Did people not think conceptually before phonetic alphabets? I'm doubtful, but curious what you think

Learning about memory palaces last year has lead me down a long road of becoming interested in ancient and indigenous modes of thought. Recently I have been reading some literature on animism.

The book I’m currently reading is 'The Spell of the Sensuous," by David Abram.

In the book he makes the argument that the invention of the phonetic alphabet allowed for us to abstract concepts from their concrete instantiations. This is because the phonetic alphabet allows for the word to be put down permanently, and this permanence allows us to ponder it independently. According to him, if a person from an oral culture were to speak of a concept such as ‘justice’ it would have “no permanent presence to the senses” because as soon as you stop speaking of it, it’s in a sense ‘gone.’ For people from oral cultures, such things were only tied to particular persons or circumstances. Another aspect of the phonetic alphabet is that it’s depiction is abstracted from the word. Paintings or hieroglyphs, and to a degree the proto-Sinaitic alphabet, are less abstracted forms of sensible things. It’s not until we get into the Greek alphabet that abstraction reaches it’s height. This separation of the form (written word) from the thing engenders abstract thinking.

But I’m not convinced at all. First of all, memory palaces seem to stem back from oral culture and, I think, serve as a system of permanence in the way that writing does. Abram doesn’t seem to be aware of memory palaces as he states that the only way for an oral culture to remember anything would be to repeat it over and over again. This sounds like he means rote memorization. The main thing writing seems to do is allow one to off-load memory to the page. So, even on his own premises that “permanence” is required for abstract thinking, it doesn’t seem to hold water.

In Abrams thinking oral people seem to only have some kind of pre-reflective (my words) understanding of concepts. That’s why Socrates’ debating opponents can only name instances of justice, not define the concept itself. That is, they have some kind of weak conceptual understanding of various concepts that allows them to attach a word to various instances but not define the concept itself. I think if you look at, for example, Aboriginal thinking you will see that oral cultures have a rich conceptual understanding of the world. See the book “Sand Talk” by Tyson Yunkaporta on this. So, it simply doesn’t seem to be the case that abstract thinking requires an abstracted from of writing.


1 Like

I would say that a reference is required to abstract concepts from their concrete instantiations in this context.

Having language, allows us to make very complex concepts.

When you define something, you tend to refer to the abstract concept it depends on and you discriminate this something from everything else within this concept. If the only other thing inside this category of sorts is another word, in this case you may end up with :

Take for example the ‘google definition of justice’:
1. just behaviour or treatment.
2. the quality of being fair and reasonable.

If you did not know the concept ‘fair’ and ‘reasonable’ in the 2nd case, you may define justice as ‘the quality of being good’, particularly if you do not have a conflicting definition. This may seem very strange, but when you think about it in the perspective of lacking concepts, one may not be sufficiently capable of distinguishing good from fair. Instead one may have ‘good and fair’ as ‘good’, so all fair and good things become good.

If one is capable of providing many concrete instances of a concept, there is some understanding of the concept, but there may not be understanding of what a concept is. A concept may therefore become such a fused definition that includes the traditional ‘concept’ and its ‘instances’, which may make it difficult to isolate what a concept is referring to in a definition, or perhaps even more crucially what a definition really is.

Hi Nagime, after reading your response I wasn’t sure if you agreed or disagreed with Abram.

I’m not exactly sure what Abram’s views are from this post, so I just stated what I thought on the matter overall and why.

I think they had conceptual thinking but it was ordered not in categories, but in contexts. I read, I don’t remember where, that a test was given to oral people where they had to organize some objects: an axe, a shovel, a saw, a wheel barrow, wood, and a tree. We might organize this instinctively by category: the tools go together, the tree and the wood go together. But this culture organized based on context: the axe and the saw and the wood and the tree go together, because why else would you have an axe except for cutting trees, to make wood with a saw? They organized based on the context “making wood” — which makes sense, actually, if you had no utility for defining things in abstract philosophical categories.

The earlier religious system had “permanent referents” with which to make sense of reality but they did not organize their mind by abstract categories. Instead they used contextual, interpersonal understanding. Consider how important unifying tradition was for ancient cultures. You needed to get everyone’s butt in a church so that you could all hear the same story about (say) Buddha; and upon hearing about Buddha you now have a referent that everyone knows and can refer to. The stories of Buddha, memorized and taught and worshipped, add new contexts and new concepts. So we moderns might think “justice is a concept regarding how to treat people as we ought” and “kindness is an act of politeness”; for an ancient, they might say “justice is that time Buddha gave food to the poor person and punished this other person”, and “kindness is how Buddha treats people”.

