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Four Theoretical Problems with Writing

August 5th, 2008 | 3 min read

By Keith E. Buhler

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?