I have already indicated that literacy tends to superordinate visual experience over oral–aural experience and in so doing can cause us to think in the kinds of categories characteristic of objectivism. In fact, this is a simplification. Literate people do not use their eyes more than nonliterate people; people in primitive cultures are generally much better at visually detecting details than highly civilized people. What is different is that writing, and particularly printing, links a particular kind of visual experience to verbalization and communication, a situation quite different from what prevails in oral cultures. Specifically, for the literate person, the relative stasis of the written or printed word—its status as an object in three-dimensional space—becomes paradigmatic for visual experience, so that through vision the dynamism of the lifeworld can be stopped and subjected to detailed description and analysis.
Only literate people can conceive the lifeworld as a kind of “snapshot” and abstract elements of this world from their context and analyze them. Nonliterate people cannot abstract themselves from the lifeworld’s dynamism, which results in the apparently paradoxical situation that, although they usually are very good at noticing visual details, they have a very difficult time giving accurate verbal descriptions of visual phenomena. Hence, the fundamental difference between the oral and literate noetic situations is the centrality of a particular mode of visual experience for literate perception, communication, and thought processes.
Because of the limitations on visual experience peculiar to the nonliterate, the crucial feature of an oral culture is the centrality of sound to all thought and communication. Sound is irreducibly dynamic; although it is possible to conceive other kinds of perception, especially vision, in static terms, this is quite impossible with sound. This is because the dynamism of sound (and specifically the spoken word) is not that of an object moving through three-dimensional space but rather the dynamism of continually passing into and out of existence. An oral culture can hardly conceive of words as labels of some sort, the way literate cultures tend to, as spoken words are not “things” that can be picked up and “attached” to other things; a word must be an event or an action.25Another fundamental implication of sound-based communication is that, since words are always produced by a concrete person, oral cultures generally conceive the world, including nature, in personal terms. At the same time, this feature of sound-based communication means that oral cultures will be highly communal, with more highly externalized, less introspective personality types.
The dynamic nature of sound has perhaps its most fundamental effect in that, lacking any way of storing information outside of actually existent persons (since spoken words are not things that can be picked up and put away somewhere), oral cultures must rely on memory and direct communication to organize existence. Thus, the thought processes of oral cultures will be structured by these features. Speaking, and thus thinking, in oral cultures must always be closely related to actual existential contexts (especially in the form of narrative), will tend to be rhythmically oriented, and will tend to be highly formulaic in content. All of these features aid memory.
Writers such as Ong, mentioned above, have discussed in great detail these features of oral cultures. For my purpose, that is, the question of literacy’s relationship to objectivism, the discussion can be limited to the most fundamental phenomenological feature of oral communication noted above.
Since oral cultures communicate mainly through sound, which is irreducibly dynamic, they lack the capacity to “stop” the dynamism of the lifeworld and subject it to abstract analysis. Oral thought processes, in other words, arealways highly contextual. Only literate people, using the relatively fixed written or printed word as a paradigm, can conceive the world as a kind of “snapshot” and abstract elements of this world from their context and analyze them. Oral cultures have only minimal capacities for abstraction and decontextualization.
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
In Part -2, you will find a classical Study by A.R. Luria that illustrates this point well.