Socrates Was Against Writing (2011)


110 points | by simonebrunozzi 136 days ago


  • BucketSort 136 days ago

    He was against writing... in 370 BC. Although, having seen the blank faces of students in lecture halls mindlessly taking notes, I know there's some truth to it. When a good professor lectures, there's a lot of information expressed as pace, stress, and so on. It's like when I read Shakespeare's plays for the first time and thought the world was really crazy to put such high value on seemingly nonsensical words, but then I saw an actor speak them and the performance added the additional emotional overtones which decoded how the words were meant to be understood. That extra layer on top of words is surprisingly neglected.

    • roenxi 136 days ago

      The central dynamic when someone is lecturing is that there is some sort of audience learning from the lecture. Hopefully willingly :)

      Listening to a lecturer is very helpful if the listener already has a fair grasp of a topic and uses it as an opportunity to critique and refine their own opinions. I've been to lots of lectures in my time and I found it very counterintuitive that I got more out of lectures when I already had a deep understanding of the topic. They are much better used to figure out what a smart person's perspective is rather than for picking up facts (better done from a reference manual or other book).

      I might have a bias towards technical lectures with a few equations on the board, but most students in a lecture hall that I've seen don't understand the subject well enough to get much out of the lecture. It becomes more a process of reading the slides to them rather than anything that a lecturer is needed for. There will be three types of students in the hall, in order of best to worst performance; not taking notes because they already understand the topic; taking notes to aid them in private study, and not taking notes because although they don't understand the lecture they also don't know how to use notes in private study later on.

      • cgriswald 136 days ago

        I take notes because it’s part of my process. It’s like thinking out loud without bothering the people around me. If I’m new to the topic it helps me absorb it (even if I’ve come having already read up on the topic). If I’m not it helps me absorb the lecturers ideas/opinions. I’m writing down my points of agreement/disagreement or things to research or things I want to prove or disprove, or a wild tangent, or a possible connection to another topic... etc

        • jacobolus 136 days ago

          > [Lectures] are much better used to figure out what a smart person's perspective is rather than for picking up facts

          This is why college courses assign readings....

          • hyperpallium 136 days ago

            Even skimming the subject matter for 5 minutes beforehand helps you get more out of the lecture, by preloading the basics (structure and terminology).

            I try to understand during the lecture (there's little to revise where I succeed). I can do this while taking notes.

            In the past, I'd take semantic notes, based on my understanding, flagging keys, as an aide de memoire to trigger my memory rather than be it. But now I try to follow the precise words, in case there's some nuance missing from my understanding.

          • alexanderdmitri 136 days ago

            The lectures I best remember are the ones I took notes in. Every now and then again, I like to flip through old notebooks and the feel of those moments come back, the general atmosphere created by the professor, the subject, the feel of the class, the turning of the season, that visceral sense of having been alive in another time and space and I'm very glad to have left a record.

            • cryptica 136 days ago

              It's possible that information which a person reads doesn't synthesise as well with other ideas and information once it's in the mind.

              When you discuss something complex with a teacher in an interactive way, the teacher can probe for subtle gaps in your knowledge to make your understanding more complete.

              With reading, you build a foundation of knowledge with many gaps and you just hope that they will consolidate over time but the foundation is weaker and so you can't synthesise that knowledge as well until those gaps are closed off through random learning events.

              It requires a more flexible kind of intelligence and a modest personality to be able to constantly keep adjusting your old knowledge.

              • marcosdumay 135 days ago

                That's why you go to the lecture at all. But if you didn't read about the subject, your knowledge is all a gap, and you get no benefit from interacting with the teacher.

              • flukus 136 days ago

                > He was against writing... in 370 BC

                This is key, we've made some progress in punctuation since his day, probably since Shakespears too. The greeks were experimenting with full stops but others like spaces in words ( ) came much later. We still can't encode emotions in textual information well but we have other methods to convey important concepts, we can make them stand out or have a list of bullet points, these weren't available to Socrates.

                I wonder how he'd feel about audio books.

                • empath75 135 days ago

                  Probably about the same as reading because the argument was that interactive dialogue was the important thing.

                  • JetSpiegel 135 days ago

                    > We still can't encode emotions in textual information well

                    Emojis? The interrobang? Sarcasm?

                  • hvs 136 days ago

                    I think you hit the nail on the head that one of the most important things a good teacher does is stress the important information.

                    You can pick up a book on anything (calculus, computer science, philosophy, etc) and just due to information-density, get lost in the minutia. A good teacher stresses the important points so you can get a broader understanding. Then you can go back for the minutia when it is needed.

                    • watwut 136 days ago

                      The information conveyed as stress and pace, keeps you focused bit longer, but you loose focus anyway. It will be completely forgotten. That is why notes taking for me - keeps me listening instead of zoning out aaand learning from own notes later if faster then from someone elses material. Dunno why, but I think that act of writing itself helps me to learn.

