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Sci Tech    H4'ed 3/14/10

Who Was Walter Ong, and Why Is His Thought Important Today?

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In the near future Hampton Press is scheduled to publish the revised and expanded edition of my book-length study of Ong's thought. It will include an new afterword by the author and an updated bibliography. Since the time in the late 1990s when I submitted my manuscript to Hampton Press, about 100 new books have come to me attention that can be related in one way or another to Ong's thought. I wish that Walter Ong had lived to see all of them.

But apart from the fact that a good number of scholars have recently published books about themes that can be related in one way or another to Ong's thought, is Ong's multivariate account of Western cultural development important for educated Americans to know about and understand?

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Ong's multivariate thought is important for liberals and conservatives alike to understand in order to get their cultural bearings about the world today. The world today can be understood in terms of Western culture versus all the other cultures in the world. Ong's multivariate account of the development of Western culture can help us understand certain distinctive features about Western culture, features that are not as widely characteristic of non-Western cultures today as they are of Western culture for example, the quantification of thought in modern science and the culture of modern science; the transformed agonistic structures of modern science and modern capitalism; the inward turn of consciousness (David Riesman's inner-directedness) connected with modern science, modern capitalism, modern democracy (as exemplified in the United States), the Industrial Revolution, and the Romantic Movement; and the visualist tendencies that are integral to modernity.

Arguably one of the most significant transformations that occurred in emerging modernity involved what Ong styles agonistic structures. In Manliness (Yale University Press, 2006: 230), Harvey C. Mansfield in effect writes about agonistic structures. The title of his book involves the meaning of the Greek term andreia, which means both courage and manliness. In any event, Mansfield makes a telling observation about modernity: "The entire enterprise of modernity . . . could be understood as a project to keep manliness unemployed." Yes, it could. In the history of modern literature, the rise of the mock epic should be understood as showing the waning of the old oral manliness and the code of the hero, as should the later rise of the antihero in literature. In general, the old oral orientation toward the heroic gives way to the inward turn of consciousness toward inner-directedness. Nevertheless, modernity cannot be understood as keeping agonistic structures entirely unemployed, for modern capitalism and modern science employ agonistic structures, as do old warrior religions such as Christianity and Islam. Moreover, in American popular culture today, we find an extraordinary fascination with the agonistic spirit in televised sports and in comics and action movies.

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For Ong, the corpuscular sense of life is expressed not only in visualist tendencies in ancient Greek philosophy and in modern print culture but also in the oral sense of life as event. But as Plato and Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas and Bernard Lonergan and Ong understand the human mind, the human mind transcends the corpuscular sense of life. Even though the prolific conservative Roman Catholic writer Michael Novak gives no evidence of having studied Ong's thought about the corpuscular sense of life in depth, he has studied Lonergan's thought well enough to grasp how the human mind is different from the corpuscular sense of life that Ong writes about. In the introduction to the recent reprinting of his 1965 book Belief and Unbelief: A Philosophy of Self-Knowledge (Transaction Publishers, 1994: xv), Novak sets forth the following critique of the visualist tendencies in Richard Rorty's thought:

Rorty thinks that in showing that the mind is not "the mirror of nature" he has disproved the correspondence theory of truth. What he has really shown is that the activities of the human mind cannot be fully expressed by metaphors based upon the operations of the eye [see Ong's visualist tendencies]. We do not know simply through "looking at" reality as though our minds were simply mirrors of reality. One needs to be very careful not to confuse the activities of the mind with the operations of any (or all) bodily senses [see Ong's critique of the corpuscular sense of life]. In describing how our minds work, one needs to beware of being bewitched by the metaphors that spring from the operations of our senses. Our minds are not like our eyes; or, rather, their activities are far richer, more complex, and more subtle than those of our eyes. It is true that we often say, on getting the point, "Oh, I see!" But putting things together and getting the point normally involve a lot more than "seeing," and all that we need to do to get to that point can scarcely be met simply by following the imperative, "Look!" Even when the point, once grasped, may seem to have been (as it were) right in front of us all along, the reasons why it did not dawn upon us immediately may be many, including the fact that our imaginations were ill-arranged, so that we were expecting and "looking for" the wrong thing. To get to the point at which the evidence finally hits us, we may have to undergo quite a lot of dialectical argument and self-correction.

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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; 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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