Literacy: The Emancipator of Knowledge from Experience

August 11, 1998

It's suspected that Heraclitus never committed his philosophy to writing because of the 'out of control' status of that medium in his era. Literacy in its modern form, based on 'stand-alone' phonetic structures, was just coming into its forte in the time of Heraclitus (see footnote). At a deeper level, what was going on at this time was the birthing of the euclidian view of space, the splitting apart of the ontogenetic space-time continuum of our experience to give forth 'Dinge an sich' ('stand-alone' things), frozen in writing, which then possessed a history and a future of their own, and whose independent 'progression' from past to future constituted the very defining of 'linear time'.

What Heraclitus was protesting in his famous statement 'The learning of many things does not teach understanding', was not the 'emancipation of knowledge from experience' but the elevating of knowledge to a point that experience became a slave to it. This child-of-our-own-child topology is a 'crazy-making' monstrosity which, like Escher's 'Waterfall' or 'Hands', gives a bizarre autonomy to 'things' of our own making, empowering 'them' to dictate to us. This appears to be the salient feature of western civilization which infuses it with dysfunction and sets it apart from the indigenous, nature- (experience-) based cultures of the world.

According to Kirk, Raven and Schofield (Cambridge-based authorities on the life and thought of Heraclitus), while ancient biographers and historians assumed that all of the presocratic philosophers had written one or more books, such conjecture appears to be no more than 'historical backfill' in the case of Heraclitus. Their alternative hypothesis and that of Hermann Diels, is that Heraclitus 'merely gave repeated utterance to a series of carefully-formulated opinions (the 'fragments'); "The surviving fragments have very much the appearance of oral pronouncements put into a concise and striking, and therefore easily memorable, form; they do not resemble extracts from a continuous written work. " ... "... the fragments we possess (and not all those in Diels-Kranz are fully authentic) were for the most part obviously framed as oral apophthegms rather than as parts of a discursive treatise; this was in keeping with Heraclitus' oracular intentions (e.g. "The lord whose oracle is in Delphi neither speaks out nor conceals, but gives a sign."). Whatever his medium, "The work had so great a reputation that from it arose disciples, those called Heracliteans."

What we are dealing with here, in the 'apophthegms' of Heraclitus (or the Oracles, Zen koans etc.) versus the concise statements of literature, are two very different geometries --- the mutually inclusive 'yin-yang' geometry of interpenetrating space-and-time as exemplified in Heraclitean apophthegms and the oral traditions of indigenous cultures, versus the mutually exclusive 'euclidian' geometry of stand-alone space and linear time, as exemplified via the explicit generalizations of 'noun'-based logic structures; ... the adjective 'generalizations' refers to the fact that the uniqueness infused by the mutual interpenetration of space-time has been removed.

What is being suggested here is that 'linear time' is the offspring of literacy, and it is a very useful 'tool' indeed if one does not become enslaved by it, but as Wittgenstein has observed, we of the western culture have become captives of our own language.

When we are thinking and speaking and experiencing naturally, we can feel the rich latency of what is about to unfold even though we are captives of the present, and we can still feel the resonances of what has just transpired and which is still settling, like river-washed sediment, on the ocean-bottom of our layering experience. In our natural, 'real-life' experience and in our oral discourse, we have simultaneous qualitative access to the unfolding future and the layered past. The medium through which this complex experiential message is conveyed to us is 'the earth', ... not the 'earth' seen in the context of elemental constituents; earth, air, fire and water, but earth seen as our living containing vessel of which we are also a part, ... a part which is simultaneously child and parent, shaped by what is around us and shaping what is around us. This is the space-time continuum of our natural experience. In this 'non-euclidian' view of reality, we see the 'things' around us, as we see ourselves, as being contained within and evolved by our ontogenetic envelope, a moving, shifting, containing current of space time flow.

This 'non-euclidian' experiential view is an 'inclusive' view in that we do not 'construct' it by mentally and mechanically specifying what it is, we simply open ourselves up to it and do our best to navigate within it. We navigate by 'repulsion and attraction'; ... i.e. we are guided by the repulsive forces of dissonance and by the attractive pull of harmony or 'co-resonance'. Of course we are both child and parent, receiver and transmitter, at the same time, rather than a passive leaf in the stream of life, so that the 'harmony' or 'dissonance' is not just 'out there'; ... we are participants in it. That is, we have the power to spawn or shape dissonance or harmony as we 'tune in' to the incoming signals (sensory perceptions) and we do so, whether we do it consciously or unconsciously. We are all capable of this mode of 'being and becoming' and if we are of the native american culture, it is our mainstay; ... calculated mechanical ways of being-and-becoming, emanating from knowledge-based rules and structured constructs are derivative 'tools' whose natural 'place' is to remain subservient to experience.

