J. Ong, SJ, was University Professor Emeritus at Saint Louis University,
where, prior to this appointment in 1984, he was William E. Haren
Professor of English and Professor of Humanities in Psychiatry
(in the School of Medicine).
is well known in the United States and throughout the English-speaking
world and elsewhere for his own books and his many contributions
to scores of other books and to learned academic periodicals and
popular periodicals in the United States and Great Britain as
well as in Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia. Many of his
books, as well as his shorter studies, have been translated into
languages of Europe, of the Middle East, and of East Asia.
was twice a Guggenheim Fellow, 1950-51 and 1952-53. He has been
visiting professor at a large number of universities in the United
States (e.g., New York University, the University of Chicago,
Indiana University, the University of California, Washington University
in St. Louis, etc.) and visiting lecturer in many universities
in Europe, East Asia (Japan and Korea), and Africa. He was a member
of the Fuibright National Selection Committee for France, 1957-5
8; the National Council on the Humanities 1968-74, vice chair
197 1-74, co-chair Advisory Committee on Science, Technology,
and Human Values 1974-78; a member of the Rockefeller Foundation
Commission on the Humanities, 1978-80; national Phi Beta Kappa
visiting scholar 1969-1970. In 1963 he was decorated by the French
Government as Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Palmes Académiques.
1974 he was Lincoln Lecturer for the United States Board of Foreign
Scholarships in Central and West Africa (Cameroun, Sénégal, and
Zaire, lecturing in French; and Nigeria, lecturing in English).
The Lincoln Lecturers were a small group of American scholars
appointed across the world to commemorate the passage of the Fulbright
Act, which since 1945 had been providing an educational exchange
program between the United States and other countries. Other Lincoln
Lecturers included John Hope Franklin (with his wife Aurelia,
a close friend of Ong's), John Updike, and others.
books include the texts of several prestigious lectures and lecture
series which he has given at leading universities in the United
States and elsewhere:
The Terry Lectures at Yale University, The Presence of the
Word (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1967--translations
published in Italian, French, Korean. .--Most recent paperback,
SUNY Press: Binghamton, NY, 2000). Other Terry Lecturers have
included John Dewey, Erich Fromm, Charles Hartshorne, Carl
Gustaf Jung, Jacques Maritain, George Gaylord Simpson, Paul
Tillich, et al.)
The Cornell University Messenger Lectures on the Evolution
of Civilization, Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and
Consciousness (Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1981--translations
published in Spanish and Japanese).
The Alexander Lectures at the University of Toronto, Hopkins,
the Self and God (Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of
Toronto Press, 1986).
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 Press, 1986).
also edited and contributed to the 1968 Saint Louis University
Sesqicentennial International Symposium, Knowledge and the Future
of Man (millennial updated title!! .. . and the Future of the
Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology (Ithaca and London: Cornell
UP, 1971) was a Scholar's Library selection for the Modern Language
Association Book Club.
most widely circulated book, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing
of the Word (London and New York: Routledge, 1982) has been translated
into 12 languages--European, Middle Eastern, and East Asian.
book and some others of Ong's 22 published books, with a good
many of his articles, have had to do with the transit from the
oralism of (even today) most human cultures (those whose major
language or languages are not written) to the use of the technologies
of writing, print, and electronics, and with the transformations
of thought effected by these new technologies (first and most
notably by writing, a technology still laboriously learned, which
effects the first transformation of human thought from the world
of simply sound to the world of sight, a sense still used here
of course to cue in sound, the only sense which can access thought--if
you have a visual text which no one can ever read, that is, convert
into sound, its meaning is inaccessible from the visual clues
alone and you may as well throw the text away). This is the story
of the text known as Linear A, from ancient Crete, but never deciphered--that
is, never decoded from vision to sound, and hence in effect meaningless.
thinking and verbal communication of purely oral cultures Ong
styles primary orality. All known human cultures at first existed
(and, across the world, most still exist) in the state of primary
orality, in which all verbal communication in a given language
or languages is oral. Without writing, verbal utterance can be
exquisitely tooled and beautiful and quite extensive, but it lacks
word-for-word accuracy. Primary oral cultures have had and still
have remarkable memories, but it has long been known that their
span of verbatim memory is quite limited (despite common persuasion
to the contrary by those familiar with writing, who are likely
to assume that verbal memory is typically verbatim, as it is not).
