Speaking of the Written Word: Socrates’ Critique of Writing in Plato’s Phaedrus

  • Jenna Yuzwa


In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates is fundamentally concerned with how a philosopher should utilize the art of writing. One concern he raises is that such an activity will atrophy people’s memories. This claim draws parallels with our increasing dependence on modern technology, which similarly threatens to impede our cognitive abilities. Socrates also asserts that it is not possible to pass on true knowledge via writing, but only through spoken discourse. Furthermore, written words lack the capacity to respond to or choose their reader in the way that a philosopher can with their interlocutor. Socrates’ suggestion to be selective when choosing one’s interlocutor initially appears to contradict his belief that philosophy should be practised inclusively. However, his assertion is not contradictory nor is it hypocritical. Instead, Socrates is remarking that spoken discourse is shaped by those who engage in it. Interlocutors can actively interact with each other and refine their arguments through the progression of the dialectic, in the way that a written text is simply unable to. In my argument, I will connect my analysis of the critique of writing to the way in which one progresses through academia today, that is, through writing.