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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 668

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.”

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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...

(The entire section contains 668 words.)

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