Of Thamus and Theuth – Reflecting on the Self

I believe that writing has facilitated the “reflective self” and that this is both beneficial and detrimental for humanity. Writing allows humans the ability to capture ideas in a time capsule. In other words, literacy allows us to turn back the clock and reflect on meaning and purpose. When I read Plato’s Phaedrus, I imagine myself back in time, wearing a toga with olive branches in my hair; an observer from the marble amphitheater as Socrates confides with one of his colleagues. This “recreation” in my mind (however inaccurate it may be historically) is derived from layers of literacy. Without being present in the moment that Socrates delivers his analysis of literate practice, literacy itself allows me to recreate this event within my mind and outside of time or place.

Ong’s “Orality and Literacy” communicates how literacy facilitates thinking where the “self” is removed from the group and from the environment. Ong (1982) states how the literate culture is “analytic” and “dissecting” because it relies upon vision as its primary learning tool. This results in individuals, groups, and nation-states that see themselves as separate from others within their culture or an entity existing outside and separate from other cultures. Ong describes such literate cultures as, “foster[ing] internalized personalities” where activities are solitary and “throw the psyche back on itself.” I believe that this type of thinking has consequences both good and bad.

On the positive side, I think that within literate culture, the individual can separate his or herself from the group and rise above, investigating and exploring ideas or problems, and then re-trace steps undertaken during experimentation. The scientific method would be impossible without a literate culture. This way of thinking has led people to great discoveries and advances in fields such as medicine, art, and geography.

Literacy has also led to development of socialist and communist cultures, where (at least in theory) the nation-state has no class structure and people exist on a “needs” rather than a “wants” basis. Members of society work along a path which follows their desires and skill set, providing for themselves and the community.

Along a negative vein, I believe this style of thinking has led to individuals who describe themselves as learned, yet have little practical experience of the world – a condition within the individual bluntly described by Thamus:

they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing. (Plato, n.d.)

As an example, an analytical literate mind utilizes deductive and inductive reasoning. When people from a literate culture listen to, or read a statement, they will make inferences based on incomplete information because it is part of the “game” of learning through literate means. We look for patterns and glean “educated” viewpoints from our interpretations, often independently from context. To illustrate, I had a student who was working on a Math problem related to deductive reasoning. The question stated,

Jim is a barber. Everyone whose hair is cut by Jim get a good haircut. Austin’s hair was cut by Jim. What can you deduce about Austin? (Canavan-McGrath et al., 2011).

The student and I laughed, and he guessed (according to the “rules of the game”) that Austin also received a good haircut, but we also discussed how removed from experience, how random, and how isolated this type of questioning is. We don’t know Austin or Jim. Perhaps Austin just couldn’t sit still in the barber’s chair and his haircut was a disaster. In exercises such as these we present ourselves as intelligent even though we may not be making decisions based on our personal experiences or practices.

In addition, literate thinking has led to consumerist ideals, and in its wake, the destruction of entire ecosystems and the continued polluting of our Earth. As an example, our techno-crazed North American culture demands that we update and upgrade our software and hardware gadgets at an astonishingly absurd rate. Corporate greed and marketing ploys persuade people to continuously purchase the next best thing in an effort to look better, be more efficient, be happier, and connect faster and more frequently. The amount of waste generated by this way of thinking has grown exponentially over the past decade and has changed our global climate. Within this literate culture, individuals see themselves as existing as a distinct entity and are in fact encouraged to be unique and stand out from the group (ironically, by fitting in with the rest of the group). I believe consumerist cultures, dependent on literacy to function, make decisions based on “self” and not on how decision impacts upon the entire group or the Earth. What is best for the “self” in the short term may not be what is best for culture, and our existence, in the long run.

In the end, literacy, like any new technology, represents a shift in culture, and as James O’Donnell and James Engel describe, for each “gain” there is always a “loss”. As culture adopts a new practice, something is shifted, modified, or lost completely, and often the unforeseen consequences of adopting technology can be far reaching, for better and for worse.

Canavan-McGrath, C. et al. (2011). Foundations of Mathematics 11. Toronto: Nelson, 31.

O’Donnell, J. J. (1998). Avatars of the word: from papyrus to cyberspace. Harvard University Press.

Ong, W. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologization of the word. London: Methuen.

Plato. (n.d.). Phaedrus. (Jowett, B, Trans.). Retrieved September 21, 2013 from https://connect.ubc.ca/bbcswebdav/pid-1529328-dt-content-rid-5277723_1/courses/CL.UBC.ETEC.540.64A.2013W1.28753/module02/m2-phaedrus.html

Postman, N. (2011, June 1). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. Random House Digital, Inc.

Socialism – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. (2003). Retrieved September 21, 2013, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socialism

Mel Burgess.

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