89. Memory and Writing

In Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus there is an interesting exchange between Theuth, the old God who invented writing, and King Thamus, the man who is critical of it: “But when it came to writing, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth…this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves” (274d). This forgetfulness within the soul that leads to external dependency and trust can, presumably, help undermine our efforts to lead an examined life.

But Rene Descartes, in the sixteenth rule of his Rules for the Direction of the Mind, writes:

“As for things which do not require the immediate attention of the mind, however necessary they may be for the conclusion, it is better to represent them by very concise symbols rather than by complete figures. It will thus be impossible for our memory to go wrong, and our mind will not be distracted by having these while it is taken up with deducing other matters” (see The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Vol. I,  translated by Cottingham, Stoothoff and Murdoch, p. 66).

This rule is quite optimistic in asserting that concise symbolic writing can prevent our memories from going wrong. Indeed, Descartes claims that “…memory is often unreliable, and in order to not to have to squander one jot of our attention on refreshing it while engaged with other thoughts, human ingenuity has given us that happy invention – the practice of writing. Relying on this aid, we shall leave absolutely nothing to memory but put down on paper whatever we have to retain”. But writing does far more than aid our memory. For working with abbreviated symbols enables one to “…intuit as many [concepts] as possible at the same time“. These simultaneous intuitions allow us to reach self-evident conclusions not based on memory. Thus we see that external written supplements are necessary if we are to reach truth through self-evidence and non-discursive deduction.

So it appears that Descartes, unlike King Thamus and perhaps Plato himself, considers writing as a means to external memory to be a boon. We should give our memories over to writing in order to reach a truth and avoid the dangers of our unreliable memories.

Who is right here? The King or Descartes? Or is there a grain of truth in both positions?

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