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Walter J. Ong's Philosophical Thought (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) September 20, 2020: As a prelude to my spirited 7,500-word defense of Walter J. Ong's philosophical thought (against Timothy Mark Chouinard's critique of it), I want to explain that over the years I took five courses from the American Jesuit cultural historian and theorist Walter J. Ong (1912-2003; Ph.D. in English at Harvard University, 1955) at Saint Louis University, the Jesuit university in St. Louis, Missouri - where the American-British poet, playwright, literary critic, essayist, editor, publisher, banker, and convert to orthodox trinitarian Christianity (in 1927, from Unitarianism) T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) was born and raised.

Now, according to the Wikipedia entry about him, Eliot, by 1916, when he was living in England, "had completed a doctoral dissertation for Harvard" on the epistemology of the British idealist (Hegelian) philosopher F. H. Bradley (1846-1924), but World War I (1914-1918) prevented Eliot from returning to Harvard for the oral defense of his dissertation. Later, in 1964, Eliot published his dissertation as the book Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley. In 1922, Eliot published his famous poem of desolation titled The Waste Land - you know, like the waste land that President Donald ("Tweety") Trump's mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic has turned America into in 2020. In 1948, Eliot received the Novel Prize in Literature.

Now, Chouinard completed his Ph.D. dissertation in English titled T. S. Eliot: A Philosophy of Communication for Literature and Speech at Saint Louis University in 1985. What Chouinard in his subtitle refers to as "A Philosophy" that he has inferred from Eliot's practices in his literary works can be more accurately described as "A Model of Communication for Literature and Speech" inferred from Eliot's practices in his literary works - a model that is not without some merit, although its merit will not be my focus in the present essay.

Now, over approximately a half century, Ong published eight books with four different prestigious university presses and numerous other books and articles. I have studied Ong's work for more than 50 years now. My book Walter Ong's Contributions to Cultural Studies: The Phenomenology of the Word and I-Thou Communication, the revised edition of which came out in 2015, is an introductory-level survey of his life and work. In addition, I have co-edited five collections of his essays (1992a, 1992b, 1995, 1999, and 2002, and provided introductions to four of those five volumes (1992a, 1995, 1999, and 2002). I have also contributed to four different collections of essays by diverse hands about his work (1987, 1991, 1998, and 2012) and published numerous other essays about his thought in various journals and books. When I went up for promotion to full professor in writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD), one externals reviewer credited me with founding a new field of studies: Ong studies. But I hasten to add that by the standards of the prestige culture in academia, my publications are decidedly modest both in number and substance. My publications are listed at my UMD homepage:

But I consider Ong to be a great philosopher. In Interpreting Modern Philosophy, James Collins in philosophy at Saint Louis University comments about great philosophers: "Great philosophers do not suppose that there will be instantaneous understanding and acceptance of their basic method and principles." There certainly was not instantaneous understanding and acceptance of Ong's phenomenological method and personalist principles.

Ong studied philosophy both as an undergraduate and later as a graduate student before undertaking his doctoral studies in English at Harvard University. His massively researched 1954 dissertation involved contextualizing the work of the French logician and educational reformer and Protestant martyr Peter Ramus (1515-1572), whose logic dominated the curriculum of seventeenth-century Harvard College (founded in 1636). With the financial assistance of two Guggenheim fellowships, Ong lived abroad for nearly four years and worked in more than 100 libraries in the British Isles and Continental Europe. He tracked down more than 750 volumes in Latin by Ramus and his followers and his critics. Ong lists and briefly annotates them in his 1958 book Ramus and Talon Inventory, which Ong dedicated to his former English teacher at Saint Louis University and life-long friend the Canadian literary scholar Herbert Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), who had called Ong's attention to Ramus and his influence.

A word is in order here about Latin. For centuries after Latin ceased being a living language, or mother tongue, it continued to be a widely used lingua franca in Western culture, a second language, a father tongue, so to speak. Concerning the tradition of Literature in Latin, Ong liked to cite Ernst Robert Curtius' book European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. But the status of Latin as a lingua franca set in motion the campaign for vernacular languages. Before the Gutenberg printing press emerged in the 1450s, Dante's Divine Comedy and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales were early entries in the campaign for vernacular literatures. After the Gutenberg printing press emerged, in the English-speaking world, the campaign for the vernacular included Shakespeare and the 1611 King James Bible. Of course the campaign for the vernaculars won out. However, in the Roman Catholic Church, Latin continued as the church's official lingua franca until the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) elected to endorse the use of vernacular languages. In Ong's 1958 book Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue, Ong discusses the campaign for vernacular languages, instead of Latin as the lingua franca (10-6 and 305). In Ong's 1982 book Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, he discusses mother tongues versus learned languages such a Latin as a lingua franca (112-6 and 130). In Virginia Woolf's last essays, "Anon" and "The Reader," she creatively begins to construct a narrative history of the unfolding development of vernacular English, starting with anonymous works. See my 2015 essay "Virginia Woolf's Last Essays and Walter J. Ong's Thought" at the UMD library's digital commons: Click Here.

