A classic study by A. R. Luria of peasants in the Soviet Union illustrates this point well. In one case, subjects were presented with drawings of four objects, such as a hammer, saw, log, and hatchet, of which one fitted into a different category than the other three, and asked to group them. Although the subjects with some reading ability were able to group the objects “correctly,” that is, according to abstract conceptual categories, the illiterate peasants attempted to group the objects according to how one would use them in actual lifeworld situations. In the above example, the illiterate subjects were baffled, since all the items seemed to go together, that is, one might chop the log with the hatchet, saw it with the saw, and so on. Separating the log from the tools made no sense, since then there would be nothing on which to use the tools.
Similarly, Luria’s illiterate subjects resisted giving abstract definitions of such objects as trees, instead expressing surprise that anyone should ask such bizarre questions as “What is a tree?” The fundamental difference between the literate and nonliterate peasants was that the literate peasants were capable of abstracting the items from concrete lifeworld situations and understanding them in terms of conceptual groupings while the nonliterate peasants could understand the items only in terms of concrete actions in the context of the lifeworld.
This examination of oral cultures, then, provides some definite evidence for the claim that literacy can be a prime source of objectivist thinking by virtue of the capacity it brings about for abstraction. Oral cultures necessarily think in highly contextual terms, and hence would appear to be much less likely to conceive knowledge and reality generally in the decontextualized manner characteristic of objectivism. In order to elaborate this initial formulation, I will now explicate further the transformations that occur with literacy.
Murray Jardine (2011)Sight, Sound, and Knowledge: Michael Polanyi’s Epistemology as an Attempt to Redress the Sensory Imbalance in Modern Western Thought,Bulletin of Science Technology & Society 2011 31: 160