THE GIFT OF THEUTH:
PLATO ON WRITING (AGAIN)
Of all the many mysteries that either entrance or infuriate the student of Plato, none puzzles or perplexes quite like the repeated condemnation of writing. The well-worn cliché that all philosophy must respond to Plato tacitly credits him with initiating 2300 years of philosophical and analytic writings; it seems almost unbearably paradoxical that such a prominent feature of his philosophy should be a castigation of the very medium he is so instrumental in promoting.
Yet the evidence is striking. Not only through the mouthpiece of Socrates in the Phaedrus but from his own stylus in the "Seventh Letter," Plato denies the legitimacy of the written word as capable of conveying knowledge in any truly significant way. The contradiction seems obvious: Why, if Plato was so set against the technology of writing, did he express this (and all the rest of the corpus of his ideas) in written form? To us, the answer seems equally obvious: If he hadn't, few of his ideas would have survived much beyond his own lifetime, their being too complex and detailed for any hope of accurate oral transmission. We must assume it was equally apparent to Plato, that, in fact, his analytic, lengthily sequential chains of reasoning could hardly have existed without writing. Certainly, Plato saw writing's value, despite his invectives. The resulting incongruity endures: Plato's work endorses at one and the same time two distinctly polar attitudes towards the written word.
This won't exactly be a newsflash for rhetoricians. The issue has been visited many times before (Burger; Connors; Ferrari; Swearingen; Derrida; Neel) . The most recent foray into this territory, Jasper Neel's Plato, Derrida, and Writing, comes to such startling and persuasive conclusions about Plato's motives that it seems almost to present itself as the last word on the subject. It will, of course, not be. For my own part, I intend, in this essay, to examine Plato's attitudes through the lens of Greek culture in a way that reanimates an engagement with the dialectical aspects of his epistemology. And, although my conclusions may share with Neel's an understanding of dialectic as a variation on the Derridean interplay of signification, we part company fairly early in our arguments. Neel says from the start that he means to attack Plato's project with regard to writing "by dismantling his text [the Phaedrus] and showing that it doesn't work" (5); I reserve judgment, a skill I learned as a rhetorician, and ultimately find in Plato's project a dynamic heuristic for the complex interplay between the written text and its cultural context.
Neel's intriguing reading of the Phaedrus is nothing if not bold. He accuses Plato of "the greatest theft of all time"(6): the attempt to steal writing once and forever from all who came after. Neel argues that Plato, by being everywhere absent from his own text yet calling all the shots from behind his curtain offstage, undermines the entire project of philosophy right from the start. He does this, says Neel, by positing truth as the goal and a deliberately crippled representation of writing as an invalid way to get to it. And he does all this, of course, in writing. Thus, says Neel, Plato is the only one who ever gets to use writing for his own purposes: "It is a brilliant rhetorical ploy: use a medium against itself so as to debase it and impede its use by all followers. That way, only you can have it in its pristine form" (28). Neel exposes Plato's scheme, however, so that he can carry out his plan to "show the most obvious way to rehabilitate [the Phaedrus], and finally expose the deceptiveness of that rehabilitation" (xi). He does this by pitting Plato's philosophical pursuit of truth against Derrida's deconstruction of the metaphysics of truth. Their continual interplay, says Neel, will be the space that composition can occupy, thus liberating it forever from its traditional status as subordinate to philosophy.
This dynamic tension between "the possibility and impossibility of truth" (203) is a compelling conceptual space for composition. Neel's appropriation of Plato's dodge for productive purposes both disposes of the Phaedrus and reestablishes it as central to our enterprise as rhetoricians. And yet the prudence born of my own engagement with Plato's dialogues over the years causes me to pause over Neel's representation of Plato's "vicious" intentions. I want to suspend suspicion a bit longer, to hold out hope that Plato was up to something less diabolical, more fertile, more intellectually above-board than Neel's characterization permits. Granted, it's not easy to maintain such naivety, given Plato's stark pronouncements about the very technology that allows us to know him. But perhaps the contradiction itself will, like the dissoi logoi (conceptual antithesis) of the Sophists, yield new insight.
