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?

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Posted by Keith E. Buhler


  1. On C2:

    The Bible is the sacred text of many religions each making claims incompatible with the others. Furthermore, the majority of the religions, so formed, are somewhat known for their self-righteousness (with exceptions). I cannot help but see this as indisputable support for the argument that it is at least subject to the same problems, especially 2, 2a, 3, 4, and 4a.

    In general:

    I think I’d like to prepend a more important difficulty of writing, somewhat like 1, but in my opinion, more important.

    #0. Writing helps thinkers to educate readers, but rarely helps readers learn to be thinkers.

    The real danger is that so many readers never notice a distinction, and think themselves to be thinkers, speaking with the appearance of authority because they’ve read the thoughts of another.


  2. It appears that you might find Wax Tablets of the Mind an interesting read.


  3. Also, I would add that the soul-expanding and world-opening and mind-boggling experience of visiting even the paltriest library trumps the potential weaknesses (if not outright “problems”) of writing as a medium for thought. Following Warren, writing may not make us inherently better as thinkers, but what better way to open up shop in the “marketplace of ideas” than by reading, widely and carefully?


  4. Regarding problems 2 and 2a: Short of individualized training with a great thinker, I have to believe that the best way to become a thinker oneself is to be exposed to the ideas of great thinkers. Writing seems to me to be the best way for this to occur, as all the great thinkers are either dead, or have finite attention to pay to students. While this may cause people to overestimate their own ability, if the alternative is fewer thinkers, then I think the tradeoff is a fair one.

    It’s interesting stuff to consider though, thanks for posting it.


  5. Short of individualized training with a great thinker, I have to believe that the best way to become a thinker oneself is to be exposed to the ideas of great thinkers.

    But isn’t this the claim of Phaedrus: there is no substitute for engaging with a real thinker? The problem with writing, like speeches, is that they are monological not dialogical. Reading may produce reactions in the reader — a semblance of dialogue — but the inability of the text to respond to the reader’s response is ultimately a dead end.

    It’s like Superman “talking” to his Kryptonian father in the Fortress of Solitude. Jor-El can “answer” Superman’s questions but only the questions he has already anticipated, like Thomas Aquinas. The result looks like a conversation but is not a true engagement of two minds, because the great thinker is still dead.

    Individualized training is logistically difficult but precisely because each of us thinks individually, some kind of mentorship, formal or informal, seems necessary to becoming a better thinker. Exposure to others’ ideas is essential, but having someone confront and challenge your own ideas is just as crucial to critical and self-critical thinking.


  6. I agree, but I guess my point is that you can compare the good to the perfect all day long, but it doesn’t really get you anywhere in a world where the perfect is not achievable. The fact that I cannot engage in a dialogue with Aquinas over what he thinks of gay marriage (or any other current trend he couldn’t have anticipated) does not mean that I don’t benefit from reading him on those topics that he did think about, and perhaps even using his thought to apply to new situations. It’s not as good as the perfection of having Aquinas himself, but it’s better than having nothing.


  7. Oh of course! I wasn’t arguing (would anybody?) that great thinkers should never have written anything because their writings are inferior to chatting with them personally! Otherwise we wouldn’t have the Phaedrus to raise the issue!

    But the issue raised (I thought) was the difference between a written monologue and someone with whom to dialogue, not the difference between a dead man and his writings. The fact that books are often the preserved text of a thinker now inaccessible to us is incidental to the argument because Socrates includes live speeches in the category with writings: he is criticizing monologue (whether written or live), not documentary preservation.

    After all, Plato is preserving a conversation in Phaedrus! But crucially it is a dialogue he is preserving, not a lecture.

    Obviously Plato cannot be arguing that we shouldn’t read texts because it would be a self-contradictory argument to write down. Socrates might have made such an argument since by all accounts he never wrote anything, but if so, Plato recognized the practical good in preserving some arguments of Socrates for posterity.

    So Plato obviously agrees with you that the good of reading a Socratic dialogue is still better than never getting to chat with Socrates personally. But at the same time I think Plato (and certainly Socrates) would not therefore conclude that “the best way to become a thinker oneself is to be exposed to the ideas of great thinkers” because mere exposure to ideas, while necessary (ergo Plato’s writing of Phaedrus), is not sufficient for the task (ergo Socrates’ argument in Phaedrus).

    I assumed your caveat “Short of individualized training with a great thinker” was not limited just to canonical Great Thinkers like Plato or Aquinas because your qualification that “all the great thinkers are either dead, or have finite attention to pay to students” implies that there are great thinkers among us who can train us to think better.

    So while I grant that “the perfect is not achievable” in the sense that Plato and Aquinas are dead, the ideal of being able to dialogue with a great thinker who is alive will always be achievable. Fortunately not all great thinkers are philosophy professors constrained by the demands of grading papers and administrative assignments (though many are). We can each find our Socrates, and not necessarily within the university.


  8. “Individualized training is logistically difficult but precisely because each of us thinks individually, some kind of mentorship, formal or informal, seems necessary to becoming a better thinker.”

