I took my first course from Fr. Ong in the fall semester of 1964 at
Over the years, I have helped edit five collections of Ong's essays (1992a, 1992b, 1995, 1999, 2002), and I have published a book-length study of his work, WALTER ONG'S CONTRIBUTIONS TO CULTURAL STUDIES: THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF THE WORD AND I-THOU COMMUNICATION (Hampton Press, 2000; revised edition forthcoming), which provides a reader's guide to 11 of Ong's books. With certain notable exceptions, most of my professional publications could accurately be characterized as Ong studies, studies of different themes that Ong himself discusses in his work. Thus far, I appear to be the most productive scholar engaged in the admittedly under-developed field of Ong studies. So it strikes me as fitting for me to write something for publication at OpEdNews on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Ong's birth.
Over several decades, Ong received a mostly respectful hearing from scholars of his generation -- the generation that includes Tom Brokaw's "greatest generation" -- but Ong's thought was never lionized by scholars or by the press, as was the thought of his friend and former teacher at Saint Louis University Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980).
Perhaps Ong's thought never will be lionized by scholars or the press. His thought is admittedly multi-dimensional and complicated, as I hope to show briefly in the last part of this essay. But his multi-dimensional thought does offer us a penetrating way to explain the emergence of modernity in Western culture. For Ong examines what are in effect the infrastructures of Western cultural development, the infrastructures that contributed to the historical emergence of modernity.
How many books have been written about the historical emergence of modernity in Western culture that do not take into account the infrastructures of Western cultural conditioning that Ong examines? For all practical purposes, those many books about the historical development of modernity were written by extraverts preoccupied with superficial details, instead of studying the more penetrating infrastructures of Western cultural conditioning that Ong examines.
Now, in Ong's religious writings he writes from the standpoint of an orthodox Catholic priest. I myself do not share all of Ong's Christian and Catholic religious convictions. Nevertheless, I usually benefit from reading his religious writings, and I imagine that others who do not share all of his religious convictions could also benefit from reading his religious writings such as his early collections titled FRONTIERS IN AMERICAN CATHOLICISM (Macmillan, 1957) and AMERICAN CATHOLIC CROSSROADS (Macmillan, 1959) and his books THE PRESENCE OF THE WORD: SOME PROLEGOMENA FOR CULTURAL AND RELIGIOUS HISTORY (Yale University Press, 1967), the expanded version of Ong's 1964 Terry Lectures at Yale University, and HOPKINS, THE SELF, AND GOD (University of Toronto Press, 1986), the published version of Ong's 1981 Alexander Lectures at the University of Toronto.
However, for readers who would prefer to avoid Ong's religious writings, he delineates the core of his account of Western cultural history in the following books: RAMUS, METHOD, AND THE DECAY OF DIALOGUE: FROM THE ART OF DISCOURSE TO THE ART OF REASON (Harvard University Press, 1958), RHETORIC, ROMANCE, AND TECHNOLOGY: STUDIES IN THE INTERACTION OF EXPRESSION AND CULTURE (Cornell University Press, 1971), INTERFACES OF THE WORD: STUDIES IN THE EVOLUTION OF CONSCIOUSNESS AND CULTURE (Cornell University Press, 1977), FIGHTING FOR LIFE: CONTEST, SEXUALITY, AND CONSCIOUSNESS (Cornell University Press, 1981), the published version of Ong's 1979 Messenger Lectures at Cornell University), and ORALITY AND LITERACY: THE TECHNOLOGIZING OF THE WORD (Methuen, 1982), which has gone through more than 30 printings in English and has been translated into 11 other languages. AN ONG READER: CHALLENGES FOR FURTHER INQUIRY, edited by me and Paul A. Soukup (Hampton Press, 2002) is a fine survey of Ong's thought.
In what follows here, I will first survey and highlight Ong's life and scholarly career; then I will discuss the most salient features of his thought regarding the historical emergence of modernity in Western culture.
Ong's Life and Scholarly Career
Fr. Ong's family ancestors left
Fr. Ong's mother was a Roman Catholic. As a result, he received most of his formal education in Catholic educational institutions, except for his doctoral studies in English at
But his father, Walter Jackson Ong, Sr., was a Protestant. As a result, young Walter Jr. grew up in an extended family that included both Protestants and Catholics, but evidently no other religious traditions. By contrast, many American Catholics in his day grew up in and lived in a Catholic subculture that certain Catholic authors have characterized as a Catholic ghetto. I, for example, at a later time grew up in and was educated in the Catholic ghetto culture, which is still alive and well in the United States today, thanks in large measure to the Catholic educational system. In other words, Catholics in the
By the time that Ong went to Harvard for his doctoral studies in English, he had completed three graduate degrees (in English, philosophy, and theology) as part of his training as a Jesuit and had been ordained a priest. Before he entered the Jesuit novitiate in September 1935, he had majored in Latin as an undergraduate (class of 1933) at
In his book THE
When Ong was a young Jesuit seminarian in studies at