First, a quick rehash of the evidence: Plato's Phaedrus, long considered a fundamental text in the history of rhetoric, features Socrates making the most damning invective against writing in the Platonic corpus. One way to suspend judgment about Plato's ambivalence towards writing--at least in this text--has been to distinguish between Socrates' pronouncements (as a character) and Plato's beliefs (as author/philosopher). Let's pursue that line of thinking for a while.
In the Phaedrus, Socrates puts the case against writing
into the mouth of Thamus, the Egyptian equivalent of Zeus. When
Thamus is presented by the god Theuth with the invention of writing,
Theuth claims it "will make the Egyptians wiser and will
improve their memories, for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom
that I have discovered." But Thamus replies,
'Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to
beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness
to their users belongs to another; and now you who are the father
of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them
a power the opposite of that which they really possess. For this
invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who
learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory.
Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which
are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own
memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory,
but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of
wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without
instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when
they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with,
since they are not wise, but only appear wise.' (140)
Socrates adds to the parable his own conviction that written words are inhuman, unresponsive to questioning, and indiscriminate as to whom they address themselves. At best, they can only "remind him who knows the matter about which they are written" (278). Walter Ong points out in Orality and Literacy that these denunciations will be recognized by the modern reader as the same ones levelled by many against computers. What with the sudden omnipresence in our contemporary consciousness of the internet, email, and the virtual reality of cyberspace, Ong's analogy is instructive because it allows us to understand in some small way the nature of the enormous change that was taking place in early Greek culture at the time of Socrates and Plato: the transition from a dominantly oral mode of transmitting knowledge to a slowly emerging literate one. It is significant that Socrates conveys his attitudes towards writing primarily in the form of a myth, traditionally an orally transmitted form of discourse often put in opposition to written history. And it is significant that the myth is about the origin of writing, making Socrates' attack on writing not just an objection to the technology but an offensive against literacy itself. Socrates, living on the cusp of Greece's oral culture as it inched tentatively toward literacy, never wrote a word.
Even with the comparison to our own cyber-revolution, it is extremely difficult for us to understand the extraordinary implications of the cultural transformation from orality to literacy in ancient Greece. Many have argued that no less than the very nature of thought was being challenged and restructured, although what has been called the "Great Divide" theory, the view that the onset of literacy creates a fundamental change in the nature of thought in a culture, has been effectively challenged (Scribner and Cole; Gough; Street ; Finnegan). Nonetheless, Eric A. Havelock argues convincingly that in the particular case of ancient Greece, monumental, if gradual, changes in thinking did occur with the onset of alphabetic literacy. Havelock contends that at the end of the fourth century B.C.E., oral communication was still the dominant mode and that society had yet only achieved what he calls a "craft literacy": Only a segment of the population (probably not the elite, he argues) could be considered competent at reading and writing, while the rest wrote minimally and read only enough to comprehend public documents and inscriptions. This would mean that, for most of the population of Athens, literacy was as enigmatic a skill as HTML coding and writing in hypertext is for many of us today (and even this is rapidly changing). With the prospect of increasingly widespread literacy, ancient Greeks were at least as suspicious of its possible implications and abuses as we are of Kubrick's HAL, Orwell's Big Brother, and the Internet Thought Police.
Greece's transition to literacy, according to Havelock, was slow,
and it augmented and transformed the traditions of oral culture
which had for centuries been instrumental in the handing down
of certain forms of cultural knowledge. Before the advent of writing,
Greek citizens' knowledge of their history, the ways of their
gods, and the attitudes, mores, and taboos of their society were
orally transmitted. This occurred not only through parent-to-child
communication and transmission within a community, but also through
the poetry of the bards, most notably Homer and Hesiod in ancient
Greece. Havelock surmises (too generally about oral cultures but
plausibly about ancient Greece) that
The only possible verbal technology available to guarantee the fixity of transmission was that of the rhythmic word organised cunningly in verbal and metrical patterns which are unique enough to retain their shape . . . . (Preface to Plato 42-3)
--in other words, in poetry.
