When Walter J. Ong, Jesuit priest and theologian, delivered the Terry lectures on religion in the light of science and philosophy at Yale University in 1964 (published three years later as The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History), he had already published several volumes exploring the religious importance of evolution and scientific development, the interpenetration of religious and secular cultural history, and the influence of technology on human patterns of thought. Ong was widely known as the author of Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason (1958), considered a profound contribution to the history of sixteenth century education. The research for his 1955 doctoral dissertation at Harvard University had been the basis not only for that volume but also for an associated bibliographical study, Ramus and Talon Inventory (1958), which Ong dedicated to his mentor, Marshall McLuhan, “who started all this.”
McLuhan, who had directed Ong’s 1941 master’s thesis on the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins at St. Louis University and stimulated his interest in French humanist Petrus Ramus, was soon popularizing, in The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media (1964), the idea that shifts in communications media such as the development of writing and literacy or the invention of the printing press had played transformative, perhaps determinative, roles in the development of human thought. The medium, McLuhan insisted in one of his catchy exaggerations, is the message. Though his ideas...
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