Walter J. Ong Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Throughout his career, Walter Jackson Ong concerned himself with the interrelationships between technologies of communication and changes in human consciousness. He was born on November 30, 1912, in Kansas City, Missouri, the son of Walter Jackson Ong and Blanche Eugenia (Mense) Ong. He studied at Rockhurst College, a small Catholic school in Kansas City run by the Jesuit Order. After receiving his B.A. from Rockhurst in 1933, he spent two years in newspaper and business positions before entering the Missouri Province of the Society of Jesus in 1935. He then went through the traditional course of studies for Jesuits, spending two years in a novitiate where he studied Latin and Greek and where he underwent rigorous ascetic training, including a thirty-day retreat based on the sixteenth century Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola.

In the late 1930’s, Ong studied philosophy at Saint Louis University, a Jesuit institution since 1828 and one with which he became closely associated. He received his Ph.L. (licentiate in philosophy) in 1940 and his M.A. in 1941. During regency, a period of practice teaching for Jesuit scholastics, he was an instructor for two years in English and French at Regis College in Denver. In 1944, he began his theological training at Saint Louis University, and during his first three years of studies, he also taught English. He was ordained a priest in 1946, and after another year of theology he received his S.T.L. (licentiate in sacred theology).

In the early 1950’s, Ong studied at Harvard University, where he came under the influence of Perry Miller and began his important work on the logician Petrus Ramus. This sixteenth century educational reformer made Ong aware of the revolutionary shift in sensibility brought about by the development of typography. Ramus simplified and modernized the old logic of Aristotle by concentrating on logic’s practical use as an instrument of discovery rather than as a tool of scholastic disputation. Ong used Ramism to illustrate the transformation that brought Western societies to react to words less as sounds and more as items in space, less as parts of a temporally successive oral argument and more as elements in a printed pattern.

After receiving his doctorate from Harvard University in 1955, Ong returned to Saint Louis University, where he quickly passed through the academic ranks, becoming a full professor in 1959. During this period, he wrote articles and books mainly to show the Catholic community that it needed a new theology consonant with the new cosmology, biology, and psychology developed by scientists. Ong, a futurist who was sensitive to the position of American Catholicism in a pluralist society, did not want his fellow Christians imprisoned by antiquated models of humankind and the world.

With the publication of The Barbarian Within, and Other Fugitive Essays and Studies, Ong came to the attention of a broader audience. In this book, he analyzed the evolution of modes of thought and verbal expressions from oral into chirographic (writing) and typographic (printing) cultures. He argued that the spoken word unified oral cultures, whereas the printed word isolated members of literate cultures. He also pointed out that in the twentieth century a third revolution—from the typographic to the electronic stage—occurred, in which communication became practically...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Donoghue, Denis. Review of In the Human Grain, by Walter J. Ong. The New York Review of Books, March 9, 1967. A good essay-review.

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. Reviews Ong’s lifelong endeavor to bring the vocal word back to cultural studies. Farrell includes other familiar proponents of the evolution of human consciousness and contemporaries such as John Bradshaw.

Graham, William A. Beyond the Written Word: Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Uses Ong’s analysis of orality and literacy to clarify the roles of oral and written sacred accounts in the history of religion.

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. Introduces readers to intellectual discussions surrounding the evolution of Ong’s work. Designed for scholars and advanced students.

Kermode, Frank. “Free Fall.” The New York Review of Books 10 (March 14, 1968): 22-26. A good review of The Presence of the Word.

Nielsen, Mark. “A Bridge Builder: Walter J. Ong at Eighty.” America, November 21, 1992. An article assessing Ong’s career, published on the occasion of Ong’s eightieth birthday.

Sisk, John B. Review of Faith and Contexts, by Walter J. Ong. America, February 3, 1996. A good review of the first three volumes of this work.

Toolan, David. “The Male Agony: According to Walter J. Ong.” Commonweal 119, no. 20 (November 20, 1992): 13. Refers to Ong as a “genial polymath” who draws from “anthropology, sociology, biology, psychology, literary and intellectual history, and Christian ecclesial and theological history.”

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. The essays in this volume explore the implications of Ong’s work in the fields of cultural history, literary theory, theology, philosophy, and anthropology.