7/20/10

Why Socrates Didn't Write

An intriguing paragraph about Socrates in a New York Times review of a book by William Powers:
It should surprise no student of history that this moment in time — when many of us feel as if we’re teetering on the edge of a brand-new technological cliff — can also be seen as a familiar human problem. Powers reminds us of when Socrates, the greatest of all oral communicators, was freaking out over “the very latest communications technology, written language based on an alphabet” (though as Powers concedes, “writing wasn’t completely new”). Socrates believed that scrolls would erode thought by permitting people to forget what they had learned because they’d be able to look things up, that “they wouldn’t feel the need to ‘remember it from the inside, completely on their own.’ ” Worse, writing wouldn’t “allow ideas to flow freely and change in real time, the way they do in the mind during oral exchange.”
It never occurred to me to think Socrates had worries about writing per se.   I thought he committed nothing to writing because he was an interrogator of other people's ideas, and because all these interrogations ended in aporia--uncertainty, puzzlement.  He didn't write anything down because he didn't have any theories to write down.  But no, Powers says he was worried about writing messing up our minds, like today you might have worries about electronic communication.  Fun analogy, whether accurate or not!

On the subject of "messing up," Gary Shteyngart's essay in the review comes across as a big whine, but y'know, I think he's right.  "Only disconnect."  (Get the reference?  Cute!)  OK, let's do it, but first I need to do a little blogging.  Hope you don't mind if I check a few websites too.  I wonder if I have any email.

9 comments:

Faust said...

Plato/Socrates lays out this argument in the The Phaedrus, I believe.

rtk said...

It has been my life long habit never to write down anything I wanted to remember. For some mysterious reason, just the act of writing sucks the information out of my brain. Those phone numbers I have put in my iphone are no longer in my head. It doesn't work the other way; erasing doesn't dump them back.

Jean Kazez said...

rtk, I have an absolutely pathetic ability to remember things, and it's only getting worse. Like passwords. Is it xy or yx? I don't even remember it from one hour to the next. This is...bad. I'm very fond of the idea of paper and pencil as an extension of the brain. So: down with Socrates (if he ever really insulted writing).

Faust--Did he really say that about writing? I'm terribly ashamed to say I've never read the Phaedrus. (I may have once confessed that to you before.)

Faust said...

Well it's been a while since I've read it, but yes he lays out a very specific argument against writing, the quote you cite sounds right to me.

I think he has wound up being wrong though, at least in part. Writing clearly allows "ideas to flow freely."

The broader issue about memory though is very interesting, and at least in part true, see: cell phones and the fact that no one remembers phone numbers anymore.

Faust said...

Oh, and totally random movie rec.

Go out and see Inception today.

amos said...

As well as in the Phaedrus, in the 7th letter (generally considered to be authentic), Plato argues against writing (in a written letter), one of the ideas being that reading impedes the process of discovering things for oneself, a process which a dialogue stimulates.

amos said...

Plato's argument is based on the idea that wisdom can only be gained if one thinks things through dialogues or on one's own. Reading is seen as a crutch.

Jean Kazez said...

Thanks for the movie recommendation. Will take heed!

amos said...

Plato was probably the first thinker in history to speculate on the impact of new learning technologies, in this case, reading. He may have been wrong about the effects of reading on the creativity process, but it is impressive that without any predecessors, he was capable of perceiving that new forms of learning shape our mindset.