Cover

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Title Page, Copyright

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pp. i-vi

Contents

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pp. vii-viii

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Preface

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pp. ix-xiv

Upon his death in 2003, Walter J. Ong S.J. left unpublished a mostly completed manuscript that he had worked on from 1987 to 1994: Language as Hermeneutic: A Primer on the Word and Digitization. This manuscript was his last book-length project. We offer it here in the hope that it will serve both the general reader and the scholar already familiar with Ong’s work. To this end, we have provided a context that includes explanatory materials on the life and work of Walter Ong. Our goal is to show the continuing relevance of his multidisciplinary studies in language...

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Introduction

Sara van den Berg

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pp. 1-8

Language in all its modes—oral, written, print, electronic—claims the central role in Walter J. Ong’s speculations on human culture. His provocative work was honored by his scholarly peers, by the American and French governments, and by readers who came to know his writings not only in English but also through translations into many languages, including Polish and Japanese. He spent his career in St. Louis, and traveled throughout the world to lecture, to conduct research, and to meet with other leading intellectuals (Farrell, Walter Ong’s Contributions). In...

Part I: Language as Hermeneutic: A Primer on the Word and Digitization

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Prologue

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pp. 11-19

A thesis of these reflections is that there are two encompassing and complementary movements significantly dominating the development of world culture today, digitization and hermeneutics—which is to say (as will be explained more fully throughout the work)—a fractioning movement and a holistic movement, and that these movements explain something of what has been going on in the development of human beings’ intellectual relationship and concomitant relationships to the world around them, chiefly in highly technologized societies but indirectly through all the world....

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1. Orality, Writing, Presence

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pp. 20-24

The historical origins of hermeneutics as a self-conscious discipline from the study of texts together with our typographical fixation on texts have occluded general awareness, even among scholars, that all use of language, not just textual use, is hermeneutic. This is the center point of this work. Hermeneutics, in the sense earlier described, the making clear to a given audience or milieu something in a manifestation that is not evident to this audience or milieu, was being practiced tens or even hundreds of thousands of years before writing was even thought of as a...

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2. Hermeneutics, Textual and Other

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pp. 25-35

Language, Gadamer observes in Truth and Method (354), is essentially writable and gains by being written. This observation is incontestable, although, as earlier noted, Gadamer’s work was too early to take note of the now vast studies (e.g., Havelock, Goody, Ong) concerning what language and thought were like in primary oral cultures (cultures with no knowledge of writing or even of its possibility—which is to say almost all human cultures over the ages, from some tens of hundreds of thousands of years ago until only some 5,000 years ago, when the first writing...

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3. Affiliations of Hermeneutics with Text

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pp. 36-39

Words, both oral and textual, as has been seen, can call for interpretation with a certain special urgency. For words themselves are always efforts at explanation, yet insofar as words, spoken or written or printed or processed electronically, never provide total explanation, they invite further interpretation, the completion of the business they have left unfinished. Utterance of any sort is always in some sense un-finished business. One can conclude verbal exchange quite satisfactorily and arrive at truth when what is at stake in a given situation is cleared up. But one could also...

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4. The Interpersonalism of Hermeneutics, Oral and Other

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pp. 40-49

In interpreting verbal utterance, as already noted, we can be called on to interpret oral speech or to interpret text. The two activities are different, but not entirely different. One paradigmatic form of interpretation in oral performance is that of reciprocal discourse or conversation between two (or more) persons in which an utterance of one interlocutor gives rise to another utterance by the other interlocutor, that to another by the first, and so on. This person-to-person dialogue Mikhail M. Bakhtin rightly maintains lies at the ultimate base of all utterance, written as well as oral,...

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5. Hermeneutics, Print, and “Facts”

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pp. 50-54

Our text-centered mentality, and especially our print-centered mentality, can and does create special illusions about the nature of “facts” which affects concepts of interpretation or hermeneutics. By habituating us to visually fixed representations of spoken words texts can lead us to overvalue fixity itself. We tend to think of a “fact” as in some sense something fixed. Yet its fixity is paradoxical, for a fact can only be identified by the use of words. And words are not fixed, for they are events in time. Moreover, there is no one thing to say about anything—a fact which seems to...

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6. Hermeneutics and the Unsaid

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pp. 55-57

If we begin with oral utterance in a primary oral culture (one with no knowledge of writing at all) as the initial field of hermeneutics, we can bring out more fully and cogently what the textbound state of mind tends to obscure, namely, that words are ultimately given their meaning by a nonverbal context. Imagine a person uttering the first word that was ever uttered. Any situation we imagine here is hypothetical, a bit unreal, but the construct can be informative nevertheless. Since no words exist to define or help define the meaning of the first word or words, the meaning...

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7. Meaning, Hermeneutic, and Interpersonal Trust

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pp. 58-60

Ultimately, meaning and hermeneutic are based on personal intersubjective trust. A few years ago, as I know directly from a participant, a national task force was set up to devise a sign or symbol to serve as a warning notice to mark a projected underground storage dump in the United States for dangerous nuclear waste. The sign or symbol was to be one that would render its warning of serious danger to all ages forever, independently of any languages that might be spoken from now until the end of time and independently of any divergencies in cultures. Of course—although it...

