Olson 1994

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Demythologizing Literacy

assumptions about literacy:

  1. "writing is the transcription of speech" (3)
  2. "the superiority of writing to speech" (3)
  3. "the technological superiority of the alphabetic writing system" (4)
  4. "literacy as the organ of social progress" (5)
  5. "literacy as an instrument of cultural and scientific development" (6)
  6. "literacy as an instrument of cognitive development" (7)

debunks each

"What is required is a theory or set of theories of just how literacy relates to language, mind and culture. No such theory currently exists perhaps because the concepts of both ltieracy and thinking are too general and too vague to bear such theoretical burdens." (13)

overviews earlier theories: Weber, Levy-Bruhl; Toronto School of McLuhan, Havelock, Innis

failure of earlier theories: focus on ways of writing (form of the script); Olson focuses on ways of reading -- problems of interpretation rise from what texts fail to represent; wants to show "how our understanding of the world, that is our science, and our understanding of ourselves, that is, our psychology, are by-products of our ways of interpreting and creating written texts, of living in a world on paper" (19)

Theories of Literacy and Mind: From Levy-Bruhl to Scribner and Cole

Scribner and Cole, The Psychology of Literacy (1981); laid to rest arguments of Toronto School by showing no cognitive effects from introduction of script into a society

we're all cognitively the same; can't map Piagetian development of children onto cultures (21-2)

Levy-Bruhl: "traditional thought had difficulty managing the relation between thing and representation of a thing, believing that the representation carried some of the properties of the thing represented, a relation which is technically referred to as metonymy" (28)

  • metaphor and metonymy not always distinguished
"attitudes to writing do suggest that a conceptual boundary between the words and their meanings or texts and their messages has been redrawn under the impact of a ltierate tradition. That boundary, again, is between the representation and what is represented or, more precisely, between metonymy and metaphor." -- for literates, that division is distinct; for non-literates, not much distinction between metonymy and metaphor (32-3)

Scribner and Cole: challenge earlier Toronto School findings, show non-literate people sometimes have same ability to reason as literate; distinguish schooling from literacy

  • Goody challenges; says ability to reason logically has more to do with literacy within a particular discourse (i.e. syllogistic logic) than ability to read/write (40)
    • just learning to read and write doesn't initiate one into all the possible discourses or affordances of reading and writing (42)
"Literacy in Western cultures is not just learning the abc's; it is learning to use the resources of writing for a culturally defined set of tasks and procedures." (43)

Literacy and Conceptual Revolutions

two major conceptual revolutions: ancient Greece c5-3BC and European Renaissance, c12-17; what if any role did writing have in these revolutions? (45-6)

Greek literacy

Havelock: alphabet allowed Greeks to become literate culture; W. Harris: no mass literacy in Greek culture, though by 70AD ~20% literacy among males in urban settings (47)

written laws appear ~620BC, then increasing dependence on written law and evidence (47)

Lloyd: Greeks had something like a scientific revolution -- tried to note a "magical" category and remove it from certain discourses (49-50); Thus the achievement is less a matter of research, proof or magic than an oppositional set of concepts that allow these things to be seen as proof, research or magic" (51)

compared with Chinese at the same time -- very different attitudes toward writing (51-2); "any understanding of literacy will have to pay attention to the structure of the culture into which it is introduced" (52)

Renaissance literacy

Clanchy: increasing use of written documents in English law from Norman conquest (1066) to death of Edward I (1307); Street suggests legal changes had more to do with the political changes -- Normans wanted to establish control over their conquered subjects (55)

Eisenstein: print allowed science to create reproducible diagrams, placed Scripture in the hands of every reader

  • but (Olson argues) what if it wasn't a change in writing, but changes in the ways of reading?

