Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Doing Good Philosophy on a Blog?

Most philosophers, I suspect, doubt that blogs are a good medium for philosophy. Even Brian Leiter --

the blogosphere a bit too ephemeral, and its attention-span too short, to feel like it is the right forum for serious philosophical writing (TPM).

-- not to mention your average tenured tweedy grayhair!

To Leiter's objection: Face-to-face conversation is even more ephemeral and wandering, but it is an excellent medium for philosophy. Consider Socrates!

The blog is intermediate in duration, formality, and interactivity between philosophical conversation and published articles. It would be odd if the two extremes were suitable for philosophy but not the middle; I see no reason to think so. Now, of course, many blog posts are bad -- as are many philosophical conversations and formal essays. The reasons for this are obvious and have nothing to do with the medium.

Different media differently balance virtues and tolerate vices. Blogging has one virtue that I've come to think very important to philosophy: It forces you to distill an idea to a clear, communicable core.

I'm increasingly suspicious of incomprehensible, "difficult" philosophy. The human mind, when facing abstractions, can barely deal with "unless X, not Y", much less page after page of Hegel. If you build your philosophy on a tower of technical concepts and complex arguments, it will topple with a poke. By being insufficiently clear, you can avoid decisive refutation (see my post on "profound" philosophy); but the way of integrity is to make each piece plain and simple, able to stand on its own. Posting your thoughts on a blog -- that is, making your thoughts brief and comprehensible to a general audience who may not have read previous posts -- is thus a form of intellectual discipline.

Some more specific advice to fellow philosophy bloggers. (This advice applies only to posts, not to comments.)

* Post only on matters to which you've given considerable thought. If you're a leading expert on X, your reflections on X are much more likely to be worth something than are miscellaneous ramblings on matters that have left no deep tracks in your mind.

* Write to entice the reader. The title invites the reader to consider a topic. If the title is inviting, you have the reader for about two sentences; things had better be cooking.

* If a post takes more than two minutes to read or confuses the reader with jargon or complexity, then reading it becomes a project, rather than a casual pleasure. Few readers will continue.

* Each post should have at least one thing novel, of interest to the specialist. If you write outside your area of expertise, it is difficult to judge whether you are only saying what is obvious to those more expert than you.

(Now if only I would follow all this excellent advice myself!)


Philosopher Scott said...

I agree that blogs are a good place for philosophy. I think they are a great tool for a person to express their own philosophy, because they don't have to do it all at once. They can use different topics and events throughout the life of their blog to explain their philosophy in examples.

You might like the Philosophy Forums.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the link, Philosopher Scott. I'll have to go check it out!

Justin Tiwald said...

I don't know, Eric. I think you're doing a rather good job of living up to your own advice.

Another point that Leiter likes to make is that blog-based discussion tends to be too combative for serious philosophical discussion. Presumably this has something to do with the reliance on words detached from human faces and voices. I think the lack of voice inflection plays a large part in this as well.

If Leiter is right about this, then blog-based philosophy would share one of the vices of published articles (a drift toward combative exchanges), which is then exacerbated by a characteristic weaknesses of face-to-face conversation (responding before having a chance to digest the interlocutor's claims, flitting from topic to topic without treating any one in depth). In this sense it really would occupy a middle ground, but a middle ground in the sense that it shares the vices of both extremes.

That said, I'm not sure that Leiter is right to think that blogs lend themselves to belligerent rhetoric. The tone on this blog has always been astonishingly civil, as it has on many other blogs (PEA Soup and Certain Doubts come to mind). As someone who has been doing this sort of thing since the late 1980's (sad isn't it?), I don't know what to make of this. Back in my day, when my friends and I argued about politics on local bulletin board systems, escalating rhetoric was par for the course. Perhaps in the intervening years we've just adapted to the medium and found new coping mechanisms, but I'm not sure. The political blogs tend to be as heated as ever. Could it be that academic philosophers are just unusually civil with one another? That doesn't sound right either.

Lester Hunt said...

Eric, Excellent post, with good advice as usual. And yes you are pretty good at following your own advice.

In the abstract, blogs ought to be excellent ways to raise philosophical consciousness. Since they are, as you point out, interactive systems (like a conversation) they are immune to Plato's famous objection to books: that you can't ask them questions.

As several have pointed out, one reason they often malfunction is the air of combativeness that infects so many. One reason for this, I want to suggest, is the tendency toward anonymous or pseudonomous posting and commenting. Note that this blog tends to be very civil and also tends to only have participants who sign their actual names. Nothing from dudes like Abouthadit or Fedup or Letmespellitoutforyou or R. U. Sirius. A coincidence? I don't think so.

My colleague Harry Brighouse posted remarks on Crooked Timber in which he opined that the widespread use of anonymity in the blogosphere tends to lead to some bad behavior. He got a lot of angry criticism in the comments. Mainly from anonymous commenters of course!

