Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Medium of Philosophy

A couple more questions of information architecture: What are blogs good for? And what is the ideal medium for philosophical discussion? Here some form of pluralism seems plausible, since there are many different kinds of valuable philosophical discussion (from brainstorming ideas to the highest levels of rigorous critique), and people differ in whether they prefer, e.g., oral or written communication. But I think some general observations may still be possible. In particular, I want to undermine the common prejudice against taking blogging seriously as an academic medium.

On the traditional picture, philosophers may go through any or all of the following steps: (i) get together at the pub to exchange rough ideas, (ii) go home and write up a paper, (iii) pass it around their friends for comments, (iv) perhaps present it at a colloquium or conference to get a bit more feedback, before (v) submitting the final paper to a journal, where it stands as their "official" contribution to the ongoing discussion in the literature.

Blogging might be understood conservatively as an expansion of the first (brainstorming) step, though I think it also has a fair bit in common with conferencing, and - don't forget - is a form of publication in addition. This combination of features suggests some potentially radical implications. In the long run, I expect that the distinction between 'work in progress' and 'publications' will become increasingly porous, as academia slowly comes to grips with the 'publish then filter' information economy. (Dennett noticed the start of this trend over a decade ago, in employing his famous "multiple drafts" metaphor.) But I also want to say something about our more immediate circumstances.

In particular, I want to suggest that blogging, as a medium, is very well-suited for (much) philosophizing. Indeed, I personally find it to be my favourite philosophical medium, at least for many purposes. I add the proviso because my absolute best philosophical experiences have been in small, well-focused seminar classes, where everyone has done the readings and actively participates in stimulating discussions. That, I grant, is even better than blogging. But in general, I find that blog discussions are often more philosophically valuable than, say, colloquia, conference talks, and similar 'general audience' presentations.

Of course it depends on the participants (so I have in mind a good quality blog like PEA Soup). But it shouldn't be surprising that blogs, as a written medium, may be conducive to higher quality conversation -- at least when all else is equal. After all, asynchronous discussion frees interlocutors to spend as long as they need to reflect carefully and craft their responses. Competitive pressures also help: without a captive audience, "speakers" with nothing particularly worthwhile to say will soon find no-one listening to them. (If only we could leave a boring talk, or skim past an obtuse question, as easily as we can on the Internet!) Thirdly, the space of potential interlocutors is much larger, as overcoming geographic boundaries creates many new opportunities for conversing with wonderful philosophers from all over the globe. [For example, one of my favourite blog discussions (quoted here) was with Jamie Dreier (Brown) when I was at ANU, half the world away.]

So I think blogging is in principle -- and often in practice -- superior to conferencing and colloquia, as a "mid-level" philosophical medium. This claim strikes me as fairly straightforward. More controversially: I'm inclined to think that even "high-level" philosophy, i.e. journal articles, would often be better in (something like) blog format. Granted, some papers really do need all those ten thousand words to make their point. But most often, I think the core insight could be easily captured in an 800 word blog post, and the rest is just tying up loose ends, or repetitive exposition for struggling readers -- stuff that could easily be delegated to separate - hyperlinked - pages, rather than bloating the main work.

Overall, I expect that current academic practices will at least be significantly supplemented (if not supplanted) by new media. Eventually. But I hope to see these improvements implemented sooner rather than later. So helping others to see the opportunities for improvement is perhaps a first step. Your thoughts?

1 comment:

  1. More controversially: I'm inclined to think that even "high-level" philosophy, i.e. journal articles, would often be better in (something like) blog format. Granted, some papers really do need all those ten thousand words to make their point. But most often, I think the core insight could be easily captured in an 800 word blog post, and the rest is just tying up loose ends, or repetitive exposition for struggling readers -- stuff that could easily be delegated to separate - hyperlinked - pages, rather than bloating the main work.

    I am very much with you on this point; I cannot count the number of articles I've had to read whose basic point could have been put in a few hundred words, with perhaps an excursus or appendix or two or three for particular secondary questions of note.

    One of the things I like about blogging is that I think it is a medium whose expression of intellectual results fits more closely to real intellectual progress. Real intellectual progress is very piecemeal and meandering. As I'm doing something completely different, I may come up with a very promising idea that moves the discussion forward -- but promising as it may be, it may still be a long way from being developed into even an informal seminar paper. But if I put the idea out there, then I have the clarification that comes with actually setting it down in words, and if it strikes anyone as interesting, they can take it up and use it or object to it or what have you -- progress doesn't have to sit idle waiting for the ideas to be polished up enough that, as you say, the loose ends are all tied up and the likely questions are all answered. It can be done on the fly, and to some extent we see it done on the fly, and thus the actual inquiry is less hidden. This can and sometimes does lead to confusion and misunderstanding, but of course confusion and misunderstanding are not unique to the medium of blogging. And the nice thing about blogging is that there's more room to find a way of doing it that makes you comfortable; I think a lot of good ideas are found in bad papers, and the bad papers are bad papers because people start worrying less about the ideas and more about making the paper what we expect (or think other people expect) a paper to be.

    I agree that it's not quite as good as real, in the person philosophical dialectic -- serious discussion in person between people who have a decent grasp of the topic and are really interested in discovering the truth of the matter -- but it may well be getting as close as you can get to that in written form.

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