Ong on Petrus Ramus

Walter Ong writes about the invention of the modern textbook by Petrus Ramus, a professor at the University of Paris in the sixteenth century.

[T]he intellectual “reforms” so passionately advocated by the French Renaissance humanist and philosopher Pierre de la Ramee (Petrus Ramus, anglicized to Peter Ramus, 1515-1572), and by his thousands of followers across central and northwest Europe, … registered a major shift in consciousness marking the transit from the ancient and medieval world into the modern. Ramus’ streamlined reorganization of the age-old Western tradition of logic and rhetoric seemed to signal a reorganization of the whole of knowledge and indeed of the whole human lifeworld. … The major (but not the only) underpinning of the new Ramist mindset turned out to have been print technology. Print gave to visualist organization of thought and to textuality (both initiated much earlier by writing) a force unknown before, and in doing so effectively served pedagogical expediency and at the same time dissociated knowledge from discourse and gave it a quasi-monologic setting. The fact that in Ramus’ day no one was aware of the effects of print in the disestablishment of the old oral world of discourse and rhetoric in favor of a new, seemingly quiescent, visualist noetic world made the effects especially intriguing once they were noticed. …

Ramus was not a great intellectual but a savant with wide-ranging interests whose most distinctive attitudes were superficially revolutionary but at root highly derivative. His way of attacking the genuine weaknesses of the scholastic heritage while preserving unwittingly the basic presuppositions responsible for these weaknesses (and for much strength) made his views congenial to the vast numbers of impatient but not too profound thinkers who became his followers, and it gives both him and them tremendous historical value today. Like a nerve ganglion, Ramism connects not only with readily discernible end-organs — explicit doctrines or theories of one sort or another — but also with more hidden, and at least equally important areas in Western culture, alerting us to unsuspected connections between pedagogical developments and the rise of modern physics, between rhetoric and scientific method, or between dialectic and the invention of letterpress printing. …

Ramus is a man of the sixteenth century, and he is eminently a man concerned with language, with the traditional arts of expression, grammar, rhetoric, and logic. As the first and only professor of eloquence and philosophy at what was later to be called the College de France, he was a kind of humanist-scholastic who stood on the middle ground between linguistics and metaphysics. If he is himself no real thinker, all the more reason why the flurry his works created deserved looking into. …

There are over 750 separately published editions (including some adaptations) of single or collected works by Ramus or his collaborator Omer Talon (Audomarus Talaeus, ca. 1510-1562)—close to 250 editions of the important Dialectic alone. Counting separately each of the works in these 750-odd volumes, some of which include more than one item, one gets a total of around 1100 separate printings of individual works. …

Ramism formed a huge movement of some sort. The documentary evidence makes this clear. The question is, What made the movement? What does Ramism come to? … Ramism … is at root a cluster of mental habits evolving within a centuries-old educational tradition and specializing in certain kinds of concepts, based on simple spatial models, for conceiving of the mental and communicational processes and, by implication, of the extramental world.

Even in these perspectives, Ramism has little which is absolutely distinctive of itself. Most things which originate in the Ramist camp—for example, the concept of “logical analysis,” which seems certainly to put in its first appearance among Ramists—soon prove so congenial to other “systems” that they are quickly assimilated by them and, like logical analysis, seem always to have belonged to non-Ramists as well as to Ramists. What is really distinctive about Ramism is not one or another such item, but its special concentration of items, most of which can be discerned individually outside Ramist circles. … For example, Ramism specialized in dichotomies, in “distribution” and “collocation” … , in “systems” … and in other diagrammatic concepts. This hints that Ramist dialectic represented a drive toward thinking not only of the universe but of thought itself in terms of spatial models apprehended by sight. In this context, the notion of knowledge as word, and the personalist orientation of cognition and of the universe which this notion implies, is due to atrophy. Dialogue itself will drop more than ever out of dialectic. Persons, who alone speak (and in whom alone knowledge and science exist), will be eclipsed insofar as the world is thought of as an assemblage of the sort of things which vision apprehends —objects or surfaces. …

