Philosophy and written culture

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In this article, philosophy will be analysed as a custom within literary society. It will be argued that philosophy in its written form serves as one of the elements that supports and underpins literary society, but simultaneously serves as a source from which pitfalls can be addressed, such as fundamentalism and dogmatism. In support of this thesis, the mediating role that philosophy played during the transition from oral to literate culture, as well as the critique it still retained from the side of orality towards literacy, will be considered.

A short survey of the structure of oral culture will be provided, focusing on the manner in which the voice plays a dominant role in the public domain. A reconstruction of juridical processes, as described by Michael Gagarin, will serve as an example to illustrate the domination of rhetoric in oral society. This will be followed by an explanation of the manner in which the phonetic alphabet system in ancient Greece developed to support and later supplement the voice as the authoritative force, such as written laws, religious books etc. This particular phonetic system was designed to appropriate the element of sound into its structure, thereby automatically legitimising itself through the very medium that it would eventually replace as the most legitimate discursive practice. This gradual process in which the authority of one sense is challenged by another, in this case sound by sight, not only in the body of a single person, but also on a societal level, is referred to by Stiegler as organology. This term enables us to consider the ideas emerging from a society not as abstractions, but in relation to the embodied practices that accompany the conception of these ideas. It also assists attempts to uncover the process that leads from one dominating discursive practice to another. As the examples of the development from oral to literate society shows, a changing of the practices through which knowledge is acquired does not occur spontaneously, but demands a gradual legitimisation.

A philosophical text that will be of value in my examination of these matters was written by Plato, perhaps the first true master of philosophy in its written form, and a student of the last great Greek oral philosopher, Socrates. In this text, the Phaedrus, Socrates explains how the words of the philosophers are transformed into music to become harmonious with the cosmos, emphasising the importance of sound in philosophy. Additionally, Socrates delivers his famous critique against writing, expressing concerns over its stagnant nature. But other than remaining contented with his master’s rejection of writing, the matter of Plato’s writing down of the words of Socrates words will be considered, as carrying forward and reconfiguring the structure of philosophy through the medium of writing. Does Plato merely fall prey to the problems identified by Socrates? It will be argued that Plato tries to overcome the problems identified by Socrates.

The famous interpretation of the Phaedrus by Derrida will be of importance in considering philosophy as a pharmakon (medication in the sense of an anti-venom – which is also a venom without its counterpart). The myth of Theuth retold by Plato, in which the gift of writing becomes a curse because it replaces living memory (anamnesis) with dead, externalised memory (hypomnesis), will be central in coming to grips with Plato’s own use of writing. Plato’s text will be considered as, firstly: an anti-venom against the dangers of orality, namely falling prey to persuasive rhetoric that the sophists were famous for, and secondly: an anti-venom against the dangers of writing, such as dogmatism and forgetfulness, by retaining Socrates’ critique against writing.

After problematising writing in this manner, writing will be regarded as an originary act (arche-writing in Derrida’s terms) that does not merely remain faithful to its origin, but interprets through the act of writing. Plato is a good student of Socrates because he departs from the master in the very act of writing; in other words, in this act he thinks for himself. Similarly, reading is also an originary act in which the reader is transformed. However, reading is not a passive event, but rather an activity that requires all the powers of the mind to participate, to interpret. Roland Barthes’s notion of the death of the author contributes to my argument the notion of a text as that which does not belong more to the author than to the reader. The departure of the author is a sign of respect towards the reader, an expectation to interpret and discuss. In this way only, not through the mere act of preservation, can a text be kept alive and have an impact.

The final part of the article will carry the themes of the Phaedrus over to the contemporary literary context that faces its own set of challenges. The modern university as a supplement to the ideology of the state and the instrumentalisation of knowledge will be problematised. Barthes points to the pleasure of reading as a counteractive individuation, forming an invisible network (society of the friends of the text). Their pleasure in reading is their own, not determined by “relevant” and “actual” outcomes specified by the state. This enables them to explore alternative possibilities of understanding reality. In closing, a brief critique will be given of what is considered to be a too individualistic approach that Barthes suggests as alternative to the homogeneous interpretation of texts, focusing rather on free discussion of texts within and outside the realm of the university. Here, the philosophical, as opposed to philosophy as discipline, enters the picture. The philosophical requires a free and spontaneous discussion and interaction about the meaning of texts, and provides a platform for a type of thinking that invites others outside to participate. In this reciprocal movement between text and discussion, philosophy finds its place as mediator. The importance of philosophy in the literate culture is that it creates and maintains a dynamism in interpretation without which literacy would be unable to function properly.

Keywords: alphabetic writing; authorship; madness; orality; organology; pharmakon; philosophy; sound

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Filosofie en die skrifkultuur

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