    As a high school teacher, this is, of course, painful to admit. I wish textbooks (which are universally accessible at least in principle) or even Great Books could do the job of human education. I wish reading Plato meant I understood Plato, and assigning Plato meant my students did. Sad that it doesn’t.

    I have yet to hear an argument against this that doesn’t amount to, “But then only a finite number of people can be educated!” That is a logical and practical consequence, not an objection to the truth of the premise.

    I challenge anyone to provide an in principle critique of the theory that education necessitates dialogical interaction (rather than monological with a living lecturer or a static text). For, if there is one, I want to know it, and resort to it. In the meantime, I know that until I discuss with somebody what I have read, I know nothing about it.


  9. “Exposure to others’ ideas is essential, but having someone confront and challenge your own ideas is just as crucial to critical and self-critical thinking.”

    What do you make of the relative merits of dialoging with peers?


  10. Keith, if, in the absence of dialogue with Plato, you “know nothing about” Phaedrus after reading it, then why not be a skeptic about acquiring knowledge, period? Who is to say you know anything even if Plato tells you exactly what he means? Why privilege the spoken over the written, if the spoken is equally fallible? Perhaps Plato has a headache, and he can’t think straight this afternoon. Perhaps, Emerson-like, he’ll recant everything he told you today when tomorrow arrives and he realizes his axioms were misaligned. Or, perhaps on your end, your ears are clogged with wax, or you are distracted by Plato’s very large chin mole, or you are more of a visual thinker, but Plato is terrible at drawing.

    I guess I’m asking a fundamental question: what makes dialogue any more secure, epistemically speaking?


  11. Sorry, I was unclear.

    In the absence of dialogue with *someone* (Matt, students, Al Geier) about Phaedrus, I know nothing about it.


  12. I do think acquiring knowledge is pretty beaver home difficult, period. I’m not a dogmatic skeptic, but I lean towards a highly-critical epistemology, at least where fundamental questions about being, self, divinity, relationships, properties are concerned.

    Regarding the worthwhile tangent about authorial intent, (which I created by being unclear): If I did have the chance to talk to Plato in person, he would not, he could not just ‘tell me what he means.’ The magic of dialog is that it is not simply ‘meaning exchange.’ The spoken message has no privilege over the written, as message. The difference is not necessarily in the messages communicable, but in the possibility of live-action drama, of two living creatures in communion discoursing.

    Perhaps real education is less like data transfer and more like photosynthesis.


  13. (On this read, perhaps the most I learn from this blog is not in written dialog with commenters [though I do learn much there!] but in in-person dialog with Matt and Tex. Interesting.)


  14. I said:
    “Exposure to others’ ideas is essential, but having someone confront and challenge your own ideas is just as crucial to critical and self-critical thinking.”

    Keith said:
    What do you make of the relative merits of dialoging with peers?

    I suppose there is a difference between dialoguing with intellectual peers who disagree with you and intellectual peers who are also your “ideological peers” on whatever subject you’re discussing. So your peers who disagree with you will be able to challenge your ideas, but there is the danger that they are simply rehearsing their contrary opinions (monologue) rather than actually engaging with you.

    But the danger is mutual, because my natural reaction is then to become defensive about my own views, and while “iron sharpens iron” what usually happens is that I become better at rhetoric that is persuasive rather than better at progressing our understanding. The result is mutual monologue rather than dialogue.

    Ironically, therefore, I have found that the sympathy of your ideological peer — with whom you have some trust because he would not have a kneejerk reaction to your views — may free you both up to progress your understanding together without fear of antagonism for the sake of contrariness. It may be a conservative progression, since your friend will help interrogate the new views that depart from your currently held ones, but by the nature of dialogue you will thus be re-interrogating your old views and revising them as necessary.

    However, I think the most important element is a sympathy of intellectual temperament which you may easily have with someone who usually disagrees with you, just as someone who is your “ideological peer” might refuse to entertain any thoughts other than his current dogma.

    I think the dialogue-friendly temperament is characterised by holding one’s own views lightly and being eager to revise them when faced with improvements. There is almost nothing as exciting as changing my mind about something, not least because it is a great exercise of intellectual humility and reminds me not to hold my new view too tightly either, for it is just as likely to be revised one day.

    A couple weeks ago I saw a great mosaic in a church in Paris, in a series of personifications of virtues paired together. One of them depicted Dogma back-to-back with Humilitas, which I found to be a brilliant tension that is the most difficult to keep in balance: firmness of conviction held with humility.

    I first wrote “expressed with humility” but it must be more than the rhetorical techniques Dennis Miller satirizes when he ends a rant with “but that’s just my opinion, I could be wrong.” Rather than a linguistic “humility topos”, it must be a genuine humility about one’s beliefs and knowledge. But epistemological humility is qualitatively different than epistemological skepticism.


  15. Thank you for the clarification. Perhaps it is a living example of the point that dialogue is a necessary part of becoming a great thinker? =)


  16. […] Our own Keith Buhler tackles just one of the many questions in Plato’s Phaedrus: is writing bad for your memory? […]


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