In the western culture, as Heraclitus complained, knowledge, the child of experience, is too often deified to the point that we invert what is natural and allow our experience to be ruled by mechanical, structural constructs. In this case, we do indeed 'construct' our reality, mechanically specifying 'the way things are' and forcing compliance on our children and the full social constituency. This constructed world is an 'exclusionary' world since by specifying it, we eliminate the rich presences, the subtle and unique detail which is either difficult to capture or unspecifiable. How does this happen?

Our noun-based language is formed by generalization. Instead of seeing 'things' as emergent features of the whole along with ourselves, as siamese brothers and sisters connected to us via the shared medium of space-time; ... i.e. instead of seeing 'things' as being 'fellow constituents' in the connective space-time flow, our language has us surgically extract 'things' from the flow and define them in their own right. As we extract them, they lose their uniqueness; the pebble that we pick up on the beach, uniquely situated in space-time, in becoming the word 'pebble', loses its uniqueness (a uniqueness which emerges through perceptual experience). In being liberated from its unique positioning in the common connecting vessel-medium of space-time flow, the pebble also inherits a 'history' and a 'future'. This 'history' and 'future' together give rise to a linear time axis along which any 'changes' to the pebble can be documented and recorded. What we do in language is to surgically extract a whole ensemble of 'things' from their unique positioning in the space-time flow and equip each of them with a history and a future. The handy thing about linear euclidian time is that, since it is completely independent from space, we can use the same linear scale to organize our documentation of change for any or all of these extracted 'things'.

In this manner, language and literacy engenders and sustains the pervasive sense of 'linear time' even as it destroys the uniqueness of the space-time experience.

But let's not lose track of the fact that homo sapiens are 'dually equipped' to experience an 'ontogenetic time' based reality; i.e an experiential reality based on sensory 'tuning-in' to a mutually interpenetrating space-time flow, or to imagine a 'linear time' based reality; i.e. a reality based on the 'knowledge' of independent 'things' and the structural constructs which have them move from their past into their future.

While both are great features, there is a natural hierarchy here, whereby the former is the natural mother of the latter (i.e. ontogeny is the mother of rationality). Heraclitus' bitch about what was going on in the western mediterranean back in 500 B.C. was that folks were inverting 'ends' and 'means'; i.e. 'knowledge' and 'literacy' were the means whereby we could enrich our experience, by 'mining' 'knowledge nuggets' from our experience, facsimiles of the original ontogenetic 'item', and being able to share far more widely than we had ever been able to do before. Knowledge was the means whereby we could accelerate the evolution of our understanding. Heraclitus felt that Hesiod and Pythagorus were getting lost in 'linear time' with their preoccupation with knowledge and befuddling those around them as well, so that ontogenetic experience was beginning to be shaped by knowledge rather than being served by it.

Clearly, Heraclitus had hit the nail on the head. The knowledge and literacy based inversion of ends-and-means has had us build a society based on putting exclusion ahead of inclusion, of spending people on money, of orchestrating our ontogenetic lived time by linear time, of developing knowledge through the resource of children, and so on. Western man continues to liberate the knowledge of 'things' from his own experience, creating an artificial reality for himself based on managing the 'things' he liberates, ... shades of Escher's 'Waterfall'! By this sleight of hand, western man deceives himself into believing he is master of his own experience. But what did the 'savage' Seattle say? ... "This we know: All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself."

As authors such as Jeff Gates ('The Ownership Solution') suggest, and as is obvious to folks like myself who inquire into the culture of the indigenous peoples, their philosophy is a layover to modern physics concepts of space-time, relativity, deterministic chaos and quantum mechanics, while our western ways remain rooted in an unnatural, primal dependency on the euclidian concept of the independence of space and time. As our culture persists in operating on this basis, we continue to liberate 'things', as if to let them fly about like independent stunt pilots tracing out their own past-to-future trajectories within the euclidian void, an empty container which is the home of western 'rationality'. But these knowledge-based 'things' we are liberating from their rightful and unique places in our experience are not at all 'independent' and it is not a void they fly about in, they are integral features of the time-space vessel of nature which contains and connects all. As we persist in this euclidian folly, Seattle's words echo more and more loudly, ... "Continue to contaminate your own bed, and you will one night suffocate in your own waste."

How can this most 'knowledgeable' of civilizations be signing its own death warrant?

Nature, the living, seething 'sea' within which homo sapiens swims, and which spawned and sustains us, is an ever-evolving system. Evolution is a metamorphosis of form and content wherein each part stays in resonance with the whole. For this to happen, each strand in the web of life must 'listen's to its neighbours, and whilst free to 'speak' in its turn, must sustain the local resonance so as to sustain it's evolutionary participation.

Thus, to continue to participate in this extraordinary collaboration requires an aware experiencing of the living flow which contains us and 'is' us, ... call it 'understanding' if you like. 'Knowledge' is a byproduct of our evolutionary experience, and to be mesmerized by our own byproduct is to 'lose the beat' to the ongoing dance of life.

