Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) May 26, 2011: James Brown McGinnis III (1942-2009) wrote his doctoral dissertation in philosophy at Saint Louis University, the Jesuit university in St. Louis, Missouri, on Gandhi: FREEDOM AND ITS REALIZATION IN GANDHI'S PHILOSOPHY AND PRACTICE OF NON-VIOLENCE (1974). When Jim McGinnis was a graduate student at SLU, he was also the founder and program coordinator of the SLU Institute for Peace and Justice.
In that capacity, Jim McGinnis arranged to have Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003), teach his new course on Polemic in Literary and Academic Tradition: An Historical Survey again during the summer of 1971. Through the SLU Institute for Peace and Justice, Jim McGinnis advertised the course. As a result, most of the students who enrolled in it had been recruited through the SLU Institute of Peace and Justice.
By the summer of 1971, I had completed the course work for my Ph.D. in education (concentrating on higher education), but I had not yet selected a topic for a doctoral dissertation. Because I had heard favorable things about Ong's new course, I asked him if he would allow me to audit it unofficially. He agreed to allow me to do this.
Ong had developed his own thinking about polemic structures in his book THE PRESENCE OF THE WORD: SOME PROLEGOMENA FOR CULTURAL AND RELIGIOUS HISTORY (1967, pages 192-286), the published version of his 1964 Terry Lectures at Yale University.
Ong subsequently changed his mind about the best term to use. Instead of using the term polemic (from the Greek word "polemos" that means war, struggle), he switched to using the term agonistic (contesting, from the Greek word "agon" that means contest, struggle) in his book FIGHTING FOR LIFE: CONTEST, SEXUALITY, AND CONSCIOUSNESS (1981), the published version of his 1979 Messenger Lectures at Cornell University.
Figuratively speaking, we could say that the Homeric epic the ILIAD invites us to see life as seemingly never-ending war and that the ODYSSEY invites us to see life as a seemingly never-ending contest.
In Aristotle's view of dialectic, dialectic involved back-and-forth pro-and-con debate to clarify ideas and predications. In Aristotle's view, most often civic rhetoric involved back-and-forth pro-and-con debate about specific charges made in law courts and about specific proposals made in legislative assemblies. In all instances of back-and-forth pro-and-con debate the structure of the discourse involves polemic (verbal battle and warfare, figuratively speaking).
In any event, in his book ORALITY AND LITERACY: THE TECHNOLOGIZING OF THE WORD (1982), Ong describes oral cultures and residually oral cultures as agonistic (pages 42-45, 69-70). For all practical purposes, all non-Western cultures in the world today are to one degree or another residually oral cultures. In oral cultures and in residually oral cultures, agonistic structures are prominent.
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