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Walter 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).

He 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.

Ong 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.

In 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.

Ong's books include the texts of several prestigious lectures and lecture series which he has given at leading universities in the United States and elsewhere:

  1. 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.)

  2. 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).

  3. The Alexander Lectures at the University of Toronto, Hopkins, the Self and God (Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 1986).

  4. 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).

Ong 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 Human Race).

His Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology (Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1971) was a Scholar's Library selection for the Modern Language Association Book Club.

His 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.

This 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.


The 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."

Writing, 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."

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 are different.

At 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.

Thus "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 cultures.

Writing, 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.

Unlike 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.

Other 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 primary orality.

Oral 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.


Ong's 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.

Ong' 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.

Besides 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.

Professor 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.

The 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.

His 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 subway graffiti.

Always, 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.

He 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.

As 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.

The 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.

Despite 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.

Walter 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).

The 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.

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