The mnemonic device of poetry has been shown to have been used in a number of oral societies to convey the cultural knowledge and history of the people. The findings of Milman Parry, refined and conveyed by his student Alfred B. Lord in The Singer of Tales, documented among Yugoslavian oral poets the extensive use of formulas, tailored and fitted together, as both an aid to memory and a creative catalyst in re-telling the songs and stories of their tradition. Parry and Lord's "oral formulaic theory" went a long way toward solving the enigma of how such massive works as the Iliad and the Odyssey could have been orally transmitted; their work was carried on by classical scholars, who found that large portions of the Homeric epics could have been constructed by formula--standardized descriptions grouped around equally standardized themes, such as the description of the warrior's armor and the gathering of armies for battle. Much evidence suggests that the mythopoeic history of the Greek people was handed down in this manner, serving as an acculturating force for generation after generation. Rosalind Thomas, reviewing research on the Homeric epics subsequent to Parry and Lord's, concludes that "the centrality of formula in oral poetry has been much exaggerated" (41); nonetheless, she concurs that Homer was an oral poet or poets (50), that his epics are to a great extent formulaic in composition (42), and that they were regarded by the Greeks as historically true (116).
Goody and Watt argued that this kind of acculturation can be socially
self-regulating. In other words, oral tradition being mutable,
mythic history may be tailored, if necessary, by successive generations
to fit the changing conditions of the society. They cite the example,
from Laura Bohannan's work, of the Tiv of Nigeria, who argued
against the accuracy of the British administrators' written
documents of their genealogies when, in successive generations,
their oral version of those genealogies had changed to
suit their changing conditions. (Havelock comes to a similar conclusion
about Pre-Socratic writers' revisionary attitudes toward the cosmology
of Homer and Hesiod in his essay "Preliteracy and the Presocratics.")
Thus, conclude Goody and Watt, mythic history is "homeostatic":
Deities and other supernatural agencies which have
served their purpose can be quietly dropped from the contemporary
pantheon; and as the society changes, myths too are forgotten,
attributed to other personages, or transformed in their meaning.
Now, it's true that we must approach such generalizations about
oral cultures with caution. Current history of literacy scholarship
emphasizes that the character of oral cultures and the consequences
of literacy depend greatly on their particular social and economic
contexts. But from what we know about preliterate Greece, the
homeostatic qualities that Goody and Watt ascribe to "mythic
cultures" were, arguably features of Greek culture. Rosalind
Thomas, in Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece, cites
the "vast and sophisticated anthropological literature on
oral tradition" in support of this:
Everything we know about oral traditions in the modern
world suggests that they are extremely unstable unless there are
specific, formal or ritual mechanisms to preserve them accurately.
Everything we know about ancient Greece suggests that it had very
few such formal mechanisms. (109)
Psychological studies of human memory, she says, reinforce the
view that ancient Greeks would have manipulated their orally transmitted
tales; cultural, social, political and ideological values interact
dynamically in a society's collective memory to select and change
what is remembered as important. Prestigious ancestors would be
"most susceptible to manipulation" because of the status
they conferred on their aristocratic descendents; infamous ancestors
would be downplayed and eventually forgotten. Although this process
obviously cannot be documented, it can be reasonably inferred,
says Thomas, from the evidence we do have about Greek society:
The character, content, and rate of change of oral
traditions are . . . intimately related to the society transmitting
them, as they are constantly refined, honed or 'deformed' by the
beliefs, needs, and values of the society. Both oral tradition
and memory are culturally determined, and that . . .forces us
back to the specifics of Greek culture. (109)
Selective revisionism was in all likelihood a feature of the Greek oral tradition, Thomas argues, because everything we know about Greek life and character--the competitive nature of public oral performance, the lack of any formally designated bards, the absence of official control over the content of stories and myths--sets the conditions for it. Greek oral culture was probably quite mutable, and Plato and Socrates, as keen observers of human nature and society, could not have failed to notice this.
