Plato Lives:
Writing and the Western Self

I'll call it "the problem of the self," first, because it is one of the great--perhaps the great--puzzle in Western philosophy and a central issue in non-western traditions as well, and second, because it is central to my argument about the environmental problems humans face at the dawn of a new millennium. My argument here is that the prevailing Western sense of the self as an autonomous, thinking being that exists separately from the natural or physical world is really at the heart of the life-threatening environmental problems we face; further, this sense of self is related in complicated ways to literacy.

This problem of the self inevitably begins with Plato and his dialogue Phaedrus, which has for some two millennia been a central text in discussions of truth, philosophy, rhetoric, and writing. Ultimately, it is Plato's sustained interest in defining and attaining Truth (the capital "T" is intentional) that drives the Phaedrus, and my purpose here is to examine how that interest in Truth gives rise to a conception of self that, I wish to suggest, becomes the foundational conception of self in Western culture.

In the Phaedrus, the vehicle for Plato's journey to Truth is an extended discussion between Socrates and his young protégé Phaedrus ostensibly about a speech given by their colleague Lysias regarding the nature of love, though it is a wide-ranging discussion in which Socrates discusses the nature of truth and defines a "true" rhetoric.

But Plato's key move in this text was in locating truth in a metaphysical world and in conceptualizing the human self as a thinking being capable of accessing that metaphysical world through the method of dialectic. As Walter Hamilton points out in his introduction to the Phaedrus, Plato believed that "truth is to be attained by a partnership of two like-minded people . . . in the common pursuit of the beauty not of this world which is ultimately to be identified with the Form of Good, and which gives meaning and coherence to the whole of reality" (8).

With this formulation, Plato establishes two enduring binaries: the metaphysical realm as distinct from the physical world; and, more important for our purposes here, the essential human self and the physical world, which becomes the mind/body split. This human self is fundamentally an intellectual entity whose "true" or essential nature exists as separate from the physical world.

Descartes' famous line is perhaps the best-known expression of this view of the self:

The mind is what matters.

Despite challenges from alternative perspectives (think, for instance, of Emerson and the Transcendentalists), this view of the self as an autonomous thinking being separate from the physical world has become the central way of understanding the self in Western culture. And it is a way of understanding the self that, many scholars have argued, depends upon literacy--or, more specifically, on what Marshall McLuhan has called the sensual reconfiguration of communication that the technology of writing makes possible.

However, even if the claims made about the effects of literacy on human cognition are specious, literacy is central to how we exist in the world and how we understand ourselves as beings-in-the-world. As such, it has the power to reify our implicit sense of disconnection from the physical world and reinforce a dualistic view of reality that, I am suggesting, is at the root of the environmental crises humans face. Moreover, it has the power to do so in ways that can become integrated into our ways of being and thus become invisible to us, a matter I will take up next.

Go to Cyber-rape and the Invisibilty of Technology.