Language is the soul of intellect, and reading is the essential process by which that intellect is cultivated beyond the commonplace experiences of everyday life.
Charles Scribner, Jr.
When we trace language from orality, characterized by the pre-socratics and the passing of tradition from one mouth to the next, to literacy made possible by writing on clay tablets, we see a complex shift in human consciousness.
Eric Havelock’s groundbreaking work, The Muse Learns to Write, explores how our awareness of consciousness strengthens with writing. The invention of writing fortified the correlation between sight and intellect to the extent that contemporary thinkers rarely question it. When we began writing down thought and making it visible, we also began to almost exclusively associate what we know with what we see. This is called the sight-intellect equation.
When Walter J. Ong discusses the sight-intellect equation in Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Human Consciousness and Culture (1977), it is with profound reservation. He points to the limitations of the sight-intellect equation but acknowledges the ways this association is written into our language. There remains a larger pool of words that carry a residue of the sight-intellect equation than there are words that might connote kinesthetic or aural associations. At one point, he even advocates trading the term “world view” with “world sense.”
Knowing is more than seeing. To illustrate this, Ong invokes Bernard Lonergan’s work, Insight (1945), to highlight the problematic relationship between knowing and seeing:
“Now, if human knowing is to be conceived exclusively, by an epistemological necessity, as similar to ocular vision, it follows as a first consequence that human understanding must be excluded from human knowledge. For understanding is not like seeing. Understanding grows with time: you understand one point, then another, and a third, a fourth, a fifth, a sixth, and your understanding changes several times until you have things right. Seeing is not like that, so that to say that knowing is like seeing is to disregard understanding as a constitutive element in human knowledge.”
Bruno Snell, in his profound exploration of early Greek thinking in his 1954 book, The Discovery of the Mind, traces the sight-intellect equation to earlier roots. Snell explains that for Homer, ideas are conveyed through the noos, a mental organ analogous to the eye; consequently “to know” is related not just “to see” but “to have seen.”
“The eye, it appears, serves as Homer’s model for the absorption of experiences. From this point of view the intensive coincides with the extensive: he who has seen much sufficiently often possesses intensive knowledge.”
While what is seen still emphasizes what is visible, it carries with it an even greater emphasis of experience — all kinds of sensory experiences. Ong’s appreciation of Lonergan reminds the reader that intellectual work is a process that leads to understanding. Understanding is knowledge. It does not occur in an instant. And the process is movement–a kind of becoming.
Ong reminds his readers that the process of intellectual work includes more than sight: sensory knowing and kinesthetic knowing are intricate parts of intellectual knowing. The problem with the sight-intellect equation is even more complicated: “To say that knowing is like seeing” is also to rob knowledge of its interiority.”
This interiority is what we call consciousness and can be understood as a kind of awareness. Orality is associated with what Ong calls an “existential actuality,” but this is in part because we do not see the intellectual work we do when we read as a kind of movement. The Greek muses were guardians of memory and for centuries, memories, images of thought from times past, were preserved through orality.
The consciousness that emerges with literacy catalyzes as the reader connects intimately with the written word. Reading, after all, focuses our attention on the interior space of our mind. From this side of history, it is increasingly difficult to even think of consciousness prior to literacy. We simply lack the metaphors for understanding it. What we intuit from our reading is the way our experience expands. This means that every time we read, we are in the process of intellectual work — we are becoming. “Reading is going toward something that is about to be, and no one yet knows what it will be,” the Italian writer, Italo Calvino, writes in his 1979 novel, “If on a winter’s night a traveler.”