writings. Both Marchand and Gordon had access to the McLuhan Archive in the National Library of Canada and spent abundant time there; it seems that Lonergan isn’t mentioned sufficiently enough in McLuhan’s unpublished letters and papers to warrant being mentioned in either biography, as de Chardin is, to warrant mentioning as a possible influence. Still, perhaps the possible influence of Lonergan on McLuhan bears further investigation…….AlexK
 Contextualizing McLuhan’s UNDERSTANDING MEDIA, November 15, 2014 – By Thomas J. Farrell
This review is from: Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man : Critical Edition (Hardcover) appended to Amazon.com’s review – see http://tinyurl.com/o3lo4qx .
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Marshall McLuhan’s book UNDERSTANDING MEDIA (1964), I would like to point out something about McLuhan that I consider to be very important for understanding the inward turn he took in writing UNDERSTANDING MEDIAIn the late 1950s, McLuhan carefully worked his way through Bernard Lonergan’s book INSIGHT: A STUDY OF HUMAN UNDERSTANDING (1957; 5th ed. 1992). Lonergan’s book is a profound philosophical study. (McLuhan had no formal training in philosophy. In philosophy, he was an autodidact.) [Actually, McLuhan’s 1933 Honours B.A. at the University of Manitoba was in English & Philosophy]. Because Lonergan’s book INSIGHT: A STUDY OF HUMAN UNDERSTANDING is wide-ranging, I should point out that Mark D. Morelli and Elizabeth A. Morelli have perceptively selected the central parts of Lonergan’s treatise in their edited book THE LONERGAN READER (University of Toronto Press, 1997, pages 29-359).Briefly, in his inward turn to consciousness, Lonergan identified and discusses what I will style here as moments of consciousness: (1) sensory input and imagination, (2) intellectual processing of sensory input and imagination, (3) rational processing (judging and adjudicating), and (4) decision-making and taking action. Lonergan claims that his account of human consciousness constitutes a generalized empirical way of proceeding to think about human thinking.Now, Buddhist meditation and some other forms of non-imagistic meditation aim to transcend consciousness. No doubt the experience of transcending consciousness can contribute to providing us with a certain distance from consciousness. Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003), liked to say that we need both proximity (closeness) and distance to understand anything.

However, as a Jesuit, Lonergan had been trained in the Jesuit tradition of imagistic meditation – deriving from the founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius Loyola. As a result of his Jesuit training in imagistic meditation, Lonergan was primed to examine human consciousness. In his philosophical treatise he establishes enough distance from human consciousness that he is able to understand how it works.

Now, McLuhan famously declared that he was concerned with percepts. Percepts involve the moment of consciousness that Lonergan refers to as sensory input and imagination. In all honesty, I have to say here that paying attention to percepts sounds remarkably similar to the spirit of imagistic meditation practiced by Jesuits. (I am not claiming that McLuhan was familiar with the Jesuit tradition of imagistic meditation, because I don’t know if he was.)

Bernard Lonergan, S.J. (1904-1984), was a Canadian, as was Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980). At the time when McLuhan carefully worked his way through Lonergan’s philosophical study in the late 1950s, McLuhan was teaching English at St. Mike’s [St. Michael’s College], a Roman Catholic institution in the University of Toronto. (In the mid-1930s, McLuhan had converted to Roman Catholicism.)

In the 1950s and for decades earlier, St. Mike’s was one of the two leading centers in North America of Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy. At the time and for decades earlier, St. Louis University, the Jesuit university in St. Louis, Missouri, was the other leading center of Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy in North America. Earlier in his professional career, McLuhan taught English at St. Louis University, as he worked on his 1943 Cambridge University doctoral dissertation.

Centuries earlier, the Jesuits had joined the Dominicans in promoting the thought of Thomas Aquinas in philosophy and theology. In his Jesuit training, Lonergan had become an expert in the thought of Thomas Aquinas in philosophy and theology.

However, because of the extraordinary status of Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy in the Roman Catholic Church before the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), many non-Catholics in North America considered Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy to be somehow “religious” – or more specifically, somehow tainted by religion. Oftentimes, non-Catholics in North America used this patently false claim to dismiss Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy. This tendency to dismiss Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy was especially pronounced in the United States, where the American prestige culture had been dominated for centuries by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who tended to be anti-Catholic in spirit.

When Harvard-educated Senator John F. Kennedy was narrowly elected president of the United States in 1960, he was the first Irish-American Roman Catholic to be elected to that office. In the 1960 presidential campaign, he had to defend his personal religious affiliation because it was a stigma at that time for that office.

Because of the still strong anti-Catholic bias in the 1960s, McLuhan was not likely to present himself publicly as a Roman Catholic who was seriously interested in Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy – or as a Roman Catholic who had carefully worked his way through Lonergan’s monumental book INSIGHT: A STUDY OF HUMAN UNDERSTANDING.

Now, the subtitle of Lonergan’s book advertises its central focus on human understanding.

The main title of McLuhan’s book is UNDERSTANDING MEDIA.

Granted, as an English professor, McLuhan was familiar with Brooks and Warren’s influential book UNDERSTANDING POETRY. (McLuhan and Brooks were friends.)

After McLuhan had carefully worked his way through Lonergan’s monumental philosophical treatise, he almost certainly had been influenced by Lonergan’s inward turn of consciousness, at least to a certain extent.

When we turn our attention to McLuhan’s publications before 1964, we do not find anything remotely approximating his inward turn of consciousness in UNDERSTANDING MEDIA.

But McLuhan’s inward turn to consciousness in UNDERSTANDING MEDIA (1964) threw many readers for a loop, to put it mildly. Nevertheless, it sold remarkably well, and it helped catapult the author to extraordinary celebrity. (However, I myself do not find all of McLuhan’s analyses in UNDERSTANDING MEDIA perceptive.)

