|English 5011 -- Practicing Theory -- Spring 1999|
Discussion Question (for Feb. 23rd)
|In a famous passage near the end of the Phaedrus (p, 140), Socrates tells a story about Theuth and Thamus and the invention of writing. In what ways does this fable help us understand the larger discussion about writing, rhetoric, and knowledge in the Phaedrus? In what ways does Thomas Kents article ("The Production of Discourse") challenge or support the discussion of writing and rhetoric in the Phaedrus?|
Feb. 23, 1999
The fable presented in "The Phaedrus" helps us better understand the dialogue as a whole by discussing two key elements of rhetoric and writing: tools and audience. The fable illustrates other parts of the dialogue that discuss the difference between thinking one knows something and actually knowing it. For example, on page 136, Socrates and Phaedrus talk about what kind of knowledge one must have in order to be called a physician. Just because one knows how to apply drugs does not mean he can rightfully claim to be a physician.
In the fable, Thamus feels that teaching the Egyptians letters will not give them wisdom, as Theuth claims, but rather it will only convince the people that they are wise, regardless if they are or not. Teaching people the letters will not automatically teach them how to write. Thamus thinks that by teaching only the people will not have acquired only the illusion of knowledge
Thamus sees the invention of writing as the gateway to laziness. Writing becomes a tool like the calculator one uses in a math course. Each can be used as a substitute for a mental process (i.e. adding), but in order to do that, the user of the tool must first know the process behind that tool. This goes back to what was said in class last week about the importance of teaching things in a certain order. One generally learns how to add before using a calculator and, likewise, one needs to know how to generate and connect ideas before learning how to write. The tools are never meant to be substitutes for actual knowledge; they are only meant to supplement what we already know.
By teaching only the letters to the Egyptians, they become like the machines in Kents essay. These machines can be programmed to generate words and sentences, but they cannot write (307) because they are unable to think and generate ideas.
The dialogue also emphasizes the importance of knowing ones audience in order to be a successful rhetorician. A speaker must know the beliefs and values of his audience so that he can present a persuasive argument that will be effective. Kent states that the dialectic method modeled on the Platonic dialogues is intended to lead students to some truth through open-ended discussion (307). Open-ended discussions can lead to a better understanding of ones audience by allowing them to gain the input of others and thereby get a better sense of an audiences values. Also, these discussions are ultimately supposed to lead to the discovery of some new kind of knowledge. However, according to the view of Kent and Davidson, "no body of knowledge exists that can be taught" (307). This view seems to directly contradict Platos dialogue. Kent feels that the dialectic method can only be used to teach the vocabulary. He fails to see how open-ended discussion can lead students to view ideas and concepts in new ways.
By having the open-ended discussions that Kent sees as essentially useless, writers are prompted to think about ways in which to better communicate with their audience. The dialectic method, then, provides us with both a vocabulary, which allows us to speak about the writing process, and a new way of looking at things, which is a discovery of a body of knowledge.
Although the knowledge that students uncover during open-ended discussions varies, the discussions can still be used as an important communication tool. This tool, unlike that of letters, is not uniform for everyone. Open-ended discussions are capable of leading each student to a different body of knowledge, bridging the gap that the Kent and Davidson claim does not exist. These kinds of discussions can be very conducive to the writing process because they encourage writers to examine alternative ways of seeing things.
Letters and open-ended discussions are tools we use in order to become better writers, but like all tools, instruction is essential to using them properly. Both letters and the dialectic method can lead people to new bodies of knowledge, bridging the gap between us and the outside world. Letters give us a shared system that we can use to communicate more effectively with one another, and open-ended discussions give us the opportunity to see ideas and concepts in different ways. Both of these tools help us to become better writers and rhetoricians.