Beginning with a discussion of how Ramus is normally perceived, certainly as a reformer and often as an anti-Aristotelian one at that, Ong argues that this characterization of Ramus has caused scholars to overlook some important influences on Ramist thought, particularly arts scholasticism in the medieval period. Ramus was not so much interested in overthrowing Aristotelian thought, Ong explains, as he was in changing the curriculum for arts scholasticism, the university program of study for young men who either planned to go on to study medicine or law or who would finish their M.A. (at the very young age of 20) and go into teaching.
Because this program of study was so different from what contemporary readers know, Ong spends quite a bit of time in this article explaining exactly what arts scholasticism was. Arts scholasticism was "almost entirely" the study of logic and physics, with no study of metaphysics at all (in fact, priests were not allowed to teach in the arts program). While the logic taught in arts scholasticism was centered around the work of Aristotle, there was little agreement among the scholastics about how Aristotle intended the various disciplines in the curriculum to be arranged. Ong explains that there were several reasons for this confusion: 1) Aristotle was never quite clear on the issue; 2) the arts program lasted only 3 1/2 years, so there was not enough time to really deal with the issue; and 3) the students in the arts program were so young that it really was not appropriate to deal with such issues in the curriculum.
Ramus' theories on the organization of the disciplines was meant to clear up the confusion on this issue, but because Ramus was so thoroughly trained in the tradition that he was trying to overthrow, his ideas actually added to the confusion. For example, had Ramus read St. Thomas Aquinas, he probably would have learned much about how the disciplines might be arranged, but people trained in the arts did not read Aquinas simply because he was a theologian. The confusion Ramus added to when he proposed that all disciplines be analyzed logically was also exacerbated by the fact that Ramus made no distinction between logic and dialectic.
This is the setting in which Ramus' ideas about rhetoric took shape, a setting in which rhetoric was firmly relegated to a sphere separate from that of logic. This relegation of rhetoric to a less important status was helped along by the fact that arts students were so young. The study of rhetoric took on a very practical purpose; it was used to teach students Latin style, so it was presented simply as a method of "ornamentation" and no theoretical discussion of the definition of rhetoric occurred in the classroom. The result, Ong asserts after discussing in more depth the actual writings used in the arts program to justify the place of rhetoric beneath logic (particularly Peter of Spain's Summulae logicales), was really an "impoverished" theory of rhetoric, which was not just the result of Ramus' work by the result of a whole system of education that overemphasized logic.
At the end of the article Ong makes reference to the connection between
Ramus' views on logic and the eighteenth and nineteenth-century associationist
thinkers, a group Ong discusses more thoroughly in "J.S.
Mill's Pariah Poet" and "Psyche and
the Geometers: Aspects of Associationist Critical Theory."
Here, Ong asserts that these two groups share a reliance on visual, particularly
spatial, diagrams and analogies to order the world, and both groups tend
to reject anything that does not fit into their visual, geometric schematic.