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Life Arts    H4'ed 7/19/21

An Overview of Walter J. Ong's Thought (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) July 19, 2021: My favorite scholar is the American Jesuit Renaissance specialist and cultural historian Walter J. Ong (1912-2003; Ph.D. in English, Harvard University, 1955) of Saint Louis University, the Jesuit university in St. Louis, Missouri.

There in the fall semester of 1964, I took Father Walter J. Ong's course on Practical Criticism: Poetry. In addition to reading certain assigned chapters in Ong's 1962 book The Barbarian Within: And Other Fugitive Essays and Studies (New York: Macmillan), I took it upon myself to read some of the other chapters in his interesting book. Over the years, I took five courses from Ong at SLU.

I have written about Ong's philosophical thought in my lengthy OEN article "Walter J. Ong's Philosophical Thought" (dated September 20, 2020):

Click Here

In the present review essay, I want to expand my horizons beyond my lengthy OEN article and set forth a broader overview of Ong's about our Western cultural history.


Ong's first major account of Western cultural history can be found in his massively researched book Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason (Harvard University Press, 1958). In it, Ong traces the history of the formal study of logic from Aristotle down to and beyond the French Renaissance logician and educational reformer and Protestant martyr Peter Ramus (1515-1572).

In it, among other themes, Ong devotes a chapter to discussing the quantification of thought in medieval logic (pages 53-91). I will discuss the quantification of thought in medieval logic a bit further momentarily.

In it, among other themes, Ong works with the aural to visual shift in cognitive processing (see the "Index" for specific references to the aural to visual shift [pages 396]). He graciously acknowledges (page 338, note 54) that he borrowed the theme of the aural to visual shift from the lay Catholic philosopher Louis Lavelle's "discerning and profound" 1942 book.

In my estimate, the enormous breakthrough insight(s?) that Ong experienced after he digested Lavelle's "discerning and profound" 1942 book was comparable to Nietzsche's experience that he came to refer to as the emergence of the will to power in his psyche/soul. In addition, Ong's various iterations over the years of his enormous breakthrough insight(s?) resembles the spirit of what Nietzsche came to refer to as the pattern of eternal return.

In any event, Ong's massively researched 1958 book is a pioneering study of print culture that emerged in Western culture after the Gutenberg printing press emerged in the mid-1450s. Other pioneering studies of print culture in Western culture include the following four books:

(1) Richard D. Altick's book The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public, 1800-1900 (University of Chicago Press, 1957);

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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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