Scientific Mysticism

“The binarism of the comparison transcends the question” (Biakolo, 1999, p. 42).

Has the discussion that pits orality and literacy as two distinct orders of communication transcended the question of communication in a more fundamental form?  Although Biakolo focuses primarily on a line of questioning of Ong’s fundamental binary, this question appears to be at the center of the arc drawn throughout “On the theoretical foundations of orality and literacy” (Biakolo, 1999).

Biakolo enters into the humanistic domain of the analysis of our dogmatic acceptance of science as a rational form for the development of knowledge, compared to the irrational domains of emotion and mysticism.  However, Biakolo provides a strong line of argument that leads to the consideration that the very foundations of scientific and logical rationality rest on “no more than intuition and convention” (p. 53).

In a description of the locust of objective truth that is developed by a work of poetry, Yvor Winters (1943) states that a poem provides a “defensible rational statement about a given human experience” (p. 11).  Winters then suggests that the communicative strengths of a poem provide an additional depth of meaning as they communicate the “emotions which ought to be motivated by that rational understanding of that experience” (p. 11).

Thus, in the writing of Winter and the analysis of Biakolo, the foundations for scientific elitism in the generation of truth and knowledge become eroded.  The assumptions on which modern science was founded have been lost in the piles of information that have been tested to be true, but the empirical evidence provided by science rests on a hollow, dogmatic base.

What does this dogmatic nature of science say then about the orality versus literate binary, or of communication more generally?  In “The politics of meaning”, Ross Winterowd (1980) describes a “scientismic viewpoint where meaning is quantifiable” (p. 271).  It is in the quantifying nature of language, and in particular of written language where proponents of the binary of orality versus literate comparison find the strongest evidence.  Biakolo describes the findings of Hildyard and Olson which they suggest show that individuals who can read have stronger analytical skills of identifying distinctions and discriminating between elements (Biakolo, 1999, p. 57).  Is this a result of superior education or of a fundamental difference in the cognitive operations occurring in the minds of literate versus illiterate individuals?

Ong (1982) describes additive, aggregative, and redundant as being some of the characteristics of orally based thought, supporting his claim that orality is conservative in nature.  As soon as ideas can be recorded, they can be reflected upon and altered.  According to Ong, reflecting upon or changing an epithetic component of an oral culture’s information is potentially catastrophic for the knowledge contained within that oral element.  Thus the mnemonic patterns that hold information in an oral culture must be held tightly or else lost forever.

Biakolo provides a succinct argument for a gradual development of literate cultures involving a diffusion of written communication that originated in semetic cultures, but found a variety of forms throughout its dispersion (p. 46-47).   The notion of a gradual transition from a purely oral culture to a purely literate culture is not completely at odds with Ong’s binary comparison, as he refers several times “oral residues” found in contemporary expressions such as “ red in the morning, sailor’s warning” (p. 35).  However, as Biakolo points out, Ong suggests that a fundamental shift in the nature of conscious thought occurs at the boundary between orality and literate thought patterns (Biakolo, 1999, p. 46).  Does the technology of writing produce a complete shift in thought patterns?  And if so, how does this shift occur if the transition is in fact gradual, and if in fact it is still not completely final even in modern society?

Words capture an idea, and encapsulate it in a form that can be easily transmitted to another individual.  The idea that is trapped within that word is presumed to be known to both the speaker/writer and the listener/reader.  However, the fundamental issue of communication using words is that the convention of meaning cannot be confirmed without authentic engagement with the subject of the idea.  If you say the word tree while pointing at a tree, the meaning is not implicit, but rather explicit.  It is through the connection of experience with a word that we come to understand the meaning of that word.  However, if two individuals came to know the meaning of a word through different experiences, then there is a possibility that their understanding of that word will be different.  Subsequently, as a word is used in an increasing range of circumstances, the meaning of that word takes on new curves and twists, until it becomes difficult to attach the word tree back to the subject of that initial use.

Ong suggests that communication within oral cultures is more directly routed in experience that in literate cultures, but perhaps the source of the shift in cognitive mechanics is not in fact embedded in a transition from oral to literate culture, but rather from a direct experiential engagement with a subject to a progressively more abstract association between subject and experience.  Therefore, societal trends towards specialization and urbanization may in fact produce a similar change in thought patterns of communication as those that Ong attributes to the adoption of writing.

The question of thought, communication, and knowledge must therefore not be so tightly bound to literacy, as Biakolo so affectively argues.  Rather, by stepping over the trappings of binary comparison it is possible to gaze deeper into the routes of the evolution of human thought.

Biakolo, E. A. (1999). On the theoretical foundations of orality and literacy. Research in African Literatures, 30(2), 42-65.

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

Winterowd, W. R. (1980, May). The paradox of the humanities. ADE Bulletin, 64, 2.

Winters, Y. (1943). In defense o freason. Denver: Alan Swallow.


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