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Life Arts

Predicting the Near Future in Western Culture

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) June 8, 2014: For close to 50 years now, I have studied the thought of the American cultural historian and theorist Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003).

Ong is most widely known for his account of Western cultural history in terms of the influence of communication media. I will highlight his thought about Western cultural history in six points. Then I will explore how the future of Western culture could develop.

HIGHLIGHTS OF ONG'S THOUGHT

(1) In the beginning, all cultures were primary oral cultures (i.e., pre-literate). According to Ong, primary oral cultures fostered the world-as-event sense of life among people and a cyclic sense of time.

See Mircea Eliade's book THE MYTH OF THE ETERNAL RETURN: COSMOS AND HISTORY (reissued 2005), Donald L. Fixico's book THE AMERICAN INDIAN MIND IN A LINEAR WORLD: AMERICAN INDIAN STUDIES AND TRADITIONAL KNOWLEDGE (2003), and David Abram's book THE SPELL OF THE SENSUOUS: PERCEPTION AND LANGUAGE IN A MORE-THAN-HUMAN WORLD (1996).

(2) In Western culture, phonetic alphabetic literacy emerged in the anthology of writings known collectively as the Hebrew Bible. According to the documentary theory developed by biblical scholars, linear narrative structures emerged in the biblical document known as J -- and along with linear narratives, the historical sense of time also emerged, as distinct from the cyclic sense of time commonly found in primary oral cultures.

For Ong, the linear and historical sense of time that emerged in the Bible is the kernel form out of which Darwin's evolutionary sense of time later emerged. Nevertheless, according to Ong, other compositional features found in the Hebrew Bible represent primary oral thought and expression, and the world-as-event sense of life.

See Ong's book ORALITY AND LITERACY: THE TECHNOLOGIZING OF THE WORD (1982) and Richard Elliott Friedman's book THE HIDDEN BOOK IN THE BIBLE (1998).

(3) In Western culture, vowelized phonetic alphabetic literacy emerged eventually in ancient Greek culture. Because of certain questions that ancient Greek thinkers had been asking, the Western tradition of philosophical thinking emerged in ancient Greek, as exemplified in the works of Plato and Aristotle. According to Ong, ancient Greek philosophic thought represents distinctively literate thought.

For example, nobody today would mistake the anthology of writings known as the Hebrew Bible as an anthology of ancient Greek philosophic thought.

Nevertheless, with ancient Greek philosophy as exemplified in Plato and Aristotle, the world-as-view sense of life emerged historically. However, we should also note that in the story of Er in Plato's REPUBLIC, there is a clear example of cyclic thought involving the re-cycling of souls.

The syncretistic spirit of early Christians prompted them to appropriate whatever they liked from ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and baptize it, so to speak, and make it part of the Christian tradition of thought. For example, patristic and medieval Christian theology emerged as the result of the Christians appropriating ancient Greek and Roman philosophic thought for their own purposes. As a result of the continuing tradition of philosophy and Christian theology, the world-as-view sense of life pioneered in ancient Greek philosophy has characterized Western philosophic and theological thought down to this day.

See Eric A. Havelock's book PREFACE TO PLATO (1963) and Andrea Wilson Nightingale's book SPECTACLES OF TRUTH IN CLASSICAL GREEK PHILOSOPHY: THEORIA IN CULTURAL CONTEXT (2004).

(4) In the ancient Greek and Roman tradition of philosophic thought, the idea of the cosmic Logos ("Word" capitalized) emerged. Of course the Greek word "logos" ("word" lower-case) helped inspire the idea of the cosmic Logos. In any event, Philo the Jew of Alexandria set himself the task of correlating ancient Hebrew thought and Greek and Roman thought, in which he used the cosmic Logos idea. Critical biblical scholars see Philo as the source of the use of the cosmic idea of the Word in the prologue of the Gospel According to John. "In the beginning was the Word."

In his book THE PRESENCE OF THE WORD: SOME PROLEGOMENA FOR CULTURAL AND RELIGIOUS HISTORY (1967), the expanded version of Ong's 1964 Terry Lectures at Yale University, Ong plays with the analogy between the Word (capitalized) in the Christian tradition of thought and the word (lower-case). In the Christian tradition of thought the Word (capitalized) is the mythic Christ, the imaginary Second Person in the mythic divine trinity. The Christian Word is present, or at least can be present, in the psyches of individual persons.

In the Christian tradition of thought, it is a commonplace to speak of God as both transcendent and immanent. The immanent experience of God, or of the mythic Christ, presumably occurs in the psyches of individual persons. In terms of cross-cultural experiences, the inner experience of the sacred (for example, in nature mysticism) is widely reported cross-culturally.

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www.d.umn.edu/~tfarrell

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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