In the Phaedrus, then, Socrates' stated preference for orality over literacy could be seen as a tacit endorsement of this kind of cultural fluidity. In his Second Speech, delivered just before his mythically conveyed attack on writing, Socrates metaphorically portrays dialectic, an essentially social and oral method of dialogue between two lovers, as the only appropriate form of philosophical discourse. But we mustn't be too quick to ascribe to Socrates an affinity for all features of orality in Greek culture. For, not only does Socrates ban the poets--conveyers of the mythopoeic oral traditions--from the Republic, but he is also in stated opposition to the Sophists concerning relative moral truth. Particularly in the Gorgias, but also in many other contexts, including the Phaedrus, Socrates represents himself as the champion of absolute, transcendent truth and the enemy of the moral relativity of the Sophists. This, along with the very precise principles of dialectic he espouses after the Second Speech--clear definition of terms, precise distinction of categories--undermines any simple aligning of Socrates and "homeostatic" orality.
Socrates' case against the poets in the Republic may have
had more to do with the "spell-binding" effects of a
poetry--and rhetoric--designed to "bewitch" the psyche
than with mutability. Robert J. Connors has argued intriguingly
that Plato's opposition to poetry and the poetic rhetoric of the
Sophists was a reaction against the mind-numbing effects of poetic
rhythms and devices that were directed toward the "passive,
communally oriented, non-critical oral consciousness that ruled
the society in which [Plato] was born":
All the evidence points to the fact that [the ability
to speak persuasively] was closely related to the memoric and
poetic abilities so carefully cultivated in the oral culture and
that use of the art of speech depended on conscious or unconscious
manipulation of the orally conditioned mental states of the audience.
Thus, according to Connors, Socrates' insistence on the use of dialectic, especially in discourse with the Sophists, was designed to "subvert rhetorical magic by interrupting it with questions" (52). Mutability, from this perspective, was not so much the problem as a seductive, non-critical enchantment.
Socrates takes on the Sophists in a number of his dialogues, most notably the Gorgias and the Protagoras. In both of these, he is clearly arguing against a relativist view of morality, the Sophistic position that "man is the measure of all things." For Socrates, this form of solipsism is deceptive and dangerous. As he explains in the Phaedrus, there exists, for Socrates, a divine realm of ideal beauty, wisdom, goodness and truth somewhere in the cosmos, a place wherein all things exist in their absolute perfection. Thus, Socrates consistently opposes doxa, opinion, to episteme, knowledge. Given his continual assertion that "virtue is knowledge"--in other words that if humans understood what the true nature of good was, they would do it--it is not surprising that for Socrates, the pursuit of knowledge through dialectic was the pursuit of absolute truth and goodness, not self-regulating social values.
This puts Socrates in the peculiar position of advocating orality over literacy--by condemning writing--while at the same time denying at the very core of his teachings the desirability of some of the distinguishing characteristics of Greek oral culture. While it could be argued that Socrates would have been unaware of the contradictory implications of the two positions, certainly Plato should have "seen the writing on the wall," so to speak, by the time he is writing the Phaedrus, usually considered to be one of his last works. Was he purposely portraying his teacher as inconsistent, or does Socrates' inconsistency extend as well to Plato? Both Havelock and Ong conclude, in light of this evidence, that "Plato's relationship to orality was thoroughly ambiguous" (Ong 167), and that "his preference for oral methods was not only conservative, but illogical, since the Platonic episteme which was to supplant doxa was being nursed to birth by the literate revolution" (Havelock, Preface 56).
But I find it difficult to believe that Plato, as astute a critical and analytical mind as ever there was, would leave himself vulnerable to the charge of illogic on so essential an issue, even if he could be said to plead ignorance of all of the consequences of this unprecedented societal transition. A more scrupulous analysis seems necessary.
