Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Walter J. Ong, fully Walter Jackson Ong

American Jesuit Priest, Professor of English Literature, Cultural and Religious Historian and Philosopher, President of the Modern Language Association of America

"Advance in understanding of nature or even in control of nature does not diminish God. God is not the sum total of what man does not know about nature or what man cannot control in nature."

"Sight isolates, sound incorporates. Whereas sight situates the observer outside what he views, at a distance, sound pours into the hearer. Vision dissects, as Merleau-Ponty has observed (1961). Vision comes to a human being from one direction at a time: to look at a room or a landscape, I must move my eyes around from one part to another. When I hear, however, I gather sound simultaneously from every directions at once; I am at the center of my auditory world, which envelopes me, establishing me at a kind of core of sensation and existence... You can immerse yourself in hearing, in sound. There is no way to immerse yourself similarly in sight. By contrast with vision, the dissecting sense, sound is thus a unifying sense. A typical visual ideal is clarity and distinctness, a taking apart. The auditory ideal, by contrast, is harmony, a putting together. Interiority and harmony are characteristics of human consciousness. The consciousness of each human person is totally interiorized, known to the person from the inside and inaccessible to any other person directly from the inside. Everyone who says 'I' means something different by it from what every other person means. What is 'I' to me is only 'you' to you... In a primary oral culture, where the word has its existence only in sound... the phenomenology of sound enters deeply into human beings' feel for existence, as processed by the spoken word. For the way in which the word is experienced is always momentous in psychic life."

"[Because of the use of clusters of formulas,] the "essential idea" [of an oral narrative] is not subject to clear, straightforward formulation but is rather a kind of fictional complex held together largely in the unconscious."

"A deeper understanding of pristine or primary orality enables us better to understand the new world of writing, what it truly is, and what functionally literate human beings really are: beings whose thought processes do not grow out of simply natural powers but out of these powers as structured, directly or indirectly, by the technology of writing. Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does, not only when engaged in writing but normally even when it is compos- ing its thoughts in oral form. More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness."

"An oral culture simply does not deal in such items as geometrical figures, abstract categorization, formally logical reasoning processes, definitions, or even comprehensive descriptions, or articulated self-analysis, all of which derive not simply from thought itself but from text-formed thought."

"[Rhythmically balanced, formulaic expressions] can be found occasionally in print but in oral cultures they are not occasional. They are incessant. They form the substance of thought itself. Thought in any extended form is impossible without them, for it consists in them."

"Alphabet letterpress printing, in which each letter was cast on a separate piece of metal, or type, marked a psychological breakthrough of the first order. It embedded the word itself deeply in the manufacturing process and made it into a kind of commodity. The first assembly lie, a technique of manufacture which in a series of set steps produces identical complex objects made up of replaceable parts, was not one which produced stoves or shoes or weaponry but one which produced the printed book. In the late 1700s, the industrial revolution applied to other manufacturing the replaceable-part techniques which printers had worked with for three hundred years. Despite the assumptions of many semiotic structuralists, it was print, not writing, that effectively reified the word, and, with it, noetic activity."

"By contrast with vision, the dissecting sense, sound is thus a unifying sense. A typical visual ideal is clarity and distinctness, a taking apart. The auditory ideal, by contrast, is harmony, a putting together."

"A sound-dominated verbal economy is consonant with aggregative (harmonizing) tendencies rather than with analytic, dissecting tendencies. It is consonant also with the conservative holism, with situational thinking rather than abstract thinking, with a certain humanistic organization of knowledge around the actions of human and anthromorphic beings, interiorized persons, rather than around impersonal things."

"As a foundation for their own intellectual self-possession, Catholics in the United States need a MYSTIQUE of more than technology and science. They need also a Christian MYSTIQUE of such things as sports and lunch clubs . . . and indeed a MYSTIQUE of the whole social surface which is a property of life in the United States. This social surface is maintained in great part by the arts of communication in the peculiar and highly developed conditions in which these arts exist in the United States. Here what the ancient world knew as "rhetoric' or "oratory' -- the art of swaying other men, conceived as more or less the crown of all education -- long ago migrated from the faculties of languages into the university course in commerce and finance, where it is taught under labels such as "advertising,' or "copy writing,' or "merchandizing' and "marketing' and "salesmanship.' This twentieth century rhetoric, like all rhetoric, has a strong personalist torque -- it has ultimately to face the problem of dealing with the individual as an individual -- and has given rise to the American stress on personal relations and personnel problems and adjustments which has appeared as one of the great, and not entirely unsuccessful, compensatory efforts of a mechanistic civilization, grown self-conscious, to deal with its own peculiar shortcomings. American Catholics need a MYSTIQUE of this peculiar American personalism, too."

