The truth of the claim that writing can help thinking has long been impugned. Consider Plato’s Phaedrus. Socrates is down on writing–he thinks it is the last thing we need. For him, it is a medium through which only superficial understanding may be attained. Learning from, or through, writing generates a mere appearance of wisdom. There are three main ways in which writing tricks us. Socrates says written words can’t speak for themselves to teach the truth to others. We also err in supposing that writing will guarantee intelligibility or certainty of meaning. Worse still, writing can only provide reminders of thought, not originate it. The learning that ensues is thus shallow, temporary, and stale. People never really know things from writing, having not actually thought about them.
That is quite an indictment. What should we make of it? A hasty dismissal as mere “phonocentrism” will not do, not in times like these. It is said that all too often we don’t think enough, or even at all. In the modern world, so the story goes, we are akin to Descartes’s brutes. Does writing really kill deep and original thinking? This assertion merits scrutiny. In all this we should not spare ourselves. Philosophers, just by virtue of their vocation or trade, are not immune to the epoch in which they live. So the criticisms of writing matter, to all of us. What then to do? In my view, as is often the case, Plato provokes rather than vitiates. We might then pursue a moderate response wherein we address Plato’s concerns. This is to seek a philosophical way of writing able to accommodate the three objections put forth by Plato. These I shall call the argument, clarity, and originality objections.