Saturday, April 19, 2014

Plato on "Alienated Memory"

I referred in the last post to Plato's Phaedrus. So let me offer a few musings on Plato's ideas on "alienated memory." The Phaedrus has always been regarded as an odd dialogue because it is difficult to place within the Platonic corpus and because it is not clear what it is about. Thus, A. E. Taylor, noting that the dialogue seems to lack unity, wondered whether it is about the principles on which a proper rhetoric or prose style may be founded and thus the question as to whether there could be a proper science discourse, or whether it was a consideration of the question of eros and the use and abuse of sexual passion in persuasion. While he decided that it is the former, he also found that the problem of the invention of writing also plays a subordinate role in this project.

More recently, a powerful new way of interpreting the dialogue has been proposed, in which the problem of the invention of writing becomes central. Thus Charles Kahn, referring to Szlezak and Rowe, has claimed:
If the entire dialogue is seen as concerned with the philosophical use of language or logos in general and writing, in particular, composition with techne and without techne (277B 1), then the beginning and the end will indeed fit together like parts of a living organism. The discussion of writing in the final section of the dialogue is prepared from the beginning, by repeated references to books and writers (228A 2, 230D 8, 235B 8, D 6, E 5). Indeed the issue of writing is raised from the very first moment, by the emphasis of Lysias' book which Phaedrus is hiding under his cloak (228D)." This interpretation would also answer the question as to where the dialogue fits in systematically Plato's work. It is the last Socratic dialogue and represents Plato's taking stock of "his own work as a writer.
This view is attractive, but I doubt that it is correct. To start with: it is misleading to say that "the issue of writing is raised from the very first moment, by the emphasis of Lysias' book which Phaedrus is hiding under his cloak (228D)." It is not the question of writing that is being raised, but the question about the use of a book. More specifically it is the question of a book that is carried under a cloak. In other words, Plato's question is primarily about the product of writing, and secondarily a question concerning the consumption of writing,or more precisely, about how a book should or should not be used. This raises the question of reading more than the question of writing.[1]

Furthermore, it should be obvious that when the first speech is "red off from this book" by Phaedrus, Plato is more concerned with with reading (to others) or the consumption of books than he is with their writing or production. The same thing is true about 228 A2. It is not about writing, but about "repeating by heart" what someone else took a long time to compose. One might go as far as to say that it is contrasting memorization and reading, or about how to store information. In particular, it raises the question whether knowledge is better stored in the mind or ona scroll. But one thing it is not about, is the contrast between writing and speaking. The same may be said about other passages: (i) 230 8 is about "volumes of speeches" and their being read, not about their being written. Indeed, it is the introduction of the speech "read from this book." (ii) 235B 8 is concerned with an evaluation of what has just been read as inadequate. Socrates claims that Lysias, the author of the speech, probably would also find it inadequate on reading or re-reading it. (iii) D 6 appeals to a comparison between book and a living speech and (iv) E 5 is also best read about the products of writing than about the writing process.

The evidence given by Kahn does not support the view that the dialogue is about writing directly, but rather the view that it is about reading and the products of writing. The claim that "in reflecting on writing the dialogue reflects upon itself" is wrong, at least when we consider the dialogue up to the end of Socrates' first speech. The dialogue simply has not "reflected upon writing" and therefore also not on itself. Furthermore, I have no clue how the self-reflective nature of the dialogue would follow even if I were to agree that it is about the writing, and not the reading, of speeches. Presumably the writing of dialogues is very different from the writing of speeches.

Kahn continues his investigation of "Plato's reflections on writing" by considering 276C 9, where Socrates shows that a written work, like a painting,"cannot teach, that is, impart knowledge" (377). I written book cannot be examined, it cannot adapt to the audience. "Together these two failure are what Plato has in mind when he denounces the naivté of an author or reader who thinks that there can be anything clear ... and secure or reliable ... in a written work in philosophy (275C 6 cf. 277D 8-9). Again, Kahn does not notice that this passage is not6 about writing per se, but about the effects of "a written work" (377). The passage is primarily neither about a reader nor about the writer? It is about the product of writing, even about a particular product of writing, namely a written speech. 277D 8-9 is indeed about the writer, but only insofar as the product of their writing (a political speech) may constitute a matter of reproach to them. But this has little to do with writing per se. Nor does it does not constitute anything that might be called "reflections on writing." At most, it is a reflection on a certain kind of writerly product (and what this product shows about its producer).

So, if the Phaedrus is about something it is about the difference between readers and thinkers, about the difference between the products of writing and the products of true teaching. It is not about the process of writing or about writing as an occupation per se. Furthermore, the text does not say that writing is bad or suspect. It is primarily concerned with the thesis that writing will improve memory and that it is a recipe (pharmakos) for memory and wisdom. Plato argues that it isn't, that it cannot replace memory and that at best it can serve to remind of what we once must have learned and must already be "within ourselves." Like Fromm, Plato argues that external memory is "alienated memory." And, like Fromm, he is just wrong.



[1] There are others, like Jacques Derrida, who have "weighed in" on this question. I will spare you my views on them.

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