"By distancing the word from the plenum of existence, from a holistic context made up mostly of non-verbal elements, writing enforces verbal precision of a sort unavailable in oral cultures. Context always controls the meaning of a word. In oral utterance, the context always includes much more than words, so that less of the total, precise meaning conveyed by the words need rest in the words themselves."

"As contemplation [of a work of art or literature] enters upon a more serious stage, the human being is driven by the whole economy of what it is to be man to find opposite himself, in that which he contemplates, a person capable of reacting in turn. This drive is primordial and will not be denied."

"By separating the knower from the known, writing makes possible increasingly articulate introspectivity, opening the psyche as never before not only to the external objective world quite distinct from itself but also to the interior self against whom the objective world is set. Writing makes possible the great introspective religious traditions such as Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All of these have sacred texts."

"By removing words from the world of sound where they had first had their origin in active human interchange and relegating them definitively to visual surface, and by otherwise exploiting visual space for the management of knowledge, print encouraged human beings to think of their own interior conscious and unconscious resources as more and more thing-like, impersonal and religiously neutral. Print encouraged the mind to sense that its possessions were held in some sort of inert mental space."

"Deeply typographic folk forget to think of words as primarily oral, as events, and hence as necessarily powered: for them, words are rather to be assimilated to things, "out there". Such "things" are not actions, but are in a radical sense dead."

"Cultures vary greatly in their exploitation of the various senses and in the way in which they relate to their conceptual apparatus to the various senses. It has been a commonplace that the ancient Hebrews and the ancient Greeks differed in the value they set on the auditory. The Hebrews tended to think of understanding as a kind of hearing, whereas the Greeks thought of it more as a kind of seeing, although far less exclusively as seeing than post-Cartesian Western man generally has tended to do."

"Everybody today, it seems, wants to reform education. It would be interesting if this ambition were a mark of our times. But it is not, for an ambition to reform education is found in most of the ages known to civilization."

"Homeric and the pre-Homeric Greeks, like oral peoples generally, practiced public speaking with great skill long before their skills were reduced to an "art", that is, to a body of sequentially organized, scientific principles which explained and abetted what verbal persuasion consisted in. Such an "art" is presented in Aristotle"s Art of Rhetoric. Oral cultures, as has been seen, can have no "arts" of this scientifically organized sort. The "art" of rhetoric, though concerned with oral speech, was, like other "arts," the product of writing."

"Despite what is sometimes said, electronic devices are not eliminating printed books but are actually producing more of them. Composition on computer terminals is replacing older forms of typographic composition, so that son virtually all printing will soon be done in one way or another with the aid of electronic equipment. And, of course information of all sorts electronically gathered and/or processed makes its way into print to swell the typographic output."

"For oral cultures, the cosmos is an ongoing event with man at its center. Only after print and the extensive experience with maps that print implemented would human beings, when they thought about the cosmos or universe or "world", think primarily of something laid out before their eyes ready to be "explored"."

"For, although, as Eliot justly maintains in [his essay “Tradition and Individual Talent”], works of literature are “not the expression of personality but an escape from personality,” and in this are unlike ordinary dialogue, they are nevertheless not quite an escape to an object, a thing adequately conceivable, even analogously, in terms of surfaces and visual or tactile perceptions. Works of literature consist in words, and, as we have suggested, words themselves retain in themselves ineluctably something of the interiority of their birth within that interior which is a person. As cries, they go “out,” but they are not extensions of, or projections of interiority. In this sense Camus’s and Sartre’s view of man as an interior exteriorizing itself is quite inadequate to the totality of the human situation. We are more accurate if we keep our metaphors closer to the world of sound and think of speech and of works of literature as “amplifications” or, better, as intensifications of an interior. All words projected from a speaker remain, as has been seen, somehow interior to him, being an invitation to another person, another interior, to share the speaker’s interior, and invitation to enter in, not to regard from the outside."

"Exact observation does not begin with modern science. For ages, it has always been essential for survival among, for example, hunters and craftsmen of many sorts. What is distinctive of modern science is the conjuncture of exact observation and exact verbalization: exactly worded descriptions of carefully observed complex objects and processes. The availability of carefully made, technical prints implemented such exactly worded descriptions."

"In high technology cultures today, everyone lives each day in a frame of abstract computed time enforced by millions of printed calendars, clock, and watches. In twelfth-century England there were no clocks or watches or wall or desk calendars."

