The Presence of the Word

by Walter J. Ong

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 492

One of the dominant themes in modern studies of human culture has been the impact that communication and communications media have on persons and societies. The most famous exponent of this school is Marshall McLuhan, whose oftenrepeated phrase “the medium is the message” has become a slogan of cultural criticism. An equally important though perhaps less well-known figure is Walter J. Ong, who studied under McLuhan and later developed his own thoughtful and carefully researched studies on the relationship between communications media and culture.

The Presence of the Word presents the foundations of Ong’s explorations in this area. The subtitle of the volume is Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History, and the work is precisely that: a preliminary discussion, or prolegomena, that outlines the material to be studied. In other works, Ong goes into more detail, but in The Presence of the Word he offers a general view of the subject.

The genesis of the book was a series of Terry Lectures which Ong delivered at Yale University in April, 1964. These lectures seek to bring into focus the relationship between religion and advances in science and the humanities, a goal perfectly suited for Ong, a Roman Catholic priest and a cultural historian who gives particular emphasis to the role of the spiritual in human development. The Presence of the Word combines human concerns with theological implications.

Ong structures his work in a series of steps which move from the specific and concrete to the more universal and abstract. He first lays the groundwork for determining the roles of the senses and the “word” in human culture. By “word,” Ong means both the spoken language and the spiritual presence associated with that language. He next traces the development of human culture through what he terms the “transformations of the word.” This development has a three-part movement. First, there is the oral-aural culture, in which human beings communicate solely through speech. This stage gives way to the second, the print or script culture, which comes about with the invention of writing systems, especially the phonetic alphabet. Writing has a great impact on culture, primarily because it shifts the relationships of the senses; hearing, which dominated in the oral-aural culture, now becomes less important than vision. The invention of printing makes the script culture more dominant than ever. Finally, a third stage arrives with the development of electronic media such as telegraph, telephone, radio, and television. There is a combined oral-aural and print culture at this third stage, and once again the impact is felt throughout human society.

Having established this tripartite movement, Ong examines its implications in more abstract realms, such as its impact on the causes and nature of human conflict or on humans’ spiritual development and their relationship with God, or the word in its most spiritual sense. The six parts of the book thus lead upward from a study of human culture to link that culture with the divine.


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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 261

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...

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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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