If in a purely oral culture, you carefully work out a 200-word
statement, how do you get it back after you have uttered it? Memorization
is one way, but exact verbal memorization is unreliable without
a text to verify recall. How could you be sure that the any repetition
was exactly like the original utterance? The memorizing prowess
of purely oral cultures is formidable, but we know now that it
is not verbatim for longer passages or even for shorter passages,
since purely oral cultures do not commonly put the premium on
verbatim memorization that writing cultures often do. Recall in
purely oral cultures is likely to be thematic and formulaic, as
Homer's oft-repeated "rosy-fingered dawn" and "wine-dark sea,"
or "winged words he spoke."
in its full sense of a visual code which can represent the exact
sounds of a given language, is a late development in the history
of humanity. The first full writing, the cuneiform script of the
Sumerians in Mesopotamia, began only around 3500 BCE, many millennia
after the beginning of our species, Homo sapiens sapiens. In its
full sense, writing does not represent objects or things, but
utterances, sounds. To represent particular sounds by marks in
space is, for individuals unfamiliar with writing, difficult even
to imagine. A meaningful mark in space is not necessarily writing
at all. Many animals use a deposit of urine or feces to indicate
their presence and claim for domination of a given bit of territory.
This we hardly consider "writing."
is a coded system of visible marks whereby the writer can determine
the exact words (sounds) that a reader will generate from a text.
Because a text represents sounds as such, although French and
English are commonly written in the same alphabet, to represent
a dog in French a person uses different letters (c-h-i-en) from
those used in English (d-o-g). The sounds in the two languages
first, in the stage of human culture that Ong styles "primary
oral culture," words were sounds only, produced by the vocal apparatus.
Very recently, with the development and widespread use of manufactured
sound, first on phonographs and then, far more decisively with
electronics, on radio, television, and sound discs, and on computers
and other electronic devices, human culture has entered into a
new stage, which Ong has styled "secondary orality." This secondary
orality is oral because it is sound-based communication, but,
unlike primary orality, it uses artificial sound made by machines--which
were developed and manufactured only with the help of writing.
"secondary orality," while it is patently oral, demands the preexistence
of writing. But, since its end-product is oral, in its psychological
effects it shares and intensifies many features typical of oral
which puts records of utterance on a visible surface, works normally
or even ideally with an isolated reader--whom a bevy of associated
readers would normally only impede. A bevy of other listeners
does not impede a listener at all. Orality is group oriented.
written texts, the utterance of a speaker can be picked up by
hundreds of persons at once. On radio or television, utterance
can be simultaneously for many times more persons. Primary oral
cultures form and favor groups. Writing cultures encourage single
readers. Secondary oral cultures form and address even more and
larger groups than do primary oral cultures. No speaker without
electronic amplification could hope to address tens of thousands
of persons at once. Although it depends on writing for its manufacture
of machines, secondary orality is far more effectively oral than
is primary orality.
characteristics of primary orality are found embedded and enhanced
in secondary orality. Orally managed thought and expression can
be and often is impressive in its magniloquence and communal wisdom--as
in treasured and often told narratives, in formal orations or,
more briefly and apophthegmatically, in proverbs. But it is not
noted for analytic precision, which is encouraged by often laboriously
reflective writing and the kind of thinking such writing encourages.
Orally managed thought is formulaic and repetitive. In our age
of secondary orality, scientific or other analytic thought as
such is seldom programmed on radio or television. The products
of secondary orality--typical radio or TV programs, for example--although
they may be the result of exhausting labor, are seldom so analytically
organized as are written treatises. In this way, as in countless
other ways, secondary orality favors groups, even more than does
cultures maintain their oral hegemony in many ways long after
writing: e.g., for many centuries after writing, reading was still
oral, done normally aloud: legere, the Latin for "to read," means
to read aloud--hence the derivative English cognate, a "lecture"
means an audible performance. In Latin, for legere to mean to
read without sound, the silence has to be indicated by a qualifier,
such as legere cum silentio, to read silently. Vocalization has
been, and still is normal in beginners' reading in many if not
most cultures--moving the lips is common still today among many
or most beginning adult readers of English and other languages.
