Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Ong/ The cognitive divide theory

I'd just like to comment on a couple of quotes.  The second one is more interesting, if you ask me.
1)  "Without writing, human consciousness cannot achieve its fuller potentials." -Ong, "The literate mind and the oral past"

This statement is interesting for its veiled simplicity.  To fully understand Ong's position, I need specific details of the potentials and consciousness he mentions.  Is he talking specifically about cognitive potentials? Is there room here for slippage from the field of cognition into other, more social arenas?   Is it the collective or individual human consciousness he takes as his subject?  Who determines what the potentials are for human consciousness?  Is consciousness as we know it a result of the Western empirical/analytic tradition a theoretical product of the (written) language that gives it a name and properties? 

2) "The 'rules' of grammar in natural human languages are used first and can be abstracted from usage and stated explicitly in words only with difficulty and never completely" (Ong, Orality of Language, 7). 

Despite the fact that they govern articulation and thought processes themselves, grammar rules or structures normally originate, live, and function far below the level at which articulation functions.  You can know how to use the grammatical rules or structures and even how to set up new rules or structures that function clearly and effectively without being able to state what they are.  Of  all the hundreds of thousands of grammar rules or structures that have been at work in all the tens of thousand of languages and dialects of humankind, only the tiniest fraction have ever been articulated at all" (Ong, Writing is a Technology.., 23).

This discussion of grammar is, to me, one of the most interesting aspects of Ong's theory.  The idea that the grammar of a language is difficult to separate from the use of language itself is not surprising to me as a teacher and student of English, Spanish and Latin grammar.  Is Ong's admission that the rules or even "logic" of a language are often inaccessible or under-determined a call to the grammarians of the world to further unpack our languages?  Wouldn't we be better able to understand language's objectifying and representing power if we understood its own order? 

Honestly, I doubt that a perfect logic of language can ever be uncovered, because there are so many aberrations from standard usage and levels of meaning that cannot be conscripted to a system of symbol logic. Since I know English best, here are a few examples of the problems....Some, or even many words, have more than one meaning or shades of meaning, so that no hard and fast rule can be applied to them, and their morphological status depends on context and author's intent. One old-time example from logic is the term bachelor, where some bachelors are unmarried men, some are a type of blue flower, and some are degrees conferred by institutions.  Similarly, some sentence structures require context or previous knowledge to make their intended meaning clear.  If you have ever misread the tone of an email or mistakenly quoted an idea out of context (as I may be doing above), then you know what I mean...

So, this mysterious logic of language, otherwise known as grammar, may be beyond the reach of the very people who constantly put it to use?  Many grammarians have worked hard to uncover the logic of language, but Ong calls their project mostly incomplete.  If we don't understand the rules by which language operates, how can we be sure that we are using it to the best effects?  Surely we can approximate and appreciate quality representations of reality in words. Likewise, we can understand concepts expressed in language.  But what about the way we use language itself indicates that Ong's preference for the analytic tradition resulting from language indicates that this is the best way to use language, or its ultimate purpose? 

As an aside, in my writing class, the students have analyzed the grammatical structure of thesis statements to decide whether they were logically strong or weak.  It seemed like it was easier to see what claims the thesis made when we broke it down into its grammatical parts, and discussed their functions.  The structure of sentences reveals part of their meaning and power, so I think learning about grammar IN CONTEXT is an important tool for the kind of analytical writing students are required to do in college.

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