How Writing Changed The Way We Viewed Knowledge

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Wednesday, 7.22pm

Sheffield, U.K.

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need. – Marcus Tullius Cicero

Over the last dozen or so posts I looked at doodles and drawings that people did in the course of their work. What I’m really interested in, however, is the use of drawing as a way to structure information. We tend to see the end result of thinking in books and documents – but what about the in-between? How did people work out what to write in the first place?

From what I remember from Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance the story goes something like this. Once upon a time in Greece you had philosophers and some of them thought that the way to understand the world was to talk about it. These were the rhetoricians. Then along came Plato and Aristotle and said there is a world out there which you can learn about by looking at it. If you observe and use logic you can explain how the world works.

Aristotle’s work dominated Western thinking for a very long time. If you were a scholar you read widely and collected excerpts of what people said and the logic they used to build your own knowledge and take a position. It was hard, demanding work and required extensive research.

By the 16th century this kind of way of working was just too hard to be useful. It had little “utililty”. People wanted to know what they needed to know – not be pointed at a range of books or at a library and be left to themselves to figure out what was useful and what wasn’t.

And this is where Peter Ramus comes in with an early example of visual thinking. Ramus was a French writer (1515-72). Triche (2004) describes how he created a method to arrange information to make it easier to understand based on a branching structure.

The image above shows how this works. Knowledge can be thought of as spoken or written. Before people were widely literate they talked – the debated with each other, used rhetoric to create dramatic statements, made arguments, remembered large quantities of information in verse and recalled specific quotes.

Once writing became commonplace it was possible to put down in letters what was important – literally making them “literal”. You could arrange statements and show the logical connections. Writing was a form of external memory allowing you to store more than you could in your brain. Things written down in books could help pass information across generations, you could learn from the words of others. And of course you could gather more details than you could ever hope to just remember.

This simple branching structure allowed Ramus to order information in a way that helped him to communicate it more easily. You could get away from detailed logic that took a long time to understand and set things down simply in a structured form designed to be teachable. Triche (2004) writes that “Ramus provided the students, schoolmasters and preachers of the late sixteenth century with a theory of logical arrangement that changed not only pedagogical practice but also the way in which Western intellectuals understood the world, an event as significant as Galileo’s use of the telescope.”

Although Ramus’s contribution is not given the credit it’s probably due his method transformed education and created the framework that is still employed today. Ramus used the term “curriculi” which eventually turned into the idea of a curriculum, a set course of study that you have to follow to learn what is agreed to be knowledge of a particular field or activity. Ramus’s approach to organizing knowledge made it possible to bucket and bracket information and as the intellectual revolution of the time continued his ideas fed into the work of Descartes and later Bacon, and the first glimmerings of what we would now recognise as the scientific method.

I think I can recognize the ghost of Ramus when I think about my education. We were taught that working from first principles was a valuable thing – to work from the most basic observation or idea and build up from there. This is what he called the “Law of Wisdom”. And it’s wise, is it not, to see things as they are and then make up your own mind?

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

References

Triche, S. (2004), “The quest for method: The legacy of Peter Ramus”, History of Education, Vol 33, No. 1, pp 39-54

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