Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

What Socrates Said to Phaedrus: Reflections on Technology and Education

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

What Socrates Said to Phaedrus: Reflections on Technology and Education

Article excerpt

PLATO'S DIALOGUES COVER many topics. There is little hyperbole in Alfred North Whitehead's remark that "The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato" (39).

One of the most interesting aspects of this great scope is the fascinating pattern of juxtapositions. Plato at times, for example, treats friendship and love in the dialogues that deal also with knowledge and reality. In this juxtaposition is the root of our phrase "a Platonic relationship," for Plato thought that the affection between friends bore in interesting ways on our search for knowledge of what is real. In a dialogue called the Phaedrus, a character of that name goes with Socrates to a rustic setting for a discussion that ranges over the four topics of friendship, love, knowledge, and reality. Our concern is with a note at the end of the dialogue. Socrates has made the case that the pursuit of knowledge entails close personal cooperation among the pursuers. Then he cautions Phaedrus about the danger of writing things down. Here is his concern:

   Socrates. He would be a very simple person, and quite a stranger to
   the oracles of Thamus or Ammon, who should leave in writing or
   receive in writing any art under the idea that the written word
   would be intelligible or certain; or who deemed that writing was at
   all better than knowledge and recollection of the same matters?

   Phaedrus. That is most tree.

   Socrates. 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.

   Phaedrus. That again is most true.

   Socrates. Is there not another kind of word or speech far better
   than this, and having far greater power - a son of the same family,
   but lawfully begotten?

   Phaedrus. Whom do you mean, and what is his origin?

   Socrates. I mean an intelligent word graven in the soul of the
   learner, which can defend itself, and knows when to speak and when
   to be silent.

   Phaedrus. You mean the living word of knowledge which has a soul,
   and of which the written word is properly no more than an image?

   Socrates. Yes, of course that is what I mean.

Indeed, Plato has prepared us for this worry. Socrates's young friend Phaedrus had in mind for their outing a discussion of a speech about love, a speech he has recently heard by a teacher named Lysias. Moreover, as Socrates teases out of him, he has with him a written copy of Lysias's speech. So the two of them are to discuss what Lysias said, but they discuss it as captured and brought to stillness in the written text. Plato lays groundwork for an argument that the living philosophical discussion is superior to a written text. The fact that this dialogue is itself a piece of writing masquerading as a living conversation is an irony Plato understands and uses in the dialogue itself.

The point is that Socrates advances worries about writing. We must not, he says, mistake the preserved image of philosophical understanding for the understanding itself. This is a worry about technology, in this case the technology of writing, and the inclination we have to transfer our sense of what is real from the primary reality to its technological manifestation. This tendency is ubiquitous. …

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