Comments on Ronen Grunberg’s Presentation on Marshall McLuhan – Tuesday March 22, 2022 – by John Smithin

This was a very interesting presentation and is highly recommended viewing on the API YouTube channel. The purpose of this note is to comment on a particular slide in the section about the  ‘moral aspects’ of new media  (slide #36 to be precise). McLuhan is trying to provide some sort of antidote to the overwhelming effects of one particular medium rather than another. For example, if you are watching too much television, switch it off and read a book.

He says (something like) that the actual effects of the media are on the ‘perceptions’ and/or the ‘senses’, and they do not really operate in the realms of ‘concepts and opinions’. Therefore, changing to a book, for instance, gives you a chance to ‘detox’, look at things in a different way, and form different opinions. I think that this brief statement goes a long way towards resolving the various connundra that always seem to arise in discussions about McLuhan.

It ties in neatly with an article I read recently by A. Leo Reilly, on ‘Marshall McLuhan as a realist philosopher’. The author makes the point that McLuhan was an enthusiastic convert to the Catholic Church, and thus accepted the official Catholic doctrine of ‘Thomist realism’. Apparently, one of his main reasons for accepting a position at St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto, was to interact with such prominent scholars in the field as Etienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain, who were on the faculty. But according to Reilly (and reading between the lines), his reception by them was somewhat lukewarm. They recognized McLuhan’s intellectual gifts, and were sympathetic to his efforts, but Gilson, in particular, thought that McLuhan ‘overestimated the importance of … material causality’.

This suggests, perhaps, that McLuhan had made the classic mistake, of scholars reacting against Hegelian idealism, by going to the opposite extreme of dialectical materialism (‘turning Hegel on his head’, in Marx’s famous phrase). But intellectual history shows that both idealism and materialism, taken too far, are bound to fail, and that realism is not co-extensive with materialism. There are many entities which are immaterial but real - social relations, to take an obvious example. Ideas themselves (properly so-called) may be viewed as emergent properties of the brain, and not just epiphenomena. They can and do have real causal effects on the material world.

In the quotes above, however, McLuhan does seem to return precisely to this classical realist position (albeit in an off-handed sort of way). He now makes a distinction between the ‘intellect and the senses’ – exactly as suggested by another Catholic convert, and follower of Aquinas, Mortimer J. Adler. The senses or perceptions may well be distorted (by the media in this case), but it now seems at least possible to switch them (the media) off, and to try to access the underlying reality via concept formation. This has always been the Thomist (and, in general, the ‘realist’) approach.

How far did McLuhan push these notions? Did he pay much attention to them, or was it just a passing remark? Was he unfair to the likes of Muggeridge?