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Orality and Literacy: Classifications in Preliterate Societies

Interesting findings in Walter J. Ong’s classic work Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, 30th anniv. ed. (Routledge, 2012), pp. 50–51:

(1) Illiterate (oral) subjects identified geometrical figures by assigning them the names of objects, never abstractly as circles, squares, etc. A circle would be called a plate, sieve, bucket, watch, or moon; a square would be called a mirror, door, house, apricot drying-board. Luria’s subjects identified the designs as representations of real things they knew. They never dealt with abstract circles or squares but rather with concrete objects. Teachers’ school students on the other hand, moderately literate, identified geometrical figures by categorical geometric names: circles, squares, triangles, and so on …. They had been trained to give school-room answers, not real-life responses.

(2) Subjects were presented with drawings of four objects, three belonging to one category and the fourth to another, and were asked to group together those that were similar or could be placed in one group or designated by one word. One series consisted of drawings of the objects hammer, saw, log, hatchet. Illiterate subjects consistently thought of the group not in categorical terms (three tools, the log not a tool) but in terms of practical situations—‘situational thinking’—without adverting at all to the classification ‘tool’ as applying to all but the log. If you are a workman with tools and see a log, you think of applying the tool to it, not of keeping the tool away from what it was made for—in some weird intellectual game. A 25-year-old illiterate peasant: ‘They’re all alike. The saw will saw the log and the hatchet will chop it into small pieces. If one of these has to go, I’d throw out the hatchet. It doesn’t do as good a job as a saw’ …. Told that the hammer, saw, and hatchet are all tools, he discounts the categorical class and persists in situational thinking: ‘Yes, but even if we have tools, we still need wood—otherwise we can’t build anything’ (ibid.). Asked why another person had rejected one item in another series of four that he felt all belonged together, he replied, ‘Probably that kind of thinking runs in his blood’.1

I’ve seen similar behavior by engineers, when questioning them about their inventions in order to prepare a patent application. They would say “this latch is made of steel.” I would say, “could you make it with plastic?” Instead of just answering the question, they would say something like, “you wouldn’t want to do that.” They have tunnel vision and are focusing on the best way to do it, not a generalized and more abstract description of the nature of the invention.

I was alerted to Ong’s work in Alan Watson, Failures of the Legal Imagination (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988), p. 102 n.5, discussing preliterate classification as a possible explanation for some odd classifications in Roman law. In particular, Watson addresses the question of why horses, initially not used for agricultural work (because they had little pulling power until the much later invention of the horse collar) would be classified along with other animals used for such purposes, under the same classification res mancipi (as opposed to res nec mancipi, which are treated differently under the law). Watson’s explanation for the inclusion of horses along with animals that were actually used for agricultural work, drawing on Ong (p. 89):

But one undoubted fact, as far as I am aware never adduced, may prove helpful—namely that what counted as res mancipi would have developed at a very early date, before Rome became a literate society. It appears that “oral cultures tend to use concepts in situational, operational frames of reference that are minimally abstract” [quoting Ong, p. 48]. Using this notion to guide us, it would appear that (along with slaves) cattle, horses, mules, and asses were all original members of the grouping and that the Proculian view corresponded to the original classification: these were the major animals that worked with man or were worked by man. The Sabinian view that all such animals, whether broken in or not, were res mancipi corresponds to the notions of classification of a literate culture.

  1. The example is from A.R. Luria, Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundations (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976), p. 56. []
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