work is often presented alongside the postmodern and deconstruction
theories of Claude Levi-Strauss, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault,
Hélène Cixous, and others. His own work in orality and literacy
shows deconstruction to be unnecessary: if you consider language
to be fundamentally spoken, as language originally is, it does
not consist of signs, but of events. Sound, including the spoken
word, is an event. It takes time. The concept of "sign," by contrast,
derives primarily not from the world of events, but from the world
of vision. A sign can be physically carried around, an event cannot:
it simply happens. Words are events.
s work draws largely on his own understanding of existentialism,
rooted in awareness of an always mysterious, incomprehensible
God, beyond definition or description, and a sense of the interrelatedness
of the billions upon billions of parts of the evolving universe,
together with, over the centuries and millennia, the gradual interiorization
of evolving being, culminating in the uniquely interiorized human
self, as well as in the interrelatedness of all things in the
universe which has been there from the start and which the Internet
and online computerization have recently advertised.
being a prolific writer, Ong has rendered service on many scholarly
and educational commissions. He served on the 14-member White
House Task Force on Education which reported to President Lyndon
B. Johnson in 1967. He was a member of the National Council on
the Humanities 1968-74 (Vice-Chairman 1970-74); a member of the
Board of Trustees of the National Humanities Faculty (1974-89),
President and Chair of the Board 1974-75). Several decades ago
he was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Ong was a Fellow at the Wesleyan University (Connecticut) Center
for the Study of the Liberal Arts, Professions, and Sciences,
196 1-62, together with Hannah Arendt, the author Sir Charles
Percy Snow and his wife, Lady Pamela Johnson Snow, the prolific
novelist Paul Horgan, Brand Blanchard, and others. Ong's work
has been featured in university courses and has been the subject
of programs at meetings of many learned and academic organizations,
such as the Midwest Sociological Society, the Society for the
Study of Symbolic Interaction, the Speech Communication Association,
and the American Academy of Religion. In 1978 he was the elected
President of the 30,000-member Modern Language Association of
America, the largest academic society of scholars in the world.
deeply interdisciplinary cast of Ong's work is registered in his
1984 academic appointment as University Professor--which, at Saint
Louis University, as in other universities, signals that he reports
to no departmental chair or dean but is directly under the University's
central administration. It is difficult to classify by subject
exactly what he is teaching or writing about. When earlier he
was Professor of English, decades of students used to say that
his courses treated not really English but "Onglish." And, like
many puns, this one is not purely random: Ong is an English name
from the exact geographical area which provides the name England:
East Anglia (England east of London, including Cambridge): Ang,
Eng, Ong. And "Onglish" (the study and writing of Walter Ong,
available in English and other languages) extends to perhaps even
more places around the globe than does English. Walter Ong is
a descendant of the Edmund Ong who in 1631 came to the Massachusetts
Bay Colony on the same ship with Roger Williams. Today there are
still Ongs in the telephone directories for Cambridge and Norfork
and Suffolk in England, that is, in East Anglia.
diversification of concerns shows in Walter Ong's many books and
in his still more numerous articles, published in learned and
other journals in the United States, Europe, and East Asia, which
cover such subjects as the voice blending in the rhetoric of Martin
Luther King, Jr., Third World rhetorics, African drum talk, "Latin
Language Study as a Renaissance Puberty Rite," and New York City's
Ong has hated being labeled a "theorist." "I just try to point
out how things are"--to "describe things or events rather than
to spin theories." Typically, he notes that there's a difference
between saying, "I see what you say" and "I hear what you say."
The "hear" is deeper--more "existential." This kind of truth does
not involve theory. It demands awareness.
firmly believes that there is no way to go back to the past, which
interests him largely in its relation to the present. "The good
old days never were what they used to be," he likes to repeat.
What drives him wild is the mentality of those (a minority) of
his fellow Christians who think that Christian faith is past-oriented,
who want to get back to an age supposed to be better than the
present. He has never heard--and certainly never delivered--a
homily urging the followers of Christ to get back to Paradise.
