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Walter J. Ong

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Father Walter Jackson Ong, Ph.D. (November 30, 1912August 12, 2003), was an American Jesuit priest, professor of English literature, cultural and religious historian and philosopher.


Ong was born in Kansas City, Missouri, to a Protestant father and a Roman Catholic mother; he was raised as a Roman Catholic. In 1933 he received a bachelor of arts degree from Rockhurst College, where he majored in Latin. During his time at Rockhurst, he founded a chapter of the Catholic fraternity, Alpha Delta Gamma. He worked in printing and publishing prior to entering the Society of Jesus in 1935, and was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1946.

In 1941 Ong earned a master's degree in English at Saint Louis University. His thesis on sprung rhythm in the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (see An Ong Reader, 2002: 111-74) was supervised by the young Canadian Marshall McLuhan. Ong also received the degrees Licentiate of Philosophy and Licentiate of Sacred Theology from Saint Louis University.

After completing his dissertation, on the French logician and educational reformer Peter Ramus (1515-1572) and Ramism, under the supervision of Perry Miller at Harvard University in 1954, Ong returned to Saint Louis University, where he would teach for the next 30 years. In 1955 he received his Ph.D. in English from Harvard University.

In 1963 the French government honored Ong for his work on Ramus by dubbing Ong a knight, Chevalier de l'Ordre des Palmes académiques. In 1966-1967 Ong served on the 14-member White House Task Force on Education that reported to President Lyndon Johnson. In 1971 Ong was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In April and May 1974, he served as Lincoln Lecturer, presenting lectures in French in Cameroun, Zaire, and Senegal and in English in Nigeria. In 1967 Ong served as president of the Milton Society of America. In 1978 Ong served as elected president of the Modern Language Association of America. He was very active on the lecture circuit as well as in professional organizations.

Contributions in perspectiveEdit


In 2004, the University of Chicago Press reissued Ong's 1958 Harvard University Press book Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason, with a new foreword by Adrian Johns. On the back cover, we are told that Ong today "enjoys the status of honorary guru among technophiles."

As we shall see below, from the time of Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue onward over his long and productive life, Ong works with a thesis regarding technological transformations of the word and their impact through cultural conditioning on human consciousness.

In Ong's most notable works from the 1950s onward, we could say that he is constructing a multidimensional model of Western culture from its preliterate oral matrix through the development of alphabetic writing in the ancient Hebrew and Greek traditions to the development of the Gutenberg printing press and to the more recent development of communication media that accentuate sound. This sequence of historical developments is arguably the most widely known part of Ong's thought. But he does work with a number of other themes as well, which can be characterized as dimensions of his multidimensional model of Western culture: (1) the historical development of visualist tendencies in Western philosophic thought; (2) the mathematical transformation of thought in medieval and early modern logic and beyond; (3) oral cyclic thought (which can be found even in Plato's Republic) versus linear or historical or evolutionary thought, as Ong variously characterizes this dimension of our Judaeo-Christian tradition; (4) the movement from oral heroic poetry to mock-heroic poetry in print culture to the realist tradition in literature to the modern antihero; (5) the historical development in manuscript culture and print culture of the inward turn of personalized ego-consciousness, or inner-directedness as David Riesman styles this historical development in The Lonely Crowd (1950; reissued in 2000 by Yale University Press with a foreword by Todd Gitlin); (6) the new dimensions of orality fostered by communication media that accentuate sound, which Ong styles secondary orality to distinguish these developments from all earlier forms of ordinary talking and public speaking.

Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue (1958)Edit

Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason (1958) elaborates the contrast between the visual and the oral that he found in Louis Lavelle's La parole et l'ecriture (1942). In addition, Ong details how the spatialization and quantification of thought in dialectic and logic during the Middle Ages enabled "a new state of mind" to emerge in print culture, as he himself puts it in The Barbarian Within (1962: 72) -- a state of mind representing "a real mathematical transformation of thinking" (ibid.) associated with the emergence of modern science.

