On Writing: How to Think

At a cocktail party last Friday, some friends of ours were talking about new technology — the iPhones and the e-mails, the tweets and texts and instant messaging — and generally agreed that it’s all having some kind of deleterious effect on our ability to think.


In Ancient Greece, Socrates had similar reservations about the new technology of his own day. What was that new technology?


Socrates thought that the best way to think about any given subject was by our simply talking together, engaging in actual conversation: wisdom and knowledge came not to the individual mind in isolation, but from our bouncing ideas off one another, questioning each other, arguing, exploring each other’s minds. He saw writing as just an image of speech, like a painting of someone talking. “If you ask it a question, it preserves a solemn silence.” Writing looks like speech, but it couldn’t really talk back. It couldn’t ask you questions and answer yours. It couldn’t enter into a dialogue.

Socrates doesn’t seem to have written anything himself — of course. Most everything we know about Socrates comes from one of his students, Plato, who liked to write and who wrote a lot, much of it about Socrates.

Socrates’ fears do not seem to have been borne out by the long history of thinking in Western Civilization, but he seems to have been right about one thing: for our species, at least, thinking in any practical sense is something that happens in language.

We see it happen all the time in infants as they learn to talk. When my son Harry was an infant, his first word was “da-da,” but it wasn’t just his word for me; he called his mother dada, too. I explained to her — half jokingly, but only half — that dada was simply his word for everything that was good and beautiful in the world.

But then he learned a word for a different kind of excellence: “mama.” And he began to break the world up into dadas or mamas, and that’s the beginning of thinking: learning to define your terms. My undergraduate mentor, the Catholic theologian Anthony Padovano, used to speak of this moment when we first acquire speech as our greatest intellectual achievement — “and it’s all downhill from there.”

In a very real sense, then, we see in the history of how we have used language the history of thinking itself. Ancient Greeks like Socrates were all about pursuing knowledge and wisdom and gave us philosophy and the Socratic dialogue as a method for attaining knowledge. (Contemporary writer Karen Armstrong argues, however, that Socrates used the dialogue as a method not for attaining knowledge but for recognizing how little we truly know.)

And although it was another ancient Greek, Aristotle, who wrote the first book on rhetoric, it was the Ancient Romans who in the pursuit of political power perfected rhetoric as a means of persuasion.

That rhetorical model dominated writing for 1,600 years. Then in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, two writers appeared who gave us new models for nonfiction prose. In France, Michel de Montaigne gave us our modern word “essay” in the title of a collection of short prose pieces, “Essaies” (“Attempts”) in which he attempts to figure out what he really knows for certain. (Montaigne’s great motto was “que sais-je?” — what do I know?)

In England, Francis Bacon distinguished between the Roman rhetorical model, which he called “magistral” because it sat in judgment of the truth, and his own style, which he called the initiative method, which tried to show readers not what to think, but how.

In the modern genre of the “essay,” we see a little of all of these — a little of the rhetorical model, a little of Bacon’s initiative model, and a little of the writer’s own attempt to figure things out. And certainly 21st century technology is changing things yet again. Twenty years ago most of our interactions were either in person or on the phone. Now, most of our daily interactions with people are through emails or texts or tweets or chats. One ramification of this is that we’re all writing and reading more than ever before.

English is spoken by millions of people around the globe every day: how could it not be changing constantly? Until now, the written language has followed at a considerable distance, struggling slowly to catch up with the way we actually talk. With the advent of new technologies that allow us to converse in writing almost as immediately as in speech, written English is going to start changing almost as fast as the spoken tongue. The language as written in texts and tweets and chats has already begun to take the lead and influence the way we talk. Ever hear a teenager use “WTF?” in conversation?

In a recent blog about modern technology, one young wag writing under the moniker of Apt46 notes that writing has finally come around to what Socrates was after: we’re having more conversations, more repartee, more badinage, but we’re having them in writing. Apt46 suggests that if Socrates were alive today, he “would probably be a prolific email, IM, forum, Facebook, and Twitter user.”

Maybe this means we’re all going to have to become better writers. Maybe it means we are all going to become better writers, whether we want to or not.



• Jim Hale can be reached through his website at www.jimhalewriting.com.


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