Dominating the passage from early discourse-knowledge to observation-knowledge stands the all-important figure of the teacher. He has grown to enormous stature in the universities, and straddles both the audile’s discourse world and the visile’s object world. Instead of carrying on a dialogue in the give-and-take Socratic form, the university don had largely reduced the oral component by converting it into his own classroom monologue, which he produced not as the spirit moved him but on schedule at fixed places and hours. At the same time his interest both in logic and in explicitness, in an “object” (of knowledge) rather than in a “subject” (of discourse), had driven him further still toward the visile pole with its typical ideals of “clarity,” “precision,” “distinctness,” and “explanation” itself — all best conceivable in terms of some analogy with vision and a spatial field.

The fact that the teacher’s auditors (most of them were the arts course students) were youngsters and the fact that they were compelled to master standardized material for the examinations which ultimately became a part of university life, only strengthened the drive toward the visual, in the interests of “clarity” and “simplicity.” …

From another point of view, the influence of the university situation upon the very way of conceiving what knowledge is can be estimated from the fact that the ancient, pre-university world did not have the concept of an examination in the medieval or modern sense — a sampling of knowledge through which, by a kind of extrapolation, the whole “content” of a person’s mind can be calculated. There is no word for this in the classical tongues because there is no concept or practice for it to designate. …

Philosophy, according to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, had been the love of wisdom — cultivated by Socrates in real dialogue, reported by Plato in dialogue form but committed to writing … . In the university world before and during Ramus’ time, dialectic itself, which in its etymological origin was concerned with real dialogue, as both Ramists and their adversaries were well aware, was habitually thought of as implementing not dialogue, but the huge pedagogical apparatus. As the “instrument” of intellectual activity, it became assimilated to the particular intellectual activity being served. Instead of representing an approach to truth through the real dialectic of Socrates’ midwifery… , dialectic or “logic” became the subject a teacher taught to other coming teachers in order to teach them how to teach, in their turn, still other apprentice teachers, and so on ad infinitum. …

The normal-school tradition … prepared the way for the … assault on the oral disputation. Insofar as knowledge was standardized … , it tended to retreat from the evanescent world of discourse … to the more stable world of writing. Individually, the teacher could afford to be a voice. Corporately, too many voices could result in chaos. If a master was to purvey to his students what as an apprentice he had received from another master, the obvious way of assuring proper continuity or the unity of the total product which was being purveyed by the members of the teachers’ guild, was to put the product in writing. The well-known university regulations against teacher’s dictating their pupils and even against pupils’ taking pen or ink into the classroom are capital evidence of the persistent tendency of the members of the teachers’ guilds to rely slavishly on the written word.

Even where the abuse of dictation was avoided, a teacher who might want to maintain some show of dialogue in the process of relaying his subject matter, but who had to face a class in an assigned subject at routine hours, would find it much more feasible to have a written text than a living person as interlocutor. As we know from class notes and from annotated textbooks, as well as from commonplace present-day experience, control was not easy despite the presence of a written text, and coverage of the whole matter called for was often not completed. Even partial dialogue with the class, in which the pupils volunteered questions or objections, was necessarily severely restricted, or one would never get through the material at all. Hence from the earliest times the commentary on a written text, an attenuated form of dialogue in which one interlocutor (the writer of the text) need not even be alive, competed vigorously with the more completely oral, more strictly dialectical disputation. …

Ramist rhetoric … is not a dialogue rhetoric at all, and Ramist dialectic has lost all sense of Socratic dialogue … . The Ramist arts of discourse are monologue arts. They develop the didactic, schoolroom outlook which … tend finally even to lose the sense of monologue in pure diagrammatics. This orientation is very profound and of a piece with the orientation of Ramism toward an object world (associated with visual perception) rather than toward a person world (associated with voice and auditory perception). In rhetoric, obviously someone had to speak, but in the characteristic outlook fostered by the Ramist rhetoric, the speaking is directed to a world where even persons respond only as objects-— that is, say nothing back. …

