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Walter Ong

Page history last edited by george goodlow 11 years, 9 months ago


Walter Jackson Ong- (Born November 30th, 1912 in Kansas City, Missouri and died August 12th, 2003 in Richmond Heights Missouri.) He was a Jesuit priest, teacher of language, and a philosopher.




Ong was an expert of Renaissance literature and was well-known for his studies of the written word and communication in culture. He studied Latin at Rockhurst College and graduated in 1993, and then two years later joined the Jesuit society, The Society of Jesus. Ong completed his master’s degree in English and also completed degrees in philosophy and sacred philosophy at St. Louis University. He completed his PhD in English at Harvard. Ong became a member of the St. Louis University faculty in 1953 and continued to teach there throughout his teaching years. He retired in 1984. A student of Marshall McLuhan, by whom he was highly influenced, Ong studied pre-literate and their differences from literate societies. One of his conclusions from studying pre-literate societies, is that members of oral cultures use their elders as a portal to the past and cultural heritage, while on the contrary; literate societies become more individualistic and isolated. [1]


In his studies of the written word and communication, Ong related much of his research toward how oral communication is changing and how incoming new media shape the old media and eventually change them. [2] Through his work on oral cultures and studying how they impact our world today, Ong came up with the idea of Secondary Orality. Ong believed that in modern society, with the influx of electronic media, it creates a false orality. Ong was referring to how in Primary Orality, members of a society have only their verbal communication to convey ideas and record their history. These people, who were pre-literate, relied on their memories to remember important lessons and referred to elders of the society when making major decisions. Today, with Ong’s secondary orality, our society has television and now even interactive media like Facebook and YouTube. Instead of writing as our main form of communications, society is going back to a more oral culture; however, orality is highly influenced by the written information and records around us. [3]


Ong studied how when new technology is developed (in reference to communication) it doesn’t necessarily stamp out the old technology, on the contrary, it enforces it. Yet, that old technology will never appear the same. The invention of writing, didn’t eliminate speech; however, it changed the way people communicated. Literacy created a different way of thinking; it created individuality. People no longer had to remember the important lessons; they could reference them from writing. [2]  Likewise, as our new technology develops today, we don’t lose the old technology, it simply changes. In the example Ong uses regarding books today, he calls them “talking books.” In other words, it’s no longer the writer sitting down and letting the ideas flow to an invisible audience, books are the result of various interviews that have been recorded using modern technology. These sound bites are then revised until desirable and finally converted into text. [2]




Many of Ong's studied focused on the importance of the difference between signs/symbols communication. Ong agreed with Suzanne Langer in talking about the difference between human communication and animal communication. Langer, in her essay "Lord of Creation" talked about this difference. She mentioned that people have the ability to "communicate about communicating." [5] This is an important point in Ong's studies when referring to oral cultures. Oral cultures function through the interpretation of signs and symbols. Unlike animals, people have the ability to doubt. To use a common analogy, a chimpanzee can be trained to drive a car because he can learn that green means stop and red means go. However, if a chimp comes to an intersection where a light is green, but traffic is still crossing, the chimp won't doubt the situation and will probably cause an accident. Humans, on the other hand, have the ability to doubt the meaning of signs and symbols. A human would come to the intersection, see the green light and traffic still crossing and think about the reasons why the sign is wrong. Humans have the ability to reach "meta" levels of communication in that we can think beyond the literal meaning of a sign/symbol or doubt the meaning. Symbols are all around. Signs and symbols compose the world. Almost all human actions are interperted as signs and can stand for symblos. Its said that the meaning of symbols vary from, race, culture, and understanding. Both compliment the oral tradition, they express communication and they cant surive without the society that created them.






