Interogating Plato? or Socrates, or…?

“It will be obvious to anyone who reads these pages with perception that Plato is concerned to state and defend his own position in the matter of authorship. How could his writing of dialogues be of any value compared with the ‘living word’ of the master whom he por-” (Phaedrus, pg 162)

Although I’m not certain of who write this argument, or how it develops after this page, I would like to begin my post for this week’s readings with this broken excerpt from the end of the Phaedrus pages because it made me think of Paul Kameen, a professor of comp instructors (Like Kory), who wrote a book titled “Writing/Teaching”. In it, Kameen proposes, contrary to the traditional way of reading Plato dialogues, that teachers read the dialogues as though Socrates is not a direct mouthpiece for Plato, that there is a gap, some distance between Plato, the author, and Socrates, his principal character in the dialogues. This is more of a literary stance to take towards reading Plato, but a stance that creates an interesting space in which to read not only Socrates much more critically, but also to read Plato’s critics much more critically.

For example, when we adopt Kameen’s lens for reading Plato, what happens to our reading of Ong’s assertion that:

“One weakness in Plato’s position is that he put these misgivings about writing into writing…” ?

Or: “The technology of writing was not merely useful to Plato for broadcasting his critique of writing, but it also had been responsible for bringing the critique into existence.” ?

Or: “Although there was no way for Plato to be explicitly aware of the fact, his philosophically analytic thought, including his analysis of the effects of writing, was possible only because of the effects that writing was having on mental processes.” ?

Or: Plato’s entire epistemology was unwittingly a programmed rejection of the archaic preliterate world of thought and discourse.”?(pages 28-29)

Ong seems quite comfortable in his literate vs. oral snobbery, comfortable enough to assume that, since Plato was barely on this side of the cusp of a literate era, he could not really have been aware of what literacy was doing to his teacher’s, and his own thinking. That, to me, seems equivalent to saying that since cellphones, computers and facebook were all invented within (most of) our lifetimes, that we cannot really be all that aware of the effects that they are having on our consciousness(es). Ong seems to be saying that he and his contemporaries may more fully understand what it was like to be an ancient Greek than did the ancient Greeks themselves. I am not by any means discounting all of what Ong has to say, but I am a bit uncomfortable with his twenty-five-hundred-year-old backseat arrogance.

I wonder what we might (re)imagine Plato to have been saying about Socrates’ stance on writing, if we also imagine that Plato was fully aware of, comfortable with, and excited about the irony of putting his teacher Socrates’ misgivings about writing into writing. What kind of character, and teacher, does Socrates then become to us? I have not yet read the Reid and the Baron articles, but I’d like to hear from anyone who has, what those authors might be able to add to this discussion.

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One comment on “Interogating Plato? or Socrates, or…?

  1. While I think you’re right to question the ease with which Ong asserts the primacy of his views over Plato’s, Ong does have the advantage of seeing what has happened over the 2,500 years since Plato wrote down Socrates’ words. Socrates’ concerns are (were?) real ones, just as our concerns about Facebook and cell-phones are, and never having known Socrates’ world, we inevitably imagine the path the world has taken since then as the only viable possibility. However, who knows what people reading about our current concerns 250 years from now might think relative to the world they live in? Socrates certainly couldn’t imagine everything that writing has helped us accomplish and very few people today would be willing to live without those accomplishments. And I think some of the “inevitability” of the passage of time colors Ong’s words.

    The question of what Reid adds to Ong’s evaluation of Plato seems an interesting one. I think Reid’s references to evolutionary psychology make his ideas both more grounded and more pointed than some of Ong’s. The contention he borrows, namely that Neanderthals developed symbolic behavior which facilitated the development and use tools different than the ones Cro-Magnons used, is an interesting one, and his desire to “rip and repeat” this theory to apply to the development of writing seems a worthwhile thought experiment.

    The theories Reid espouses seem to me most useful when considered as a lens for looking at the symbiotic nature of humans’ relation to technology. Obviously it seems pretty hard to know whether and to what degree writing has changed us. If we follow Reid’s example of the differences between Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals, we find ourselves focusing on different observable behaviors. Things like the dispersion of tools across wider areas, indicating the development of trading behaviors. Certainly writing has allowed us to create new behaviors that are much different than what we did before writing, but do different behaviors really equate with a difference in who we are? This is one of the questions I keep coming back to when thinking about the impact of technology on us.

    And this begins to circle back to Socrates’s concerns. The broad adoption of cell phones has made people’s lives easier in some sense, but in another sense, it has also given people permission to always be running a little late, and to be more disorganized. Technology will always promise to free us from things like the need to remember people’s phone numbers, but what we do with that freed-up capacity is up to us. More often than not, it seems in human nature to use that freedom for things like sending our friends silly youtube videos (to their smart-phones of course). Does technology change us then or does it just give us the space to change ourselves? Not recognizing the space and the opportunity or what it is (not being deliberate about our use of technology), do we just do what comes easiest to us? So although I think Socrates’ questioning of writing might seem quaint to some people, the nature of his concerns is useful and even timely.

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