Walter Ong: Communications Theorist

Thinking about communications reminded me that in graduate school I worked in the same building with, and read some of the writing of,  Walter Ong SJ (1912 – 2003). Ong was an American Jesuit priest, humanist and communication theorist, and professor of English literature at St. Louis University for many years.

Ong’s major interest was in exploring how the transition from orality to literacy influenced culture and changed human consciousness. He argued that the invention of writing played a major role in the emergence of individualism by providing the technology to think alone and to pursue intricate studies impossible in oral cultures that rely solely on face-to-face communication and memory. Ong claimed specifically, that the technologies of writing and printing created a new individualistic character, the private author who addresses an indefinite population. Paradoxically, he thought that “there is an inverse relationship between the number of people you are addressing and how alone you have to be.”

So I was introduced long ago to the sense that while technology changes communication, it doesn’t necessarily undermine it and may, in some ways, enhance it. You can easily imagine future technologies that would allow us to communicate even better, perhaps by being able to really feel what it is like to be the other or probe directly into others minds. Obviously Twitter and Facebook are shallow forms of communication, and on the whole, they may be detrimental to society and personal relationships. But I reject the idea that technology necessarily leads to a decrease in the quality of human connectivity. In fact on the whole better technology allows for better communication.

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4 thoughts on “Walter Ong: Communications Theorist

  1. Mr. Ong’s work impressed me; along with several other thinkers, he demonstrated that literacy played a major role in the development of Western culture. My own perception of that issue focuses on the differences between Socrates and Aristotle. Socrates rejected the written word because it is not interactive and therefore less subject to verification. Aristotle went wild with the written word, writing up a storm. In the process, he discovered that writing is a navigational tool for thinking. The written word is accountable. If you closely follow the arguments that Socrates uses in his dialogs, you discover that he plays fast and loose with his definitions, shifting meanings to “prove” his points. Aristotle found that this problem could be avoided with the written word, because the reader can go back and double-check the entire argument. Moreover, he discovered that writing is an excellent way to develop one’s thoughts. When designing a game, I always write short essays on particular problems as a means of firming up my thinking.

    It is no coincidence that Aristotle invented logic with his syllogism. Socrates and Plato were rational, but Aristotle was logical (I’m using the term ‘logic’ here to mean formal, rigorous rationalism.) And while the concept remained dormant for more than a millennium, when Thomas Aquinas tried to merge logic with religion, he kicked off the Western fad for logic. He failed, of course, but along the way he established a culture of logic. When the Oxford Calculators threw numbers into the mix, they paved the way for Copernicus and Galileo. Hence writing was the progenitor of science.

    What fascinates me about computers is that they seem to offer another leap in human cognition: subjunctive thinking. We already engage in lots of “what if” analysis, but computers formalize that process. The whole idea of a spreadsheet is that it allows a business person to formally consider lots of “what if” scenarios. A word processor allows us to write experimentally, trying out many different ways of expressing our thoughts, before settling on the final version.

    Where logic takes us in a linear step-by-step progression to some truth, subjunctive thinking presents us with a tree of possible truths stretching out before us. It’s a different way of thinking, and a better way.

  2. I agree with everything you say. And for me writing has almost become thinking. I have a hard time thinking clearly if I’m not writing.

  3. Expressing a thought or concept in a clear, understandable manner is hard to do. When I think I have something useful to say (such as in a written comment on your website), I’m always amazed at how difficult it is to clearly express that thought. And after the attempt, I usually see that I left something out, mangled my logic or could have used a more appropriate word or phrase to avoid offending someone. All I can say is: writing (well) is tough!

    I’m very impressed by the above comments by Chris. He demonstrates the value of being able to clearly express oneself in the written word. I completely agree that “The written word is accountable” and I especially liked the image invoked by his description that “subjunctive thinking presents us with a tree of possible truths stretching out before us”. In all my years of doing computer simulations, I never really thought of the process in quite that way – an interesting and accurate perspective.

  4. Jim – thanks as always for the insightful comments. And you are right Chris always has interesting things to say.

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