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Eric McLuhan Reminds Us of Connection Consciousness in Roman Catholicism (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Marshall McLuhan. Understanding media (and cities) - Open Your ...
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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) August 20, 2016: My favorite scholar is the American Jesuit cultural historian and theorist Walter J. Ong (1912-2003; Ph.D. in English, Harvard University, 1955). Jesuit training is rather lengthy. As part of his Jesuit training, young Walter Ong was sent to study philosophy and English at Saint Louis University (SLU), the Jesuit university in St. Louis, Missouri.

At SLU, Ong took at least one English course from the young Canadian Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980; Ph.D. in English, Cambridge University, 1943), then a recent convert to Catholicism (in the spring of 1937, when he was teaching English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison). At the time of his conversion to Catholicism, he understood that his Catholicism would be a stigma that would prevent him from ever becoming a professor at Harvard University. McLuhan the new Catholic convert taught English at SLU from 1937 to 1944, as he continued to work on his 1943 Cambridge University doctoral dissertation.

McLuhan published the article "G. K. Chesterton: A Practical Mystic" in the Dalhousie Review, volume 15 (1936): pages 455-464. Chesterton was a well-known British convert to Catholicism. In my estimate, Chesterton's biographies of Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas are still worth reading to this day.

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One year, McLuhan took a leave of absence from SLU to return to Cambridge University and work further on his doctoral dissertation. He was accompanied by new bride Corinne, so it was kind of a honeymoon trip for them to take together.

At SLU, McLuhan became friends with the young philosophy professor Bernard Muller-Thym, who had done his doctoral dissertation in medieval philosophy under Etienne Gilson at St. Mike's at the University of Toronto. Later in life, McLuhan would teach English at St. Mike's at the University of Toronto.

Muller-Thym's doctoral dissertation was published as the book The Establishment of the University of Being in the Doctrine of Meister Eckhart of Hochheim (Sheed and Ward, 1939).

During World War II, Muller-Thym served in the U.S. Navy. After the war, he became a consultant. In the book Master Minds: Portraits of Contemporary American Artists and Intellectuals (Macmillan, 1969), Richard Kostelanetz devotes a chapter to Muller and another to McLuhan (even though he was Canadian). In any event, McLuhan and Muller-Thym remained lifelong friends.

The American spirituality writer Matthew Fox has published three books about connection consciousness in Eckhart's writings. The Swiss psychiatrist and psychological theorist C. G. Jung, M.D., was fascinated with Eckhart's thought and with connection consciousness.

In the late 1950s, McLuhan slowly worked his way through the Canadian Jesuit Bernard Lonergan's 1957 philosophical masterpiece Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (5th ed., University of Toronto Press, 1992). In it Lonergan works out what he himself refers to as the generalized empirical method that he considers to be the method suitable for research in theology, philosophy, and the natural and human sciences. But to what extent, if any, was McLuhan influenced by Lonergan's book? I have no idea. However, as I will explain momentarily, McLuhan himself advanced his own thoughts about a supposed new science.

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Ong's massively researched doctoral dissertation was published, slightly revised in two volumes by Harvard University Press in 1958. In Ong's 1958 book Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason, Ong works with an insight that he himself gives credit to the French Catholic philosopher Louis Lavelle (1883-1951) for developing originally. Then Ong's 1958 book prompted McLuhan to write his flawed experimental book The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (University of Toronto Press, 1962), in which he greatly expands the scope of the insight he borrowed from Ong's 1958 book.

Next, McLuhan further expanded the scope of that basic insight in his 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (McGraw-Hill), which became his big breakthrough book. Neither Ong nor Lonergan ever had a comparable big breakthrough book.

Ong published reviews of McLuhan's 1951 book The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (Vanguard Press) and of his 1962 book The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (University of Toronto Press) and of his 1969 book The Interior Landscape: The Literary Criticism of Marshall McLuhan (1969).

As improbable as it may sound to people today, McLuhan was seemed to be ubiquitous in the 1960s and 1970 -- in newspapers and magazines and even on television and in a cameo appearance in a Woody Allen movie. For example, the New York Times published an interview with McLuhan conducted by Wallace Turner titled "Understanding M'Luhan [sic] by Him" on November 22, 1966, page 43. Among other things, McLuhan is quoted as saying, "People make a great mistake trying to read me as if I were saying something. I poke these sentences around to probe and feel my way around in our kind of world."

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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