Stock: heresy in Middle Ages involved changing attitude to religious texts -- personal interpretations; "studies the implications of literacy through altered forms of reading and interpreting texts rather than on the simple technology for disseminating them" (60)

Carruthers: writing doesn't replace memory for medieval writers, but aids it; no distinction between act of writing on the memory and writing on the surface (61); no strong contrast between writing and speech for medieval writers

What Writing Represents

from Aristotle to Saussure, we've seen writing as a representation of speech (66)

  • Rousseau: savage people wrote by depicting objects, barbarians by word signs, and civilized people by alphabet

problem: these systems assume what needs to be explained (67) -- namely, knowledge of linguistic structure

"writing systems provide the concepts and categories for thinking about the structure of spoken language rather than the reverse. Awareness of linguistic structure is a product of a writing system not a precondition for its development." (68)

tokens and emblems represent things, or at best names -- not words; in ~4000BC, tokens used to represent goods, began to be gathered in envelopes; would impress on the outside of the envelop the token to indicate contents -- now no longer need the actual tokens/contents, has become writing

"We need not assume that these early writers were conscious of or had a model of language as consisting of words ordered by a syntax which they tried to get their script to represent. Rather we can explain the relation between language and script by saying that a script with a syntax provides, for the first time, a suitable model for speech" (74)

death of "word" magic or "name" magic; words no longer emblems but "now distinguished from both things and from names of things" (75)

"Rather than viewing writing as the attempt to capture the existing knowledge of syntax, writing provided a model for speech, thereby making the language available for analysis into syntactic constituents, the primary ones being words which then became subjects of philosophical reflection as well as objects of definition. Words became things." (76)
"The scribal inventions dictated a kind of reading which allowed language to be seen as composed of words related by means of a syntax. Writing thereby provides the model for the production of speech (in reading) and for the introspective awareness of speech as composed of grammatical constituents, namely, words." (77)

What Writing Doesn't Represent

writing doesn't well capture illocutionary utterance -- how language is to be taken (93)

"The history of reading may be seen, in part, as a series of attempts to recognize and to cope with what is not represented in a script." (93)
"the reader's attempts to compensate for what had been lost in the act of writing a text is one of the means by which literacy imparts its conceptual advantages" (96)

differences between oral and literate cultures:

  • "writing introduced a new awareness of linguistic structure" (105)
  • need to cast events in poetic/memorable form "provided constraints on telling that necessarily made the poetized version differ from what would have been conveyed in a direct account" (106)
  • "just how successful such techniques are for the verbatim preservation of longer texts remains unclear" (106)
  • "the preservation of speech acts takes a somewhat different form, I suggest, in oral tradition than in a written one" (107)
"The problem for writing then becomes that of inventing devices, including lexical and syntactical ones, which can compensate for what is lost. And the problem in reading is in mastering those clues and the hermeneutical techniques which provide some indication of how the writer intended the text to be taken." (111)

The Problem of Interpretation: The Recovery of Communicative Intention

interpreting vs. having a concept of interpretation (116)

older meaning of "interpret" as "to understand", which is to know -- to understand a text is to know what it means; now, interpret means to think something about a text (not necessarily the right thing, things that can be known

c17 "modernism": "invention of a new solution to the problem of interpreting texts"; post-modernism as "recognition that there is no ultimate solution" (117)

having concept of interpretation allows it to be recognized as such, turns it into deliberate, reflective analysis (117)

"Written texts are peculiar in the way they turn such actions into entities." (118)

discusses series of studies done on how children understand what's said vs. what's meant (120-131)

listeners judge illocutionary force of indirect speech acts by non-verbal clues not present in writing (131)

"The central achievement in reading texts critically is a new consciousness of what a text could have meant or could mean to a putative reader." (135)

oral hermeneutics: assigning appropriate illocutionary force to an utterance so that it may be interpreted correctly (140); in oral societies, "interpretation belongs only to particular, marked genre of discourse such as oratory and poetic discourse and ceremonial occasions all of which are characterized by the use of indirect, metaphorical speech and other symbols" (141); consensus more important in assigning an interpretation/meaning

A History of Reading: From Spirit of the Text to Intentions of the Author

time of Charlemagne, "actual words or forms are merely the tip of the conceptual iceberg, the real meanings lying far beneath the surface and detectable only by internalization and meditation" (145) -- more like post-modern reading

Origen: scripture as mirror for meaning (147)

four-fold meaning of sacred texts, PRDS, "Pardex": P for plain sense, R for oblique meaning, D for homiletic, S for mystical meaning; possible unfolding of each section is potentially endless, though (148)

Augustine: defends idea that spiritual interpretation should always be based on the literal meaning (147-8)

