Thursday, March 26, 2009

Plato on Writing to Forget

I originally wrote this entry on September 17, 2004, and published it on

I took my Plato with Professor Wallace Matson in Berkeley some 15 years ago, and I still have the copy of Plato we used as our text. When I took it off my bookshelf and looked at it tonight, I noticed I had even underlined and made many comments on the margins of the part of Phaedrus that is about writing, and yet, I had to read a mention of those sections (well, erroneously, a mention of Pheado instead of Phaedrus) in Dreyfus' On the Internet to go back and try to find them. Dreyfus has written a couple of paragraphs on the material in Phaedrus but I think Phaedrus already contains many of the critical elements in Dreyfus' argument which seeks to deflate some of the (unjustified?) hype about the Internet.

In Phaedrus, Socrates critiques writing and finds deficiencies in it (and I suppose in reading) which are absent in rich conversational dialogues. Such dialogue leads to deeper learning and exchange.

Take for example, the following paragraph, which should ring strikingly uncanny for a software developer today.

Then anyone who leaves behind him a written manual, and likewise anyone who takes it over from him, on the supposition that such writing will provide something reliable and permanent, must be exceedingly simple-minded; he must be ignorant of Ammon's utterance, if he imagines that written words can do anything more than remind one who already knows that which the writing is concerned with.

Ammon was an Egyptian sage-king, whose beautiful discourse on writing Socrates had just shared with Phaedrus, the young man fond of compositions on love.

More on "Ammon's utterance" later!

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