"In the printed book, these vague psychic "places" became quite physically and visibly localized. A new noetic world was shaping up, spatially organized. In this new world, the book was less like an utterance, and more like a thing."

"I have also heard the term ‘secondary orality’ lately applied by some to other sorts of electronic verbalization which are really not oral at all—to the Internet and similar computerized creations for text. There is a reason for this usage of the term. In non-technologized oral interchange, as we have noted earlier, there is no perceptible interval between the utterance of the speaker and the hearer’s reception of what is uttered. Oral communication is all immediate, in the present. Writing, chirographic or typed, on the other hand, comes out of the past. Even if you write a memo to yourself, when you refer to it, it’s a memo which you wrote a few minutes ago, or maybe two weeks ago. But on a computer network, the recipient can receive what is communicated with no such interval. Although it is not exactly the same as oral communication, the network message from one person to another or others is very rapid and can in effect be in the present. Computerized communication can thus suggest the immediate experience of direct sound. I believe that is why computerized verbalization has been assimilated to secondary ‘orality,’ even when it comes not in oral-aural format but through the eye, and thus is not directly oral at all. Here textualized verbal exchange registers psychologically as having the temporal immediacy of oral exchange. To handle such technologizing of the textualized word, I have tried occasionally to introduce the term ‘secondary literacy.’ We are not considering here the production of sounded words on the computer, which of course are even more readily assimilated to ‘secondary orality.’"

"In the total absence of any writing, there is nothing outside the thinker, no text, to enable him or her to produce the same line of thought again or even to verify whether he or she has done so or not. How, in fact, could a lengthy, analytic solution ever be assembled in the first place? An interlocutor is virtually essential: it is hard to talk to yourself for hours on end. Sustained thought in an oral culture is tied to communication."

"In many ways, the greatest shift in the way of conceiving knowledge between the ancient and the modern world takes place in the movement from a pole where knowledge is conceived of in terms of discourse and hearing and persons to one where it is conceived of in terms of observation and sight and objects. This shift dominates all others in Western intellectual history, and as compared to it, the supposed shift from a deductive to an inductive method pales into insignificance. For, in terms of this shift, the coming into prominence of deduction, which must be thought of in terms of visual, not auditory, analogies—the ‘drawing’ of conclusions, and so on, not the ‘hearing’ of a master—is already a shift toward the visual and a preparatory step for induction, from which deduction was never entirely separated anyhow. Stress on induction follows the stress on deduction as manifesting a still further visualization in the approach to knowledge, with tactics based on ‘observation,’ and approach preferably through sight."

"It is of course possible to count as "writing" any semiotic mark, that is, any visible or sensible mark which an individual makes and assigns a meaning to. Using the term "writing" in this extended sense trivializes its meaning. The critical and unique breakthrough into new worlds of knowledge was achieved within human consciousness not when simple semiotic marking was devised but when a coded system of visible marks was invented whereby a writer could determine the exact words that the reader would generate from the text. This is what we usually mean today by writing in its sharply focused sense."

"Interiority and harmony are characteristics of human consciousness. The consciousness of each human person is totally interiorized, known to the person from the inside and inaccessible to any other person directly from the inside. Everyone who says "I" means something different by it from what every other person means. What is "I" to me is only "you" to you. And this "I" incorporates experience into itself by "getting it all together". Knowledge is ultimately not a fractioning but a unifying phenomenon, a striving for harmony."

"Oratory has deep agonistic roots. The development of the vast rhetorical tradition was distinctive of the west and was related, whether as cause or effect or both, to the tendency among the Greeks and their cultural epigoni to maximize oppositions, in the mental as in the extramental world: this by contrast with Indians and Chinese, who programmatically minimized them."

"Oral communication unites people in groups. Writing and reading are solitary activities that throw the psyche back on itself."

"Most persons are distressed, and many depressed, to learn that essentially the same objections commonly urged today against computers were urged by Plato in the Phaedrus and in the Seventh Letter against writing. Writing, Plato has Socrates say in the Phaedrus, is inhumane pretending to establish outside the mind what in reality can be only in the mind. It is a thing, a manufactured product."

"Oral memory works effectively with "heavy" characters, persons whose deeds are monumental, memorable and commonly public. Thus the noÎtic economy of its nature generates outsize figures, that is, heroic figures, not for romantic reasons or reflectively didactic reasons but for much more basic reasons: to organize experience in some sort of permanently memorable form."

"Persons whose world view has been formed by high literacy need to remind themselves that in functionally oral cultures the past is not felt as an itemized terrain, peppered with verifiable and disputed "facts" or bits of information. It is the domain of the ancestors, a resonant source for renewing awareness of present existence, which itself is not an itemized terrain either. Orality knows no lists or charts or figures."

