Sunday, May 14, 2017

Writing and Plato's “Phaedrus”: "Book learning" and "life experience" as two sides of the same false coinage

Writing gets a beating from Plato's “Socrates.” Not only is it said to impair memory – the words written on a human “soul” are far better remembered – and not only can the written word not reply – the written oration or rhetorical piece cannot reply – but what comes from reading is only the image of knowledge and wisdom.

It seems fitting that three subjects are brought together in Plato's dialogue, “Phaedrus”: love, persuasion, and writing. These combine in love-letters and in love-poetry; and also in love of wisdom, philosophy.

Perhaps “Socrates” was mistaken as far as we are concerned in the age of the tweet and blog: these forms of writing allow the piece of writing – the author – to reply. Clarification can be asked for, of the author; the author can acknowledge or can repudiate criticisms. Arguments among “texts” can flourish. Even in Socrates' day this would have been possible for the lettered among Athenians. A messenger bearing a letter would have provided quick communication across the polis. Even when the author of a text has died, those who spoke with him or her – either out of love or out of fear, out of hate or out of indifference – might carry the words written by the author on their souls. Writing would be, among other things, advertisement for a person, for a soul, for philosophy, poetry, or, as Plato writes of laws here, for them as well. The written word becomes the speaker's “shingle” like that of a doctor of old. “Like my writing? Come and talk with me!”

The letter and the email, text message, social media post, or telephone call are at issue for us twenty-first century Americans. “Socrates” would probably have condemned the telephone as well! What do all these forms of communication have in common? They are forms of mediated communication. While they can involve the interactivity “Socrates” says he sees missing from the written text, they involve distance, lack of co-presence of an immediate, physical kind.

A previous post, the first, probably, if I haven't removed it, deals, casually, with what I will call “information grubbing.” This seems to be precisely the kind of thing “Socrates” warned of, that readers of information – most of the written word that is not pure fiction – will acquire the semblance of wisdom only. Information, as knowledge, has its uses; wisdom is to know these uses; not all “information” is to be used – not everything written is to be believed. Acquiring information; reading “other people's recipes,” as a character in the 1993 film starring Will Smith, Six Degrees of Separation, confessed he'd done before passing them off as his own; learning the nomenclatures and vocabularies of disciplines, can give the appearance of knowledge, and with it the semblance of wisdom.

The absence of a philosophical approach, combined with information grubbing, will lead, I say, directly to the kind of “book learning” that so many decry; but those I hear decry it are guilty of the same sort of thing, the naive taking-as-given of one's first impressions without subjecting them to criticism. It is the absence of the will for “an attack on one's convictions,” which are “more dangerous enemies of truth than lies” (wrote Nietzsche, over 130 years ago), which leads to each “side” criticizing the “semblance of wisdom” of the other. 

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