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On Writing and Reasoning
On Writing and Reasoning

On Writing and Reasoning

Looks like Dr. Bertonneau has written a scholarly article on the role written language plays in reasoning. So I’ll let him speak, thus saving myself from having to write a long article/essay on the claim he makes in his “What, Me Read?” series that writing and reasoning go hand in hand. Dr. Bertonneau introduces his article “Orality, Literacy and the Tradition” by saying:
I want to discuss what I take to be the basic, or the deep, justification of the traditional curriculum. By “the traditional curriculum,” I mean the Greek and Roman classics, the Bible, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and items from modern and national literatures. … But I also mean by “the traditional curriculum” the basic training in literacy that comes before any acquaintance with the classics, or with a literature of any kind.
After mentioning a few differences between cuneiform and the Syrian and Greek alphabets, Dr. Bertonneau writes:
Consider Eric Havelock’s contention in Preface to Plato (1963) and in the somewhat less familiar Origins of Western Literacy (1976) that the appearance of alphabetic writing corresponds to a revolution in thinking.
Which revolution in thinking could be described as follows:
Havelock also ascribes other intellectual transformations to the assimilation of alphabetic writing. The habits of logic and of rhetorical analysis emerge, he argues, from the exactitude of expression that writing nurtures, so that philosophy itself stems from literacy. The new type of distinctly literate thinking also de-emphasizes the egocentricity of spoken discourse, which always takes place between physically present interlocutors who are personally involved in their assertions and counter-assertions. Speech is rapid, but writing is slow and occurs in isolation from the ego-clash. As the ad hominem pronouncement, the grammatical first and second persons and copious self-justification are the staple of oratory, so then does the syllogism, condensed and rigorous, constitute the basis of the new graphically controlled type of argument. With literacy, argument can become non-personal or objective. … The very fact that a statement, once impressed on a medium, retains its character and is unchanging, influences the notion of a stable and explicable world amenable to analysis and subject to internal limits or laws. Grammar, of course, becomes thematic with writing in a way that it never can be with spoken language. There is also a quantum increase in the complexity of syntax. A mentality capable of thinking in subordinate clauses, of qualifying tentative hypotheses, is a different thing from that which rarely gets beyond simple statements, and which usually expresses itself in expostulations and sudden retractions, as we do with awkward inveterateness in speech.
Dr. Bertonneau goes on to discuss:

Sappho and Homer;

Plato’s Protagoras as a confrontation between a mind trained by literacy and therefore capable of reasoning (Socrates) and a mind pre-literate and therefore limited in scope and range (Protagoras);

some anecdotes about the Canadian woodsman in the Visitors chapter of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden as contrasts between a pensive, reflective mind that could read and write (Thoreau) and a pre-literate mind that was limited to orality (the woodsman);

the NCTE’s attack on reasoning by their attack on writing and by stress on “oral” and “visual” “communication.”

He also passes judgment on current methods:
Repeatedly and emphatically, current pedagogical theory embraces the subjectivity, the emotionality, and the argumentative relativism that are characteristic traits of oral language. “Man is the measure,” as Protagoras said. Current pedagogy describes these traits under new terms that valorize them as usefully proletarian and subversive. But the intellectual condition to which the new advocates of the oral style would consign their students is as limited now as it was before the habits of literacy prevailed over those of the acoustic-mimetic order.
To that last sentence: Amen; we live in a world of cause and effect, and there is no getting around it. But, to consign students to such a state is sad, wrong, unfair, and unjust. Students should get an education, as far as possible, that is better than ours — an education that at least prepares them for adult life and for the complex decisions they will have to make. So when students say they understand something, but just can’t put it into words — no they don’t. “Orality, Literacy and the Tradition” is a must-read.

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