Monday, May 21, 2007

Perfect is the Enemy of Good Discussion

I'm occasionally chided for blogging about a topic without having first read up on all the relevant literature. The latest example is here:
So: my complaint is that the discussion above unwittingly touches on and conflates some issues in philosophy that have a much deeper literature than you assume; and, one SHOULD go off and read the collected works of these people ['Plato, Aristotle's Nich. Ethics, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Augustine, Spinoza, Decartes, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and more recent philosophers Stanley Cavell, Pierre Hadot, Michel Foucault, and Arnold Davidson'] and others, precisely because it is directly concerned with the discussion attempted on this web-page. Do I really want to make serious claims on astrophysics without having read Einstien [sic]?

Of course, if I were truly obligated to read the collected works of every commenter's 13 favourite philosophers before blogging, I'd never get anything posted. And, imperfect though this blog and its discussions might be, I still find them to be of value (and hope others do too). So I consider the posturing of such self-appointed gatekeepers to be both offensive and wrongheaded. Would you interrupt a lunch conversation to tell the participants that they 'SHOULD' spend more time in the library before opening their mouths? They'd be apt to punch you in yours, and rightly so.

Don't get me wrong, I like libraries, and welcome suggestions for further reading. I have a long reading list, and will no doubt benefit from getting further through it. But in the meantime, there's also much to be gained from exploring one's own half-formed ideas, and having others respond to them. Indeed, it's this process of dialogical learning, of mutual engagement and constructive exchange, that I find most exciting about philosophy! So I don't welcome attempts to shut down casual conversation until such a time as all participants are so perfectly educated and well-read that they can perform "up to standard". What an oppressive demand!

To blog is to participate in an ongoing conversation. I'm throwing some ideas out there, and responding to others. That's all. I don't purport to present only well-researched, polished work. There are journals for that. Blogging fills a different niche.

Of course, the aim is still to reach the truth through good reasoning. So constructive criticism is always welcome. If I say something misguided, I very much hope others will respond by explaining how my views could be improved. In other words: join the conversation! That's always helpful.

But what's not helpful is to declaim the discussion from on high, dismissing it as worthless because the participants haven't yet read the right texts or otherwise "qualified" against the gatekeeper's chosen criteria. (As if philosophical banter were a blameworthy offense, and the "ignorant" would do better to remain in embarrassed silence.) Such an attitude is not just rude, but downright anti-philosophical -- can you imagine a better way to stifle intellectual curiosity than to condemn the curious for their "failure" to already know everything? So much for 'the examined life'.


  1. I suppose one would have been justified in criticizing you if you tended to make final pronouncements on important and complex matters without reading essential material on the topic first. My impression is, however, that you usually go out of your way to assure the reader that this is not what you're doing.

    Telling you that you shouldn't even discuss topics you don't know *everything* about is similar to telling someone to not even consider touching a tennis racket before he has absolutely mastered the game of tennis in the first place. Philosophy is primarily about discussion, not about jotting down all-considering, presumably irrefutable statements.

  2. Great post, Richard! More often than not, discussion involves unpolished ideas. (I find myself coming across things I've previously said on blogs or on paper and saying to myself, "What the hell was I thinking.")

    Great comment too, Tea. And that's a great tennis analogy. I'm going to have to steal that one sometime.

  3. Agreed, I think you are pretty careful to not be making a definitive claim. If you want even more reading check out the Equality Exchange:
    Excellent resource with some great papers for download, and a good reading list in distributive justice


  4. Yes!

    Sometimes I'm my own worst enemy, holding back an idea because I haven't yet framed it in such a way that I would want it on the cover of the NYT. Usually I get over it. That's not to say that I should post recklessly, just that those-who-are-exceedingly-impressed-with-themselves-for -having-the-longest-book-list-ever, who post the kind of comment you received, have a profound misunderstanding of blogging.


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