Saturday, February 24, 2007

Blogging Philosophy

A while back I was interviewed by Ophelia Benson for an article in The Philosophers' Magazine on philosophy and blogging (placing me in the esteemed company of Nigel Warburton, Brian Leiter, and H.E. Baber). The article itself doesn't seem to be available online yet [update: now it is], but my own thoughts can be found below. Feel free to add your own...

1. What motivated you to take up blogging?

I was just starting to really get into philosophy, and I found that I had a lot of ideas but nowhere to put them. So I created a blog to serve as a kind of notebook. Soon others joined in, which added a whole new dimension to the experience. (As a student hidden away in New Zealand, it was an invaluable opportunity to discuss philosophy with students half the world away.) And of course now there's a thriving online philosophical community, complete with carnivals and all...

2. Do you think blogs are a good medium for philosophy?

I think there are three kinds of philosophical activity to which blogs are especially well suited. First is the exploration of half-baked ideas, to get some early feedback and test their potential for further development. Secondly, blogs are a great study and teaching tool, as students can attempt to summarize an issue, and their readers may respond to help correct any misunderstandings. (A good summary may also benefit the readers' knowledge, of course.) Finally, a tightly focused blog post can make technical contributions in response to other work, perhaps critiquing a particular step in an argument, or offering an alleged counterexample.

Of course, blogs are no replacement for the sustained philosophy one finds in longer articles and book-length treatments. But, in light of the above, I'd say that they at least have a valuable supplementary role to play. Blogs are a good medium for some philosophy.

3. Do you think they're a good thing more generally?

Yeah, I think so. Like the internet more generally, blogs enable us to overcome geographic boundaries to communication. That's got to be a good thing. I guess it's the political ones that are most controversial in this regard -- there may be worries about group polarization and "echo chamber" effects, for example. But I'm optimistic that they can also serve to promote reasoned dialogue, so I'm working on a new "Carnival of Citizens" to this effect.

4. Do you think there are any drawbacks to blogging as a popular medium? If so, do you think they're more acute for philosophy (and/or academic subjects in general)?

Blog posts tend to have a short shelf life, typically dying away after a short burst of discussion. Academic topics may benefit from more sustained attention. But again, there are other mediums to provide that -- so long as blogs don't presume to provide everything, such limitations needn't be a problem.


  1. I think it probably will be online soon, Richard. It's obviously a sensible item to put online, since it's about online, as it were, and since it has a lot of links.

  2. Some thoughts on your answer to the second question:

    * What is inherent to the "medium" of a blog? Is it length or quality? Or is it something that blogs lack, like peer review?

    Of course, blogs are usually shorter than articles. But is there any particular reason that a blog can't be article-length, monograph-length, book-length? Is there any reason blogs can't be well-written? Is there any particular reason that a blog can't be peer-reviewed?

    * "Of course, blogs are no replacement for the sustained philosophy..." -- But why does good philosophy have to be lengthy? What's wrong with clear, concise expression? And isn't brevity a virtue?

    This is just my personal opinion, but it seems to me that the basic arguments of most books of philosophy can be distilled down to a couple of paragraphs, since books usually spend a great deal of words on orientating the reader, answering objections, providing examples, pursuing tangents.

    * Your answer to the first interview question seems to me to be related to the second. You mention that you began using a blog as a notebook. If this is true, then you may be part of a long tradition of aphorists -- Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer...

    It seems uncharitable to me to write this off as "exploring hard-baked ideas" -- why not describe it as "capturing insights" or "saying no more than what needs to be said"?

  3. Hi Adrian, I actually agree with a lot of that. (I don't think I ever said that good philosophy has to be lengthy. I'm a pluralist: I think that much philosophy can be done well briefly, but also that some cannot. When I say that the former is "no replacement" for the latter, I don't mean that it is worse; I just mean that we need both. That is, I think that blogs are a good medium for much, but not all, philosophy. See my linked post for more detail.)


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)