Greek philosopher that hated writing?
July 26, 2010 7:09 PM   Subscribe

What Greek philosopher hated writing because he believed it crippled the memory?

A while ago, I read an article about twitter or something, and there were comments debating the merits of new forms of sharing information. The point made was that all new forms face resistance, including every single one we use today. One interesting comment mentioned a Greek philosopher who supposedly hated the use of writing, because he believed it crippled the memory. I don't remember seeing a source for this, so I'm not sure how true it is. Can anyone tell me who this was, and provide a source?
posted by monguin61 to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
It's Plato, writing about Socrates, talking to Phaedrus, telling him about Thoth and Thamus.
posted by cgc373 at 7:16 PM on July 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

At the beginning of Neil Postman's book "Technopoly," he makes reference to Plato's dialogue Phaedrus (which I've not read, but which is readily available online), featuring Socrates telling a story about a king who rejected writing for, IIRC, those reasons.
posted by paultopia at 7:17 PM on July 26, 2010

Yeah, it's in The Phaedrus, here.
posted by media_itoku at 7:17 PM on July 26, 2010

Ah, MeFites, how well read!
posted by cgc373 at 7:21 PM on July 26, 2010

Great answers, that's definitely it, thanks everybody. I want to read this, but in the mean time, can anyone succinctly describe the point Plato was making here? In the context, was Plato arguing for or against this statement?
posted by monguin61 at 7:25 PM on July 26, 2010

It's difficult bordering on impossible to succinctly summarize Plato's position about anything, monguin61. Plato wrote almost all of his works in the form of dialogues, and each of the points made is made by a speaker speaking to other speakers. It's all similar to plays, and in order to determine what Plato meant, you have to make a series of inferences based on your interpretations of these characters' remarks. The question about how Plato felt about writing, whether he was "for or against" its use, is one of the deepest and oldest questions in Western history.
posted by cgc373 at 7:33 PM on July 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

I see. I have much to learn.
posted by monguin61 at 7:39 PM on July 26, 2010

Maryanne Wolf discusses this at some length in her book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. It's a fascinating and thought-provoking subject.

The basic idea, as I understand it, is that the rise of writing would have negative consequences by allowing people to claim knowledge of things that they have not sufficiently internalized.

Socrates lived relatively shortly after the invention of the Greek alphabet and the widespread adoption of writing. Before this time, Greek culture was transmitted completely orally. People were memorizing things like the Iliad and the Odyssey. Think about that. Once it could be written down, people didn't have to use all their brain cells for doing that.

On the one hand, that's great. It frees up our minds for other things. But on the other hand, it does create a level of immersion in certain aspects of culture that is relatively shallow.

She analogizes this to what's happening now with the Internet. Her book was written a few years ago, so she's not up on the latest trends (e.g. twitter). But it's still very much worth a read.
posted by alms at 7:55 PM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

To say a little bit more about this: it's not just memorizing cultural artifacts that is effected by the transition to writing. It's also about the transmission of philosophy, political values, really all knowledge.

To be able to engage in an argument on a complex topic without the benefit of writing required a deep level of engagement with and understanding of the ideas involved. Once you have writing, someone can read a few pages, quickly consider themselves an expert, and go out and discuss. But you're not really owning, it's not becoming you in the same way that the knowledge does prior to written language.
posted by alms at 8:12 PM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

As paultopia said, there's a fairly good run-through on the topic in Postman's Technopoly.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:27 PM on July 26, 2010

From the standpoint of a lot of modern/contemporary philosophy, this is where fellows like Derrida and to a lesser extent Foucault started to grind their axes against the privileging of speech over writing. They felt that Plato/Socrates had done a great disservice, if not outright violence, against the decentralized, indirect, and polysemic virtues of the written word (or grapheme if you prefer) as opposed to the centralized, authoritarian, "phallogocentric" (not my word, Derrida's), and for lack of a better phrase, dickishness of the spoken word. Much of Derrida's project as a philosopher was to overturn this supposed "silencing" of the written word as a fallen, failed imitation of the "manly," "truthful" spoken word.
posted by bardic at 8:37 PM on July 26, 2010

...and if you want a primary source for Derrida's take on the subject, have a look at his essay titled "Plato's Pharmacy" after you've read the Phaedrus.
posted by amery at 8:46 PM on July 26, 2010

Derrida, not known for his sense of humor, seems to have missed the possibility that Plato was joking there-- to me highly likely given that he was in fact either remembering and recording the long-lost words of his disgraced and forgotten teacher, or just making them up on the spot. Either way it's a pretty good joke. Plato loved writing and words and language of all kinds (especially dirty puns, wildly on display in the opening to the Phadrus) though he did have a special hatred for bad poetry.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:46 PM on July 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Derrida, not known for his sense of humor,

Well, no, actually, Derrida had a pretty great sense of humor--check out the whole business with Limited, Inc., for instance. A lot of that doesn't come across in translation.

But more specifically in terms of this question, it would be a mistake to think Derrida was making any statements about Plato the person: he says explicitly that what he's interested in are the problems posed by texts, so that the name of every author in his book is actually just shorthand for a certain position that can be extracted from some particular text. So whether Plato was joking or not doesn't really matter for his argument.
posted by nasreddin at 12:22 AM on July 27, 2010

You might also find "The Muse learns to Write" by E. Harvelock interesting on this topic.
posted by varoa at 5:40 AM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

If I recall correctly, Thoth describes writing as "cure" for memory. Derrida riffs on the translation of this word, substituting "drug" or "poison"...
posted by ovvl at 6:24 AM on July 27, 2010

"The Shallows" by Nicholas Carr picks up this theme and asks a similar question about the internet. If you can find something instantly online, do you need to "absorb" it? Also discusses possible brain changes and the impact on attention spans.

I don't know anybody, other than stage actors and certain clerics, who memorizes long passages, yet that used to be quite common. Have we lost that ability?
posted by PickeringPete at 8:27 AM on July 27, 2010

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