To this end, it would be instructive to look at what Plato-as-himself
said in regard to writing. Although many scholars see Socrates
as to some extent the mouthpiece of Plato in the dialogues (for
example, W.K.C. Guthrie, who contends that Plato certainly expounds
upon, but in the main at least gives credence to, the ideas he
has Socrates voice), others suspect that Socrates isn't always
saying what Plato means. On the issue of writing, however, there
is strong evidence that Plato did share some of the same concerns
he has Socrates espouse. In the "Seventh Letter," Plato
fairly clearly and in non-dramatic form, disavows writing as a
valid form for communicating ideas. He distinguishes five levels
of distance between the word for a thing and true understanding
of its perfect form, an argument which "stands in the way
of anyone who dares to write anything whatever on such matters:
There is then, first, the name, second, the definition, third,
the representation, and fourth, knowledge" (342); the fifth,
he says, can only be attained through a perfect grasp of the first
four. "Moreover," he writes,
owing to the inadequacy of language, these four are
as concerned to demonstrate what any particular thing is like
as to reveal its essential being; that is why no intelligent
man will ever dare to commit his thoughts to words, still less
to words that cannot be changed, as is the case with what is expressed
in written characters. [italics mine] (342-3)
In so saying, Plato would seem to be on par with Socrates' stated mistrust in the ability of the fixed text to express or reveal truth. Socrates' words in the Phaedrus echo Plato's: "He who thinks, then, that he has left behind him any art in writing, and he who receives it in the belief that anything in writing will be clear and certain, would be an utterly simple person . . ." (140). On this point at least, the two seem to be in some agreement.
Plato also indicates that he concurs with Socrates on the value of verbal competence by his depiction of Socrates as a character in the dialogues. Socrates is usually portrayed as the person most able to control and recall long trains of analytical thought; in the Gorgias, for example, he continually rehashes the points already discussed for the benefit of the other participants in the dialogue.
But verbal exchange is shown to have its limitations as well.
Even Socrates admits at times to being unable to retain the essence
of an argument through the long, speech-like answers characteristic
of the Sophists. In the Protagoras, for example, he threatens
to end the discussion and leave if Protagoras will not agree to
keep his answers short and to-the-point:
I'm a forgetful sort of man, Protagoras, and if someone
speaks at length, I lose the thread of the argument. If I were
a little deaf, you would recognize the necessity of raising your
voice if you wanted to talk to me; so now since you find me forgetful,
cut down your answers and make them shorter if I am to follow
Protagoras protests, and Alcibiades comes to Socrates' defense, guaranteeing that this is Socrates' "little joke": It is not that Socrates will forget; he is just ensuring that the other hearers will not lose the thread of the argument. Yet clearly Plato's point is that, in an oral exchange, it is a rare mind that can retain more than a limited number of ideas at a given time. This would seem to be at least one implicit criticism of oral communication in the dramatic context of the dialogues.
Contemplating the structure of the Protagoras reveals another implicit critique of orality. It has often been noted that the frame of the plot seems purposely to distance the actual events from the reader. Unlike most of the other dialogues, the Protagoras is narrated completely by Socrates, recounting the events of the day to an unnamed "friend." Is Plato merely boasting about Socrates' mnemonic abilities? Or is he underscoring the fact that writing is at just such a distance from the actual event, that it will always be even a further step removed from the oral telling? When we consider the fact that Socrates, in relating the story to the friend, is already one step removed from the actual event, and that Plato, in recording the narration, will then be another step removed, and that we, the readers, will be yet another step removed, we have a graphic depiction of how far from the actual reality this dialogue comes. By the time the reader gets the story it has been filtered through 1) the written word, divorced from Plato himself, 2) Plato, telling what Socrates has said, 3) Socrates, recalling the events to the "friend," and 4) the original words spoken by Protagoras and the other participants in the dialogue. Plato's rendering of the levels of distance from knowledge of a thing to its verbal form in the "Seventh Letter" is here given analogous illustration.
