‘Who taught the use of the pen – taught man that what he did not know.’
(The Qur’an, 96: 4-5)
Why is the pen more than anything else the instrument of the dangerous freethinker? Plato, in his dialogue Phaedrus, set the tone for the complicated relation to the written word that has determined much of the intellectual history of the cultural traditions that have been decisively influenced by the Greeks: the West and Islamic culture. The transmission and development of ideas grew incomparably after the invention of writing, but writing is colored by the hue of mediation. The author, whose words, thoughts and ideas the text contains, is absent from it once the text has been published, or even merely written. Plato tells the story of the invention of writing in a myth. The Egyptian god Theuth showed his invention to king Thamus, as a way to help people store their knowledge and to learn. But the king was not impressed. In his opinion, writing things down would only make people’s memory lazy and, what is more, a text is never unambiguously clear, it always needs the help of its author to bring across what the author wanted to say or defend it against criticism. Plato sums up the problem with the written word by saying that it does not speak when asked something, it remains silent. A text is not a dialogue. The only use of a text is as entertainment or as a reminder of things that are already known by the reader and that have been transmitted in oral, face to face, teaching. Only that kind of embodied togetherness can communicate the seeds of genuine knowing; the spectre of the direct interpersonal communication has continued to haunt the attitude towards writing. We feel that the living word, the spoken exchange, gives the transmission of knowledge a contextual immediacy and intimacy without which the content of ideas becomes abstract. The words we speak not only signify abstract ideas or meanings, they arise out of a welter or organic knowing, a dimension of feeling or pathos, that is always there and without which it becomes unclear very quickly what is being said. Language is embodied. Especially in philosophy it is often uncanny to experience the difference between reading a text by a philosopher and hearing her speak, in an interview, lecture or sound recording. ‘Oh, now I understand what she is getting at!’ – an experience we often have in such a situation. And so writing does not leave the context of the spoken word as its background. But it does blow it open like nothing else: otherwise we would probably never have listened to the interview, or lecture or recording in the first place.