Marshall McLuhan on Discovery Through Suspended Judgment

04Sep17

McLuhan’s “challenge and collapse: the nemesis of creativity”

July 27, 2014   –   Billy Caba, 1995

In McLuhan’s “challenge and collapse: The nemesis of creativity” [Chapter 7 of Understanding Media] he talks about Bertrand Russell’s “technique of suspended judgment” in the first paragraph. He also compares this to A.N. Whitehead’s “technique of discovery”. Both believed that these were the great discoveries of the 20th century. The “technique of discovery” basically means that whatever someone is trying to discover, they work backward until they get to the very essence of what that is. At first, this was pretty confusing but the example that McLuhan gave helps a lot. For instance, in art, you start off with an effect or an emotion. And then you keep adding to the art work so that it resembles that emotion or effect. The “technique of suspended judgment” as McLuhan put it, goes further. This technique predicts certain outcomes. The example that McLuhan gives is that an unhappy childhood can produce an unhappy adult. 

Connecting this with technology you can see how taming fire can result in a furnace being created; where it can either heat a home, make weapons such as swords, or just cook food.

When it comes down to trying to understand these concepts, I began to realize that I was doing the same thing that A.N Whitehead and Bertrand Russell were doing. They are simply trying to better understand technology and where it comes from. They are trying to better understand the human condition in regards to technology just like I am trying to understand them.

Throughout human history, human beings have constantly been inventing new technologies but also asking questions about that technology and how it changes us. Which is understandable; since the biggest thing separating our species from other animals is our use and creation of technology. The “technique of discovery” and the “technique of suspended judgment” are the techniques used to simply better understand the world we have created around us.

These concepts were created in the 20th century where human interaction and effect on the world was more apparent than ever. A.N. Whitehead was searching for where technology came from where Bertrand Russell’s wanted to predict where technology was going. But like I stated before, the two, as well as McLuhan, are simply trying to better understand the human relationship with technology. Source: https://goo.gl/L8YPYs

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The Technique of Suspended Judgement – was further explained by McLuhan in a speech at the Learned Societies Canada conference in Montreal in June 1961.

“A. N. Whitehead pointed to the discovery of the nineteenth century as the discovery of the technique of invention. Bertrand Russell pointed to the great achievement of the twentieth century as the technique of suspended judgement. That is, the discovery of the process of insight itself, the technique of avoiding the automatic closure or involuntary fixing of attitudes that so easily results from any given cultural situation – The technique of open field perception. Both the discovery of the method of invention and the discovery of the technique of insight not only concern scientists but humanists, and have been freely used by both of what C. P. Snow calls the two cultures. So much so, indeed, that the resonant statistic of about 95% of the greatest scientists of human history now being alive may apply equally to poets, painters and philosophers”… Source: https://goo.gl/jLW6ov 

Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970)

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