Refuting the Theory of the Great Divide – Commentary 1

3 10 2009

The theory of the Great Divide advanced by many cultural evolutionists would have us view world history as being the evolution of a primitive society to one where literacy is its hallmark. Primitive societies, with their rich oral traditions, their prodigious memorization skills, their ability to keep large audiences rapt during discourses and storytelling are contrasted with literate societies whose characteristics include the ability to free up the mind spaces for exploratory thinking, the necessity of record-keeping to preserve details of times gone by and the ‘decontextualizing’ ( Peter Denny, 1991) of words to the extent that reference books are required to interpret the author’s meaning.

Oral societies are deemed to be pre-literate, lacking the ability for logical or rational thinking, humanized and immediate. (Ong, chapter 3) In contrast, literates are isolated, often abstract, can manipulate data beyond the boundaries of context and are finally freed of the need to store historical or practical knowledge. In so many of the descriptions, oral societies are thought to be less capable, perhaps even less able than literate societies who are seen to be generally superior.

Ong advances that both societies are not only different in their presentation of world knowledge but that the thinking process is actually altered as one moves away from Orality. “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 composing its thoughts in oral form.” (Ong, p. 78)

This polarized view of cultural evolution is flawed for many reasons. Chandler remarks that a more moderate view of the world is more accurate. (Chandler, p. 5) There is no evidence to suggest that primitives are less capable of logical or rational thought. “Those in non-literate societies do not necessarily think in fundamentally different ways from those in literate societies… Although one commentator, Peter Denny, argues that ‘decontextualization’ seems to be a distinctive feature of thinking in Western literate societies, he nevertheless insists that all human beings are capable of rationality, logic, generalization, abstraction, theorizing, intentionality, causal thinking, classification, explanation and originality (Olson & Torrence 1991, p.81) All of these qualities can be found in oral as well as literate cultures.” (Chandler, p. 4)

A more precise view would be to admit that most societies are operating in a mixed mode. Michael Clanchy uses the term “the growth of a literate mentality. “He…argues that the shift [from memory to written record] was facilitated by the continuing ‘mix’ of oral and literate modes and that written forms were adapted to oral practice rather than radically changing it.” (Clanchy, 1979)

“The reality of social uses of varying modes of communication is that oral and literate modes are ‘mixed’ in each society. There is nothing absolute about a shift to a greater use of literate modes, which is better described as a change in the ‘mix’. Oral conventions often continue to apply to literate forms and literate conventions may be applied to oral forms.” (Olson & Hildyard 1978 cited in Street 1984, p. 19)

Furthermore, it is difficult to reconcile Ong’s view of primitive societies when approached from a practical sense. All societies, no matter how self-sufficient, must have the ability to register trade, administrative functions and perhaps legal data. This quantitative data requires some recording process that is more permanent than an accounting of family histories or heroic exploits; a method that is not be dictated by the need to please the audience. (Ong p. 67) It requires a practice that has more permanence than the spoken word, than sound itself. (Ong, p. 32)

Brian Street writes that even in oral societies, there is a component of literacy that is present. He describes two kinds of literacies. The use of record keeping for commercial events, such as transactions, and all sort of bureaucratic events is called ‘Commercial literacy’. (Street, p. 157) The ‘maktab’ literacy, the one taught in schools, is more representative of the arts, humanities and literature we would expect. The first literacy is meant to support the social structure, the other as a way of distinguishing social classes. (Street p. 13)

So why then does the use of text seem the indicator of a higher civilization? First, let us define text. “Texts are material artifacts that take many different forms: cave paintings, tattoos, stone tablets, clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, manuscript books, musical scores, maps, printed books, engravings, newspapers, photographs, films, DVDs, computers. Every kind of text is produced by a special technology, but all those technologies share a simple purpose: they were designed to supplement the fragile human mind by providing a more durable artificial memory system. Those technologically preserved and transmitted memories are the foundation of all human culture.” (Pathways)

Ong uses Homer’s writings as evidence of a clear distinction between oral and literate thinking. And indeed, Greek civilization is thought to have been one of the most advanced of its time. But it is not the ability to suddenly free up their cluttered memory and launch into unprecedented creative and rhetorical thought that makes their society so exceptional. Nor does it make them the prime example of shifting from oral to literate thinking. The basis of their sudden evolution from Orality to Literacy lies in their reinterpretation of the Phoenician writing.

“The changes introduced into the Phoenician script by the ancient Greeks should not be regarded as ‘improvements’, but as a revolution that forever altered the Greek society and the human history by creating a new state of mind, the ‘alphabetic mind’.” (Havelock, 1982a, p.7 cited in Jahandaríe, p. 12)

The Greeks created syllabries, comprised of the actual sounds of human speech. (Jahandaríe, p. 12) “The new script also democratized literacy.” (Jahandaríe, p. 12) The simplicity and ease of use of this new alphabet meant that priests and scribes were no longer the only ones able to utilize this technology. And thus, Greek and Roman civilizations became the first on earth “to be equipped with the means of adequate expression in the inscribed word; the first to be able to place the inscribed word in general circulation; the first, in short, to become literate in the full meaning of that term, and to transmit its literacy to us.” (Havelock, 1976, p. 2)

This does not mean that the characteristics of their mind were altered but that they finally had a method to record, in a permanent and accurate fashion, the intricacies of human thought and the nuances that make up all cultures. And so, the newly literate were to become a society of “Conservators of knowledge”. (Jahandaríe, p. 13) Their alphabet, which allowed a faithful reproduction of the range of sounds and “the preservation of the subtlest of linguistic nuances” (Jahandaríe, p.14) provided the means of converting heretofore oral poetry into historical records. It is interesting to note that other societies may have had as sophisticated and advanced a culture as the Greeks and Romans, but their permanent records, by virtue of the shortcomings of their own alphabets, lacked the sufficient details to document its glory.

As an illustration, Havelock argues that “the Old Testament, the Vedas, the Koran, and the Epic of Gilgamesh are less sophisticated in both language and content than the Homeric texts not because they are the products of simpler minds, but because they were inscribed in scripts that…[could not convey] the full richness of the original oral tradition.” (Jahandaríe, p. 15)

Ong’s illustration of the Oral mind as contrasted to the Literate mind is enlightening as an illustration of how cultural evolution is affected by technology. And indeed, the invention of the Greek alphabet may have been one of man’s most significant innovations. But it seems unlikely that any civilization could be so primitive as to not require some form of recording device beyond oral tradition. I cannot conceive of a time when there is a clear line between Orality and Literacy.


Chandler, Daniel (1994): ‘Biases of the Ear and Eye: “Great Divide” Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism’ [WWW document] URL [28 Sep. 2009]

Goody, Jack (Ed.) (1968): Literacy in Traditional Societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Jahandaríe, Khosrow. “Spoken and written discourse: a Multi-Disciplinary Perspective – Google Books.” Google Books. 3 Oct. 2009 .

Olson, David R & Nancy Torrance (Eds.) (1991): Literacy and Orality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Ong, Walter (1982): Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen

“Pathways of Excellence.” Pathways of Excellence. 1 Oct. 2009 .

Street, Brian. Literacy in theory and practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press , 1984.

From text to technology

13 09 2009

the origin of the word textAs I started to lookup the word “text”, I started to see the link from one term to another.  It seemed natural to display my findings in this fashion.  The yellow bubbles are my own thought processes.  Once this organizer was complete, I felt the title could be “from text to technology”.

I am trying to upload a file saved as a gif

13 09 2009
a graphic organizer

a graphic organizer