Ramus had developed the habit of regarding everything, mental and physical, as composed of little corpuscular units or “simples.” He never seems expressly aware of this habit, but it dominates all his thinking, subconsciously, yet stubbornly and absolutely. Ramus thus tends to view all intellectual operations as a spatial grouping, of a number of these corpuscles into a kind of cluster, or as a breaking down of clusters into their corpuscular units. The clusters, once formed, can be regarded also as corpuscles which in themselves admit of further combination and which form still further clusters of clusters. The apparatus is a familiar one in a class logic, where it effectively serves certain limited purposes in formal logical developments. …

While the invention of printing has been discussed conventionally in terms of its value for spreading ideas, its even greater contribution is its furthering of the long-developing shift in the relationship between space and discourse. Historically, this shift begins with hieroglyphics or picture writing or with the character writing of the Chinese, whereby sound, which is necessarily fleeting is given a quasi-permanence by reduction to marks fixed in space. … The shift advances much further when the alphabet is invented, for now words are broken into elements each of which has its own spatial referent. This revolutionary achievement is a tremendous convenience, if a seductive one. In a still unreflective alphabetic culture, a scientific treatment of speech makes possible thinking of it in terms of space rather than of sound, so that the unit of speech is considered as a mark on a surface, rather than as a phone (a speech sound). …

Printing from movable type was a kind of disease which Western society was catching, and the Gutenberg … invention … involved a subtle re-orientation of attitudes toward communication and toward what was to be communicated, knowledge itself. … The printing form itself appears in this setting as a kind of locus, or “common” place from which can be pulled an unlimited number of printed pages, each blanketed with “arguments.” … Now the printer’s font where the types are kept comes into being—a real “place,” where elements of discourse, reduced to a visually apprehensible and spatially maneuverable form, are stored. … [W]ithin Ramus’ … later editions (where centered headings, running heads, and the other techniques of typographical display become more and more evident) … a book could be — at least in part — assimilated by being “looked through” or “skimmed through.” … The diagrammatic tidiness which printing was imparting to the realm of ideas was part of a large-scale operation freeing the book from the world of discourse and making it over into an object, a box with surface and “content” …

The habits of organizing thought according to various spatial models which encouraged Ramism and which Ramism encouraged are intimately associated with the use of letterpress printing in educational circles, where Ramism developed and came into its own. When printed textbooks were introduced to the classroom, it became possible for the schoolmaster or university lecturer to focus the whole pedagogical economy on the spatial arrangement of material before his pupils. “Look at page seven, line three, the fourth word” — this kind of directive became a matter of daily routine in a typographical culture. Millions of schoolboys were inducted into an understanding of language and of the world around them by making their way conjointly through individual texts arranged in identical spatial patterns. … In a typographical culture the visile can come into his own. The orator is perhaps not extinct, but he is now permanently eclipsed. …

At this point we must consider Ramism in relation to the various other phenomena in cultural history which cluster around the invention of printing: for example, the development of Copernican space, so much more truly spatial than Aristotle’s less abstract, directional space; the development of the painters’ feeling for a similar, abstract space climaxed in the work of van Eyek … ; the development of interest in philosophical “systems” conceived of in a mental space analogous to that of Copernicus’ free-wheeling spheres.


Ong, Walter J. 1958. Ramus, Method and the Decay of Dialogue. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, pp.vii, ix, 4-5, 8-9, 151-155, 287, 203, 307-308, 310-314. || Amazon || WorldCat

Following are pages from Ramus’ textbook on the Greek mathematician, Euclid, first published in Latin in 1569, then translated into English and published in this edition as The Way to Geometry in 1636. These pages illustrate the way in which Ramus took the available knowledge of the world, broke it into its atomic components, summarized each element using a rationalised economy of expression, and ordered the components in an exposition designed for a novice, starting with the simpler and foundational components before moving on to the more complex superstructures of knowledge. Knowledge was thus compartmentalised, taxonomised, ordered and presented in a textual mnemonics of visual juxtaposition. Such became the way of modern, didactic curriculum. Pedagogical and textual forms were inseparable. | Link
 


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