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January 11, 2009, 2:30 PM

Literacy and Imagination

Participants: Robert Logan (moderator), Jonathan Rosen, Bambi Schieffelin, Lance Strate

We take literacy for granted, but it is a rather recent invention in the evolution of the human species. The advent of literacy was the result of a confluence of factors that have long been the province of evolutionary biology, centering primarily on the development of the cerebral cortex. Mimesis, cave painting, hieroglyphics, ideograms, the invention of primitive alphabets, and the Gutenberg printing press are frequently noted as watersheds in the making of man as a literate creature. From a neurophysiological perspective, literacy itself could be viewed as a shaping factor in the development of the human brain, along with certain verbal patterns that constitute oral traditions and, in turn, literature. Is literacy just an episode in the larger history of human consciousness and intelligence? What are the elements of human imagination that facilitate the growth of literacy? This roundtable will consider the history of literacy from a scientific and humanistic point of view, examining it as an element of brain structure, a path to knowledge, and an expression of the imagination.

Robert Logan is Professor Emeritus in Physics at the University of Toronto. His books include The Extended Mind: The Emergence of Language, the Human Mind and Culture; The Alphabet Effect; and The Sixth Language: Learning a Living in the Internet Age. His Understanding New Media: Extending Marshall McLuhan is forthcoming in 2009. He is also working on a project to design a SmartBook which combines the traditional codex book with the e-book.

Jonathan Rosen is the author of the novels Eve's Apple and Joy Comes in the Morning, and two works of non-fiction, The Talmud and the Internet: A Journey Between Worlds, and The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature. Rosen is editorial director of Nextbook where he edits the "Jewish Encounters" series, published by Nextbook/Schocken. His essays have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, The American Scholar, The New Yorker, and numerous anthologies.

Bambi Schieffelin is Collegiate Professor and Professor of Anthropology at New York University. Her edited books include Language Ideologies: Practice and Theory and Consequences of Contact: Language Ideologies and Sociocultural Transformations. She has published on the introduction of literacy in Papua New Guinea, on orthography debates on Haitian Creole, and on instant messaging. Her current book project, New Words, New Worlds (University of California Press), focuses on the impact of fundamentalist Christianity on the language and social lives of Bosavi people in Papua New Guinea.

Lance Strate is Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University, President and co-founder of the Media Ecology Association, and Executive Director of the Institute of General Semantics. He is the author of Echoes and Reflections: On Media Ecology as a Field of Study, and co-editor of several anthologies, including The Legacy of McLuhan and Communication and Cyberspace. He blogs about media ecology at lancestrate.blogspot and about poetry on MySpace.


Discussion Board

This forum allows for an ongoing discussion of the above Philoctetes event. You may use this space to share your thoughts or to pose questions for panelists. An attempt will be made to address questions during the live event or as part of a continued online dialogue.
Peter Irwin says:
How do members of the panel understand what is going on in the mind of a chessplayer deciding upon a move? If you conceive that the thought processes are partially mediated by language (e.g., rules of piece movement), how does language integrate with visualizing board positions, recall of similar positions, projections of move possibilities, assessment ratings assigned to various move sequences, storing of ratings with each move option considered, and the move selection process? Would the decision process be different for autistics or New Guineans? Were games impossible among early humans prior to language for communicating rules?
How do members of the panel understand the thinking involved that evokes laughter? If we can assume humans were capable of laughter prior to developing language, to what extent might the non-verbal mental processes involved in chess thinking parallel the non-verbal processes involved in finding an experience funny (e.g., slapstick)? Is a theory of mind more critical to finding an experience humorous than deciding upon a chess move, and can one see such a difference in autistics?
Peter Irwin says:
I missed the brain structure component of the discussion advertised in the blurb. The leap between language initiation 50,000 to 100,000 years ago (quite a sizable error estimate) and the development of abstract thought as it might relate to neurobiology was insufficiently elucidated. Can you elaborate?
Lance Strate says:
Play is an activity we share with animals, and integral to the process of learning. Rule-governed behavior can also be found among animals. Where language comes in, I would speculate, is in complex games that involve differentiated roles, such as team sports, and in the formulation of complex strategies. It may also be the case that, while rules do not require language, cheating does. Certainly, it is not possible to lie without language. As for chess, it can involve different types of symbolic activity, some language based, some involving geometry and visualization. I doubt chess could have been invented without literacy, although it may be possible to learn how to play it without knowing how to read or write. Some individuals with autism develop skills that parallel those associated with literacy, such as the ability to draw in perspective, so I would think that there are savants who are excellent chess players, and work mostly through nonverbal visualization; indeed, I imagine that there is a high incidence of autistic traits and Asperger's Syndrome among chess enthusiasts. But note that theory of mind would be important in considering what your opponent's moves might be. Tribal peoples, I would imagine, would have difficulty dealing with the Euclidean bent of chess.

Individuals with autism, even those who are more or less nonverbal, can still develop a sense of humor and are known to laugh. Laughter is closely related to play, I believe, and is therefore a very basic trait, in contrast to chess playing which cannot exist without language and literacy. Comparing the two strikes me as odd, as they are very far apart from one another.

We don't know when language began because speech has no bones, and sound does not result in fossils. But once language appears, it makes possible abstract thought that is just not possible otherwise. General semantics is very much dedicated to getting people to become conscious of the process of abstracting (see the website of the Institute of General Semantics at http://www.generalsemantics.org). And the written word facilitates and in many ways encourages still higher orders of abstraction. As I understand it, what makes speech possible is the evolution of the brain and also of the vocal apparatus. Speech in turn makes writing possible, and the habit of reading has a neurological effect.

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