Four Theoretical Problems with Writing

I spent the last two months reading and thinking about the Phaedrus. What a fascinating little book of Plato’s.

I’d like to present four theoretical problems with writing itself. I do this for a) for people who (like me) never before considered that there were any theoretical problems with writing, b) for people who would like to accept and admit these problems, tackle them, and come to the defense of writing, and c) for people who would like to deconstruct the problems, showing that they are not indeed problems at all.

Here’s some pertinent sections of the Phaedrus, copied and pasted off the Internet.

Socrates tells the story of Theuth and Thamus, the Egyptian gods. Theuth invites writing, but Thamus must judge its worth. “Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to remembering, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

Here are the first two problems.  

1. Writing helps people remember, but does not help them develop the power of memory.

 2. Writing makes many thoughts, opinions, beliefs, accessible to many people, but does not ensure that everyone who reads and “hears” will have adequate understanding of what they read. 

    2a. Writing makes many seemingly ‘deep thoughts,’ accessible to many people, but when they have read it and convinced themselves that they understand it, they will annoyingly overestimate their own level of education.

Another quotation:

Soc. 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 question 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 or defend themselves. “

Two more problems:

3. Writing seems to communicate intelligently, but when you ask it for clarification, it responds like a dumb man or a dead man — with silence.

4. Writing is permanent enough to go anywhere and say what it says to anybody, but there are times when it should not say certain things to certain people, and without a person there to censor it, it will go on speaking.

    4a. If someone ‘abuses’ or mistreats a text, then the text cannot defend itself against attack.


These are the 4+ theoretical problems with writing that I see in the Phaedrus, that I am wrestling with. I will refrain from providing my preliminary defense/deconstruction, for now. Any takers?


If these are real problems, then I see two more corollary problems:

C1. Books in foreign languages avoid these four problems. Is the translation of text then an extension of the same problems into ever widening spheres of influence?

C2. The Holy Bible is the ‘best-selling book of all time.’ Is it subject to the same four problems? Does its unique character trump these problems, or aggravate them to an extreme degree?

Apostolic Hermaneutics

 “By expecting the Apostles to conform to modern assumptions we run the
danger of missing the theological and kerygmatic richness of the Apostles’ use of
the OT.”

Continuing a line Matt started, here is an interesting article (about 25 pages) by Peter Enns, an evangelical scholar at Westminster Seminary, on the Apostolic manner of interpreting scripture. This “Apostolc Hermaneutic” is remarkably distinct from the widely-used and, in many cases, uncritically relied-upon “historical-grammatical method” that Protestants have inherited from the Enlightenment and Renaissance.

(Thanks to Energetic Procession for the link.)


Deja Vu: Repeating the Midsummer Night’s Dreaming

Here’s the final version of the paper I sent in for my grad school application. I made a few subtle, yet important changes in my wording in order to (hopefully!) make my thesis more clear. While I am not sure I specifically address this question by the Bourgeois Burglar (though I do in the comments below his), I think that it is a stronger paper overall. And I am still very interested to hear everyone’s thoughts. It’s a tendentious thesis, I think, but an interesting one (in, I think, a positive way), if I do say so myself. See more below the fold.

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Midsummer Night’s Dreaming: An Analysis

So, the following paper has consumed my attention the last week. My grad school application is now due in 72 hours, and I am finally “finished” with my paper. It was harder to write than I thought it would be–literature papers always are, for some reason. Anyway, if any of you literary types (ahem?) are interested in taking a gander, I would appreciate the feedback. At least if it comes in the next 24 hours, that is.

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Meaning and Intention

My brother’s recent puzzle spawned this response and subsequent discussion. The discussion continued that weekend for me–I spent a three hour car ride working through the issues with another member of this blog.

To be brief, I’ll point out four things:

1) Meanings are something that texts have and authors intend. In other words, they are a textual property, not an authorial property. When I say something like, “I am writing on Mere Orthodoxy,” the statement itself has a meaning apart from what I intend it to mean, a meaning that inheres in it because of its adherance to the rules of syntax and speech. In other words, if I say “I am writing on Mere Orthodoxy” and intend it to mean “I am riding a purple tricycle,” it won’t have that meaning. I will simply have failed to properly perform my intention.

2) With respect to Jim’s puzzle, he intended that it would have no meaning. If Jason had found one, it’s quite possible Jim had created something with a deep underlying structure that he hadn’t noticed–which means Jim, the author, would in fact be wrong about his meaning. When authors create texts, they release them into the world to be interpreted. The interpreter doesn’t make the meaning–he discovers it, or not. Either way, the locus of meaning and the criterion for meaning is the text itself, and not the author’s or reader’s interpretation of the text. To claim so is to confuse the epistemology and metaphysics of meaning.
3) This doesn’t mean we should do away with authorial intent, however. Rather, the author’s interpretation of their own text is in a priviliged position. Not because he is the author, but because as author it seems likely he is most familiar with the matter, the idea, the meaning of his text. This familiarity allows him to have a helpful and guiding voice, though again it is the text itself that is the criterion for truthful interpretations.

4) “Meaning” seems to hinge upon the “form/matter” relationship. If I typed gibberish–apsodinfapsioerhasperhzdv; nzpdifjapeorija opifjaopfnseprq–it has the matter (letters) without form. But this sentence is meaningful because the letters and words are arranged in such a way that they convey information. If a wave washed up stones that spelled, “Everyone should read Mere O all the time,” they would convey meaning, but only in a context where the governing laws for that sentence were understood, that is, where people understand the syntax. In other words, the rules that govern meaning are prior to, and determinitive of meaningful statements, and meaningful statements only occur within certain rules.

