Is the Internet Too Platonic? Books, Electronic Media, and the Purpose of Communication

By Matthew Alexander Kent.

Published by The International Journal of the Book

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

In the Phaedrus, Socrates argues that writing is an obstacle to learning. After all, he reasons, people become lazy about memorizing knowledge and thus storing it in their minds when they perceive that knowledge is already stored in a book. Furthermore, one cannot interact with a book; it is an inanimate object. Therefore, its ability to teach or to be said to contain wisdom is quite limited. And hence, Socrates concludes, we must direct attention to the task of writing knowledge on people's souls rather than on paper.

My paper will first argue that Socrates' position on these matters would lead him to prefer electronic media (such as the Internet) over books as a method of learning. It will become clear that a Platonic view of human nature in general is both reflected and produced by a culture that immerses itself in electronic media.

Aristotle's alternative approach to the nature of human learning, and to human nature itself, will be the next topic to be considered in my paper. I will demonstrate that, as a means of communication, books are more consonant with an Aristotelian outlook on life than are electronic resources.

Finally, using the insights of Plato and others, I will show that both books and electronic media present a danger that is often overlooked: the danger that we will prefer the medium to the message. The importance of the personal presence of a teacher, the value of oral conversation in general, and the quest for objective truth are all greatly underestimated in our society.

Keywords: Philosophy, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Internet, Books, Communication

The International Journal of the Book, Volume 4, Issue 4, pp.95-100. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 801.312KB).

Dr. Matthew Alexander Kent

Visiting Professor, Philosophy Department, University of St. Thomas (Minnesota), St. Paul, Minnesota, USA

Again and again, I am amazed by the insights found in the writings of Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and their modern-day followers, among whom I count myself. Since these great philosophers simply build on the insights of common sense, their ideas are still as valid and persuasive today as ever. They simply need to be put into modern English for contemporary audiences. The St. Albert the Great Project for a New Scholastic Century (www.stalbertproject.org), which I am currently setting up, has this as one of its primary goals. I also try to engage my students' minds common-sensically through my highly interactive teaching methods, which have been extremely successful in the classrooms of Fordham University (adjunct, 2000-02), St. Mary's College of Ave Maria University (adjunct, 2002-03), and the University of St. Thomas (St. Paul, Minnesota) (where I am currently in my third year as a full-time Visiting Professor). In addition, last year I had a fellowship at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal in Mecosta, Michigan, an excellent environment for philosophical reflection and, more specifically in my case, for beginning to write a popular introduction to philosophy.

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