Reading, writing and forgetting

“Blessed are the forgetful: for they get the better even of their blunders.”  Nietzsche, somewhere

I often like to begin my writing with a quotation from a philosopher, and this one is particularly apt for this week’s #rhizo14 topic

 Is Books Making Us Stupid?

because I do not know where it came from, or if it really is from Nietzsche.  Usually I would assiduously track it down before using it, but this week I am not going to bother.  Google is making me stupid.

I’m tempted, by the way, just to say “no, of course books don’t make us stupid.  We make ourselves stupid, books are inanimate objects”, but I suppose I might say a bit more.

I do love Plato’s Phaedrus, and the fact that I haven’t read it for many years doesn’t stop me from referring to it regularly and telling students what I think that Plato was talking about, amusingly this week’s topic has prodded me into reading some of it: 

Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing.  Plato  Phaedrus 275d

Yeah, that fits with the general theme of this course – it’s not that we should burn all of our books, rather that we should not assume that they have all the answers. They are a starting point, they’re not gospel truth:

My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)

He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly. Wittgenstein Tractatus 6.54

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9 Responses to Reading, writing and forgetting

  1. balimaha says:

    it occurs to me that what I read somewhere about the Greeks generally preferring oral culture (did I get that right?) over written is similar to something in Islam where the prophet Muhammad didn’t want his words to be written (except for Quran) – though I think maybe his thinking behind it was that only the sacred (Quran) should be written – whereas all of man’s speech needs to be recognized as fallible. hmmm
    on another note, I wrote on my blog that I think books do speak to us differently upon re-reading depending upon what’s going on in our heads at the time… don’t they? is it just me?

  2. That’s interesting, that does sound similar.

    I agree about books chiming differently when you read them again. Also, actually, when I go back and read them they don’t say quite what I thought they said. Hmmmm….

  3. Simon Ensor says:

    Red from perch to floor.

    Parrot Live. Object breathe.
    Walls ‘n’ bars their stories hide.
    Here is flimsy wimsy done.

    Spit out spell.
    Steel the knell.
    Mortis rigor it is run.

    Should they keep our tune.
    Swansong will clip our nail.
    Ring it, tear it, heartless drum.

    Toll our rhyme
    In caged folly.
    Sleeted filter clings.

    How then will you die?

  4. Simon, that is wonderful. Thank you for this.

  5. Love that quote from Phaedrus–I’m sure I’ve read that dialogue at some point, but it’s been a long time and I’ve pretty much forgotten what goes on in it. But the quote is excellent for this topic, I think. To me it speaks about a similar thing to what Dave said in this post, namely that books (and some other media forms) don’t allow for conversation but just give you words and ideas that remain the same. You can’t discuss with them and change their minds. They don’t update very quickly. They make their arguments seem more stable than, perhaps, they should be.

    There is also something in Plato’s seventh letter about the inadequacy of writing, I think because it can’t express the deepest truths, the forms. But there, if I remember correctly (and maybe I don’t!) I think the problem was that speech and writing are unable to express anything but the appearances of the forms, and not the true forms themselves (which are not accessible by the senses). So in a way, the problem is that the words and language are not permanent and unchanging, like the forms. But I may be getting that wrong!

  6. Ah, thank you for that – I must read the seventh letter now. That is really interesting – so the words are permanent, but wrong, maybe?

  7. Pingback: Community as Curriculum: where i come from, where i am going | Reflecting Allowed

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