The companion volume, Ramus and Talon Inventory (1958) is a notable work that is a rudimentary contribution to the field known today as book history, because Ong briefly describes more than 750 volumes (mostly in Latin) that he had tracked down in more than 100 libraries in the British Isles and Continental Europe.

On the back cover of the 2004 edition of Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue, the University of Chicago Press has aptly characterized Ong's book as a "challenging study." Because Lavelle's key works on visualism (1921, 1942) are not easily found today, readers might want to read Andrea Nightingale's Spectacles of Truth in Classical Greek Philosophy: Theoria in Its Cultural Context (2004) beforehand. For a penetrating related account of visualism in philosophic thought (the tendency to equate knowing with "taking a good look"), see Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (1957) by Bernard Lonergan, S.J. Ong himself further discussed visualism in four essays reprinted in The Barbarian Within (1962: 26-40, 68-87, 164-76, 220-29) and in two other essays reprinted in Faith and Contexts: Volume Three (1995: 69-90, 91-111).

Between Lavelle's books and Ong's 1958 book, the visualist tendencies in Western philosophic thought had been documented well enough for Ong to turn his attention more toward the oral-aural dimension of life.

The Presence of the Word (1967)Edit

The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History (1967), an expanded version of his 1964 Terry Lectures at Yale University, which is also pioneering work both in the field known today as cultural studies and in the field known today as media ecology.

Ong's technology thesis in The Presence of the Word, as we may style it, "is sweeping, but it is not reductionist, as reviewers and commentators, so far as I know, have all generously recognized: [my] works do not maintain that the evolution from primary orality through writing and print to an electronic culture, which produces secondary orality, causes or explains everything in human culture and consciousness. Rather, [my] thesis is relationist: major developments, and very likely even all major developments, in culture and consciousness are related, often in unexpected intimacy, to the evolution of the word from primary orality to its present state. But the relationships are varied and complex, with cause and effect often difficult to distinguish" (Interfaces of the Word, 1977: 9-10).

Ong works with this thesis implicitly in Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue, even though he doesn't explicitly refer to secondary orality today.

However, despite the emphasis that Ong places on the role of technology, he should not be characterized as a technological determinist or as a media determinist in any serious sense of the term "determinist," because he does not deny the role of human freedom and creativity in determining what kinds of new things under the sun emerge. For Ong, technology contributes a determinative dimension by establishing contexts and conditions, but human freedom and creativity contribute in determining the shape of what emerges over time.

Fighting for Life (1981)Edit

Ong subsequently developed his observations regarding polemic in The Presence of the Word (192-286) in his book length study Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness (1981), the published version of his 1979 Messenger Lectures at Cornell University. As C. Jan Swearingen has suggested in Media, Consciousness, and Culture (1991: 210-22), Ong deserves credit as a male voice calling attention to a strong male tendency toward agonism. Even though Ong does not advert explicitly to what Plato refers to as thumos, Ong's agonism may be understood as the psychodynamism of Plato's thumos. While this dynamism in the human psyche can undoubtedly be overdeveloped, it can also be underdeveloped.

Orality and Literacy (1982)Edit

Ong's most widely known work, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (1982), a volume in the New Accents Series, is translated into eleven other languages. In it he attempts to identify the distinguishing characteristics of orality: thought and its verbal expression in societies where the technologies of literacy (especially writing and print) are unfamiliar to most of the population. He then reviews the transition from an oral culture to a writing culture, that is to the use of the technologies of written words for communication.

Ong drew heavily on the work of Eric A. Havelock, who suggested a fundamental shift in the form of thought coinciding with the transition from orality to literacy in Ancient Greece. Ong describes writing as a technology that must be laboriously learned, and which effects the first transformation of human thought from the world of sound to the world of sight. This transition has implications for structuralism, deconstruction, speech-act and reader-response theory, the teaching of reading and writing skills to males and females, social studies, biblical studies, philosophy, and cultural history generally.