Humans are hardwired to remember people and places — obviously, look at this forum! — and so this earlier system of permanent concepts utilized this interpersonal contextual understanding. You can easily remember justice in reference to mimicking Buddha, especially if you hear the same stories weekly and there’s singing and art work and poems. Super memorable!

Even today, I and many others ask ourselves “what would Jesus do,” and this is the same thing. The permanent concept of self-sacrifice is to me a moment in the Crucifixion that I can imagine, versus an abstract definition. An earlier Christian would call someone a Judas or a Pilates well before they would call someone a traitor or a cowardly politician. We see such language in the Odyssey.

Also, every ancient people had a deity associated with Justice and other concepts. So, to understand justice, you need only listen to stories about the deity. This is why the ancient Greeks had so many stories with so many deities. Each deity represented and controlled a concept. If you want to learn about the concept “the arts” you would learn about the Muses, and the stories about the Muses would help you make sense of how art fits into the grand scheme of things. If you wanted to learn about the concept of debauchery you’d learn about Dionysius. And so on.

And think: to become a moral person, do you read books about morality or do you imitate moral people? Most people would say it is better to imitate than to read moral philosophy. And so this proves the utility of the ancient method of understanding the world.

Thank you to those who have pointed me to this discussion. To answer fully, I’d end up rewriting a few chapters of my last four books. Interestingly there was mention of “Sand Talk” by Tyson Yunkaporta. Tyson and I are both taking sessions with first year Indigenous Astronomy students at the University of Melbourne over the next few days. As he demonstrates, as an Indigenous author, all the concepts such as justice, ethics and huge amounts of knowledge are stored in oral tradition.

I read Abrams’s “The Spell of the Sensuous” at the start of my research into indigenous memory systems over a decade ago, and missed this opinion of his. I must revisit it. I thought that he talked about Aboriginal Songlines being memory systems, but I was probably too early in my research to pick up nuances.

I disagree with him completely on this topic. Ethical information, like everything else, is stored permanently, although able to be updated if required, in the knowledge systems of indigenous cultures. In Australia we have robust evidence of the reliability of stories dating back over 17,000 years (see Patrick Nunn, “The Edge of Memory”) and I have no doubt that research will take it back much further towards the 65,000 years of continuous culture currently recognised. The stories Nunn’s research (and others) focus on tend to be about landscape changes because they are dateable. The same stories also contain ethical / justice themes. Dispute resolution based on oral traditions were part of every culture I studied.

The astronomy stories, especially in the research of Duane Hamacher, reflect the same combination of ethics meshed with astronomical observations and similarly date way way back so the permanence issue is not in question. Duane is the lecturer organising the next few days with Tyson and me, so it is going to be really exciting.

In this forum, I have been part of discussions on memory palaces as found in all oral cultures, and also on the portable memory devices. That’s in my academic book, plus the ones we’ve talked about here, “The Memory Code” and “Memory Craft”. My most recent book focuses on the memory palaces, the Aboriginal Songlines. It is co-authored with Margo Neale, a leading Aboriginal voice in Australia, so gives the way we look at memory palaces in Country from an Indigenous and non-indigenous perspective. The title is “Songlines: the power and promise” because Margo can best elucidate the power of Songlines from an Aboriginal perspective, while I talked about the implications, the promise, for all of us in terms of highly effective memory systems. Reading Margo’s words, and those of the other Aboriginal people we quote, will leave you in no doubt about the critical and permanent role of the philosophical considerations in oral traditions.

Yes, people thought conceptually before and, in historical times without phonetic alphabets.


I do recall reading before about people categorizing things in terms of context, but I forgot about it until you mentioned it. I would have to look more into it, as that might not apply to all oral cultures, and think conceptually in other ways, i.e. that “test” may not be representative of their conceptual thinking.

Hi Lynne, I searched the book and he does mention Songlines. I wasn’t at that part of the book yet so I hadn’t seen it. When get there I will let you know of that changes anything!

Hi QiJitsu,

Thank you. I’d be very interested in your perspective. About what page is the section you refer to in the original post? I’ll go back to it. I have come a long way since first reading it, and only revisited the section on Songlines. I imagine that I’ll read it quite differently now! I am away from home doing talks at the moment, but will look at it when I get home.

Thank you again for raising this.



Chapter 4 is the main place where I pulled the argument from, especially the section, “An Eternity of Unchanging Ideas.”

Thank you.