Saturday, November 24, 2007

Socrates' objections to writing

Dr. Wolf goes back to look at Socrates’ objections to writing. He worried that reliance on writing would erode memory (it has!), but also, and maybe more importantly, that reading would mislead students to think that they had knowledge, when they only had data. In the dialog titled Phaedrus, Socrates tells the story of the ancient Egyptian god Theuth, inventor of letters, and what the god and king Ammon (Thamus in Greek) said to Theuth about his invention:

...this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

...writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them the speakers always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and if they are maltreated or abused they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.

Socrates leads his friend Phaedrus to see the “ word of knowledge which has a soul and of which the written word is properly no more than an image...” Socrates asks, if a farmer would not sow his good seeds in the summer heat and expect to reap in eight days, but knows he must sow in proper time and good soil, and wait eight months to reap, then would not a teacher of truth know as much about proper planting and care of the words he teaches by?

Then he will not seriously incline to”write” his thoughts “in water” with pen and ink, sowing words which can neither speak for themselves not teach the truth adequately to others? ... No, that is not likely–in the garden of letters he will sow and plant, but only for the sake of recreation and amusement; he will write them down as memorials to be treasured against the forgetfulness of old age, by himself, aor by any other old man who is treading the same path.

Dialogues of Plato, Phaedrus, pp. 275-277 (trans. Benjamin Jowett, Oxford University Press).


Betsy McKenzie said...

OOTJ readers may recognize the Greek name of the Egyptian god-king, Thamus, from the ground-breaking article written by Dan Dabney titled, The Curse of Thamus. In that article, Dabney told about a research project he undertook using a document management software. A large set of documents from complex litigation was the database. Expert searchers very familiar with the software to asked to run as many searches as needed to locate all the documents in this file on certain topics. After the expert searchers were satisfied that they had found all the relevant documents, somebody (Dan?!) went through the files by hand and pulled all relevant documents. The two lists were compared that the percent of relevant documents missed by the expert searchers was a truly shocking number. The point I took away was how easy it was to feel that a computerized search by an expert searcher would find everything, and yet in reality such searches miss highly relevant material. I still cite to this article, and tell my students about it in my advanced legal research clss. I must admit, I did not remember who Thamus was, or what his curse might be. Now, I can guess!

Betsy McKenzie said...

The image decorating this is actually a painting by Raphael (1510) of Plato and Aristotle. Looks considerably more handsome than the more believable images of Socrates, who was notably ugly. I guess it counts since Plato is the one who reported the dialog, ironically, preserved for posterity through the medium of writing.

Joe Wray said...

Fascinating ideas... perhaps Socrates was taking an exxagerated position in order to drive home a point? Certainly the analogy of the proper length of time for seed germination is something of clear relevence today in today's information rich world. Sherlock Holmes wasn't so interested in philosophical argument and its efficient execution, but he was interested in keeping a tidy mind. You might find this interesting: