The intertwining of writing and mind in the West
We have reviewed the properties of script as a utensil which technically enables man to produce inscriptions that consign intelligible content. We looked at the manner the technology of script correlates with cognition, notably how the practice of script suggests novel directions to the mind. But writing at large is not reducible to script, nor to the mere act of inscribing, or to its finished products. When writing becomes habitual in the life of one or several individuals, writing becomes a technique in the way Marcel Mauss conceives it: “a set of movements, acts, generally and for most of them manual, organized and traditional, that combine towards reaching a physical, chemical or organic goal”3. To a certain extent, the technique of writing travaille, in two senses of the French word: the mind durably warps under the technique of writing like the wood of a string instrument warps over time due to the tension of the strings, and writing and man historically work together. Moving away from the technology of script as a utensil to the technique of writing, in this chapter we will discuss the implications of writing from a historical perspective; writing as a “mode of communication” that, as Goody writes, leads to a “succession of changes over time, each influencing the system of thought in specific ways”4. With Havelock and Goody, we will examine the role writing, and the characteristics of the Greek alphabet in particular, have played over time in the development of thought5, as well as subsequent technological advances like print and a generalized educational system6. Finally, we will address the criticisms that were leveled out against our author’s thesis and we will call attention to the ontological implications of these social science findings, as a step toward our upcoming phenomenological inquiry7.
the technical possibilities writing offers to thought
The technique of writing can be seen as the mind’s entrenched cognitive exploitation of the abstract character given to content as a result of inscription. But the exploitation of abstraction can happen in two distinctive ways: on the one hand, when the written is contrasted to the oral and, on the other hand, when the written is completely detached from the oral. Let us explain each way of handling abstraction.
Making novel statements thanks to the alphabet
When something is inscribed in a non-phonetic script, the process of decontextualiza-tion attains content more seriously than it is for the Greek alphabet. Indeed, a greater amount of content is not explicitly encoded due to the structural openness of non-phonetic scripts. Therefore, a greater amount of content remain implicit, and a greater room is left for equivocity and obscurity to sneak in. Reading non-phonetic scripts is not only semiotic deciphering but entails, to a certain degree, an interpretative adjunct. On the contrary, the phonetic character of the Greek alphabet makes the content it encrypts less reliant on the reader’s contribution. The characteristics of the Greek alphabet make possible the autonomy of full-fledged meaningful statements.
According to Havelock, by virtue of its phonetism, not only does the Greek alphabet minimize semantic entropy, but it fosters the emergence of novel statements. Indeed, things that are not known to have been said or written can safely be given an originary flesh as an inscription using the Greek alphabet: “the alphabet therewith made possible the production of novel or unexpected statements, previously unfamiliar and even ‘un-thought’”8. Furthermore, the capacity of the Greek alphabet to be the bearer of novel, “unexpected”9 statements is very closely linked to the emergence of novel thoughts. In that sense, the alphabet is key to the development of knowledge because: “The advance of knowledge, both human and scientific, depends upon the human ability to think about something unexpected”:. From the point of view of the inscriber, the technical contri-bution of the alphabet is double: it participates to the conditions of emergence of novel thoughts, and it makes possible the unambiguous inscription of novel statements.
Besides, Havelock highlights that the relationship between the thoughts the alphabet enables its user to develop, and the precision of the statements it is technically able to inscribe, are inseparable from presupposing an intersubjective dimension. He writes: “Such novel thought completed existence when it becomes novel statement, and a novel statement cannot realize its potential until it can be reserved for further use”;. This quote introduces intersubjectivity into the script/mind correlation we had so far. In the first part of the quote, Havelock adopts the perspective of any reader to which inscribed content is made available. Without presupposing this undefined readership, Havelock could not assert as he does that a novel thought exists fully as a novel statement. Indeed, a statement is, like a injunction or a word of advice: language that is addressed. A statement is language that happens in a world in which the potentiality of intersubjective understanding is, although impersonal, presupposed and targeted. In writing, content is thrown into a world of potential intersubjective use.
In the second part of the quote, Havelock relates potential readers with the physical persistence script grants to content. Persistence of meaning is a duty of script owes content given that, in the horizon, there is an open community of potential users. The “potential” of meaning is, for Havelock, to be found in the indefinite possibility of use that is essentially fostered by inscription. A statement is the mode of existence thought adopts when written which, in return, constitutes it as a thought per se, because transcribed statements give potential readers the possibility to relive thoughts and to motivate new ones32.
We see that, again, the technical features of the alphabet and the workings of the mind are intertwined: new thoughts are, to a certain extent, provoked by script that, in return, ensures their physical persistence as inscribed statements. The cultural impli-cations of the interweaving between the mind and the Greek alphabet, as a technology made technique, has made possible no less than the emergence of logics, science, philos-ophy, literature as the edifices, made of thought and text, that we know of and to which literates westerners participated:
The power of novel statement is not restricted to the arrangement of scientific observation. It covers the gamut of the human experience. There were new inventive ways of speaking about human life, and therefore of thinking about it, which became slowly possible for man only when they became inscribed and preservable and extendable in the alphabetic literatures of Europe33.
Written signs as universal abstractions
We have seen that the phonetism of the Greek alphabet abstracts content from context and, in doing so, its structural properties introduce an analytical tenor to written linguistic elements. It was the phonetic precision of the Greek alphabet that, paired with the abstraction of script, led to analytical achievements. Furthermore, the power of abstraction inherent to script also makes possible the deciphering of content regardless of the phonetics. When the technology is mastered by a group of people at a given time or over generations, i.e. when acts of writing are intended towards the horizon of intersubjective understanding, the written can also be used as a symbolic set of shapes that functions independently of orality. Therefore, writing creates a domain of universal understanding precisely because it is detached from the oral.
This property of writing as a communal technique is seen by Goody as decisive to the existence of mathematics:
Mathematics is international because its language is independent of pho-netic systems; its concepts are inter-cultural because they are not phrased in a particular vernacular. And it is the existence of a notation far removed from speech that makes possible mathematical thinking and mathematical oper-ations. Whatever relationship exists between the structure of mathematical systems and the structure of the human brain, the invention of a notation is clearly a prerequisite for the kind of highly abstract, decontextualised and arbitrary procedures that are typically represented by the formula34.
Mathematics is thus possible thanks to a specific use of script as a “notation” to inscribe “formulas” instead of simple sentences or statements. The formula has vocation to be “international” because the internal properties of the script it is inscribed in make it available to the most indefinite horizon of humanity.
Table of contents :
The question of writing (p. 3) — Outline (p. 4) — Theoretic pitfalls (p. 5)
Part I empirical implications of writing & mind interactions
Introduction to part 3 (p. 7)
Chapter 3 – The properties of script
3.3 the cognitive influence of script
To inscribe is to formalize (p. 9) — On the nature of written knowledge (p. 😉 —Reflexive thinking raises from confrontation with inscription (p. 32)
3.4 the specificities of the greek alphabet
The ideal writing system according to Havelock (p. 33) — Consonants signs are an abstraction (p. 35)
Chapter 4 – The intertwining of writing and mind in the West
4.3 the technical possibilities writing offers to thought 3: Making novel statements thanks to the alphabet (p. 3:) — Written signs as universal abstractions (p. 42)
4.4 generalized instruction of the writing system
What literacy is (p. 43) — Western thought has become naive of how much technically it owes to the intertwining of mind with the technology of writing (p. 44)
4.5 the criticisms of ong, havelock and goody’s thesis Three objections (p. 46) — Theoretical standpoint in the current dissertation concerning Havelock et al.’s hypothesis (p. 47)
Part II husserl’s take on the social world & writing
Introduction to part 4 (p. 49)
Chapter 5 – The social world according to Husserl 4;
5.3 the subject in his environment
Thematizing the personalist attitude (p. 52) — The subject’s environment (p. 53)
5.4 the world of persons
The community and its collective environment (p. 55) — The personalization of the ego (p. 56)
5.5 the collectivity of persons in communication 59
The world of communication (p. 59) — Sociality and spirituality (p. 5;)
Chapter 6 – Husserl on the functions of inscription
6.3 the constitution of ideal scientific objects
On ideal scientific objects (p. 66) — The function of language (p. 68) — Writing and intersubjective-objectivity (p. 6:)
6.4 writing and historicity 6;
Passivity and reactivation of originary meaning (p. 72) — The historical function of the writing and reading geometer (p. 74)
Part III the presence of writings
Introduction to part 5 (p. 79)
Chapter 7 – Writing and the new level of communalization 7;
7.3 communalization and unity for husserl 7;
The organic cycle of intentional life (p. 82) — The unity of the person (p. 83) —
The unity of personalities of a higher order (p. 89)
7.4 the spiritual presence of writings
The two modes for aiming at writings (p. 94) — The paradigm of the scientific community (p. 95) — The unity of literates (p. 97)
Chapter 8 – Writing and the idea of humanity 9;
8.3 the literate bystander :2 The choice of equivocity (p. :2) — The spectacle of crisis (p. :5) — The textualist attitude (p. :7)
8.4 the spiritless presence of writings :: The literate vagabond (p. ::) — The division of literates (p. ;4)
8.5 rebirth in presence of writings
The phenomenal distinction between passive and active intentional lives (p. ;8) —
The responsibility of literates (p. ;:) — The graphic ethic (p. ;;)
Contributions and perspectives (p. 325) — Responses to possible objections (p. 328)