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Socrates on the Forgetfulness That Comes with Writing

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nehal3m 12d
Hah, you can't make this stuff up.

6. Socrates on the Forgetfulness That Comes with Writing (newlearningonline.com) 33 points by indy 1 hour ago | hide | 5 comments

7. Writing by hand is still the best way to retain information (stackoverflow.blog) 329 points by TangerineDream 7 hours ago | hide | 189 comments

beefhead 12d
I like Thamus' argument against the intrinsic value of writing — shallow reminding, rather than remembering, comprises the vast majority of internet dialogue.

"You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so."

svnt 12d
Socrates seems here he is mostly expressing the frustration that he cannot entrain a book into his methods, and that their authors cannot keep pace with him in dialogue.

But that was never the point of writing. The point is to use some small fraction of sensory+cognitive function to give yourself access to a separable, durable, redundant, and location-independent form of information.

Not touched on here but in other recent books is the possible loss of sensory+cognitive function that comes with simply learning to read and write in the first place. It’s possible this is the origin of the myth of Odin sacrificing an eye to read the runes.

Archelaos 12d
When interpreting this passages one must not forget that the whole dialog is itself presented in writing. One example of the famous Socratic irony (which is ironically Platonic irony).
robg 12d
Don’t we read Plato’s writings of what Socrates said?
xchip 12d
Thanks Plato for taking the minutes of Socrates meetings.
CyanBird 12d
What a good day is to read Socrates

Thanks for sharing

stephc_int13 12d
Socrates was obviously wrong but not entirely.

I think that we tend to underestimate how much of generational knowledge is lost.

Writing can help, but not much. Most of what we know is uncommunicable with words, especially at the expert level.

galaxyLogic 12d
I think there is "Forgetfulness that comes with Programming".

When you program you are constantly doing problem-solving. Having to tackle new problems every day pushes the memory of the solutions you came up in previous days out of your brain. There is just not enough room in the brain.

But writing down the code helps to rediscover your earlier discoveries if you take time to document your code. Still it may be difficult to figure out where such old code and documentation is stored.

EGreg 12d
Kids these days, with their writing and their abjads and alphabets… rotting their brains LOL. And they think I am corrupting the youth!

I don’t think Socrates really existed btw. He was likely a rhetorical device of Plato and Aristophanes, similar to Sherlock Holmes of Arthur Conan Doyle. And both authors say the same of their main character:

“He was the wisest, and the best, man I have ever known!”

achrono 12d
What puzzles me is Socrates refers to listening to an oak (tree) or even a stone, but dismisses the possibility of the same from a painting.

What does he even mean by listening to an oak? To my 21st c. ears, it is much more sensible to talk of listening to a text as if the author were really here, howsoever remote the text or the author be, than listening to a stone.

psychphysic 12d
I have to write reports for work.

And once that report is written I struggle to remember anything about the case.

Put that report in front of me and seemingly without reading it I can recall it in detail that amazes me.

I do think there is a psychological archiving effect from writing. And that in the right circumstances it can help remember as well as declutter your mind.

Mind you I have no evidence for any of this other than personal experience.

jamesgill 12d
The supreme irony, of course, being that Socrates never wrote anything down and we only know of him because his student Plato (and others) did write things down.

And Socrates’ views on writing weren’t unique to him; many of that era felt the same. Socrates was a man of his time in this respect.

fedeb95 12d
Ironically, Plato wrote them down.
sixstringtheory 12d
> [writing] will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing

This is another really important point. Socrates believed in the dialectic, where you are engaged with your teacher and can ask questions and test your assumptions and get feedback.

Just reading the material doesn’t afford that opportunity. You can’t ask a dead author of a book questions and get answers back.

That’s why it’s nice to be provided solutions to solve problems in STEM texts. Interactive technology like with modern MOOCs help provide more sophisticated feedback. But still nothing comes close to having access to an actual professor like during office hours.

aap_ 12d
> Pp. 551-552 in Compete Works, edited by J. M. Cooper

Sigh. This is not how you cite Plato. Stephanus pagination exists for a reason.

barbariangrunge 12d
One point he’s making, that many people miss, is that there was a time when people learned to memorize large bodies of information for ready recall. Note the oral traditions of indigenous peoples, the exam system in historical east Asia, or even the way western schools used rote learning until recently.

Socrates is partially lamenting the expected loss of this super ability. And he was right: it is rare to memorize things reliably now since we have so much reference material

I think he underestimated how many ever-changing programming apis we would need to “learn” today — otherwise he might have more sympathy for the use of reference material

mozball 12d
The article and comments focus on writing and forgetfulness. But IMO Socrates also makes a second deeper point - about writing (and reading) and the illusion of knowledge.

> SOCRATES: You know, Phaedrus, writing shares a strange feature with painting. The offsprings of painting stand there as if they are alive, but if anyone asks them anything, they remain most solemnly silent. The same is true of written words. You’d think they were speaking as if they had some understanding, but if you question anything that has been said because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever. When it has once been written down, every discourse roams about everywhere, reaching indiscriminately those with understanding no less than those who have no business with it, and it doesn’t know to whom it should speak and to whom it should not.

An eloquent writer or speaker may give the reader or listener the mistaken impression about the depth of his knowledge or of the validity of his assertions. But we can't know for sure unless those ideas are challenged in debate or in experimentation.

Similarly, someone who reads a book or two on C++ may come away with the mistaken impression that they know everything necessary to program well in it. Likewise, a person who reads Newton's works may think he has the requisite knowledge to be a scientist like Newton. Or that by reading all the great works on philosophy one can become a philosopher on par with the great philosophers.

Such thinking ignores all the hours and years of dedication and experience needed to attain true knowledge and understanding of a subject. Its starts out with reflecting on the problem of interest and coming up with solutions and then applying those solutions. When those ideas are inevitably challenged by ignored or unforeseen sub-problems - One must focus on and address each of those sub-problems. And so on and so forth in a feedback loop of continuous reflection , application and refinement. Lot of that context is lost when transferring the final end report into writing (or any other medium). As philosopher Alfred Korzybski remarked, "the map is not the territory" and "the word is not the thing".

When reading Socrates criticism of writing, what's scary is not about how laughably wrong he was in hindsight. But that (as history has proven) even though the advantages of writing far outweigh the disadvantages, it still doesn't invalidate his original criticism which still stands today.

beeforpork 12d
Zettelkasten is the opposite and usually considered genius. :-)
PedroBatista 12d
I'm no cultured man, but I write not to remember but to forget.
rramadass 12d
Nice passage, relevant excerpts (with my comments);

>one man can give birth to the elements of an art, but only another can judge how they can benefit or harm those who will use them. And now, since you are the father of writing, your affection for it has made you describe its effects as the opposite of what they really are.

Definition of "Peer Review".

>introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own

Writing is an aide to Understanding which you still have to work at.

>You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding;

Exactly right.

>you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing.

This is so true in the Modern World where there is lots of information being created and consumed but few people understand what they have Read and/or Written.

>And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.”

Is he describing HN ?

sowhybother 12d
'But hey, that we forget is such useful.'

> um "To be honest, i for my part for shure didn't know what the heck i had forgotten at all"

'For sure, that's the good thing..."

(-;