The Presence of the Word

by Walter J. Ong

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Critical Context

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Two themes are central in Ong’s investigations: the theological, or spiritual, and the cultural. Throughout his writings, Ong consistently seeks to discover the points where the spiritual and the material interact and where human beings express, through language, their fullest potential as creatures who possess a spirit or soul. In this sense, Ong combines both secular and religious concerns.

Because of this, the term “word” has particular importance for Ong. He approaches it both in its literal sense, that is, the combination of sounds used in human languages, and as the divine logos, or the spirit of God (specifically, of Christ) as conceived by Christian theology. “Word” appears frequently in Ong’s titles; in addition to The Presence of the Word, his titles include Interfaces of the Word (1977) and Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (1982). Clearly, this concept is central to Ong’s theories and their development.

The Presence of the Word is probably Ong’s most concise and direct presentation of his overall view, and it therefore holds a central place in his canon. In this work, he outlines clearly his theory of a three-part evolution of human culture based on communication systems: a transition from an oral-aural culture to a script culture and the subsequent emergence of an electronic culture which combines the best of the two previous stages, bringing human beings yet closer to the word in all its various senses.

These same themes are developed in others of Ong’s works, sometimes with greater attention to particular details or historical events, as in Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason (1958) or Rhetoric, Romance and Technology: Studies in the Interaction of Expression and Culture (1971). Yet, it is in The Presence of the Word that Ong presents his views most clearly and convincingly, and this volume is therefore essential for the serious observer of modern culture and religion.

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