The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

Epistemology in the Written Age

When I was in elementary school, and after I could write, I started collecting facts. I know, right? I collected other things too, like baseball cards, but that was normal, so it’s my fact collection that my family still gives me a hard time about. I even compiled these facts into a fact book—notebook sheets of paper, staple-bound. If I had become a Ken Jennings of sorts, I think my biographer would have recounted this as sort of harbinger for later trivia fame, but alas, the book was quite fruitless.

Upon further reflection, however, I realize that my fact book produced the exact fruit that one should expect—poor memory. Instead of retaining information, I outsourced it. Instead of recollecting, I simply did the collecting.

This period in my life was my "written age." I collected and compiled bits of historical trivia that interested me. With those ideas safely stored in writing, I promptly set about forgetting them and moved on to other important endeavors.

It was much the same in the written age of world history, between 2000 BC and 1500 AD. The same features existed there: collection, compilation, ignorance. Here are a few ways that writing shaped the way writers think and live in the world.

Ideas. In oral culture, the word had been an event to experience. In literate culture, the word started to become an object to examine. Words as objects could now be collected and compiled. Ideas and information became tangible.

Before the written age, the idea of facts simply didn't exist. The idea of ideas didn't exist. Ideas were not discrete things until their ephemeral sounds could be made into discrete objects as words.

In the same way, creating a fact book only became possible when I became literate and capable of writing. Beyond that, it became a real possibility that facts themselves could be collected. Facts didn't exist as a concept prior to writing.

Memory. In oral culture, human memory had stored every important piece of knowledge. In literate culture, many pieces of knowledge were outsourced to a written record. This freed up the mind and memory to ponder additional and new ideas. This made thinking itself a pastime, not just a vital resource to serve present existence. In this way, reflection became a new source of knowing. Experience was not the only teacher in class anymore.

Similarly, my fact book outsourced the maintenance required for what I deemed "important information." As a result, I could simply forget it. (Instead, I could devote my memory to less important minutiae.)

Connected with the outsourcing of memory are two additional developments of the written age: history and distance.

History. In oral culture, the past had been subsumed in the present. In literate culture, the past was separated from the present and became a discrete thing—history.

Writing not only recorded history but also created history by creating artifacts of language and culture. In the same way, my fact book is an artifact of my history. It records history about other things in the world and is informative in that—very limited—sense. But besides its content, it is a piece of history about me also.

The Library of Alexandria embodies this idea. Those books were artifacts of their time and records of other times. But when the Library was destroyed, the past was subsumed by the present. The past no longer existed in a conscious sense, even if its effects remained. Without writing, present circumstances were used to theorize about the past and not the other way around. With writing, history can be better explained chronologically, not in reverse.

Distance. In oral culture, the self had been immersed in action and events of the natural world. In literate culture, the self began to create distance from the natural world. This psychological distance allowed the individual to turn inward for reflection. Like words, the self was distinct and could be examined and reviewed—like objects in a mirror (and still closer than they appear).

It would be hard to exaggerate the effects of writing on the human mind. Writing changed the ways we think about the world, about ourselves, and about ourselves in the world.

Your mom taught you well