The Symposium, one of Plato's most provocative dialogues, uses a structural distancing similar to that of the Protagoras. In this case, the story is being recalled years after the actual event. As the dialogue begins, Appolodorus is recounting what happened "the day before yesterday" when his friend, Glaucon, had appealed to him to recount the speeches given at the banquet of Agathon. "'Phoenix, the son of Philip,'" said Glaucon, "'told another person who told me of them; his narrative was very indistinct, but he said that you know, and I wish that you would give me an account of them'" (165). Glaucon mistakenly thinks that the banquet was a recent event, but Appolodorus informs him that the event took place several years ago, and that he himself was, in fact, not there. He has heard the story from Aristodemus, who, although he was not one of the speakers, was present at the feast. Much drink was imbibed at the time, calling into further question the accuracy of the story. And on top of all that, Appolodorus is called "the madman" by Glaucon--hardly, then, is he a reliable source. Why does Plato go to all the trouble of so conspicuously obfuscating the details of the story? With so many layers of mediation and qualification, the factual accuracy of these events can't help but come into question. Is Plato's purpose, as in the Protagoras, to illustrate the distancing inherent in the written record of spoken events? Or is his aim in both of these peculiarly structured dialogues to illustrate that the recording of these events in written form will be the only salvation of the facts from what would surely be even further distortion?
This brings us right to the crux of the issue: Is Plato, in creating this structural palimpsest, making a case for or against the validity of the written text? The answer, I think, is both. And neither. The fixity of the text, even though questionable in its oral form, can only be preserved from further perversion by committing it to writing, even if in so doing, it is by nature removed from the reality of actual events. In his commitment to the truth of episteme, Plato could not condone the socially self-regulating aspects of oral transmission that had been acceptable to an earlier, mythopoeic, oral culture. Even though the kind of knowledge that the participants in the dialogues are seeking necessitates a dynamic process, the process, to be of any value to future seekers, had to be recorded in writing.
But where, then, in this recorded process, are we to find
Plato's ideas? Perhaps nowhere in the dialogues themselves, at
least not literally. But there may be a clue in the "Seventh
Letter" as to where Plato recommended his ideas be sought.
Let's return there briefly. Plato's purpose in writing this document
was supposedly in reaction to events surrounding the death of
Dion, who had been helping Plato in the education of Dionysius
II, ruler of Sicily. Dionysius II, Plato has learned, had written
a book purporting to summarize Plato's teachings, at which Plato
is appalled. He counters with this:
But this much at any rate I can affirm about any present or future
writers who pretend to knowledge of the matters with which I concern
myself, whether they claim to have been taught by me or by a third
party or to have discovered the truth for themselves; in my judgment
it is impossible that they should have any understanding of the
subject. No treatise by me concerning it exists or ever will exist.
It is not something that can be put into words like other branches
of learning; only after long partnership in a common life devoted
to this very thing does truth flash upon the soul, like a flame
kindled by a leaping spark, and once it is born there it nourishes
itself thereafter. Yet this too I know, that if there were to
be any oral or written teaching on this matter it would best come
from me, and that it is I who would feel most deeply the harm
caused by an inferior exposition. If I thought that any adequate
spoken or written account could be given to the world at large,
what more glorious life-work could I have undertaken than to put
into writing what would be of great benefit to mankind and to
bring the nature of reality to light for all to see? But I do
not think that the attempt to put these matters into words would
be to men's advantage, except to those few who can find out truth
for themselves with a little guidance. (341-2)
The irony is that Plato has left, extant, a multitude of written dialogues presumably recording, in some sense, a "written account [to] be given to the world at large." Could Plato have been so obviously dismissive of his life's work? I don't think so. I think Plato is speaking truly when he claims never to have written a treatise of his ideas, for those ideas exist only in the interplay between the poles of his dialectic.