John Milton, whom Ong used to teach frequently and whose Latin-language
Raniist rhetoric he laboriously translated with Professor Charles
Ermatinger of St. Louis University for the Yale University Press
definitive edition of Milton's work, had it thoroughly backwards
in his title Paradise Regained, following his earlier Paradise
Lost. (Ong is past President of the Milton Society of America.)
There is nothing in the Bible about regaining the past, even Paradise.
The Holy Week liturgy at least of the Roman Catholic Church refers
to the Fall of Adam as afelix culpa ("happy fault"), which brought
to human beings in the future their Redeemer Jesus Christ. The
second coming of Christ--to which Christians look FORWARD, lies
ONLY AHEAD. Looking to the past for salvation gets you NOWHERE.
Ong has often stated that he knows no one who has an in-depth
knowledge of any period in the past in any culture, a knowledge
including all persons of all classes in the culture, who would
prefer the earlier period to the present. Anyhow, there is NO
WAY to get BACK to the past. Ong would certainly not want it otherwise.
If he did, getting back to the past couldn't be realized anyhow.
a Jesuit Catholic priest, Walter J. Ong, SJ, has been active in
the ministry since his ordination as a priest in 1946 (he had
entered the Society of Jesus in 1935). For decades he celebrated
daily Mass in St. Francis Xavier (College) Church in St. Louis,
MO, and, weekly and oftener, has administered there and elsewhere
the sacrament of Reconciliation (formerly styled Confession).
He has regularly directed others in the Spiritual Exercises of
Saint Ignatius of Loyola, in various forms: in groups and in one-on-one
individual direction. The exact number of his retreatants he has
not recorded, but it would certainly run into the thousands. At
North House, a former Jesuit residence in St. Louis, he engaged
in the free tutoring provided there for young boys needing academic
help. On the occasion of his many trips to lecture or to attend
meetings of boards or committees or organizations which demanded
his participation, in the locations in which he found himself
in the United States or foreign countries he has regularly celebrated
Mass Sundays and/or weekdays--in English or other languages in
which he is (or was) competent--and has engaged in other ministry.
four-volume collection (1992-1999) of his previously published
Essays and Studies 1946-1996 is entitled Faith and Contexts. This
title is used because, as the first volume of the collection notes,
while the faith known to Christians is a direct gift from God
and thus, as such, is not determined by context, nevertheless
faith exists for living human beings in contexts which are inescapably
historical and subject to change. Words themselves have meanings
because of their use in contexts. The essays and studies in this
collection are both doctrinal and historical.
the abundance and complications of his historically grounded studies,
Ong considers his work as a priest and his study and writing concerning
secular matters integral one another. With the Internet and online
electronics, more assertively than ever before, in our universe
everything is related to everything else. And in all of Ong's
works, whether treating of the life of faith or its contexts,
the same "I" is thinking and speaking.
Ong was born in Kansas City, MO, November 30, 1912, the son of
Mr. and Mrs. Walter Jackson Ong, Sr. (Blanche Eugenia Mense).
His father had been born in New Orleans, LA, and his mother in
Kansas City, MO. He received his BA degree from Rockhurst College
(now Rockhurst University) in Kansas City, MO, the PhL and the
MA degree in English from St. Louis University in 1941, and in
1955 the PhD from Harvard University in English--but with a dissertation
on the tremendously influential French Renaissance philosopher
and educational reformer Pierre de la Ramée or Petrus Ramus (1515-1572),
often now in English Peter Ramus, who did not know English and
whose voluminous published works include only two slim volumes
in his native French, with all the rest of his nearly 60 published
works in Latin--a ratio typical of Western European academic authors
of his time or, one could well say, from antiquity through the
seventeenth century. Ong has received some 15 honorary doctorates,
one of the more recent from the University of Glasgow (Scotland).
most complete and thoroughly documented treatment of Ong's life
and work is Thomas J. Farrell, Walter Ong's Contributions to Cultural
Studies: The Phenomenology of the Word and I-Thou Communication,
with an Introduction by Robert A. White (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton
Press, Inc., 2000), xxiv+309 pp.; hardbound and paperback.