An Ong Reader (2002)Edit

Because Ong has written so extensively on orality and on rhetoric, this 600-page selection of works by him has been organized around these two extensive and diversified themes in his rather wide-ranging list of over 400 publications.

An Ong Reader: Challenges for Further Inquiry includes his 1967 encyclopedia article on the "Written Transmission of Literature" (331-44); his most frequently cited article, his 1975 PMLA article "The Writer's Audience Is Always a Fiction" (405-27); and his most frequently reprinted article, his 1978 ADE Bulletin article "Literacy and Orality in Our Times" (465-78). Taken together, these three essays make up a coherent approach to the study of written literature against the background of oral tradition. Even so, these three essays are best read in conjunction with Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg's The Nature of Narrative (1966) and Erich Kahler's The Inward Turn of Narrative (1973) -- also see the studies of the historical development of inner-directedness mentioned above. (Professor Scholes reports that a second edition of this landmark book is currently being prepared.)

Publications Edit

Lectures Edit

  • 1985 Wolfson College Lectures at Oxford University, Opening Lecture, "Writing Is a Technology That Transforms Thought." In The Written Word: Literacy in Transition, ed. Gerd Baumann (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1986).
  • 1981 Alexander Lectures at the University of Toronto, Hopkins, the Self and God (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1986).
  • 1979 Cornell University Messenger Lectures on the Evolution of Civilization, Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981).
  • 1964 Terry Lectures at Yale University, The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History (New Haven: Yale UP, 1967).

Books Edit

  • Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2002) has been translated into 11 languages.
  • An Ong Reader: Challenges for Further Inquiry. Ed. Thomas J. Farrell and Paul A. Soukup. (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton P, 2002).
  • Faith and Contexts, 4 vols. Ed. Thomas J. Farrell and Paul A. Soukup. (Atlanta: Scholars P, 1992-1999).
  • Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1971).
  • Interfaces of the Word (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977).
  • Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1958).
  • Ramus and Talon Inventory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1958).
  • The Barbarian Within (New York: Macmillan, 1962).
  • In the Human Grain (New York: Macmillan, 1967).
  • Frontiers in American Catholicism (New York: Macmillan, 1957).
  • American Catholic Crossroads (New York: Macmillan, 1959).

Further readingEdit

  • Thomas J. Farrell, Walter Ong's Contributions to Cultural Studies: The Phenomenology of the Word and I-Thou Communication (Hampton Press, 2000).
  • A critique of Ong has been written by the British literary critic Frank Kermode; it was originally published in the New York Review of Books (March 14, 1968: 22-26), and later reprinted in Kermode's Modern Essays (Fontana, 1971: 99-107).
  • A 400-page Festschrift for Walter Ong has been published as a double issue in the journal Oral Tradition (1987). Subsequently, two other collections of essays have been published about his thought: Media, Consciousness, and Culture (1991) and Time, Memory, and the Verbal Arts (1998).
  • Further information about Ong's thought can be found in The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism (1st ed. 1994: 549-52; 2nd ed. 2005: 714-17); Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory: Approaches, Scholars, Terms (U of Toronto P, 1993: 437-39); Encyclopedia of Literary Critics and Criticism (Fitzroy Dearborn, 1999: 822-26).

See alsoEdit

External links Edit

NAME Ong, Walter J.
SHORT DESCRIPTION American philosopher and historian
DATE OF BIRTH November 30, 1912
PLACE OF BIRTH Kansas City, Missouri
DATE OF DEATH August 12, 2003
PLACE OF DEATH St. Louis, Missouri
de:Walter Jackson Ong

es:Walter J. Ong eo:Walter J. Ong eu:Walter J. Ong fr:Walter J. Ong it:Walter J. Ong lb:Walter Jackson Ong pl:Walter Jackson Ong sv:Walter J. Ong

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