For Plato, the dialectical methodology practiced and espoused by Socrates in the Phaedrus is much more than merely the dramatic form of his dialogues; it constitutes the very essence of his philosophy. The truth, in this philosophy, is not contained in the propositional content of the writing. It is, rather, revealed in the process, the tension, between apparent oppositions--and yes, pace Derrida and Neel, in the interplay between the search for truth and continual deferral of signification. Such a methodology needed both literacy and orality, because it needed two very different, perhaps even incompatible, cultural perspectives to play against each other in such a way as to create the spark of ineffable insight, the kind of "truth" that would "flash upon the soul." As in the Sophistic dissoi logoi, the seeming contradiction creates the epiphany.
I am not the first to note the implication that there is more
than a bit of the Sophist in Plato. Jasper Neel makes the same
observation (18) and then uses that insight to rehabilitate and
then deconstruct the Phaedrus by distinguishing sophistry
from what he calls "psophistry," Plato's fictional version
of sophistry. But the difference between Plato and the Sophists
is that Plato creates a synergistic dynamic between sophistical
dissoi logoi and logical analytics. Socrates' definition
of dialectic in the Phaedrus abstracts from spoken dialogue,
such that the usual question-and-answer method of the dialogues
is met with a new kind of dialectic. Jane V. Curran notes,
Dialectic, in the Phaedrus, . . . designates
two different, but related, practices. The first is a method of
defining the object under discussion, and involves a process of
collection-and-division, whereby genera are subdivided into species
and species are further subdivided, until the single object is
unambiguously defined. . . . [T]he second type of dialectic in
the dialogue [is] known as the Socratic dialectic. This is the
procedure by which Socrates conducts a discussion, beginning with
a hypothesis and, through the dynamic of questions and answers,
arriving at an unambiguous and true conclusion. (67-8)
Though one might argue with Curran's characterization of the end result of the Socratic dialectic, she nonetheless hints at the interdependence of the two kinds of dialectic. Socrates' explanation of the process of "division and collection" adds an analytical dimension to dialectic that further articulates the Platonic epistemology. This mode of analysis seems to characterize the emerging "literate consciousness"--at least as it developed in Greek culture--much more than that of primary orality. (Ong, in Orality and Literacy, lists a number of characteristics of primary orality, among them a tendency toward the "empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced" and the "situational rather than abstract" (36-57). Even though his generalizatons have been called into question by anthropological researchers like Gladwin [cited in Erickson], who investigated abstract, systematic navigational techniques used by non-literate Polynesians, his analysis is a plausible characterization of Greek culture.) The "division-and-collection" dialectic also, however, assumes a knowledge of the relation between a whole and its parts that, according to the Socrates' Second Speech in the Phaedrus, could only be discovered through the dynamic give-and-take between two lovers in pursuit of truth--in other words, through the Socratic dialectic. Therefore, the two aspects of dialectic complement, extend, and animate each other.
Despite its similarities to the Derridian interplay of signification, this understanding of Platonic dialectics results in a reading of the Phaedrus very dissimilar to Jasper Neel's. Neel's is primarily deconstructive; mine favors proliferation. The dialectics at work in the Phaedrus, as I see them, have more in common with Paul Ricoeur's "surplus of meaning" than with Derrida's endless deferral of signification. In his Interpretation Theory, Ricoeur advocates a dialectical methodology that exploits the complementarity between seemingly opposed perspectives. Informed by constructivist reading theory which suggests that even a seemingly static text represents a dynamic interaction between writer and reader, Ricoeur attempts to synthesize the "dynamics of discourse" with structuralist insights about the autonomy of texts and rhetorical concerns about the role of context in interpretation. The resulting dialectics are neatly analogous to those at work in the Phaedrus, both in their dynamism and in their ability to illuminate multiple discursive perspectives.
