Aspects of Literate Consciousness

To understand how literacy restructures thought processes, it will be necessary to examine in more detail different forms of literate and postliterate media of communication. I have already noted that it is a simplification to say that literacy superordinates visual experience over oral/aural experience; the crucial aspect of this superordination is the way a particular aspect of vision is linked with verbalization. But even this simplifies, since different types of literate media link vision and verbalization differently, or to different degrees.

Early forms of writing, such as cuneiform or hieroglyphics, which employ picture-symbols, do this only to a limited extent. Pictographic writing systems such as this are not the same thing as mere pictures, because a given picture could mean many things or many words, whereas writing systems “determine the exact words that a reader can generate from the text.”

But these writing systems still retain a great deal of the sound-dimension of words because they must represent each word with a picture of some concrete thing or event that exists or occurs in the oral/aural lifeworld, meaning that the meaning of the word can only be understood by fairly direct reference to its existential context, which in turn means that words will still tend to be understood as events rather than signs or referents.

The really fundamental change in this regard comes with the invention of the alphabet, or, to be more exact, the Greek alphabet, which contains vowels as well as consonants. Since each letter represents only one sound (or at most a few related sounds), rather than entire words, the crucial connection with the oral/aural lifeworld is broken, or rather, drastically attenuated; a written word as written word has no obvious connection to anything in the lifeworld. With its connection to existential events broken, an alphabetically written word becomes a set of abstract symbols in static,quasi-permanent space, rather than a dynamic event.

The context that is so important to oral communication and still relevant to pictographic writing and even the Semitic alphabet (which does not indicate vowels in the same way as the Greek alphabet does, and thus leaves the identity of a given written word somewhat ambiguous and therefore dependent on existential context), tends to recede greatly into the tacit or even unconscious background. Once this happens, situational thinking will tend to be replaced by abstract thinking and modes of expression will be less closely linked to the lifeworld and more oriented toward abstractions.

For example, we have seen that oral people inevitably understand the world (including nature) in personal terms, since for them communication is always tied to an actually existent, and present, person. Writing dissolves the immediate link between a person and his or her words and thus allows the reader to understand words, and thus reality generally, in animpersonalfashion, that is,abstractedfrom the personally spoken words that give reality meaning.
Jardine (2011), Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 31(3)