For evidence [we turn] to fieldwork of the Russian psychologist Aleksandr Romanovich Luria among illiterate peoples in remote Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia in the 1930s.
Luria found striking differences between illiterate and even slightly literate subjects, not in what they knew, but in how they thought.
Logic implicates symbolism directly: things are members of classes; they possess qualities, which are abstracted and generalized. Oral people lacked the categories that become second nature even to illiterate individuals in literate cultures: for example, for geometrical shapes. Shown drawings of circles and squares, they named them as “plate, sieve, bucket, watch, or moon” and “mirror, door, house, apricot drying board.” They could not, or would not, accept logical syllogisms.
A typical question: In the Far North, where there is snow, all bears are white.
Novaya Zembla is in the Far North and there is always snow there.
What color are the bears?
Typical response: “I don’t know. I’ve seen a black bear. I’ve never seen any others… . Each locality has its own animals.”
By contrast, a man who has just learned to read and write responds, “To go by your words, they should all be white.” To go by your words—in that phrase, a level is crossed. The information has been detached from any person, detached from the speaker’s experience. Now it lives in the words, little life-support modules.