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103 Edda and Saga (London, 1931), pp. 162-3. 104 Marcel Granet, La Pensee chinoise (Paris, 1934), especially pp. vii-xi, 8-55; see also Hu Shih, The Development of the Logical Method in Ancient China (Shanghai, 1922).


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103 Edda and Saga (London, 1931), pp. 162-3. 104 Marcel Granet, La Pensee chinoise (Paris, 1934), especially pp. vii-xi, 8-55; see also Hu Shih, The Development of the Logical Method in Ancient China (Shanghai, 1922).
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to one point is that it injures the tao. It takes up one point and disregards a hundred others.” 105

The social tension between the oral and literate orientations in Western

society is, of course, complemented by an intellectual one. In recent times the Enlightenment’s attack on myth as irrational superstition has often been

replaced by a regressive yearning for some modern equivalent of the unifying function of myth: “have not,” W. B. Yeats asked, “all races had their first

unity from a mythology that marries them to rock and hill?” 106

In his nostalgia for the world of myths Plato has had a long line of suc- cessors. The Rousseauist cult of the Noble Savage, for instance, paid un-

witting tribute to the strength of the homogeneity of oral culture, to the

yearning admiration of the educated for the peasant’s simple but cohesive view of life, the timelessness of his living in the present, the unanalytic spon- taneity that comes with an attitude to the world that is one of absorbed and uncritical participation, a participation in which the contradictions between

history and legend, for example, or between experience and imagination, are not felt as problems. Such, for example, is the literary tradition of the Euro-

pean peasant from Cervantes’ Sancho Panza to Tolstoy’s Platon Karataev. Both are illiterate; both are rich in proverbial lore; both are untroubled by intellectual consistency; and both represent many of the values which, it was

suggested above, are characteristic of oral culture. In these two works, Don Quixote and War and Peace, which might well be considered two of the

supreme achievements of modern Western literature, an explicit contrast is made between the oral and literate elements of the cultural tradition. Don Quixote himself goes mad by reading books; while, opposed to the peasant Karataev, stands the figure of Pierre, an urban cosmopolitan, and a great reader. Tolstoy writes of Karataev that-in this like Mencius or like Mali- nowski’s Trobrianders – he:

did not, and could not, understand the meaning of words apart from their context. Every word and every action of his was the manifestation of an activity unknown to him, which was his life. But his life, as he regarded it, had no meaning as a separate thing. It had a meaning only as part of a whole of which he was always conscious.107

Tolstoy, of course, idealizes; but conversely, even in his idealization he sug- gests one major emphasis of literate culture and one which we immediately associate with the Greeks – the stress upon the individual; Karataev does not regard “his life … as a separate thing”. There are, of course, marked differences in the life-histories of individual members of non-literate societies:

105 Cit. I. A. Richards, Mencius on the Mind (London, 1932), p. 35. 106 Autobiographies (London, 1955), p. 194. 107 Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude (New York, 1942), pp. 1078-9.





the story of Crashing Thunder differs from that of other Winnebago,108 that of Baba of Karo from other Hausa women;109 and these differences are often given public recognition by ascribing to individuals a personal tutelary or guardian spirit. But on the whole there is less individualization of personal experience in oral cultures, which tend, in Durkheim’s phrase, to be char- acterized by “mechanical solidarity” 110 – by the ties between like persons, rather than by a more complicated set of complementary relationships be- tween individuals in a variety of roles. Like Durkheim, many sociologists would relate this greater individualization of personal experience in literate societies to the effects of a more extensive division of labor. There is no single explanation; but the techniques of reading and writing are undoubtedly of very great importance. There is, first of all, the formal distinction which alphabetic culture has emphasised between the divine, the natural, and the human orders; secondly, there is the social differentiation to which the in- stitutions of literate culture give rise; third, there is the effect of professional intellectual specialization on an unprecedented scale; lastly, there is the im- mense variety of choice offered by the whole corpus of recorded literature; and from these four factors there ensues, in any individual case, the highly complex totality deriving from the selection of these literate orientations and from the series of primary groups in which the individual has also been involved.

As for personal awareness of this individualization, other factors doubtless contributed, but writing itself (especially in its simpler, more cursive forms) was of great importance. For writing, by objectifying words, and by making them and their meaning available for much more prolonged and intensive scrutiny than is possible orally, encourages private thought; the diary or the confession enables the individual to objectify his own experience, and gives him some check upon the transmutations of memory under the influences of subsequent events. And then, if the diary is later published, a wider audience can have concrete experience of the differences that exist in the histories of their fellow men from a record of a life which has been partially insulated from the assimilative process of oral transmission.

The diary is, of course, an extreme case; but Plato’s dialogues themselves are evidence of the general tendency of writing to increase the awareness of individual differences in behavior, and in the personality which lies behind them;1ll while the novel, which participates in the autobiographical and con-

108 Paul Radin, Crashing Thunder: the Autobiography of an American Indian (New York, 1926), and Primitive Man as Philosopher (New York, 1927). 109 Mary F. Smith, Baba of Karo, a Woman of the Muslim Hausa (London, 1954). 110 Emile Durkheim, The Division of Labor in Society, trans. G. Simpson (New York, 1933), p. 130. 111 In the Theaetetus, for example, emphasis is placed on the inner dialogue of the soul in which it perceives ethical ideas “by comparing within herself things past and present with the future” (186 b).





fessional direction of such writers as St. Augustus, Pepys and Rousseau, and purports to portray the inner as well as the outer life of individuals in the real world, has replaced the collective representations of myth and epic.