                      • a_imho 136 days ago

                        In Hungarian the same word (eloadas) is used for both play and lecture.

                        • oftenwrong 135 days ago

                          It is sometimes said that the typical university lecture is way to transfer the notes of the professor to the notes of the student without passing through the mind of either party.

                        • jhbadger 136 days ago

                          What annoys me about the whole "Socrates was against writing" is the follows:

                          1) Even within the narrative, Socrates isn't "speaking". He is creating a fictional narrative set in Ancient Egypt where he believed writing originated (wrongly, but that isn't the point). 2) On a second level, Socrates didn't even write this. This is part of Plato's work. Plato was a student of Socrates, and maybe is describing something Socrates really said. Or maybe not. He may be simply giving his own opinion and attributing it to Socrates, who had a higher reputation.

                          • devnulloverflow 136 days ago

                            > He may be simply giving his own opinion and attributing it to Socrates, who had a higher reputation.

                            We'll never really know how much the human Socrates matches Plato's literary character. But the reason for that is that Socrates never did write down his teachings, whereas Plato did.

                            It would be a funny old world in which Socrates had no objection to writing, but never wrote anything, but Plato did have a an objection to writing, but wrote lots of stuff, including lies about Socrates objecting to writing.

                            But then again, this is a funny old world.

                          • slowmovintarget 136 days ago

                            Plato was bemoaning the loss of skills needed for preservation of oral tradition because of the newfangled practice of writing. Kind of like the director of Naqoykatsi using heavy special effects technology to bemoan the effects of technology on society... just, less memorably than Plato.

                            • Amezarak 135 days ago

                              Writing was not a newfangled practice in Socrates' and Plato's time. It had already been culturally commonplace (or at least as commonplace as it was then) for generations.

                            • soulofmischief 136 days ago

                              Yeah, I mean Socrates literally never wrote anything, everything we know about his beliefs is hearsay.

                              • beatgammit 136 days ago

                                Which kind of lends credence to the idea that he was against writing, no?

                                • soulofmischief 135 days ago

                                  No, not really.

                                  A -> B != B -> A. In other words, you can't draw an affirmative conclusion from a negative premise.

                                  You can say that if Socrates never wrote then we would not have any surviving texts. This is logical. But you can't turn that around and conclud that the fact that we have no surviving texts attributed to Socrates means he never wrote / was against writing. This logical proposition is not closed, there are unaccounted variables for why we may not have any texts. You can only propose the contrapositive, in that if we did have surviving texts from Socrates, it means he wrote.

                                  You could even argue that I shouldn't have said "he never wrote anything", because we just can't definitely know. I was just being brief.

                              • ofrzeta 136 days ago

                                There are also "Plato's unwritten doctrines" that supposedly "could not be explained in writing in a way that would be accessible to general readers, [so] their dissemination would lead to misunderstandings. Plato therefore supposedly limited himself to teaching the unwritten doctrines to his more advanced students in the Academy. The surviving evidence for the content of the unwritten doctrines is thought to derive from this oral teaching."


                                • dr_dshiv 136 days ago

                                  Such as, the idea that the basis of goodness is Oneness (source: Arstoxenus). Pretty esoteric. is my favourite new podcast for these histories.

                                • earthboundkid 136 days ago

                                  And literally the first thing they tell you about Socrates in Philosophy 101 is that he’s ironic. (Or at least in my class because we used Allan Bloom’s Republic which I now have mixed feelings about.)

                                  • watwut 136 days ago

                                    Does the difference matter? Everything we know about Socrates of third hand.

                                  • dr_dshiv 136 days ago

                                    Pythagoras, a hundred years earlier -- and Plato's biggest philosophical influence next to Socrates -- was also against writing. Now, we don't know why he or his followers were against writing, but here is a possibility:

                                    Pythagorean mathematics and science were developing rapidly, alongside spiritual doctrines about harmony in numbers and the cosmos. Even today, Pythagorean ideas are incredibly predictive (e.g., small integer ratios constituting consonance and dissonance). However, even then, there were limits to the ideas. For instance, a triangle with the side of 1 has a hypotenuse of the square root of 2. They may have thought there was more to learn and committing the ideas (which had spiritual meanings) to words may have created non-empirical doctrines. For instance, Pythagoras was familiar with many religious traditions and saw the role of books in creating unbreakable doctrines.

                                    If Pythagoras had committed his ideas to writing, he could have been wrong or incomplete about his knowledge. Since he didn't do this, all of his influential concepts remain completely commensurable with modern science and mathematics. That's huge. As a result, those who wish to can still take spiritual inspiration from Pythagorean ideas about cosmic harmony without violating empirical reality.

                                    • xamuel 136 days ago

                                      OP quotes Socrates in Phaedrus talking about the evils of writing. But in Phaedo (yes, a totally different dialog with almost the exact same name), we hear quite the opposite. Phaedo takes place on Socrates' deathbed so might be considered more representative of the philosopher's final opinions.

                                      "'Tell him the truth, then, Cebes,' he [Socrates] said: 'I made them [poems and a hymn], not because I wanted to compete with him [Aesop] or his verses! I knew that wouldn't be easy-but because I was trying to find out the meaning of certain dreams and fulfil a sacred duty, in case perhaps it was that kind of art they were ordering me to make. They were like this, you see: often in my past life the same dream had visited me, now in one guise, now in another, but always saying the same thing: "Socrates," it said, "make art and practise it." Now in earlier times I used to assume that the dream was urging and telling me to do exactly what I was doing: as people shout encouragement to runners, so the dream was telling me to do the very thing that I was doing, to make art, since philosophy is a very high art form, and that was what I was making. But now that the trial was over and the festival of the god was preventing my death, I thought that in case it was art in the popular sense that the dream was commanding me to make, I ought not to disobey it, but should make it; as it was safer not to go off before I'd fulfilled a sacred duty, by making verses and thus obeying the dream.'"

                                      • sdrothrock 136 days ago

                                        > Phaedo takes place on Socrates' deathbed so might be considered more representative of the philosopher's final opinions.

                                        One distinction that I do want to make (that was made to me as an undergrad studying both Classics and Philosophy) is that we do want to remember that Phaedo is essentially third-hand information. It is written by Plato based on his understanding and editing of conversations he had with students of Socrates.

                                        My professors always made this very clear and stressed that while it is common to consider things in the Platonic dialogues as Socratic canon, they were not, in fact, written by Socrates at all or in his immediate time period; as I recall, they were written a few decades after his death.

                                        • coldtea 136 days ago

                                          It's not really relevant what Socrate's actual cannon was.

                                          The philosophic Socrates is what Plato made.

                                          A few others (Xenophon etc) also wrote of Socrates, but the philosopher Socrates is 99% Plato's writings.

                                          It's like the question of whether X or Y was the real Shakespeare.

                                          Even if so, the only thing we care about Shakespeare is his plays, and those don't change if the real name of the person who wrote them was another (Borges makes that point somewhere, iirc -- actually Shakespeare himself makes it too: "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet").

                                          "Socrates" people read / care about for 2 millennia -> what Plato wrote.

                                          "Shakespeare" people read / watch / care about for several centuries -> the plays and poems themselves

                                      • wisty 135 days ago

                                        Before writing was commonplace, students would memorise works like the Odyssey and Iliad.

                                        Before calculators, students would memorise times tables.

                                        Before Google, students would need to learn about the world.

                                        Before Siri, students would need to learn how to write well enough for Google to interpret their questions.

                                        A few more iterations and no-one will need to think, we can just be shipped around in mobility scooters like in Wall-E. If a machine can make better decisions, why should we even have the right to decide anything?

                                        Sure, that's an extreme position, but this is partly where the concern over writing came from - as new ways of processing, storing, and exchanging information arise we lose some of the old (and more human) ways.

                                        • ConfusedDog 135 days ago

                                          - "A few more iterations and no-one will need to think"

                                          I disagree. A few more iterations people would think more about how to think and improve thinking, and focus more on the root problem rather than nitty-gritty problems along the way.

                                          • xamuel 135 days ago

                                            I used to think that way until I actually read The Odyssey. I used to suffer under the delusion that all things advance like technology. Thus, I thought, surely a work like The Odyssey must be extremely primitive, as compared to novels written in the 21st century. But in actuality, The Odyssey is jam-packed with narrative twists and turns. It has recursive unreliable narrators, it presents stories out of chronological order, it's full of deep meaning in almost every line. We have NOT improved since the days when bards memorized stories. We have gotten worse.

                                            "Sons are seldom as good men as their fathers; they are generally worse, not better"--Homer, The Odyssey

                                            • SketchySeaBeast 135 days ago

                                              You do realize that the version you read isn't by any means the original, and is going to be the result of millennia of narrative drift? I'm not saying that it couldn't have been complex, but whatever you read isn't going to be how Homer told it.

                                              • xamuel 135 days ago

                                                Makes me wonder if the original was even more better :)

                                          • SketchySeaBeast 135 days ago

                                            You're not describing thinking with many of these, you're describing memorization. And I think you'll find that it's a skill to speak well enough for the speech recognition to figure out what you want, and I object to the idea that "google the right way" was a valuable skill - it was a necessity. You're just describing necessities for their time. I'm sure someone somewhere would be annoyed you don't know how to make a poultice to apply to an infected wound, or don't actively grind your own wheat. You certainly don't know how to hunt mammoth, and that would disappoint the hell outta Grug the caveman.

                                            > Before Google, students would need to learn about the world.

                                            What does that even mean? Read it in encyclopedias? Travel? If it's travel, then there's your answer - most people couldn't, and if it's encyclopedia's - how is that any better than Google?

                                            • bambax 135 days ago

                                              Learning about the world means getting out of one's bedroom (or cave, for that matter) and gain first-hand experience. No need to travel far. There's a world of difference between reading about grass and laying in an open field under the sun (or in the rain). In fact most if not all sensory stimulations cannot be experienced any other way than by direct, actual experience. Then they can be recalled via words, but not lived for the first time.

                                              • SketchySeaBeast 135 days ago

                                                I somehow doubt that the mundane experiences of life are being erased by Google.

                                          • motohagiography 135 days ago

                                            No surprise he thought mere book-learning was inferior.

                                            "Real knowledge, Socrates said, can only be gathered via dialog: a give and take of questions and answers where ideas are interrogated until the knowledge is truly understood. But with a book, that cannot be done unless one has access to the author."

                                            What I have finally been able to articulate for myself is that education is not information, it is the effect of a relationship and practice.

                                            When you isolate information in the dynamic, it describes how ostensibly educated people can be starkly ignorant of facts, and how autodidacts aren't reliable no matter what truths they might be in possession of. The internet gives us unlimited information, with only some means to practice it if you code, and it simulates relationships that do not materially exist. It is making us stupid in a way we can't readily appreciate, which is perhaps what being stupid itself means.

                                            The perspective doesn't matter much other than to give some mental respite from the nonsense of echo chambers and social hall of mirrors most people seem to be preoccupied with, but then again, that is the comfort philosophy was meant to provide, so YMMV.

                                            • ken 135 days ago

                                              I absolutely see the primary effect. As a modern example, people who use GPS all the time don't seem to know where anything is.

                                              Unfortunately, I almost never see the secondary effect. With all the time people save from using computers, we're not doing all the things we complained we didn't have time for. We're just able to waste more of it, in new ways.

                                              • winchling 135 days ago

                                                We don't know what Socrates said because it wasn't written down.

                                                He relied on his followers to improve on his ideas and transmit those improved versions, and perhaps they did. However knowledge does get lost (e.g. how to read Cretan Hieroglyphics). It's good to insure against that.

                                                There are advantages to live discussion but it doesn't preclude making occasional records in the form of books. Why not do both?

                                                Contra the article, books do contain knowledge. It's knowledge in the form of 'know that' rather than 'know how to'. Yet if we could somehow obtain science textbooks from the future, we could use those books to recreate advances in knowledge in a much shorter space of time, i.e. we could bridge the gap to know-how. So books do have value beyond entertainment and recording historical facts.

                                                • ken 135 days ago

                                                  > In other words, if a child grew up alone with a Kindle containing all of the books in the Library of Congress, could he gain the same kind of knowledge which a normal person gains via social interaction? Or more pragmatically, could you understand the true, intended and complete meaning of the words you are now reading if we didn’t share the same knowledge?

                                                  Even if you understand the words completely, in every field there's a distinction between "yeah that's the proper way the book says to do it" and "this is what we do in real life".

                                                  For example, my car's owner manual says you should let the engine idle for 5 minutes after driving to let it cool down, and my state driver's manual says I need to do an inspection (all lights, etc) before each drive -- but come on.

                                                  • mc32 136 days ago

                                                    He wasn’t completely wrong. When we read what others have written we give them our own interpretation —which of course is unavoidable, but it lacks context and the “here and now” of the speech or conversation. The simplest example is the need for emoticons and tags to express figurative and emotional aspects in the writing. But there is no give and take or asides, exploration and further explanation, etc as happens in face-to-face discourse.

                                                    However, those are small drawbacks and are overwhelmed by the benefits.

                                                    • mannykannot 136 days ago

                                                      Reasonably well-written dialog needs neither emoticons nor tags -- really! ;)

                                                      • onemoresoop 136 days ago

                                                        It is still missing context. And even if you are given some context with it, it is very likely that some of it being missing or got lost.

                                                        • mannykannot 135 days ago

                                                          To the extent that is an issue, it is an issue with language, not the medium. Verbal communication is more likely to be misunderstood, which is one of the reasons why, when it matters, we want to "get it in writing." Anyone finding it "very likely" that whatever they write will be substantively misunderstood could improve their style.

                                                          Furthermore, the existence of the problem does not mean emoticons and tags are necessary for its solution. The existence of a rich literature prior to their introduction strongly suggests they are not.

                                                          • mc32 135 days ago

                                                            Wanting things in writing is tangential. It has to do with proof. We still argue over legislation, so “in writing” isn’t more illuminating. What writing (basically time shifting) can’t do is be in the moment and give you the ability to diverge and learn on the fly.

                                                            Now conversations aren’t perfect either, it’s up to us to direct and ask questions when we seek better understanding. However writing doesn’t give us that ability. On the other hand with writing, given our laziness in forming thought, we can ponder and distill thoughts till they are worthy of committing to record. Speech can also be well thought out and meticulous though (ex. Vidal vs Buckley), so it’s not confined to writing, but we are more used to it in writing because debating is not prominent whereas writing is.

                                                            • mannykannot 135 days ago

                                                              This has moved on quite a bit from the proposition that emoticons and tags are necessary.

                                                              Just because written language can be argued over, that does not make spoken and written communication equivalent in that regard.

                                                              Writing does far more than just time-shifting. Handling complexity is one important benefit. Disseminating information accurately is another.

                                                              Debating is not prominent partly because it is not efficient (even in law, the amount of verbal debate is dwarfed by the amount of written communication, which is necessary in its own right as well as necessary to support what verbal debate does happen.)

                                                              The modern world is inconceivable without near-universal literacy, and it seems very odd to have to defend that point on HN.

                                                              • mc32 135 days ago

                                                                Emoticons were never a position. They served as support of a claim.

                                                                More importantly the claim wasn’t that Socrates was absolutely right, it was that he had a legit point when he argued that there are inferior aspects. I however acknowledge these drawbacks are dwarfed by the benefits conferred by writing. So yes writing is great, no doubt, but it does lose something while gaining us a lot more in return.

                                                                Never the less, I admire his steadfast refusal to write even while acknowledging we are poorer for not having his thoughts first hand. Yet, he nor anyone else owed or owes it to us.

                                                    • spodek 135 days ago

                                                      I'm against writing too when the first sentence includes an affectation like "wait for it":

                                                      > ... an excerpt from The Phaedrus, a dialog between Socrates and someone named — wait for it — Phaedrus...

                                                      • i_am_proteus 136 days ago

                                                        This is straight out of The Seventh Function of Language, by Laurent Binet.

                                                        The only reason we know that Socrates was against writing is because Plato (et al.) wrote those thoughts down.

                                                        • inflatableDodo 136 days ago

                                                          Alternatively, given Plato knew damn well what he was writing down, it is one of the earliest surviving examples of a postmodern joke.

                                                          Also, the dialog is not against writing, it merely states that dialog is superior for presenting and exploring ideas or knowing what someone is about.

                                                          It also says that writing is something you can do as a pastime in later years, but it is not the serious pursuit of one's life, which I also suspect is Plato commenting upon himself from the text.

                                                          • toss1 135 days ago

                                                            Like any tool, it is all in how you use it.

                                                            The map is not the territory.

                                                            Even Socrates was recognizing this, that you couldn't really know the topic of a writing without having been there, done that, yet writing could help recall.

                                                            And there are plenty of examples of 'book knowlege' being essentially ignorance, e.g., passing a certification exam is a far cry from being able to reliably sort out the issues in the field. So, we must not expect to rely on writing (& other media) exclusively.

                                                            That said, (good & valid) writing and other forms of stored information can of course both before encountering a situation to truly learn it more quickly, and afterwards to help recall detail.

                                                            Similarly, GPS can be used as a crutch to allow people to get anywhere without developing even so much as a clue as which direction is North, or can be used to enhance the precision and speed of expert navigators.

                                                            So, even though the Map is not the Territory, that does not mean that maps are useless, only that they need to be used properly, and with mindfulness of how you curate your own knowledge and skills.

                                                            • ukj 135 days ago

                                                              There is an interesting question to ask here. Do you learn more effectively by reading or by interacting?

                                                              My bias is towards the latter.

                                                              Real-time communication offers an opportunity for error detection/error correction in transmission, thus - better understanding. This mechanism is lost with written text.

                                                              • Causality1 136 days ago

                                                                >"they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality."

                                                                What a fantastically prescient depiction of social media.

                                                                • EGreg 136 days ago

                                                                  Just like in every generation, we are skeptical about the latest technology destroying the old ways, and haven’t yet come to appreciate the new possibilities.

                                                                  “Don’t quote from Wikipedia”

                                                                  “The telephone is going to destroy face to face communication”

                                                                  And now, in my generation, kids hardly know how to read cursive, write and spell (by hand). The art of 19th and 20th century rhetoric and wordplay is dead. But, maybe we didn’t really need it? Many people are typing more than ever and debating economics and stuff, with SMH and TLDR and their emoji game is strong.

                                                                  • chmod775 136 days ago

                                                                    > “The telephone is going to destroy face to face communication”

                                                                    Well, I don't think this quote had the internet in mind, but in hindsight it was pretty prophetic for where we are at right now.

                                                                    • heavenlyblue 135 days ago

                                                                      >> The art of 19th and 20th century rhetoric and wordplay is dead.

                                                                      What are you on about? With YouTube/Instagram/Snapchat the rhetoric is even more valuable because whatever you say on record is going to be multiplied another million times.

                                                                      In the 19th and 20th century the chance was that whatever you said would never reach anybody past you closest friends and family.

                                                                      • EGreg 135 days ago

                                                                        That’s completely different. People didn’t joke around to make it available for millions of people on replay. They did it for fun!

                                                                        Today we get fun from watching porn and speaking in quick bursts amid our increasingly hectic lives. The apps you mentioned just feed us entertainment like the TV did back in the day, and send endless notifications. Most people’s speech isn’t like it was 100 years ago because back then that’s how they entertained themselves back then. For the same reason people don’t play piano as much.

                                                                      • chapium 136 days ago

                                                                        Seriously though, dont quote from wikipedia.

                                                                        • beatgammit 136 days ago

                                                                          Why? I quote from Wikipedia quite a bit with a link to the article, which has links from the original sources. I don't see why quoting from Wikipedia is any worse than any other tertiary source.

                                                                          I understand not using it for academic research (just link the original sources), but for online discussion, it's quite nice.

                                                                          • chapium 135 days ago

                                                                            I meant for academic purposes.

                                                                      • exBarrelSpoiler 136 days ago

                                                                        Julian Jaynes didn't even think that Socrates had a unicameral mind, so it's not as if he was operating with the same psychology as modern man:



                                                                        • handedness 136 days ago

                                                                          It's far more likely that Socrates operated with a psychology that would be recognizable to modern man (inasmuch as human psychology can differ wildly across societies and eras) than it is that Julian Jaynes's theory of bicameralism was anywhere close to correct.

                                                                        • Karto 136 days ago

                                                                          Reminds me of a friend of mine who's a lot into horses. She once told me "We say that books about horses and riding can only teach you the things that you already know."

                                                                          • tunesmith 136 days ago

                                                                            What is it that is so special about dialog? I understand its interactive value, in that you can ask enough clarifying questions to fully understand someone else's point of view or argument. And that having questions asked of you can lead you to further challenge and refine your own point of view and argument. But that can all also be done with other communication modalities. Is there something else about dialog that is uniquely valuable with respect to developing knowledge and wisdom?

                                                                            • HHest 135 days ago

                                                                              Which of the "other communication modalities" do you have in mind? Because I do not see how writing can reproduce this "interactive value".

                                                                              Of course, the writer can try to anticipate questions and capture as many facets as possible, but the more comprehensively one does that---for example by covering both elementary and complex queries from all possible audiences---the more likely that one ends up with a mess of an essay that few would want to plod through.

                                                                              In addition, the readers, having no chance to pose questions, often ends up having to make a judgement call about the validity of the argument based on the limited case presented in the writing.

                                                                              Note: a dialog conducted via the written words does not really count, because interaction is still there, albeit less immediate than a direct exchange. And in such cases, the people who read the written record of this dialog would not get so much out of it as the two original participants, again due to the lack of interaction.

                                                                              • wasdfff 133 days ago

                                                                                Take writing an email to a professor vs going to office hours. You might write your question, hit send, then get the vaguest reply or one that doesn’t cover all the details that you need to understand the issue.

                                                                                If you go to office hours, the professor right there will ask if you understand what they are going on about. They read your body language and see your glazed over expression and go into more detail or try and explain in another way. By the time you leave you are far more likely to know your answer and more.

                                                                                My job now is a research position that is pretty collaborative, and being able to have face to face discussions with my co workers is a huge boon for my own understanding. I think if I were to work remote or communicate via slack I would loose so much understanding for the sake of working in sweatpants on my futon.

                                                                                • dredmorbius 136 days ago

                                                                                  What is the sound of one hand clapping?

                                                                                  • Sandman 136 days ago

                                                                                    A student came to his master.

                                                                                    "Great master" he said "You are wise and know many things. But tell me this: What is the sound of one hand clapping?"

                                                                                    The master slapped him.

                                                                                    At that moment, the student attained enlightenment.

                                                                                    • tunesmith 136 days ago

                                                                                      On the one hand, that's a response given to indicate there is no valuable answer to be found. On the other hand, there is no sound of one hand clapping, which could indicate you believe there is no value to dialog. I'm afraid I have no idea what your point is.

                                                                                      • mjburgess 136 days ago

                                                                                        Learning is a social process. It requires more than one person.

                                                                                        What you are doing alone is maybe "silently pondering" but it is just, at best, a tidying up of what you have gained socially.

                                                                                        The kind of thinking we manage to internalise and perform individually is an impoverished kind, and lacks the ability to do a lot for us.

                                                                                        All psychological growth is therapeutic, requiring a therapist (educator, coach, peer, friend, ...) to serve as a foil to push you past the cycles of your current safe state.

                                                                                        • dredmorbius 135 days ago

                                                                                          There've been many attempts to replace teaching with transmission, including not only most technological mechanisms for education (software and computer based), but films, filmstrips, audiotapes and records, and of course, books.

                                                                                          It's not just the student who's engaged in the teaching process, the teacher is too. And with small enough class sizes, or the "gold standard" of one-on-one tutoring (virtually all teaching methods are compared to this, in effectiveness, from what I've read), the teacher not only transmits information, but monitors the reception, sees how students are responding, where they're having difficulty, where they're readily grasping the information, when they're going off on false tangents. And knows how to respond to those circumstances. It's often not appropriate to say "no, that's wrong", but instead to prompt the student through the process of reasoning why a thing is wrong.

                                                                                          Socratic dialogue is one variant of this, and is in fact, almost wholly that last element: letting the student wander off into the weeds and either come to the realisation themselves, or have pointed out (and Socrates employs both methods) that this is pretty clearly ridiculous.

                                                                                          The point of dialogue, and of the clapping metaphor, is that it is extraordinarily difficult to dialogue alone. There are some tricks to this (rubber-duck debugging, say), but having another interested, intelligent, and motivated partner almost always helps.

                                                                                          The direct transmission model of education, just play a tape or teletransmit some remote lecture to satellite classwrooms, fails largely because it lacks interactivity. At best you can hope to target the lecture to some preferred band of the group, but you're going to lose those below that level, and bore those above. It's not a completely wasted effort, but it's not nearly as effective as discussion in smaller groups.

                                                                                          What you'll find with most universities that employ large lecture halls is that there is the lecture, given to 100s, possibly a thousand or more students, and the discussion section, usually lead by a TA, with 20-30 participants. In theory this splits the transmission and interaction, in practice, the sections only very partially make up for the mass medium of the lecture.

                                                                                          My own best learning experiences, regardless of topic, have come from smaller classes, typically of about 15-20 students. Even topics in which I had virtually no prior interest became fascinating with small size, good instruction, and an impassioned professor. (By contrast, several classes I'd really expected would be interesting proved highly disappointing.)

                                                                                          Books carve something of a middle ground, as do recordings where the individual has playback control. You can treat a book as a series of inquries and skip directly to the sections of interest, re-read, speed or slow the pace, annotate, etc. (Much of this is described in Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book.) With video or audio, increasing (or occasionally, decreasing) playback spead, pausing, and replaying, can give some of this capability.

                                                                                          There's also a point in learning in which there really isn't an established dogma or canon, and where the process of learning is actually a process of discovery (we call that research). Even here, without someone who's specifically expert in the field, a set of fellow-travellers, familiar or not with the route, can help in its exploration.

                                                                                          Two hands work together. One hand merely fans the air.

                                                                                      • mapcars 135 days ago

                                                                                        What is special is ton of information which goes beyond words, like how you speak, how you look, where is your attention and much much more.

                                                                                      • 00N8 136 days ago

                                                                                        I'm pretty sure Einstein didn't agree with quantum physics either.

                                                                                        Clearly you can do foundational work in a field & still go on to misunderstand its basic principles! :)

                                                                                        • marcosdumay 135 days ago

                                                                                          Funny thing that he helped creating it. His early career fame was nearly all due to saying "the evidence says X is true, therefore, let's make X true in our theories" on the face of older, important people.

                                                                                          Then, after becoming older and important people he throws something like "God doesn't play dice" into the world. Fortunately, he had very few of those moments, but makes one wonder if that kind of thing is inevitable.

                                                                                        • JoeAltmaier 135 days ago

                                                                                          This seems facetious. So, write down a dialog. Then distill that into what was learned from the dialog. Now you have written down a thorough understanding of the material.

                                                                                          No? Then the dialog wasn't enough either. One way or the other, a written account can be the best representation of an idea. Because it has all the dialog has. Even better: it can be organized and sensible, not a random walk thru the idea as a dialog often is.

                                                                                          • peter303 136 days ago

                                                                                            This essay is revived for every new technology which might seem to weaken our mental faculties. In Socrates time writing might weaken memory and rhetoric. In my lifetime it was movies, television, video games, cellphones and social media doing the same.

                                                                                            On the contrary, if used properly and moderately, new technology can strengthen our mental abilities.

                                                                                            • seventhtiger 135 days ago

                                                                                              It's not just traditionalism. It has some merit.

                                                                                              Let's use a computation metaphor. All external but easily accessible information is in the HDD. Nowadays it contains almost all human knowledge.

                                                                                              But the things that are in your mind to be retrieved instantaneously are in cache. A bigger and more utilized cache is better, but for humans it takes a lot of effort to move things into cache, and our HDDs are expanding ever larger, so now people keep their cache empty and unused.

                                                                                              Reading a poem will give you some joy and perhaps insight, but memorizing the poem will make it a part of you. It's only function is not just reciting and recalling. It makes your mind more beautiful because it has beautiful things in it. It's not about the poem. It's about you as a person.

                                                                                              Which take me to the memory palace or method of loci. It's a mnemonic device described by the Romans where you memorize information by visualizing it as a walk through a palace with many rooms and locations. I think it was more than just a mnemonic device because embedded in that metaphor is the implication that what you memorize exists physically in your mind.

                                                                                              If the ancient peoples tried to beautify and decorate their minds with beautiful knowledge, then the modern people have industrialized their minds and kept them brutally empty.

                                                                                            • peterwwillis 136 days ago

                                                                                              Really what Socrates is saying here is that the Socratic method is superior to book-learning. So even if he did say it, his reason wasn't totally unbiased.

                                                                                              There are many ways we learn things and they all have pros and cons. I can't believe someone as intelligent as Socrates would genuinely believe one shouldn't write or read to learn.

                                                                                              • rayrrr 135 days ago

                                                                                                The excerpt on Miami U's website, linked early in the article, is worth reading. A tale of Egyptian Gods and Kings...but if not for Plato's writing, we wouldn't know these days that Socrates was with King Thamus on this one back then. Or do we really know any of that? Thanks for the paradox, philosophers.

                                                                                                • 9wzYQbTYsAIc 136 days ago

                                                                                                  Best quote: “And if alive today, Socrates would probably be a prolific email, IM, forum, Facebook, and Twitter user.”

                                                                                                  • mavsman 136 days ago

                                                                                                    I disagree with this conclusion pretty strongly (not sure if it's satire or not). Though social media could be considered dialog, I think Socrates was likely talking about face to face interaction being the pinnacle of knowledge sharing: nonverbal signals, back and forth, tone, etc all being key parts of this.

                                                                                                    • wahern 136 days ago

                                                                                                      When Socrates and other ancient philosophers criticize writing, it's not because of the lack of in-person, non-verbal signals--at least, not directly. It's because they had peculiar beliefs about the origin and nature of knowledge. As alluded to in the post, in their epistemologies memory isn't just a way to recall facts, but often considered the very seat of knowledge and even reality itself. Plato takes this to an extreme with his Platonic forms, which exist and are slowly revealed as memories. Suffice it to say the contention of the anti-writing crowd was that writing as a medium conflicted with the nature and/or embodiment of knowledge. This conflation of knowledge and memory persisted up to at least Augustine.

                                                                                                      Note that not all these philosophers were anti-writing, just that you can't understand the debate without understanding the premises. Would Socrates be cool with electronic Socratic dialogue? I know enough to know that I don't know enough to be able to say one way or another. As far as I understand, Plato had different theories about knowledge and memory than Socrates, though both (in keeping with the era) emphasized their interrelationship. So we should be skeptical that Plato accurately conveys the essence of Socrates' epistemic theories.

                                                                                                      • 9wzYQbTYsAIc 136 days ago

                                                                                                        I’m guessing but based on my studies of philosophy, Socrates was more interested in the technique of asking questions than of reading nonverbal communication. In other words, he’d probably have no problems in learning from a blind person and blind people would still benefit from Socratic dialog ( )

                                                                                                      • C1sc0cat 135 days ago

                                                                                                        I think that would Herodotus I could see him as a Youtuber, Thucydides would be More like Mike Duncan

                                                                                                      • stephc_int13 135 days ago

                                                                                                        Socrates was probably also rumbling about the millennials of his time.

                                                                                                        Ah, those kids...

                                                                                                        And he was right, it is close to impossible to preserve knowledge between generations, there is always huge losses, unfortunately, but still he was wrong, obviously, because books scales much better than talk.

                                                                                                        • mapcars 135 days ago

                                                                                                          >because books scales much better than talk

                                                                                                          What scales is exactly superficial knowledge but not the wisdom, to me he was right.

                                                                                                        • kylek 136 days ago

                                                                                                          All we are is dust in the wind, dude

                                                                                                          • mannykannot 136 days ago

                                                                                                            you can't beat a good teacher for teaching, but only a fraction of what I know has come from classes -- there are whole fields that I know something about without ever having taken a class in them, and I imagine the same is for you.

                                                                                                            What happened was that good authors learned to effectively have a dialog with their readers, anticipating their readers' expanding knowledge, what they have probably overlooked, and the questions that would be puzzling them.

                                                                                                            I doubt Socrates -- or Plato, for that matter -- ever imagined an almost entirely literate society, let alone what powers that would unleash.

                                                                                                            • RocketSyntax 135 days ago

                                                                                                              Maybe he didn't know how to write well? Writing could have been really dogmatic back in the day? Maybe he thought writing took away the beauty of argumentative logic?

                                                                                                              • butchlugrod 135 days ago
                                                                                                                • RyanAF7 136 days ago

                                                                                                                  Exact reason Plato's Forms are so misunderstood and incorrectly taught.

                                                                                                                  Too many people teaching what they know as knowledge. Over time it seems to create instructional rigidity and opaque truth. But, it does provide the authority needed to continue such instruction.

                                                                                                                  Know one thing, know a million. It can't be taught only discovered.