January 28, 2008

EL336: WM Plato

From page 362 of "Writing Material":

"I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that 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 questions to one of them, the speaker 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 of defend themselves."

Compared to the spoken word, Socrates felt that the written word was a less intelligent form of art. He likened writing to paintings, even going so far as to call words images themselves. This is a completely new concept of looking at writing for me. I can absolutely agree with the point Socrates was driving home in this pleasantly sincere and educational debate. I feel Socrates is trying to say that although writing is useful for recording memories and reminiscing about the past, it is not a good educational tool. He compares writing to astronomy and mathematics-- subjects that have to be carefully studied by observation, repetition, and instruction. The subject of writing cannot be taught directly because there are endless topics to be written about and endless styles of writing. Socrates believed the oral word was much more effective because the speaker is on hand to answer any questions.

That was one claim I found to be a bit confusing. Who is Socrates to say the text will not answer potential questions the reader may have on later pages? Who is he to say that a book teaching Geometry is less effective than an instructor orally teaching a class? I think Socrates is being very narrow minded here. He should take into account the fact that people have different methods of learning which work better for them.

Or perhaps I'm reading this all wrong. Philosophers always tend to befuddle me.

Posted by StormyKnight at January 28, 2008 7:17 PM | TrackBack


I think there's a connection between paintings and words as far as learning is concerned, yes. Painting, words, and speech are simply mediums though, isn't it the creator behind it all what's most important? Level with me here-- take a deaf man who can speak fluently enough to carry on a speech which Socrates would consider intelligent, a rarity of course. If Socrates discovered the man was deaf and could not answer any questions he may pose, is it still a successful communication? Is it still intelligent by his standards? It couldn't be, the interaction would be removed.

With text, you're presenting yourself the information instead of it being presented to you. I also dislike reading books for pleasure. I'd rather watch a movie or be told a story if I need entertainment. Perhaps Socrates just had a general hatred of the way text presents itself-- there's nothing to engage the audience in the first place, and nothing to clear any confusion or stimulate further thought after the last period of the text. Socrates seemed to think oral communication was superior than text in almost every aspect.

It's also interesting that Socrates makes a point to say that the written word cannot defend itself. Could he have been frightened that his ideas would become popularly translated into text and then, after close reading, be refuted by his followers?

Thoughts are scattered, yes, but I hope they make sense.

Posted by: Stormy at January 29, 2008 2:27 AM

I think there is a reason to appreciate the fact that paintings and words "preserve a solemn silence" when asked a question. Part of the joy of learning is to seek one's own answers, pondering even those things that will never provide a clear response to our questions.

Posted by: ChrisU at January 29, 2008 1:20 AM

Do you think it is right to compare paintings and words? I wrote a little about this on my blog and it was really puzzling. I think of myself as a visual learner, but then again I hate reading books for the sheer joy of it. So does my lack of an affinity to like reading books make me any less of a visual or kinesthetic learner?

Posted by: Leslie Rodriguez at January 28, 2008 9:53 PM
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