Assignment 2 – Alphabet

Some example responses:

Based upon the evidence presented by Havelock and Gough, the claim that the foundation of knowledge in the form of science in the post-Greek sense was caused by the invention of the Greek alphabet is largely true. With the invention of the Greek alphabet, the documentation and dissemination of scientific endeavors and discoveries lead to a paramount shift in the growth of human knowledge and intellectual curiosity. Now, thinkers could have a way of transcribing their thoughts beyond mere oral tradition and through that, people were able to educate one another in a way that was not possible prior to the invention of the Greek alphabet. However, by focusing solely on the Greek alphabet, Havelock limits his analysis to that of only the western hemisphere and Europe. Consequently, it was not an alphabet system but rather a logographic writing system that led to the growth of science and technology in China, which at the time was making technological achievements at a phenomenal rate. Thus, Havelock’s claim would only be true if only applied to Europe.  However, taking his claim at a broader sense, if we replace the alphabet with any form of a written language, Havelock’s claim would stand true with respect to both the European alphabet system and the Chinese logographic system of writing, as it is evident that with the invention of the writing system science would be able to progress and grow at a much faster rate than ever before. -David

According to Havelock, the invention of the Greek alphabet changed Greek people in three ways. It “increased fluency of recognition,” removed “the pressure to memorize,” and added the senses of sight and even touch to the process of study (Havelock, 133). Together these new abilities transformed Greek society into one of literacy and advanced abstract and conceptual thought. With the emergence of an alphabetic system came sophist study of grammar and the parts of speech, which before were not as accessible, for language was heavily influenced by the oral tradition of meter and epic speech composition.
So, was the invention of the Greek alphabet such a turning point in history that none of these abilities had existed before? Is Havelock’s statement that “its appearance divides all pre-Greek civilizations from those that are post-Greek” accurate?
If Gough’s research is taken into account then the answer is certainly, “no.” First of all, Gough explains that although traditional China and India did not develop an alphabet and still depended upon a written syllabic language, each civilization was relatively close in literacy levels. It is true that literacy was widespread among Greek citizens, however “citizens” only accounted for roughly one seventh of the population of Greece, and the equivalents of Greek “citizens” in India, the top three classes, were also literate. And second, according to Kroeber, referenced by Gough, “phonetics and grammar had developed into sciences in India before writing was introduced” based on the logical order in which “the letters of Indian scripts [were] arranged” when writing was first invented (Gough, 47). -Grace

In regards to science, Havelock’s claim is true in some respects. If we take science in the post-Greek sense to mean experimental science – systematic science based on hypothesis, trial, then refinement – there are points both for and against this claim. Gough argues that “natural science in the Ming period was impeded from flowering to the extent it did in Europe because of the Chinese failure to mathematize scientific hypotheses and to test them by experiment” (51). This failure, in turn, was likely due to the structure of their written langugage. Gough argues in favor of Chinese skepticism, a core part of scientific thought and development. If the skepticism was there, there must have been something else lacking – in this case, language.
Havelock, when discussing on the Greek alphabet’s transformation on the perspective of self, says “They began to propose the need for a vocabulary which would describe a man not just doing something, or saying something, but being himself and using language in order to think about himself.” Experimental science is strongly personal insofar as recognizing your biases and questioning previous results. Havelock puts strong arguments forth that Greek alphabet encourages this form of discouse more so than other forms of written langugages. -Philip

In a broad claim made by Havelock, one aspect suggests the idea that the appearance of the Greek alphabet severed to separate all pre-Greek civilization from those that are post-Greek. Havelock believes that the alphabet advances civilization by “[increasing] the fluency of recognition,” “[removing] the pressure to memorize,” and “[substituting] of the eye for the ear in the reception of communication” (Havelock, p. 133). Because of the differences between a culture that is primarily oral and one that uses written language to preserve and transmit information, Havelock claims that the “invention” of the alphabet by the Greek is a historical marker that serves to distinguish civilizations. However, in his own work, Havelock writes about the long transition that occurs from when the alphabet was adopted by the Greek from the Phoenicians to its own adaptation in the Greek culture. “The initial use of the Greek alphabet therefore involves a paradox. Though its technology was such as to provide a capacity for designing and recording new forms of discourse, i.e., non-oral forms, for a long time it was used primarily for recording and perpetuating what had first been composed orally” (Havelock, p. 131). Hence, Havelock contradicts his own claim by proving that there is no fine distinction that separates pre-Greek civilization from post-Greek civilization. To further discredit this claim is Gough’s research that Chinese civilization had long developed its own written language before the Greek alphabet was introduced to its culture. Because of this, Gough states that while the alphabet is much more simplified and convenient, Chinese civilization rejected it because its own writing system had become so integrated within Chinese culture and tradition. Therefore, contrary to Havelock’s claim, Chinese civilization was already using a different from of the alphabet, before the “invention” of it by Greek. This proves that pre-Greek civilization in China is similar to post-Greek civilization in Europe, contrast to Havelock’s claim of a distinguishing historical marker. -Amy

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