Two thousand years ago, Plato wrote the collected dialogues

Two thousand years ago, Plato wrote the collected dialogues in which he presented the views of Socrates on the important issues of those times. Socrates, Plato tells us, argued that books would destroy thought. How could this be? After all, books, reading, and writing are considered to be the very essence of the educated, intellectual citizen. How could one of the foremost thinkers of civilization deny their importance?

Socrates is famous for his dialogues between teacher and student in which each questions and examines the thoughts of the other. Questioning and examination are the tools of reflection: Hear an idea, ponder it, question it, modify it, explore its limitations. When the idea is presented by a person, the audience can interrupt, ask questions, probe to get at the underlying assumptions. But the author doesn’t come along with a book, so how could the book be questioned if it couldn’t answer back? This is what bothered Socrates.

Socrates was concerned with reflective thought: the ability to think deeply about things, to question and examine every statement. He thought that reading was experiential, that it would not lead to reflection.

SOCRATES: Then anyone who leaves behind him a written manual, and likewise anyone who takes it over from him, on the supposition that such writing will provide something reliable and permanent, must be exceedingly simple-minded; he must really be ignorant of Ammon’s utterance, if he imagines that written words can do anything more than remind one who knows that which the writing is concerned with.

PHAEDRUS: Very true.

SOCRATES: You know, Phaedrus, that’s the strange thing about writing, which makes it truly analogous to painting. The painter’s products stand before us as if they were alive, but if you question them, they maintain a most majestic silence. It is the same with written words; they seem to talk to you as if they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you just the same thing forever. And once a thing is put in writing, the composition, whatever it might be, drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it; it doesn’t know how to address the right people, and not to address the wrong. And when it is ill-treated and unfairly abused it always needs its parent to come to its help, being unable to defend or help itself.

PHAEDRUS: Once again you are perfectly right.

Socrates was an intellectual, and to him thinking was reflection or nothing. He didn’t go for this experiential stuff. The worst kind of writing for people like Socrates would be novels, storytelling. A story engages the mind in an experiential mode, capturing the reader in the flow of events. All such experiential modes – music, drama, and novels – were considered to be the entertainment of the masses, not worthy of serious respect. Socrates worried that reading would be too passive, an acceptance of the thoughts of the writer without the chance to question them seriously.

In the Middle Ages, just the opposite was true. Reading was generally done aloud, often to an audience. It was an active process, so active that Susan Noakes, in her analysis of medieval reading, points out “that it had been recommended by physicians, since classical times, as a mild form of exercise, like walking.”

Moreover, Noakes observes that the characteristics of a good novel today were unheard of in earlier times: “Today, many readers take as the hallmark of the good novel the way it propels them to read it continuously, without putting it down, from beginning to end. Readers of many late medieval books would have been forced, on the other hand, to read dis- continuously, stopping to puzzle over the relationship between complement and text.” (The term complement refers to the dialogue provided through the illustrations and marginal comments – illuminations and glosses – sometimes put in by the author, sometimes by the copyist, sometimes by other readers.)

During the Middle Ages, readers were taught the rules of rhetoric and were implored to employ them with each sentence: mnemonics, to memorize and learn the material; allegory, to find the multiple levels of meaning hidden beneath the literal text; typology, to think in historical parallels. No text was thought to be complete without mental elaboration in the mind of the individual reader or debates within the social group that might be listening to the read-aloud text.

Readers in the latter part of the Middle Ages did with books exactly what Socrates had claimed was impossible: They questioned and debated each idea. True, the author wasn’t around, but in many ways that made the job more challenging, more interesting. Read a sentence, question it. Read a page, criticize it. No authors to object. No authors to refute your arguments with the force of their rhetoric. Readers were free to develop their own objections and opinions without interference from meddling authors. Today we may have regressed to match the fears of Socrates: We read too quickly, without questioning or debating the thoughts of the author. But the fault does not lie with the book, the fault lies with the reader.

Cognitive artifacts are tools, cognitive tools. But how they interact with the mind and what results they deliver depend upon how they are used. A book is a cognitive tool only for those who know how to read, but even then, what kind of tool it is depends upon how the reader employs it. A book cannot serve reflective thought unless the reader knows how to reason, to reflect upon the material.

From Things that Make Us Smart: Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine by Donald A. Norman.

via peerlibrary

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