There are more thoughts to be had, of course, but these are what come to mind right now.

We are the Meaning Makers

If I were Jason Kuznicki, I’d be irritated.

Here’s Jim’s explanation of his “puzzle”: It’s all about trying to find a pattern that isn’t real–when pathological, the condition is called apophenia–by relying on human design intuitions. All of the strategies are possible, even probable, modes of uncovering the structure of the puzzle–if the design is in fact designed.

It was, and it wasn’t. In the vague, meaningless sense of “design,” one often trumpeted by Salvador Cordova, an intelligent agent crafted the pseudopuzzle, first by noticing an instance of a possible pattern, then by combining words with similar endings, finally deceptively claiming a solution was possible. But the design was essentially random. Words were chosen using associations in memory (for all the -eese words, of which “Edwin Meese” is my favorite) and from a list of -ary words found here. There was no leitmotif other than “hmm, this word sounds nifty.”

In other words, if I understand him, Jim created a puzzle with the appearance of design that was, in fact, “essentially random,” leaving Jason to discern an order that wasn’t really there. Jim’s point is, as always, provocative: Pope Benedict XVI, soon to head a debate on the theological importance of intelligent design, has said, “We are not the accidental product, without meaning, of evolution.” Indeed, for even if evolution is an accident, it has birthed creatures that are meaning-makers, able to fashion order out of randomness, for better or worse. This requires tentativeness and skepticism, for we see meaning everywhere, even where it isn’t.

The notion that we can create meaning where it isn’t is itself fascinating. It demonstrates, I think, the connection between evolutionary theory and the agression of reader-response hermeneutics. After all, there is no meaning in Jim’s puzzle–it’s up to the reader to determine the meaning for himself. Which, thankfully, we’re hardwired to do.
But if that’s the case, then Kuznicki is right and Jim is wrong. If Jim is right, then he has unfortunately ceded his authority as author to determine the meaning of his own puzzle. He has given over the right to say that it has no meaning, since it is the brute facts of the world and Kuznicki is the meaning maker. The fact that Kuznicki failed to find meaning doesn’t matter at all–perhaps a greater genius (if there were such a thing) could have found a coherent meaning. Or a trivial meaning. If we are meaning makers, what does it matter?

But Jim’s puzzle still rests, if I may, on a theistic view of the world. Jim is the author, and he has intentionally created his puzzle to confuse. It is, then, a text with a meaning, but not the meaning Jim led us all to believe it had. As an author, Jim has played the Cartesian demon, “finally deceptively claiming a solution was possible.” The puzzle itself rests upon a theology that demands a malevolent God out to trick the reader.

In sum, Jim is caught in a contradiction. He tells us we are meaning makers (a la Kuznicki) but then rejects the meaning we might make out of this particular nonsense in favor of his authorial intent.
The post certainly teaches a lesson, but ironically not the lesson Jim wants.

My Reviews

My brother’s comments about my recent string of book reviews have prompted me to say a word about my approach. He writes:

Oh, and I have a new goal in life: to write a book that meets my brother’s critical approval, which is pretty darn stringent, as you know if you’ve been following his series of book reviews.

This is certainly true. While others have raved about Martindale’s book, I was somewhat tepid in my commendation of it. This simply underscores the need to understand a particular reviewer’s tastes and the need to read multiple reviews of books (something I attempt to do of the books and movies I review as well).

I will continue to be critical, but my hope is that my recommendations will actually mean something. I reserve good recommendations for books that I think are worth taking the time to read or movies I think are worth seeing, just as I reserve my standing ovations for performances I think are actually outstanding. I have found American audiences much more free with standing ovations than the British, and I realized that they had lost meaning in America. My goal with my reviews is simply to give an accurate assessment of the work and to preserve my own credibility by not giving praise where it has not been duly earned.

Not every book published is worth reading, and a reviewers job is to identify for everyone else which books actually are worth the time and effort. The limitation that I experience in reviewing Martindale’s work is that I am not familiar enough with the secondary literature on Lewis to be able to compare it to an equivalent work. After reading Martindale’s book, I began to wonder why there is a secondary literature on Lewis’s work at all. Lewis seems too clear to actually be a serious object of study himself. But this is obviously a problem with the genre, not Martindale’s work itself.

Really, what this all means is that if I ever publish, the reviewers are going to have a field day with whatever I churn out.

Literary Criticism and Epistemology

For some time I have been bothered by the phenomenon of 20th C. literary criticism of all varieties: Marxist, feminist, post-colonial and the other smatterings. It just rubs me the wrong way. After remembering Rodrick Chisholm’s insightful article, “The Problem of the Criterion”, I realized that literary critics are analogous to what Chisholm dubs, “methodists” (which is complete unrelated to the evangelical denomination started by Wesley!).

In the article, Chishom argues that it is better to approach things like perception from a “particularist” stand-point, i.e. from common-sense. It is best to believe that the world represents itself to us the way that it actually is – why would we believe anything to the contrary?

Perhaps we should approach literature in the same way as perception. Let us have faith that the text accurately reveals to us its meaning. It might take some digging around and hard work, but we shouldn’t impose our pet theory on the text, just as we don’t (and shouldn’t) impose our perception on the real world. A particulary good or an obscure text will be, by analogy, “hard to see”: only one with trained eyes will be able to see clearly.