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Walter J. Ong's Thought in Relation to Michel Foucault's Thought (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) January 30, 2019: I propose to consider Walter J. Ong's thought in relation to Michel Foucault's thought by drawing on the late Gary Gutting's masterful 2005 account of Foucault's thought in his book Foucault: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press). Now, Ong was not a political activist. But Foucault was. Consequently, he tends to appeal to left-wing academics who fancy themselves to be activists in some sense of the term. But it would be a serious mistake to imagine that Ong appeals to academic and/or non-academic conservatives because he doesn't appeal to conservatives in general, nor, in particular, to conservative American Catholics.

For example, Ong does not especially appeal to members of the National Association of Scholars -- founded in 1987, the year in which Allan Bloom published his controversial book The Closing of the American Mind (Simon and Schuster, 1987), his sweeping indictment of American higher education.

But Ong also does not especially appeal to left-wing academics.

However, my consideration of Ong's thought in relation to Foucault's thought will show a few ways in which Ong's thought can be related to Foucault's. But these few ways might not appeal to left-wing academics not to conservative academics.

Now, as Gutting notes (page 112), three biographies of Foucault have been published: (1) Didier Eribon's Michel Foucault, translated by Betsy Wing (Harvard University Press, 1991); (2) James Miller's The Passion of Michel Foucault Simon and Schuster, 1993); and (3) David Macey's The Lives of Michel Foucault (Pantheon, 1993).

Concerning Ong's life and work, see my book Walter Ong's Contributions to Cultural Studies: The Phenomenology of the Word and I-Thou Communication, 2nd ed. (Hampton Press, 2015; orig. ed., 2000).


As noted, in 2005, the late Gary Gutting (1942-2019; Ph.D. in philosophy, Saint Louis University, 1968) in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame did his undergraduate and graduate studies at Saint Louis University (SLU), the Jesuit university in St. Louis, Missouri (USA). In his graduate studies in philosophy, he specialized in the philosophy of science. If I am not mistaken, Richard Joseph Blackwell in philosophy at SLU served as the director of Gutting's doctoral dissertation in the philosophy of science.

Gutting is also the author of the book Michel Foucault's Archaeology of Scientific Reason (Cambridge University Press, 1989). In addition, Gutting edited both the first edition and the second edition of The Cambridge Companion to Foucault (Cambridge University Press, 1994 and 2005, respectively). Gutting has also contributed essays frequently to The Stone feature in the New York Times.

Now, my favorite scholar is the American Jesuit Renaissance specialist and cultural historian Walter J. Ong (1912-2003; Ph.D. in English, Harvard University, 1955) in English at SLU. In addition to his appointment in English, Ong held an appointment as Professor of Humanities in Psychiatry in the department of psychiatry in the SLU School of Medicine from 1978 onward until he formally retired in 1984, the year in which Michel Foucault died.

Now, Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a French activist and prolific author. His publications include monographs, lectures, and interviews some of which have been published posthumously (as recently as 2018 and there may still be more posthumous publications to come). From 1970 to 1984, he held an appointment at the College de France that required him to deliver public lectures each year which are among his posthumous publications.

Like Foucault, Ong's 400 or so publications include monographs, lectures, and interviews and about 109 book reviews and review essays.

For bibliographic information about Ong's publications, including information about reprintings and translations, see Thomas M. Walsh's "Walter J. Ong, S.J.: A Bibliography 1929-2006" in the book Language, Culture, and Identity: The Legacy of Walter J. Ong, S.J., edited by Sara van den Berg and Thomas M. Walsh, both in English at Saint Louis University (Hampton Press, 2011, pages 185-245). Among Ong's publications, Walsh includes radio and television and conference presentations, in addition to published interviews.

Thus far, Ong's only posthumously published book is Language as Hermeneutic: A Primer on the Word and Digitization, edited and with commentaries by Thomas D. Zlatic and Sara van den Berg (Cornell University Press, 2017). I do not expect that any further posthumously published books by Ong will appear. Nevertheless, I should note here that his radio and television and conference presentations could be edited for publication in book-form.

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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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