Monday, May 2, 2016

Materializing Thought

Cao Pi wrote in the third century AD in an Essay on Writing: "Life and body are limited by time, unlike writing which is eternal. Therefore writers gave over their bodies to ink and brush, and materialized their thoughts in tablets and collections."[1]

I like the phrase "materializing their thoughts," though I would perhaps prefer "externalizing their thoughts." The reason is that material to us is just as little eternal as our bodies. Tablets may outlast us, but they are far from being eternal. But tablets and collections allow us to manipulate thoughts and communicate them over the centuries.

There is a rather similar sentiment in Samuel Butler's Notebooks, even though it might seem to contradict Cao Pi.[2] Butler claimed that in pure thought we come "as near to God as we can get; it is through this that we are linked with God." But "the highest thought is ineffable; it must be felt from one person to another but cannot be articulated" (at location 1384). We cannot really do anything with such iintuitive thoughts. But, "the moment a thing is written, or even can be written, and reasoned about, it has changed its nature by becoming tangible, and hence finite, and hence it will have an end in disintegration (at location 1386). For him, words were "organised thoughts, as living forms are organised actions. How a thought can find embodiment in words is nearly, though perhaps not quite, as mysterious as how an action can find embodiment in form, and appears to involve a somewhat analogous" (at location 1391).

I have written many time about "exteriorization" before, of course.

1. Quoted in accordance with Alexander Monro, The Paper Trail: An Unexpected History of a Revolutionary Invention (New York: Knopf, 2016) p. 31.
2. See also the previous post on Samuel Butler.

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