Commentary 1 – Thought Processes

To answer the question, What effects has writing had on human thought processes? I went back to investigate the emergence of the concept of the environmental impact on human cognition. Nell (1999) postulates that this idea emerged in Marxist thought, progressed through Vygotsky’s cultural historical activity theory and the zone of proximinal development, and is evidenced in the resulting work of Luria’s cross cultural cognitive development studies in neuropsychology.

Ong cites the findings of Luria’s research to describe the inability of pre-literate cultures to form abstract categorization and goes further to argue that formal logical reasoning and articulated self-analysis also stem from literacy. Nell (1999) points to the foundational idea that cognition is the product of the ‘material circumstances of life.’ (Nell, 1999, p.46).

To find that thought processes have changed does not equate to that change necessarily equating to progress. Similar to the literacy induced changes at the time of the Bolshevic Revolution, Canadians experienced culture altering impacts resulting from the Indian residential school phenomenon. While the residential school phenomenon was more complex than the literacy and language aspect, as documented in painful personal accounts like Theodore Fontaine’s memoir, Broken Circle, The Dark Legacy of Indian Residential Schools, it raises the question: what have we lost for all that we have gained?

Indeed, what have we lost with these changes in human thought processes, and with this capacity for abstraction? A quote from one of Luria’s test subjects, in trying to understand the abstraction of another test subject, is cause for reflection:
“Probably, he’s got a lot of firewood, but if we’ll be left without firewood, we won’t be able to do anything. Even if we have tools, we still need wood.”

–       Nell citing Luria, 1999, p.49

To me, this quote illustrates how abstraction isn’t always a good thing. A contemporary reverse example of Luria’s test subject may be seen in Al Gore’s (2006) documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. Gore makes a counter point to the value of abstraction by showing a scale with earth on one side and money on the other to illustrate the choice one essentially makes when choosing corporate profit over the expense of environmental policy. I think that it is quite likely that Luria’s test subject would have been just as confused at environmental policy decision makers, he might have said:

“Probably, he’s got a lot of fresh water, but if we’ll be left without fresh water, we won’t be able to do anything. Even if we have money, we still need fresh water.”

This quandary, will technology bring with it good or ill, is not new. Plato illustrates the question in Phaedrus, in the parable of the god Theuth, inventor of letters, who prophesies that letters will make Egyptians wiser and give them better memories, whereas Thamus argues that contrarily it will make the Egyptians forgetful and that letters will be an aid to reminisce rather than true memory because the words will be separated from context and substance. In other words Thamus argues that abstraction is a problem.

In reading Ong I had the sense that the concept of abstraction comes with literacy but in the quote from Nell, citing Luria, he points to language not literacy. Nell (1999) describes Luria’s belief that “…the acquisition of language changes the child’s environment and thus the structure of consciousness.” (Nell, 1999. P.48).

Did the first level of abstraction come with language, from forming words as symbols to represent both the tangible and intangible? I did not find that Ong sufficiently explored the abstraction and complexity of how humans expressed emotions and feelings. He focuses on the more concrete objects. This video clip from the film Waking Life has a good illustration of the abstraction of words with respect to the intangible.


I think this scene nicely illustrates Ong’s reference to the ‘oral aural’ (Ong, 1982, p.73). I think the clip goes beyond Ong’s description to illustrate how words are inert but it is how the sender and receiver each interpret them. Reading Ong I was left with the impression that oral communities did not have abstract thought so I liked the way that this clip visualized the process of coming up with words for intangible feelings such as love that existed long before literacy.

While the scene in the film Waking Life takes into account the interactivity between the speaker and the hearer it does not illustrate the associated bodily gestures that are an embedded part of oral communications as described well by Ong’s (1982) description of gestures such as ‘rocking back and forth or dancing” (p.67). Here we can visualize how the abstract might be communicated in an oral culture not by words alone but by the associated non-verbal communications. This goes much beyond the oral aural. An active vs. passive communication.

Ong argues that this creates community because it cannot be separated from community or environment which would necessarily lead to community centric thought as opposed to the individualistic literacy. We have now moved beyond the form of literacy available at the time of Ong’s (1982) writing. The question now arises, with web 2.0 technologies, now that we have progressed to a literacy that is more social, how is this dynamic literacy impacting human thought processes? One no longer has to engage in solitary writing. Literacy has become more communal as evidenced in online chat rooms. Are we moving back away from the abstraction to more contextualization?


Fontaine, T. (2010). Broken Circle: The Dark Legacy of Indian Residential Schools, A Memoir. Toronto: Heritage House Publishing Company.

Gore, A. (2006). An Inconvenient Truth. Director Guggenheim, Davis – Director. Distributor: Paramount Classics.

Nell, V. (1999). Luria in Uzbekistan: The Vicissitudes of Cross-Cultural Neuropsychology. Neuropsychology Review. Vol. 9, No. 1. Pg. 45-52. DOI: 10.1023/A:1025643004782

Retrieved online September 26, 2011 from

Ong, Walter. (1982.) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.

Plato (2008). Phaedrus. Accessed online, September 12, 2011, at

Waking Life. (2001). Director Richard Linklater. Studio: Thousand Words. Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

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