Plato's Chat Room

In the latter part of Plato’s Phaedrus, there is an interesting discussion about the nature of writing versus the nature of speaking. Socrates contends that for purposes of enlightening the human soul through argumentation, writing will forever be inferior to speech. Writing, he insists, is merely a chit for memory. The enlightenment of the soul requires the actual presence of at least two human beings in pursuit of higher truths through rational debate. Indeed, human encounters are prerequisite for truth finding. The gist of his argument runs like this: our souls contain dimly recalled fragments of truth, so it can only be through them we will find our way back to the ultimate truth.

Despite all of the fanciful metaphysics, Plato’s view has the support of common sense. It always aids debate to be able to quickly cross question, to interrupt the argument to ask for clarification, to agree on usages, and to establish mutual assent on key points or definitions before moving on. To conduct this process through the medium of writing is fraught with ambiguity and the chance for error – not the least of which is the likelihood that you may miss an ironic tone or a shoulder shrug, or that the speaker might sense his listener’s confusion and clarify himself.

Derrida went back to this idea in the Phaedrus, but he argued that the difficulty in getting at truth that Socrates attributed the nature of writing was in fact a magnification of the nature of language itself. For Derrida, all communicative acts are misreadings (or misprisions), and there is little chance of arriving at any final agreement on meaning. I have been thinking about Plato’s dialog lately (and not, thankfully, about Derrida). It seems to me that twittering, threaded bulletin board discussions, and Internet snark do little to enlighten understanding. Like-minded people tend to gather at Internet sites, so not much happens but the reinforcement of already-held views. When there us debate, it tends to degenerate into invective and cheap shots (not unlike what Plato and other critics of democracy predicted would happen in egalitarian societies).

My question is this: to what degree is it the inherent nature of electronic communication to defeat the goal of persuasion? Would people be so quick to ridicule opposing ideas at a dinner party? Does the disembodied, anonymous nature of the exchange inhibit intellectual humility and encourage intemperate responses? In other words, to what degree was Plato right? Is direct communication a prerequisite to influencing the human soul?


brandonlawter said…
what does plato mean in his quote, "The Gods' service is tolerable, man's intolerable"?
brandonlawter said…
what does plato's quote "The Gods' service is tolerable, man's intolerable"?

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