Hugh of St. Victor: developed a "scholarly, systematic approach to interpretation" by substituting research for revelation (148); meaning of an author "settled not by prayer and meditation resulting in epiphany but rather by appeal to new sources of evidence based on textual, historical and geographical research" (149)

Andrew of St. Victor (Hugh's student): using Jewish teachings to read scripture literally; "the text that Andrew took as worthy of analysis was the surface meaning not its deep meaning" (151)

with focus on literal meaning, the verbal form of the text becomes important; "new concern with and respect for the original wording of the text" (151)

clear conception of literal meaning occurs: Maimonides' Guide for the perplexed, Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica; divine "author" expressed the events that human authors then relate -- "Aquinas thereby granted a complete autonomy to the text and its literal meaning" (153), naturalizing interpretation without getting rid of God

Luther: takes his theory of reading from Aquinas; "significance of Luther's move was to treat written texts as autonomous representations of meaning" (154)

"Readings or interpretations were to be grounded openly in the text and were not to be dependent upon Church dogma, cabbalistic traditions, or private inspiration. The search changed from one for revelation to one for meaning. One was to seek meanings on the lines rather than the epiphanies between them." (153)

took a long time for medieval readers to warm to concept of a "literal" interpretation" -- first had to have an understanding of audience-directed intentions (156)

Reading the book of Nature: Conceptual Origins of Early Modern Science

Cowley on Harvey -- he consults the Book of God's own creatures, the Book of Nature (160)

Reiss: c17 discourse is "analytico-referential"

Paracelsus: sympathetic medicine, c15-c16; parts of leaves look like the parts of the body they can cure (162); signs and resemblances in everything

Bacon: "offered an account of how to make language transparent to the world it was to represent" (164); advocated new discourse as a kind of writing, a "literate experience" (his words): "Now no course of invention can be satisfactory unless it be carried on in writing" (Bacon, qtd 164);

  • "elaborate analogy between texts and nature" (164)
  • alphabet of the world, language of creation
  • not Adamic language, but the language in which natural world was written
"Signs are seen as arbitrary only in the Early Modern period when words are seen as having a meaning by reference to ideas rather than directly by reference to things. then the word loses its direct tie to the thing, it is no longer the correct name for the thing but merely represents or stands for the thing." (167)
"The accounts we have reviewed focus upon the new understanding of the world, of language, and of ideas. I would reverse the emphasis and suggest that the new attitude to signs, to ideas, and to reality were produced by a new way of reading -- the reading of signs in terms of their surface properties, their literal meanings." (168)

c17 reading was "algorithmic", "more or less mechanical and ... available to everyone if they followed correct procedures" (168); Olson points out c20 readers would not see reading as algorithmic (but writing could be? what's the distinction he's making here between reading and writing? is it a hard distinction -- or it collapsing the distinction?)

"To read algorithmically implied that all readers relying on these methods obtain the same reading or interpretation and that they obtain it on every re-reading. the correct interpretation was seen as obtainable because it was grounded openly in the text, apprehensible by the sense." (169)
"Reading nature and writing about it, then, was based on the distinction between what was in the mind as opposed to what was in the world." (174)

need some "court" to establish the validity of one's readings of the Book of Nature (church rules on scriptural interpretation, church on civil law); the court becomes one's own senses (176)

reading Book of Nature in c17 == straightforward application of principles of reading developed in Middle ages; what was new was our ability to judge their accurateness using the senses

A History of Written Discourse: From Mnemonics to Representations

development of texts that represent, rather than merely remind

antiquity and middle ages: writing on paper equivalent with writing on the mind; writing as an aid to memory of the event (180-1); "knowledge was in the mind; writing was mnemonic, a reminder" (181)

written texts allow detachment of the voice from the speaker -- they speak for themselves (183)

"Modern prose is a specialized form of language; it is specialized, I suggest, in that it is the form of language in which the textual/sentence meaning may be taken as the intended meaning." (191)

Representing the World in Maps, Diagrams, Formulas, Pictures and Texts

Jan Krul, c17 Dutch artist -- "The notion of a paper world was used by Krul in 1644 for a collection of writings and drawings" (Alpers, Art of Describing, 193).