Of course Lonergan’s INSIGHT: A STUDY OF HUMAN UNDERSTANDING (1957) also threw many readers for a loop, to put it mildly. But Lonergan’s philosophical treatise was not as widely read as McLuhan’s UNDERSTANDING MEDIA was.

Now, if you want to argue that McLuhan was not influenced by carefully working his way through Lonergan’s treatise, you are of course free to claim this and to advance this claim.

However, if you want to contextualize McLuhan’s UNDERSTANDING MEDIA, you should not overlook Lonergan’s philosophical treatise.

As I have noted, both McLuhan and Lonergan were Canadians. Certain followers of McLuhan are also Canadian, just as certain followers of Lonergan are. However, as far as I know, the influence of Lonergan’s INSIGHT on McLuhan’s UNDERSTANDING MEDIA has not been explored.

As far as I know, none of McLuhan’s followers have never explored the influence of Lonergan’s philosophical treatise on him – perhaps because they are not familiar with Lonergan’s philosophical treatise.

Conversely, as far as I know, none of Lonergan’s followers have ever paid any attention to how his philosophical treatise influenced McLuhan’s UNDERSTANDING MEDIA.

For this reason, I think it is appropriate to explore this here. (See Dr. Farrell’s review on Amazon.com)


As you may know, Marshall McLuhan explicitly indicates in one of his published letters that that he is reading Lonergan’s INSIGHT. The letter is to Walter Ong. I don’t recall the exact date on the letter, but it was in the late 1950s.[The letter was to Walter Ong, S.J. dated Sept 21, 1957; see p. 251 of McLuhan’s published letters.]
Marshall McLuhan somehow enlisted a graduate student in English named Donald Theall to undertake reading Lonergan’s INSIGHT along with him in the late 1950s [Donald Theall was McLuhan’s first doctoral candidate.]
According to Donald Theall, who is now deceased, they read some of Lonergan’s book and then met and discussed what they had read, before they proceeded to read the next part. From my memory of my email exchange with Donald Theall, I don’t remember if they read a chapter at a time, or perhaps more than a chapter at a time. Lonergan’s book is lengthy. So if they read only one chapter at a time, they would have proceeded slowly through the book, and they would have had a number of meetings to discuss the part they had read.
In light of their read-discuss way of proceeding, I would not be surprised if each of them marked his copy as he read the assigned part of the book.
As you may know, Lonergan was a local big shot among Roman Catholics in the Toronto area in the 1950s when his book INSIGHT was published. So Marshall McLuhan probably heard about Lonergan’s book from other faculty members at St. Mike’s.
However, I believe that by 1957 Lonergan was teaching at the Gregorian University, the Jesuit university in Rome. [The Bernard Lonergan Archive provides the following: “He taught at the Jesuit Seminary in Toronto from 1947 to 1953, and then at the Gregorian University from 1953 to 1965 …. From 1965 to 1975 he was Professor of Theology at Regis College, Toronto.” ( http://www.bernardlonergan.com/biography.php )]



2 Responses to “Was Marshall McLuhan Influenced by Bernard Lonergan, SJ in Writing Understanding Media (1964)?”

  1. 2 Howard r. Engel

    As the current Director of The Marshall McLuhan Initiative at St. Paul’s College, “The Ignatian Tradition at the University of Manitoba” in Winnipeg, Canada, I am delighted to hear of someone inadvertently reiterating an academic consideration of the connection between the two Canadian intellectual giants of the mid-20th century, Fr. Bernard Lonergan S.J. and Marshall McLuhan. My late colleague and former Director of the Initiative, Richard J. Osicki (1946-2012) very deftly made this connection between the thought of Lonergan and McLuhan in his Master of Arts thesis at the University of Dayton (Ohio) entitled, “Towards a Theology of Christian Communications” (2004). There he connects Lonergan’s Method in Theology with McLuhan’s percepts on communications, often through the prism of Fr. Pierre Babin, omi (1925-2012) who interviewed McLuhan in the late 1960s and/or early ’70s and collaborated with him on publishing those interviews as “Autre homme, autre chrétien à l’âge électronique” (Chalet: 1977).

    As the blog post points out, pursuing such connections between the two thinkers is worthwhile and may potentially yield rich discoveries and new understandings of our mediated world and its impacts on human beings, hence enhancing our understanding of media. I would add that McLuhan’s collaboration with and apparent affinity for Jesuit thinkers throughout his career.is no accident. Besides the already mentioned Walter Ong, Teilhard de Chardin and Bernard Lonergan, McLuhan collaborated with John Culkin SJ in media literacy projects.

    I understand from my late colleague Richard Osicki that the Society of Jesuits themselves (at least in their North American universities like St. Louis, Marquette, Georgetown and Concordia, which was, incidentally, where Richard Osicki earned his undergraduate degree) were sent on a mission in the 1950s and the 1960s (i.e. around the same time McLuhan himself flourished) to pay attention to the signs of the times and explore the new frontiers opened up by communications and media technology, particularly as it impacted the Church. Therein lies another avenue for study, i.e. the Jesuit contribution to media and communications.

    Finally, questions about the influence of Lonergan on McLuhan could potentially be addressed by examining the marginalia in McLuhan’s copies of “Insight” and “Method in Theology”, assuming at least one or both exist in the McLuhan Collection recently donated by his family to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto.

    Howard R. Engel,
    The Marshall McLuhan Initiative
    St. Paul’s College
    The University of Manitoba
    Winnipeg, Canada

    Phone: 204-253-0419

    “I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t believed it.” — Marshall McLuhan

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: