When philosophers ‘give talks,’ or ‘give papers,’ that usually means one or the other of a few things: they read a paper aloud (most often), they read some and discuss some, they have a Powerpoint presentation, or they have a lengthy handout that they work through with the audience. Very rarely do they show up without any props and just say what they know — indeed, I only remember seeing it done twice, with Burton Dreben and Cornel West. Let me say right away that I don’t see anything necessarily wrong with doing any of these things. I’ve seen them done poorly and done well, meaning: I’ve learned from some of them and not from others.
But I keep thinking of a couple of passages in Plato’s dialogue, the “Phaedrus,” where Socrates relates an old Egyptian tale. A king named Thamus goes to the god Theuth, who has given people the arts of arithmetic, geometry, writing, and astronomy, etc., and Thamus asks what each is good for. When they come to to the art of writing, Theuth says it will make people wiser and improve their memories, but Thamus the king thinks otherwise:
And so it is that you, by reason of your tender regard for writing that is your offspring, have declared the very opposite of its true effect. If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows. (Hamilton & Cairns, p. 520).
The idea is that, in ‘giving a paper,’ I am only showing ‘what the paper knows.’ Of course, I wrote the paper, and so there is some sense in which the paper represents my knowledge — but it is ‘my’ knowledge as scattered over the course of a few weeks or months, on separate occasions as I pondered this part of the problem or that part. It’s knowledge I’ve never had at any single point in time — not even when I’m ‘giving the paper’ (since otherwise I wouldn’t need the paper now, would I?). The paper makes it seem as if I do have knowledge and memory; though Thamus would say it’s only the ‘conceit’ of wisdom, coupled with some reminding props.
Could it be that if I need a paper, outline, presentation, etc., then I really have not gained an understanding of the material? If so, then perhaps what I need to do is put together the paper, and then study it myself so well that I truly know it, myself, at a single time, and can rehearse it without any props or crutches. (Sounds like Descartes’s third rule of method, come to think of it.) Is this possible? Would it represent an advance in my understanding, or just some needless compulsiveness? I mean these all as genuine questions. I think it is worth some experimenting with.
A further problem is that it seems to me that when people address other people, they ought to engage in a real-time, constructive project that grows from the knowledge and interests of both speaker and audience. That is to say, it is a genuine dialogue among individuals (even if one person does most of the talking), and not a canned speech to be given irrespective of who is in the audience. Here is the way Plato puts the same concern in the dialogue:
[O]nce a thing is put in writing, the composition, whatever it may be, drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it, but equally those who have no business with it; it doesn’t know how to address the right people, and not address the wrong.
In short, pre-conceived papers and presentations are not necessarily attuned to the audience to whom they are delivered.
What would be best — according to this line of thought — would be to master a subject totally, so that one can explain it as easily as one might give directions to the nearest market, and then ‘give talks’ in such a way that everyone in the room gets involved in the common project, even if they aren’t necessarily experts. I think that’s very hard to do — but on the other hand, it seems to me a worthy goal to strive for.
(There’s an added irony here I’ll just gesture toward: here I am writing about what Plato wrote about the evils of writing. Does this post, if successful, undercut its own argument?)
Might we say that Plato did not really “write”? Plato himself says (assuming the 7th letter is authentic):
“… One statement I can make in regard to all who have written or who may write with a claim to knowledge of the subjects to which I [Plato] devote myself – no mater how they pretend to have acquired it, whether from my instruction or from others or by their own discovery. Such writers can in my opinion have no real acquaintance with the subject. I certainly have composed no work with regard to it, nor shall I ever do so in the future …”
One other, undeveloped note: pomos go nuts with this stuff. See, for instance, Derrida on how writing precedes speech (we usually think writing is derived from speech), and his play on the “forgetfullness” or “unsaid” of words (particularly written words).
As I sit here with an absurdly large pile of papers to grade, I think (as I do every year at this time) of oral exams for students. Teaching large lower division courses, I have too many students to make it work. But it would be nice to have a 30 minute conversation with each student. Have them tell you what they know.
Best exam I ever took was an oral exam. We were not given anything, just a time slot to go to his office. We expected him to grill us with questions. Instead, I sat down and he asked me “What are your questions?” I was graded on how good (deep, thoughtful, informed) my questions were.
The problem with reading written papers aloud to an audience is that they’re generally not written to be read aloud to an audience. The language is dense and ridden with nested, dependent clauses.
Come to think if it, that’s the problem with papers written to be read silently.
I am not a good writer. The only way I can write a respectable paragraph is to edit, edit, edit. Each edit requires that I read it aloud. I don’t pay enough attention to the sentences if I read silently. During the last couple edits of a manuscript to be submitted for publication I will walk around my office reading the paper to myself aloud.
As to really knowing something — perhaps one does not really know something until it is committed to memory and ruminated over. I am a decent singer. I cannot perform a song well unless I have it memorized. I perform it best when I have the song memorized so well that I can improvise on the memorized theme.
Rote memorization is definitely an important component of an education. Perhaps it is the foundation upon which good thinking can begin. Along these lines, I despise calculators like Plato despises writing.
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