Ricoeur's first dialectic is between discourse understood as diachronic event and discourse understood as synchronic meaning (3): "If all discourse is actualized as event, all discourse is understood as meaning" (12). Both, he says, are legitimate, if theoretically distinct, perspectives on discourse. Putting them into dialectical tension with each other results in a kind of "system of checks and balances" in which neither pole is privileged, each tempers the excesses of the other, and both are understood as necessary to a full understanding of discourse.
Next are paired two theoretically opposed aspects of the meaning pole, sense and reference. Sense is immanent to the discourse as a self-contained structure, while reference points beyond the system of language to the context. In the resulting dialectic, both the endophoric properties of discourse privileged by structuralism and the exophoric properties emphasized by rhetorical hermeneutics contribute to a fully realized conception of meaning.
Ricoeur goes on to construct dialectics between semantic autonomy and reader response, in which "the right of the reader and the right of the text converge in an important struggle that generates the whole dynamic of interpretation" (32); between distanciation from private experience and appropriation of public language into meaningful new contexts; and between explanation and understanding, which he calls the "ultimate reference" of his interpretation theory. The distinguishing characteristic of Ricoeur's multi-leveled dialectic, and the reason that it is such a useful way to understand Plato's dialectic, is that it acknowledges the value of apparently contradictory perspectives, allowing each to augment, balance, and temper the other. The result is a process of continual movement between the two poles in which signification proliferates, resulting in a "surplus of meaning."
In the Phaedrus, Plato exploits a similarly multifarious dialectic, similarly arising out of seemingly opposed perspectives on discourse. At the most basic level are the two levels of dialectic we previously discussed, the Socratic dialogue between Phaedrus and Socrates, which is mirrored in the intercourse between the two souls of the Second Speech, and the division-and-collection dialectic introduced by Socrates as an analytical method. But beyond these literal dialectics is the dialectic between the dramatic form of the dialogue, which continually draws our attention to the discourse as event, and the meaning or propositional content of the dialogues, which argues for an immutable, static, synchronic Truth. This dialectic, intriguing in and of itself, generates its own dialectic out of the meaning pole, in which the sense of the dialogue, especially its disparagement of writing, is seemingly opposed to the reference to its context, a context which includes its condition as a written text in an increasingly literate culture. Metonymically, these two dialectics can be seen as representing, in the Phaedrus, the cultural dialectic between orality and literacy, a dialectic which, I would argue, is the "ultimate reference" for this dialogue.
Plato's dialectic, in its dynamic aspect, eschews stasis in favor of process, and results, therefore, in a Ricoeurian surplus of meaning that perpetuates rather than cancels out the possibilities of the text. Since no philosophical position is ever settled upon, no charge of inconsistency or contradiction can hold. The apparent contradiction between Plato's criticism of the written word and his implicit advocacy of analytical forms characteristic of the emerging literate culture in Greece turns out to be not contradictory at all. Instead, it is precisely (or rather, imprecisely) the interplay between the "oral" and "literate" cultural perspectives--between Socrates' talking and Plato's writing--that Plato illustrates and exploits; and only in the ensuing tension and continuous play between these poles can be found Plato's philosophical "position."
Ong, interpreting Havelock, is wrong--or only half-right--when
he says that "Plato's entire epistemology was unwittingly
a programmed rejection of the old, mobile, warm, personally interactive
lifeworld of oral culture" (83). Aside from its sweeping
presumptions about Greek culture, the error of this should be
evident in the very human depiction of Plato's characters and
their interaction in the dialogues. Socrates warned against the
stagnation, static dogma, and impersonality of the written word;
but Plato knew the analytical, preservative, and noetically revolutionary
possibilities of literacy. Plato wasn't against writing
or for it. He understood its power and its limitations,
as well as the power and limitations of orality. And he recognized
recorded dialectic as a methodology that could capture both the
dynamic, interactive nature of the spoken dialogue and the permanence
and complexity of the fixed text. For Plato, the technology of
the word, like the technology of the computer for us, had come
to stay. Acknowledging that reality, he sought to create a dynamic
synergy between the cultures of orality and of literacy, between
the spoken and the written word.
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