Italian Renaissance, art used as mnemonics to retrieve well-known themes; Dutch art of c17, attack on interpretive tradition -- images describe (198-9); Italian painters moved away from individuality to general human traits (saw portraiture as lesser art), Dutch privileged portraiture for its individuality (202)

  • "close correspondence with the assumptions of the Early Modern Scientists, with their strict attention to the appearance of things, their descriptions of the visible surfaces of things" (202)

goes through history of mapping: Ptolemy, mappaemundi, portolan charts, Mercator projections, globes

Galileo, geometry -- not just metaphors for motion, but representations of it (220)

equations representing Newton's laws actually written 60 years after Newton by Euler; Newton himself represented time/space in ratios, Euler made them multiplicable/dividable properties

"representing the properties of motion in the form of geometric proofs and algebraic equations was not merely putting down what was known. Rather it was to reconstruct those properties in terms of the structures available in formalized, written languages. The thinking is done by means of the representations; the product of those computations is then compared to the observed facts." (221)
"Only when drawing was coordinated with scientific description, as in the work of the Swedish botanist Linnaeus in the eighteenth century, did botanical drawings become diagrams and did botany become a science." (226)

learning to see plants "scientifically" "reveal[s] a pattern in the world, it is a kind of analysis that ties these patterns to the naemable and the depictable, ignoring all differences that do not fall on to the selected dimensions" (227) -- pictured flower in botany book becomes "conceptual entity in terms of which real flowers are perceived and classified" (227)

"Scientific discourse relies on just such a factual reporting style which lays its meanings open for all to see, a kind of literal meaning of signs, chosen to represent the world precisely. Fiction exploits the same kind of literal representational discourse, but now employed in a non-representational context." (230)

writer/artist goes from an orator persuading to a reporter showing us what would be there if were were present ourselves (231)

paper world din't just accumulate/store what everyone already knew, but "a matter of inventing the conceptual means for coordinating the bits of geographical, biological, mechanical, and other forms of knowledge acquired fro many other sources into an adequate and common frame of reference," which became a "theoretical model into which local knowledge was inserted and reorganized" (232)

Representing the Mind: The Origins of Subjectivity

ability to recognize oneself and others as intentional -- theory of mind

Greek invention of the concept of mind; Homer represents mental states as bodily states, no development of mind as organ for desire, belief, intention (239); by the Classical period, mind becomes storehouse of thoughts, ideas (240)

literate source for concepts of the mental: "words become distinguished from ideas, waht is said is distinguished from what is thought, the thing from the idea or representation of a thing, and the mind from the body" (241)

Descartes: establishing the autonomy of the mental (243); eventually allows for independence of ideas, which allows for development of theoretical (how is this different from Platonic idealism?)

The Making of the Literate Mind

"writing provides a set of categories for thinking about language" (259)

  1. "writing was responsible for bringing aspects of spoken language into consciousness, that is, for turning aspects of language into objects of reflection, analysis and design" (258)
  2. "no writing system, including teh alphabet, brings all aspects of what is said into awareness" (260)
  3. "what the script-as-model does not represent is difficult, perhaps impossible, to bring into consciousness" (260-1)
  4. "once a script-as-model has been assimilated it is extremely difficult to unthink that model" (262)
  5. "the expressive and reflective powers of speech and writing are complementary rather than similar" (264)
  6. "an important implication of literacy derives from the attempt to compensate for what was lost in the act of transcription" (265)
  7. "once texts are rrad in a certain new way, nature is 'read' in an analogous new way" (268)
  8. "once the illocutionary force of a text is recognized as the expression of a personal, private intentionality, the concepts for representing how a text is to be taken provide just the concepts necessary for the representation of mind" (270)

reading "is a matter of recovering or inferring authorial intentions by means of recognition of graphic symbols" (272)

literacy as "both a cognitive and a social condition, the ability to participate actively in a community of readers who have agreed on some principles of reading, a hermeneutics if you will, a set of texts to be treated as significant, and a workin gagreement on the appropriate or valid interpretation(s) of those texts" (274-5)

"Our modern conception of the world and our modern conception of ourselves are, we may say, by-products of the invention of a world on paper." (282)