Rod Johnson writes in with a further elucidation of the origin of content:
Aristotle, of course. Aristotle, for better or for worse, is the source of so many of our ideas about metaphysics, meaning and communication that it just isn’t funny (I’m reminded of Baudelaire, who on being asked “Who is France’s greatest poet?” replied “Victor Hugo... hélas”). But never mind.
Aristotle laid out a doctrine which is sometimes called “hylomorphism” in which things are composites of morphe, form and hyle, matter. This comes down through Aquinas and Erasmus, plays a major role in Renaissance thought, is picked up by Descartes and becomes part of the substrate of nineteenth-century psychology. But probably the biggest exponents of it in the 20th century were Ferdinand de Saussure, who deeply influenced everyone who subsequently thought about language, communication and the mishmash of metaphysics and psychology Saussure called “semiology,” and Edmund Husserl, who laid down a vast expanse of post-neo-quasi-Aristotelian thought in Logical Investigations (1900) which had an enormous influence on European esthetics and social science before and after World War I. I agree, Modernism, especially in the form of the Bauhaus, did a lot to popularize (and ideologize) the form/content distinction, but the idea was “in the air” around the turn of the century and had been an explicit thread in several disciplines much, much earlier.
And there’s undoubtedly a lot more to say than that. I think that this is one of those fundamental distinctions in Western culture that pops up again and again in various forms that any attempt to find “the first” is doomed. I bet it would turn up in early Christian thought too.
We’re still interested in hearing of content/delivery distinctions predating the online world. (Read the previous discussion.)
Posted on 2000-08-28