From the point of view of the general contrast between oral and alphabetic- ally literate culture, then, there is a certain identity between the spirit of the Platonic dialogues and of the novel 112: both kinds of writing express what is a characteristic intellectual effort of literate culture, and present the process whereby the individual makes his own more or less conscious, more or less personal selection, rejection and accommodation, among the conflicting ideas and attitudes in his culture. This general kinship between Plato and the characteristic art form of literate culture, the novel, suggests a further con- trast between oral and literate societies: in contrast to the homeostatic trans- mission of the cultural tradition among non-literate peoples, literate society leaves more to its members; less homogeneous in its cultural tradition, it gives more free play to the individual, and particularly to the intellectual, the literate specialist himself; it does so by sacrificing a single, ready-made orientation to life. And, insofar as an individual participates in the literate, as distinct from the oral, culture, such coherence as a person achieves is very largely the result of his personal selection, adjustment and elimination of items from a highly differentiated cultural repertoire; he is, of course, influenced by all the various social pressures, but they are so numerous that the pattern finally comes out as an individual one.

Much could be added by way of development and qualification on this point, as on much else that has been said above. The contrast could be ex- tended, for example, by bringing it up to date and considering later devel- opments in communication, from the invention of printing and of the power press, to that of radio, cinema and television. All these latter, it may be surmised, derive much of their effectiveness as agencies of social orientation from the fact that their media do not have the abstract and solitary quality of reading and writing, but on the contrary share something of the nature and impact of the direct personal interaction which obtains in oral cultures. It may even be that these new modes of communicating sight and sound with- out any limit of time or place will lead to a new kind of culture: less inward and individualistic than literate culture, probably, and sharing some of the relative homogeneity, though not the mutuality, of oral society.

To speculate further on such lines would be to go far beyond the purposes of this essay; and it only remains to consider briefly the consequences of the general course of the argument for the problem as it was posed at the outset in terms of the distinction between the disciplines primarily (though not ex-

112 Jaeger, Paideia (Oxford, 1944), II, 18, speaks of the dialogues and the memoirs by many members of the circle of Socrates as “new literary forms invented by the Socratic circle… to re-create the incomparable personality of the master.”





clusively) concerned in the analysis of non-literate and literate societies, that is, anthropology and sociology.

One aspect of the contrast drawn between non-literate and alphabetic cul- ture would seem to help explain one of the main modern trends in the devel-

opment of anthropology: for part of the progress which anthropology has made beyond the ethnocentrism of the 19th century surely derives from a

growing awareness of the implications of one of the matters discussed above: an awareness, that is, of the extent to which, in the culture of oral societies, non-Aristotelian models 113 are implicit in the language, the reasoning, and the kinds of connection established between the various spheres of knowledge. The problem has been approached in many ways; particularly illuminating, perhaps, in Dorothy D. Lee’s contrast between the ‘lineal’ codifications of

reality in Western culture, and the ‘non-lineal’ codifications of the Trobriand

Islanders; and there, incidentally, although Aristotle is not mentioned, his

characteristically analytic, teleological and relational thinking is recognizable in the governing attitudes that Dorothy Lee presents as the typical literate mode of thought in contrast to that of the Trobrianders.1l4 Benjamin Lee Whorf makes a similar point in his contrast of Hopi with SAE (standard average European). He sees the “mechanistic way of thinking” of Europeans as closely related to the syntax of the languages they speak, “rigidified and intensified by Aristotle and the latter’s medieval and modern followers”.115 The segmentation of nature is functionally related to grammar; Newtonian

space, time and matter, for example, are directly derived from SAE culture and language.16 He goes on to argue that “our objectified view of time is … favorable to historicity and to everything connected with the keeping of

records, while the Hopi view is unfavorable thereto.” And to this fact he links the presence of: “1. Records, diaries, bookkeeping, accounting, mathematics stimulated by ac- counting. 2. Interest in exact sequences, dating, calendars, chronology, clocks, time wages, time graphs, time as used in physics. 3. Annals, histories, the historical attitude, interest in the past, archaeology, attitudes of introjection towards past periods, e.g. classicism, romanticism.””7

113 Just as it has been argued that a proper understanding of Homer depends upon a “non-Aristotelian literary criticism” which is appropriate to oral literature: James A. Notopoulos, “Parataxis in Homer: a New Approach to Homeric Literary Criticism”, Transactions of the American Philological Association, 80 (1949), pp. 1, 6. 114 “Codifications of Reality: Lineal and Nonlineal”, in Freedom and Culture (Engle- wood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1959), pp. 105-120; see also her “Conceptual Implications of an Indian Language”, Philosophy of Science, 5 (1938), pp. 89-102. 115 “Languages and Logic”, Technological Review, 43 (1941), reprinted in Language, Thought, and Reality, Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf (New York, 1956), p. 238. 116 “The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language”, Language, Cul- ture, and Personality, Essays in Memory of Edward Sapir, ed. by Leslie Spier (Menasha, Wis., 1941), reprinted in Language, Thought, and Reality, p. 153. 117 op. cit. p. 153.


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