The Presence of the Word

by Walter J. Ong

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1443

First published: New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1967

Genre(s): Nonfiction

Subgenre(s): Essays; history; theology

Core issue(s): Listening; memory; psychology; silence; time; the Word


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 sometimes overlap McLuhan’s, Ong’s approach tends to be more detailed and nuanced, and is explicitly relational (rather than reductionist). Ong was influenced by many other scholars in his reflections on the contrast between “orality” and “literacy,” including Albert Lord and Eric Havelock, who redefined the relations of oral poets such as Homer and literary philosophers such as Plato to oral and literate cultures.

Though McLuhan converted to Catholicism and his “global village” is related to the “noosphere” of the French theologian and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Ong has the more abiding interest in the religious implications of media-driven changes in human thought. Very roughly speaking, the first three chapters of The Presence of the Word (“The Word and the Sensorium,” “Transformations of the Word,” and “Word as Sound”) lay out the theory, and the next three chapters (“The Word as History: Sacred and Profane,” “The Word and the Quest for Peace,” “Man’s Word and God’s Presence”) focus on the religious implications.

For Ong, the word as sound comes naturally to human beings, while the word as visual sign or letter begins a complex process of enculturation that grows even more consequential when cultures of writing become cultures of printing. With the advent of electronic communications media, certain aspects of oral societies reassert themselves, albeit in transformed ways. Societies organized around different media support a different organization of the senses (the “sensorium”), different habits of thought, and even different personality structures.

In primary oral (nonliterate) cultures, persons have a presence to one another as voices. In a “visualist” written culture (script or chirographic, initially, and later print or typographic), persons give way to viewpoints and perspectives, and eventually to quantifiable bodies in measurable space. Before printing, script culture was still influenced by the oral legacy of the past, but that influence fades as print takes hold on consciousness. In secondary oral cultures, such as the American, there is a mixture, as oral patterns reassert themselves (with a difference) in new electronic guises.

Ong insists that “sight registers surfaces,” while “sound manifests interiors.” The word as sound has “a permanent inwardness,” but the written word is associated with (causes and is caused by) a way of thinking that focuses on externalities. In this world of objects, persons are “an embarrassing kind of objects. . . . Persons and the consciousness they exhibit are unaccountable intrusions. . . .” In the end, Ong’s work is as much the insinuation of a kind of “personalist”—or even “existentialist”—understanding of human situatedness as it is the assertion of definite historical theses.

Christian Themes

Ong’s account of the sensory shifts in human media must be viewed against the background of his Christian evolutionary optimism. Influenced in part by the cosmological speculations of Teilhard de Chardin, Ong insisted (in American Catholic Crossroads: Religious-Secular Encounters in the Modern World, 1959) that “once the fact of evolution (of the cosmos, of life, and of our knowledge) is known, the Christian must recognize as God’s work this upward movement in the universe, from brute matter to inorganic matter to man, and in human society from disjointed, less self-aware forms of social consciousness to a global awareness.” In his collection In the Human Grain: Further Explorations of Contemporary Culture (1967), published just before The Presence of the Word, Ong asserted

In the past it was easy to identify God with what man did not know of the universe. . . . Such a concept of God . . . makes God only a substitute for physical science, with the result that, as our knowledge grows, God becomes less and less necessary. . . . The God of Judeo-Christian revelation manifests himself in what men know of the universe, not in what they do not know. . . . Early man’s ignorance deformed his religious sensibility and . . . predisposed his religion to superstition. . . . The Christian dispensation is closely tied to the evolution of the material world, and to its very materiality. For the Christian, matter, changing in time, is a positive good, and the future is colored with hope.

This positive view of matter imports an enthusiasm for science and for secular knowledge generally. Ong is concerned with what is lost, as well as what is gained, in cultural change, with modes of deference and self-assertion, impulses of conflict and forms of cooperation. Ong’s account of the sensory dynamics of human communication also has implications for the mystery of incarnation and the understanding of divine communication. Just as the word is both interior and exterior, so Jesus is both divine incarnation and human transcendence.

According to Ong, the word as sound is living presence, existing only in its own perishing. The voice expresses the innerness of the self and speaks to the innerness of the other. The shift from sound and person to sight and object—from “I” and “Thou” to “It,” in the terms popularized by philospher Martin Buber—has involved a silencing of the human life-world, and that in turn has led to “a certain silence of God” in the modern world. (At one point, Ong reluctantly acknowledges a connection between his views and those of the philospher Martin Heidegger.) The “visualist” tendencies Ong critiques, he believes, have encouraged us to try to understand others, and ultimately ourselves, as externalities, as “surfaces.” However, that is a doomed project, as our presence to ourselves, and to each other, involves interiors, which cannot be reduced to surfaces; interiors can be sounded, but not seen. Invisible, God speaks—or would, if we but knew how to listen.

Sources for Further Study

  • Cargas, H.J. “Walter Ong, S.J.,” in Catholic Library World. XLVII (November, 1975), p. 185.
  • Cox, Harvey. “The Medium Is the Word,” in The Christian Century. LXXXV (April 10, 1968), p. 456.
  • Farrell, Thomas J. Walter Ong’s Contributions to Cultural Studies: The Phenomenology of the Word and I-Thou Communication. Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton Press, 2000. A valuable study of Ong’s work by a scholar who has taken on the project of bringing Ong to a wider audience.
  • Farrell, Thomas J., and Paul A. Soukup, eds. An Ong Reader: Challenges for Further Inquiry. Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton Press, 2002. A convenient, up-to-date anthology of Ong’s writing.
  • Gronbeck, Bruce E., Thomas J. Farrell, and Paul A. Soukup, eds. Media, Consciousness, and Culture: Explorations of Walter Ong’s Thought. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1991. Fifteen essays linking Ong’s work to a variety of subjects—Kant, Francis Bacon, feminism, Iran, the unconscious, and computer science.
  • Olson, David R. The World on Paper: The Conceptual and Cognitive Implications of Writing and Reading. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Critiques Ong and others in the context of a reassessment of the priority of speech to writing.
  • Ong, Walter J. Faith and Contexts. Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1992-1999. Four volumes of Ong’s essays on religious themes, edited by Thomas J. Farrell and Paul A. Soukup.
  • Weeks, Dennis L., and Jane Hoogestraat, eds. Time, Memory, and the Verbal Arts: Essays on the Thought of Walter Ong. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 1998. An anthology of essays by various scholars examining Ong’s impact on literary theory and analysis.

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