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8. Hermeneutic and Communication in Oral Cultures

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pp. 61-66

A hermeneutic of speech in oral cultures demands that we do not assume total likeness between oral speech events in primary oral cultures and oral speech events of literates. We must remind ourselves that in oral cultures verbalization is always tied to performance. The use of language is in no way associated with dictionaries or any other sort of inscription. Verbalization is human action—indeed, human action at its peak.

The high esteem of oral peoples for the “man of words” or “woman of words,” the one who can verbalize to the maximum, is well known,...

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9. Logos and Digitization

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pp. 67-84

In this digitizing age of the computer, by a somewhat more than bimillennial hindsight, one can see something of the deep psychological history and prehistory of digitization reaching back to ancient Greek and its use of the term logos. What is noted here does not constitute the whole history of digitization, but it is a central and very human part of its history and prehistory.

Because the term logos is commonly translated today as “word,” it is readily connected with the world of oral speech. But the history of the...

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10. Hermeneutics in Children’s Learning to Speak

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pp. 85-89

It is possible to discuss the learning of languages by children in terms of hermeneutic or interpretive processes involved, and indeed to view learning to speak as an exercise in interpretation—bringing out what is concealed in a given manifestation. For a child just learning to speak, in a special way words at first conceal much more than they reveal. Here we shall make an effort to discuss language learning very briefly as an interpretive or hermeneutic project.

A common, relatively unreflective, view of language considers it as a...

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11. Language, Technology, and the Human

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pp. 90-93

Gadamer’s point that all language is essentially writable and gains by being written is certainly well taken (Truth and Method 354). But by the same token all language is also essentially printable and electronically processible, and gains by being printed and electronically processed. The fact that certain losses are entailed in the gains thus achieved, as has been earlier suggested, does not make the gains less real. If writing is a technology that transforms thought (Ong, Orality; Presence; “Writing”) and if the technology of print further transforms thought (Ong, Orality;...

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Epilogue: The Mythology of Logos

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pp. 94-110

In these reflections, we have been examining hermeneutics largely in terms of logos and mythos, more or less as these were polarized following the work of Plato, implemented as this work was by thought patterns made possible by the introduction of writing in Greek culture. Which is the more inclusive, logos or mythos? Either? Neither? And in what sense or senses? These final reflections will attempt to deal with such questions. The reflections will be more suggestive than totally conclusive.

As has been seen, Plato was convinced that the mythos of poetry (basically...

Illustrations

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pp. 111-113

References

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pp. 114-120

Part II: About Language as Hermeneutic

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Language as Hermeneutic: The Evolution of the Idea and the Text

Thomas D. Zlatic

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pp. 123-146

Walter J. Ong did not finalize Language as Hermeneutic: A Primer on the Word and Digitization. Although he did produce a complete draft, he continued to revise without coming to closure. Thus this edition is in part a reconstruction, and given the editorial judgments that had to be made, certainly no other editor would produce a completely identical text. The four principal manuscripts used to construct this text are the 1988 Language as Hermeneutic: Reflections on the Word and Digitization (LAH-88); the...

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Language as Hermeneutic: An Unresolved Chord

Thomas D. Zlatic

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pp. 147-180

Walter J. Ong envisioned Language as Hermeneutic as a distillation of his life work. In 1990 he explained to a potential publisher, “Like this book of Havelock’s [The Muse Learns to Write], mine is a synthesis which I hope will prove useful at multiple scholarly levels, although its tone is at times also somewhat personal” (“Letter to Maud Wilcox”).

A 100-page synthesis of 457 publications over a sixty-year period seems a tremendous challenge, particularly because Ong’s scholarship spans multiple disciplines and treats such disparate topics as the...

Part III: Appendices

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Time, Digitization, and Dalí’s Memory

Walter J. Ong

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pp. 183-194

In this post-Einsteinian age, we are aware, as Plato and his heirs for over two millennia had not been, that time is a constituent and not merely an adjunct of material being. Over succeeding periods of time, matter enters into different and apparently irreversible states. When we think of the universe today, time has always to be figured in, as peremptorily as the dimensions of length, breadth, and thickness. This attention to time appears imperative today for any serious cosmology....

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Picturing Ong’s Oral Hermeneutic

Thomas D. Zlatic

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pp. 195-202

Walter Ong was drawn toward Salvador Dalí’s masterpiece, The Persistence of Memory, which eerily depicts limpid, melting timepieces over a surreal barren landscape.1 In chapter 10 of the 1990 version of Language as Hermeneutic, “Logos and Digitization,” Ong differentiated human memory from computer recall by referencing Dalí’s painting. And, after abandoning his plans to publish Language as Hermeneutic, Ong in 1994 offered to the journal Connotations his essay “Time, Digitization, and...

Notes

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pp. 203-208

Select Bibliography

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pp. 209-216

Index

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pp. 217-223