Ong was a type of theorist referred to by some Media Ecologists as "phonocentric" in that he is biased towards the uses of the ear and oral/aural communication. Often, phonocentrists view written as merely written speech. Ong referred to writing as "artificial" in that people never learn it "naturally" that is, everyone in a community, unless they are physically or psychologically impaired, learns to speak through listening. Babies learn to speak from listening to the surrounding adults. However, writing is drilled into culture. It is an artificial form of communication because people cannot simply be amongst writings and learn what the symbols mean, according to Ong. Ong says that writing is "the most arduous discipline, while speech comes about with far less anguish than does writing... Speech... is not drilled into the child with the grim determination that often marks the teaching of writing... Writing... is learned by concentration or application, and it rarely becomes... so spontaneous or flowing as speech." This is why Ong refers to writing as the artificial form of speech. [4] Ong states that "speech is ancient and writing is brand new." (6) Ong spread his beliefs of writing being artifical and orality communication more real. "Voice is alive." (6). That bold ststement derives from the thoughts of sound being linked to the present. Ong links sound to the oral tradition, by presenting its exsitance to the present. Sound has to come from a source here which makes it active. Thus the terms Voice is alive. The knower and the known  are seperated by writing Ong insits. Ong admits all languages does this but "writing deepens the seperation." (6). Speech is given the responsibility of caring thoughts, and being classified as being a well developed interior thoughts. In the "Biases of the ear and eye," Walter Ong continues the contrast between oral speech and writing. Ong says "We are so literate in ideology we think writing comes naturally." (6). Ong believes there is no way to write naturally. The greatest supporting deatail that ong provides is stating that, "Every human being in every culture who is not physiologically or psychologically impared learns to talk." (6). Writing is not learned by all people. "Word is in its purest form is spoken word." (6). "Voice has a kind of primacy in the formation of true communities of men, groups of individuals constituted by shared awarenesses'."(6).


Application to Media Ecology


In thinking about the studies that Walter Ong did, it’s important to consider how much communication has changed since the world has become literate. When we once relied on the connection to our communities and elders for advice and morality; we now consult professionals in psychology and lawyers who tell us what is and what isn’t ethical. In speaking about individuality, it’s true that we can think outside of rhymes and meters in order to develop more abstract thoughts. Yet, in losing that close connection to our most important lessons about life, we leave ethics on the shelf where they can be accessed any time needed, however, how often do we really consult them.




[1] Wikipedia Encyclopedia "Walter Ong" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Ong


[2] Ong, Walter."Wired for Sound: Teaching, Communications, and Technological Cultures." The Barbarian Within and Other Fugitive Essays and Studies


[3] Communication in History, Technology, Culture, Society Fifth Edition.David Crowley, Paul Heyer. Pearson Education, Inc. 2007


[4] Chandler, Daniel (1994): 'Biases of the Ear and Eye: "Great Divide" Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism' [WWW document] URL http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/litoral/litoral.html [4/25/2008]


[5] Langer, Suzanne. "Lord of Creation."



[6]  Chandler, Daniel Biases of the ear and eye.Retrived November 12,2008, from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/documents/litoral/litoral2.html

Original Author:  Priscilla Marlar

Additional Writing and Editting: Kate M. Fisher George Goodlow

Comments (7)

Jeff Martinek said

at 2:12 pm on Sep 11, 2008


I just wanted to remind you that Daniel Chandler's essay "The Biases of Ear and Eye" contains an extended critical discussion of Walter Ong's work and reputation.
-- AdmiN (2008-03-19 10:54:09)

Jeff Martinek said

at 2:12 pm on Sep 11, 2008

Found and added a good Ong photo. -- JM
-- AdmiN (2008-04-04 16:27:45)

Jeff Martinek said

at 2:12 pm on Sep 11, 2008

Priscilla: Nice article. You could go from earliest dates to later dates in the first paragraph. Any citing you did would of course help the reader know where you got your information.
I don't know if it's a good idea or not, but you might want to add the ways in which others refuted his arguments.
-- ChadChumley (2008-04-07 11:02:16)

Jeff Martinek said

at 2:12 pm on Sep 11, 2008

P: You may want to think about linking Ong to Langer on the importance of orality/symbols/signs...etc...maybe make a mindmap of all the theorists he's connected to...just a thought...Nice work
-- KimFitten (2008-04-14 08:55:02)

Jeff Martinek said

at 2:12 pm on Sep 11, 2008

Nit picking... capitalize Facebook and Youtube in second paragraph of biography.
-- ChadChumley (2008-04-24 15:37:40)

Jeff Martinek said

at 2:12 pm on Sep 11, 2008

You could comment on how individualistic views have come about in the computer world with internet and blogs... go onto the library - article - Ebsco host - and type in "Indiviualization" AND "Internet." Say hi to Bruno for me.
-- ChadChumley (2008-04-24 15:53:01)

Kate M. Fisher said

at 8:19 pm on Sep 14, 2008

There is a great photo of Walter Ong at the website listed below. The one at the top of the page is not appearing correctly on the page:

"The age in which humans existence is now framed, the age in which human life and technology so massively and intimately interact, can well be styled not only in the information age and the age of interpretation, but, perhaps, even more inclusively, the ecological age, in principle an age of total interconnectedness, where everything on the earth, and even the universe, is interconnected with everything else, no only in itself but, ideally, in human understanding and activity."
~I found this famous quote by Walter Ong, and I think it could definitely be configured into this page and could
use some analysis. I think it is one of Ong's best quotes.

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