Phaedrus The Technology of Writing

The critique of writing in the Phaedrus has inspired a great deal of commentary with a historical focus. Such commentary views the dialogue in relation to the historical transition from orality to literacy. In very broad terms, this transition introduced profound changes to the structure of human thought: whereas a strictly oral culture seemed to require externalization of reflections, the technology of writing gave humanity an increased capacity for leisured internalization and introspection. One could henceforth record, develop, and spread one's thoughts with greater ease. But new technology often breeds suspicion. Much like contemporary anxiety over the increasingly “cold” modes of electronic communication (e.g., email in the place of postal mail), Thamus’s dislike of writing in the myth of Theuth is often taken to reflect Plato’s suspicion of writing as a new technology. Jacques Derrida’s famous essay “Plato’s Pharmacy,” for example, treats Plato’s ostensible preference of speech over writing as one of its subjects.

The changes induced by new technology, however, often catch us unawares. In the influential study Orality and Literacy, Walter J. Ong first glosses  Plato’s criticism of writing. According to Ong, the Phaedrus and so-called Seventh Letter raise four main points: as opposed to speech, writing is inhuman, a thing, a technological product; it weakens the memory of those who rely on it; it cannot respond to new questions; and it cannot defend itself (274-77). Writing is cast essentially as a passive, impersonal product that serves as a poor substitute for speech. For Plato to make his objections strongly and effectively, however, he himself chose to use writing (albeit in dialogue form and using characters other than himself who are speaking). This allowed him to concretize and develop his ideas in ways that were perhaps unavailable through direct speech. Moreover, we would otherwise not have his objections passed down to us in the way he intended them.

Consequently, as Ong points out (based on Eric Havelock’s study Preface to Plato), the use of writing unwittingly turned Plato against the former oral tradition:

Plato’s entire epistemology was unwittingly a programmed rejection of the old oral, mobile, warm, personally interactive lifeworld of oral culture . . . Platonic form was form conceived of by analogy with visible form. The Platonic ideas are voiceless, immobile, devoid of all warmth, not interactive but isolated, not part of the human lifeworld at all but utterly above and beyond it. (80)

By turning to writing, Plato was inadvertently influenced by the very paradigm of literacy he opposed—a paradigm based on seeing rather than hearing. “The term idea, form,” Ong reminds us, “is visually based, coming from the same root as the Latin video, to see” (80). The Platonic Idea resembles writing in that it is absolute and autonomous. Like writing, it can be perceived and talked about; unlike speech, it has no immediate presence on a human level.

Ultimately, history has resolved the disagreement between Theuth and Thamus in favor of the former. As Ong shows in Orality and Literacy, writing has restructured human consciousness in a way that has increased both wisdom and cultural memory.

Such historical arguments remain entirely relevant. With regard to new modes of communication, readers today may find themselves in a position akin to that of Plato (through Socrates, a generation his senior) in the Phaedrus. Essentially every argument that Plato makes against writing can be made analogously against the Internet and electronic communications.

Consider, for instance, what "knowing facts" means in the context of being able to retrieve all sorts of facts from a handheld Internet connection at any time, anywhere. When Plato has Socrates say elsewhere that he knows many things but they are all trivial, perhaps he means things that can be written down, like lists of rhetorical devices. Knowing love or thinking philosophically is something else entirely. What does the future hold for an increasingly technological world, where more and more can be recorded or calculated outside of our minds?