Continuing our series on how the great philosophers would do as PPCs, I’m returning yet again to Plato, as I’ve done three times before. Half because Plato stands so far above any other thinker–all other thinkers are just footnotes to Plato, as the philosopher’s adage goes–and half because I enjoy reading him and half because he’s probably the classic thinker whom I know the best. So today, we’re going to examine another aspect of Plato’s worldview, to see how it would influence him as a PPC: his argument in Phaedrus against writing, because it harms the more-important memory (and this has ramifications on our soul). In his words, which he attributes to Socrates:
They will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but through external marks.
So, if we put work aside and think about life, I have to say, there’s a deep level on which I not only agree with this point, but I practice it. I happen to believe that memorization (and more broadly, memory) is among the most under-rated intellectual tools out there–and deeply important for education, career, understanding, and lots of things that we think are important. Let’s take the examples of just “creativity” and “problem solving”: if someone presents a problem to you or you want to do something new or different, it’s hard–friggin’ hard–to just come up with a concept or solution if you have to Google the meaning of each word they say, or Google the background context to what he’s saying. You can, it’s just much, much harder and more time consuming–you’ll be starting from the beginning. But now, take the other extreme: you have a problem to solve or you want to do something creative. If you can instantly recall dozens, hundreds, or thousands of other concepts, it is near-infinitely easier to just realize things like, “Oh, this is just an application of the XYZ paradox in a new context” or “John Smith solved this sort of problem by doing QRS” or “Since your assumption, ABC uses platform QRS, which includes functionality MNO, and MNO has the ability to STUV, then you can use STUV to HIJK.” But if you just have never memorized any of those details–and I’m grouping “purposeful memorization” and “memorization borne out of deep experience” together since it doesn’t change the conclusion, although is an interesting angle!–then it’s near impossible to make these connections. Creativity and problem solving, I would argue, stem from having deep knowledge memorized–and not necessarily knowledge on the subject per se (awesome problem solving often comes from amateurs) but knowledge about something. Even merely how Legos are put together for how kids solve problems.
All of this seems to imply I’m agreeing with Plato’s argument here; so, you might think that I’m building this up to argue that Plato would be a good PPC. But, alas!
As important as memorization is, I would argue that writing, documentation, and tracking is much, much more important than the creative and problem-solving benefits of memorization. Indeed, so much so that I even wrote a book on the subject! Let’s review some of the important–no, critical–business benefits of writing in a business context:
- It allows various team members to be on the same page–metaphorically, pun-intended! It’s an easy way to share what each side is doing
- It creates paper trails to understand what happened, why, and how-and-why different decisions were made
- It’s critical for “CYA” when problems arise.
- Writing words down forces you to think about the words–and thus you’ll come up with more ideas (as compared to it being only in your head)
- Others reading the words forces others to think about the words–and thus they’ll come up with more ideas
- It allows for asynchronous work
- It makes it much easier to expose assumptions underlying the ideas articulated, as well as missing holes.
A culture of writing, in other words, gives almost-magical powers to teams. And ultimately, these benefits weigh far stronger than the advantages of memorization.
So, how would Plato do as a PPC? While we have reviewed in the other analyses some ways in which he has good and relevant insights (the Cave, for example)–overall, this is another strike against him. In the classic Plato vs Aristotle debate, if faced with the PPC version, Aristotle seems to be collecting more points.