"Print culture gave birth to the romantic notions of "originality" and "creativity", which set apart an individual work from other works even more, seeing its origins and meaning as independent of outside influence, at least ideally. When in the past few decades doctrines of intertextuality arose to counteract the isolationist aesthetics of a romantic print culture, they came as a kind of shock."

"Print eventually removed the ancient art of (orally based) rhetoric from the center of academic education."

"Print created a new sense of the private ownership of words. Persons in a primary oral culture can entertain some sense of proprietary rights to a poem, but such a sense is rare and ordinarily enfeebled by the common share of lore, formulas, and themes on which everyone draws. With writing, resentment at plagiarism begins to develop."

"Print encouraged and made possible on a large scale the quantification of knowledge, both through the use of mathematical analysis and through the use of diagrams and charts."

"Print produced exhaustive dictionaries and fostered the desire to legislate for "correctness" in language."

"Print was also a major factor in the development of the sense of personal privacy that marks modern society. It produced books smaller and more portable than those common in a manuscript culture, setting the stage psychologically for solo reading in a quiet corner, and eventually for completely silent reading."

"Sight isolates, sound incorporates. Whereas sight situates the observer outside what he views, at a distance, sound pours into the hearer."

"Speech is essentially a spoken and heard phenomenon, a matter of voice and ear, an event in the world of sound. Words are sounds. Written words are substitutes for sound and are only marks on a surface until they are converted to sound again, either in the imagination or by actual vocalization. We know this, but we find it almost impossible to grasp its full implications. The spoken word has become entangled with writing and print. When we talk about words, we are seldom sure whether we mean spoken words or written words or printed words or all of these simultaneously."

"Spoken words are always modifications of a total, existential situation, which always engages the body. Bodily activity beyond mere vocalization is not adventitious or contrived in oral communication, but is natural and even inevitable. In oral verbalization, particularly public verbalization, absolute motionlessness is itself a powerful gesture."

"'Text', from a root meaning 'to weave', is, in absolute terms, more compatible etymologically with oral utterance than is 'literature', which refers to letters etymologically/(literae) of the alphabet. Oral discourse has commonly been thought of even in oral milieus as weaving or stitching—rhapsoidein, to 'rhapsodize', basically means in Greek 'to stitch songs together'. But in fact, when literates today use the term 'text' to refer to oral performance, they are thinking of it by analogy with writing. In the literate's vocabulary, the 'text' of a narrative by a person from a primary oral culture."

"The writer's audience is always a fiction. The writer must set up a role in which absent and often unknown readers can cast themselves. The reader must also fictionalize the writer."

"There is no way to stop sound and have sound. I can stop a moving picture camera and hold one frame fixed on the screen. If I stop the movement of sound, I have nothing — only silence, no sound at all."

"The grapholect bears the marks of the millions of minds which have used it to share their consciousnesses with one another. Into it has been hammered a massive vocabulary of an order of magnitude impossible for an oral tongue. Webster's Third New World Dictionary (1971) states in its Preface that it could have included "many times" more than the 450,000 words it does include. Assuming that "many times" must mean at least three times, and rounding out the figures, we can understand that the editors have on hand a record of some million and a half words used in print in English. Oral languages and oral dialects can get along with perhaps five thousand words or less."

"The most remarkable fact about the alphabet no doubt is that it was invented only once. It was worked up by a Semitic people or Semitic peoples around the year 1500 BC, in the same general geographic area where the first of all scripts appeared, the cuneiform, but two millennia later than the cuneiform. Every alphabet in the worldderives in one way or another from the original Semitic development."

"There is, indeed, no way for a cry to completely exteriorize itself. A mark made by our hand will remain when we are gone. But when the interior—even the physical, corporeal interior, as well as the spiritual interior of consciousness—from which a cry is emitted ceases to function as an interior, the cry itself has perished. To apprehend what a person has produced in space—a bit of writing, a picture—is not at all to be sure that he is alive. To hear his voice (provided it is not reproduced from a frozen spatial design on a phonograph disc or tape) is to be sure."

"This age is the age of victory over the tyranny of matter greater than the world has ever known before. Our present CONCERN over becoming materialistic is something, after all, not only new but long overdue, and in this sense a real spiritual achievement of the twentieth century. In a similar way, this age, so often denounced as impersonal, has paid more explicit attention to the person than any other age in history. The philosophic movement known as personalism is a distinctive twentieth century movement."