An Artifact by Any Other Name: Digital Surrogates of Medieval Manuscripts
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On Artifacts In Plato’s well-known myth of Thoth from the Phaedrus, King Thamuz rejects Thoth’s claim that his invention of writing will be a boon to humanity on the grounds that it offers an invaluable supplement to human memory. On the contrary, the king counters, it will have the opposite effect: rather than extending the human mind, it will weaken it. If people no longer have to imprint within their mind the images of things they want to remember, they will diminish their memory capacity. Writing will thereby encourage amnesis, forgetting.1 Socrates takes the gloss further by arguing that writing spreads ideas indiscriminately in the world: to those with no means of understanding as well as those who might. What writing cannot do, he argues, is to provide the reader with the material presence of philosophers who can explain their words, offering glosses on each idea. Socrates does not simply react here to untutored consumption of ideas. He also objects to eliminating the physical presence of the teacher in the learning experience . For him, the philosopher must conduct a dialogue directly with the student to guide—or, in a less neutral term, “control”—learning. On this account, the authentic pedagogical experience is the one closest to the “original ” situation of the dialogue, where pupil and teacher face each other in a “live” exchange. That is where true learning occurs, he maintains, when the give-and-take of the dialogue spontaneously adapts to a living context. Gráphein—meaning to write or paint—can only be, Socrates says, a painting of the dialogue that cannot speak, or a written “echo” of it that repeats its words endlessly. Neither painting nor written discourse can spontaneously interact with the viewer/reader. It is not simply that painting and written discourse are a poor substitute for the original: they are, in his account, false and misleading. Many Platonic dialogues deal with the problem of “copy” and “original.” Perhaps in no other context, however, does Plato come closer to articulating a case for “the dynamic of authenticity.” One might say, even, that he casts the philosopher in the role of “artifact.” In any case, his arguments for “primary” as opposed to “surrogate access” make clear his scorn for the latter expediency . It also casts him as an originator of the position held by many scholars and other observers of the library world who maintain that only the primary document will do. On the issue of the one and the many, he unhesitatingly comes out on the side of the one, condemning its copies as unreliable, inadequate, or even illegible. Accessibility , preservation, and transmission concern him far less than the authenticity of the primary experience for the philosopher and his (again, the one) student. Plato has a point. The primary experience or document has always been the touchstone for authenticity. It’s hard to fault the logic of the argument. Nevertheless, we must ask ourselves if this is in fact the issue. Does it rebect reality, even that of Plato’s dialogue? It seems so self-evident that only one artifact can be the original as to beg further discussion. Yet when we come to rebect, what makes us so certain of these “truths”? How do we know Socrates’ thought on this issue? He was not even present when Plato reported it. It comes down to us, of course, through a long history of transition via multiple copies in different media and in diverse languages. To refresh my memory of the myth of Thoth, and to quote the correct paragraph numbers, I 134 ⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮ An Artifact by Any Other Name Digital Surrogates of Medieval Manuscripts Stephen G. Nichols ⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯ consulted my French Pléiade edition of Plato’s dialogues, which I had in my study, my other editions being in the oface. None of these versions exactly agrees with the others , and all differ from the Greek text. The Greek text itself has been edited from manuscripts that represent more than two millennia of transmission. We cannot begin to ascertain to what extent the manuscripts report Socrates’ or Plato’s actual words. And yet there is a general consensus that the “deanitive” Greek editions are “authentic.” Scholars agree that they represent the canonical Plato. Translations convey this tradition to a still-wider public who proats from Plato’s thought, even though, as we saw, he himself condemns writing, its broad dissemination, and thus the copies of “his thought.” Clearly, we need to rethink the...