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.