In any event, for three full years in the early 1950s, Ong lived in a Jesuit residence in Paris that was not far from where Ramus' residential college had been located at the University of Paris. At some juncture in the early 1950s, Ong became familiar with the work of the French Catholic philosopher Louis Lavelle (1883-1951). According to William T. Gairdner, who translated Lavelle's The Dilemma of Narcissus, after Lavelle had completed his doctoral studies in philosophy at the University of Strasbourg, he was drafted into military service (20). In one battle in World War I, he was captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp. But he was given a pen and a supply of paper. He wrote his doctoral dissertation without the benefit of a single book. After the war ended and he was released, his dissertation was accepted at the University of Strasbourg and published. He went on to become a prolific author. He could be categorized as an existentialist, or as a Christian existentialist. However, only three of his short books have been translated into English: (1) his 1951 book was translated as The Meaning of Holiness in 1954; (2) his 1940 book was translated as Evil and Suffering in 1963; and (3) his 1939 book was translated as The Dilemma of Narcissus in 1973. For years, Ong regularly taught an upper-division honors course on Existentialist Literature, and he routinely listed books by Lavelle on the reading list for the course. In Ong's last book-length study Hopkins, the Self, and God, the published version of Ong's 1981 Alexander Lectures at the University of Toronto, he lists Lavelle's The Dilemma of Narcissus in the bibliography.

In 1947, Collins published "Louis Lavelle on Human Participation" in the Philosophical Review. In it Collins discusses ten of Lavelle's books, including his short 1942 book that Ong draws on. As a result, Collins wrote a perceptive review of Ong's two 1958 books in the Jesuit-sponsored semi-popular magazine America. In Collins' annual reviews of books in philosophy, he also wrote brief reviews of two of Ong's other books.

In Ong's other 1958 book Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason, Ong explicitly acknowledges on page 338 in note 54 that he has borrowed the aural-visual contrast that he works with throughout his book from Lavelle's 1942 book La parole et l'ecriture. Briefly, both Lavelle and Ong align the entire Western tradition of philosophic thought with visual cognitive processing, including of course the formal study of logic. In a nutshell, this is Ong's signature claim - the hallmark of his philosophical thought. Ong liked to say that his thought is phenomenological and personalist in cast. (He preferred to use the term personalist instead of the far more commonly used term existentialist.) However, in terms of established categories in philosophy, I would categorize his thought as basic epistemology. The old philosophical logion says that nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses (and sensory information). The aural-visual contrast is also known as the sound-sight contrast. For Ong, spoken words are cries that involve sound, but written words involve sight.

Subsequently, Ong further elaborated the aural-visual contrast he works with in his 1958 book about Ramus and Ramism in print culture in his 1969 article "World as View and World as Event" and in his 1970 article "'I See What You Say': Sense Analogues for Intellect." Ong's 1970 article is reprinted in his 1977 book Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture (122-44). Both is 1969 and 1970 articles are reprinted in volume three of Ong's Faith and Contexts (69-90 and 91-111 respectively).

Next, I want to spell out what eventually differentiates Ong's thought from Lavelle's. Ong was deeply impressed by Albert B. Lord's 1960 book The Singer of Tales and by Eric A. Havelock's 1963 book Preface to Plato. Ong published generous reviews of those two books, and both of his reviews are reprinted in An Ong Reader: Challenges for Further Inquiry (301-6 and 309-12 respectively). Lord's book enabled Ong to deepen his understanding of aural cognitive processing, and Havelock's book enabled Ong to deepen his understanding of how the technologizing of the word in the vowelized phonetic alphabetic writing of the ancient Greeks had contributed to the emergence of Greek philosophic thought in Plato and Aristotle. With these additional inputs from Lord and Havelock, Ong was able to further develop the trajectory of the technologizing of the word from ancient and medieval manuscript culture to typographic culture after the Gutenberg printing press had emerged in the 1450s.

Perhaps independently of Lavelle, but possible under the influence of Lavelle (we don't know which is the case), the Canadian Jesuit philosopher and theologian Bernard Lonergan (1904-1984) aligned the entire Western philosophic tradition of thought with what he mocked as "taking a good look" in his 1957 philosophical masterpiece Insight: A Study of Human Understanding. In the late 1950s, McLuhan, who was then teaching English at the University of Toronto, and a graduate student in English named Donald Theall slowly but surely read through Lonergan's challenging 1957 book. No doubt Ong also looked over Lonergan's book, but he evidently did not study it carefully enough to relate it to his own thought. Now, as far as I know, McLuhan does not explicitly refer to Lonergan's book in his 1962 flawed experimental book The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, in which he does repeatedly refer to Ong's 1958 book about Ramus and Ramism. In the 2004 book Spectacles of Truth in Classical Greek Philosophy: Theoria in its Cultural Context, Andrea Wilson Nightingale strengthens the claims advanced by Lavelle, Ong, McLuhan, and Lonergan about visual cognitive processing in ancient Greek philosophic thought, but she does not happen to refer to any of them explicitly. Now McLuhan's 1964 brainstorming book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man was his big breakthrough book about technology. But Ong had no big breakthrough book, nor did Lonergan - nor did Lavelle. However, unlike Lavelle and Lonergan, both Ong and McLuhan take technology into account as an influence contributing to human consciousness and culture.

In the preface to his 1977 book Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture, Ong himself explicitly characterizes his own technology thesis as being relationist in spirit, not reductionist: "[T]he evolution from primary orality [oral culture 1.0] through writing and print to electronic culture, which produces secondary orality [oral culture 2.0], causes or explains everything in human culture and consciousness. . . . [T]he thesis is relationist: major developments [e.g., modern science, modern capitalism, modern democracy, the Industrial Revolution, and the Romantic Movement], and very likely even all major developments, in culture and consciousness are related, often in unexpected intimacy, to the evolution of the word from primary orality [oral culture 1.0] to its present state [in oral culture 2.0]. But the relationships are varied and complex, with cause and effect often difficult to distinguish" (9-10). In a somewhat different frame of reference, the study of ecology can also be characterized as relationist in spirit. This analogue has inspired certain people to refer to media ecology.

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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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