Knowledge has been liberated from experience and made widely shareable by literacy, ... and knowledge, wisely used, can clearly serve to enrich our evolutionary experience. But the 'literalization' of western man; i.e. the unwise and unnatural elevating of knowledge over experience, constitutes an opting-out of evolution.

Like the crab who defies the rhythms of sun-moon tides, man, in blind subservience to knowledge, may soon find himself 'on the beach', a hollow shell consumed by 'friendly forces' within his own interior ecology, creatures for whom the choice of nature versus narcissist host is truly a 'no-brainer', ... who are not about to 'lose the beat'.


Upon this age that never speaks its mind,

This furtive age, this age endowed with power

To wake the moon with footsteps, fit an oar

Into the rowlocks of the wind, and find

What swims before his prow, what swirls behind---

Upon this gifted age in its dark hour,

Rains from the sky a meteoric shower

Of facts . . . they lie unquestioned, uncombined.

Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill

Is daily spun; but there exists no loom

To weave it into fabric; undefiled

Proceeds pure Science, and has her say; but still

Upon this world from the collective womb

Is spewed all day the red triumphant child.

. . .

When Man is gone and only gods remain

To stride the world, their mighty bodies hung

With golden shields, and golden curls outflung

Above their childish foreheads; when the plain

Round skull of Man is lifted and again

Abandoned by the ebbing wave, among

The sand and pebbles of the beach, ---what tongue

Will tell the marvel of the human brain?

Heavy with music once this windy shell,

Heavy with knowledge of the clustered stars;

The one-time tenant of this draughty hall

Himself, in learned pamphlet, did foretell,

After some aeons of study jarred by wars,

This toothy gourd, this head emptied of all.

from "Huntsman, What Quarry?" by Edna St. Vincent Millay

footnote on the birth of literacy:

Oswyn Murray (Balliol College, Oxford) writes about the emergence of public literacy in 'Early Greece' (Harvard University Press, 1978, 1993). The emergence began in the eighth century bc. "The question of the exact circumstances of the transmission [of the alphabet from the phoenicians to the greeks] is related to other problems. The first datable evidence for the existence of the Greek alphabet comes from pottery of the period 750 - 700, ...". "Other evidence suggests that in the period 750 - 650 writing became widespread in Greece; the earliest poets whose work was recorded in writing may well have been Hesiod and Archilochos, if not Homer. Lists of magistrates and victors go back to the same period: the Olympic victor list began in 776, the list of Athenian magistrates in 683, ..." . . . "By the fifth century it is clear that the average male Athenian citizen could read and write, the earliest evidence of which comes from around 500: ..."

"Even with this limitation [i.e. the ambiguity of what constitutes 'literacy'] it is hard to overestimate the consequences of literacy for early Greece. A famous article published by the anthropologists Goody and Watt in 1963 gives the clearest statement of this problem, both in general and in relation to Greece. The study was heavily influenced by the general approach of the 'Toronto School', the best representative of which is Harold Innis and the most notorious Marshall McLuhan: in the work of this group, communication is seen as a fundamental force in society, and changes in the mode of communication are taken as the central catalyst, altering both social and individual relations; 'the medium is the message' --- new forms of communication, widespread literacy, the dissemination of the book through printing, or television, so alter our perceptions that they replace social, economic or religious factors as the primary theoretical explanation of change in society. Goody and Watt argued that the coming of literacy to Greece is the only known pure revolution in literacy, in that it is the only occasion when the skill was transmitted alone, without either attendant written texts or enforced changes in social forms. The case of Greece thus becomes central; for it can be set up as a model against which to test the consequences of the introduction of literacy in other cultures.

In Greece, Goody and Watt claim that literacy was responsible for most of the changes in the archaic age, for the movement towards democracy, the development of logic and rational thought, scepticism, the growth of individualism and personal alienation, and the replacement of primitive mythopoeic ways of approaching the past by a critical historiography. The fundamental factor in this process was the way that literacy fixed permanently and made available to a wider audience previously fluid descriptions; the evasions and reinterpretations of the oral tradition ceased, and the resulting gap between written statement and actual experience led to the formation of a critical approach to life based on the notion of a essential rationality of all aspects of reality, public and private. Literacy indeed becomes the cause of what the German sociologist Max Weber saw as the distinguishing mark of western civilization, the 'formal rationality' of its institutions."

Perhaps the above sentence is worth repeating, i.e; " The fundamental factor in this process was the way that literacy fixed permanently and made available to a wider audience previously fluid descriptions; the evasions and reinterpretations of the oral tradition ceased, and the resulting gap between written statement and actual experience led to the formation of a critical approach to life based on the notion of a essential rationality of all aspects of reality, public and private."

What is being described here is the emancipation of knowledge from experience, the splitting apart of space and time.

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