Shawn said...

There is a lot in your post that seems right. I am with you in thinking that the blog can be a good medium for doing philosophy. The felt need to present things very clearly is good. The ability to have exchanges via comments are good. Some of the most helpful posts I've seen around the blogosphere are the ones that have engaging comment threads. The only thing that seems odd about your post is that the advice you give to other bloggers makes it sound like you want blogs to be something akin to published journals.

There's a good series over at n-Category Cafe about the blog as a research tool. It seems a little odd to shy away from posting ideas and thoughts about stuff you are new to or ideas that are still in formation. Some of the better blogs out there are by graduate students, many of whom might (would?) be hesitant to say "X is my area of expertise". (This might be a personal thing; I am still a bit hesitant to claim expertise in any area.)
Well worked out posts are good. Posting to try to work through a half-baked idea is also one virtue of the blog, since readers can help, e.g. by saying "hey, that sounds like Y's paper Z" etc.

Blogs are also good formats for presenting the main argument in recently read papers. At least, this was one of the original reasons I started blogging, to record arguments from and reactions to stuff I was reading. Why not just put it in a .txt or a notebook? Having it out there in public space makes it possible that someone else might read it, and if other people might see it gives you some motivation to keep at it. Sort of like going to the gym with a buddy keeps you going; it keeps you honest. The more disciplined bloggers out there might think this is wrong headed, but it is usually effective. Blogging argument summaries is also helpful when someone drops a comment saying you've got it all wrong or that they thought different premises were at play.

You hit the nail on the head about lengthy posts. By and large, lengthy posts are just hard to get through. There are exceptions; at blogs I've been reading I tend to read through the long posts, but not so much at blogs more recently encountered. It is too much when people put up drafts of papers as posts.

It seems like if blogging and commenting is done in the right spirit, it can be very helpful, especially to people that need to write or discuss philosophy to absorb it.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the kinds words and interesting reflections, Justin, Lester, and Shawn. (Surely this is a topic that has left deep tracks in all our minds!)

I'm pleased that you find the tone here civil -- I hope it stays that way! I think it has a lot to do with the topic and readership, which I take to be pretty academically serious. I also *try* in my posts (not always with complete success) to be undogmatic and respectful of differing views, inviting (I hope) reflective rather than angry reactions in those who disagree. I agree anonymity can destroy civility. I especially enjoy seeing comments from regulars, whom I feel I get to know.

Your comment, Shawn, about my advice making blogging too much like publication is quite thought provoking. I think in some ways there's a compromise between the interests of the readers and the interests of the poster, with the less expert poster giving less to the readers and getting more from them -- or I should say risking giving less, since sometimes first and passing thoughts are interesting and valuable, especially if the territory isn't well worked over. (First thoughts on free will are unlikely to teach Harry Frankfurt much!) When I do offer first or first-ish thoughts, I try to have them be in areas where there's little formal research. Surely there is room, though, for different types of blogs and goals in blogging.

And also, I should say for clarity -- and in appreciation! -- that even when I post on topics on which I have published extensively, I sometimes get some very useful feedback from readers. It's one of the great pleasures and advantages of blogging, especially with such a good group of readers as you folks. I definitely don't mean my comment about getting more from readers when you're inexpert to imply that I don't often get very stimulating and rewarding comments and objections when I post on belief and introspection! (Philosophy is like that.)

michael metzler said...

This is a great topic. It seems we have not really figured out how to work with this new medium of communication like we have others, including ways to establish conventional protocol and enforce it. Although, we thankfully have no need of this worry here on this blog! I too think that this happy thought is just the fruit of academia; whatever its faults, academia at least allows a place for disciplined, rational, dialog; and I think the new internet world is revealing this little secret to the non-academic world, which itself might be an interesting new development.

As for uses of blogs: let me add the database function. This is not a novel suggestion, and it was just a couple weeks ago that I found myself automatically using the search function of my own blog for source material while writing. Some material I HAD to go to my blog to get! This would be one reason to go ahead and post papers too, even if nobody reads them – although, strangely, I have not seen too much decline in the web stats once I started doing more of this than anything else; you can always have a “read more” button so that the main page is not compromised. Just a thought.

Also, I can't help but mention Harvard Law's new "The Situationist"; this is certainly one of the best "blogs" I have yet seen; but then, of course, it really isn't just a 'blog', is it? This seems to be a flexible medium.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Michael. I think you and Shawn are right that I was a little narrow in my thinking about the possible functions of philosophical blogging. It is a flexible medium, capable of supporting a diverse range of valuable enterprises!

The Situationist is an interesting blog, I agree -- though in some ways it's more like a magazine than like a typical blog! Its articles are long and polished, less working through ideas than presenting them for a popular audience, and there's very little interactivity so far. (More evidence for your point that there are many ways to be a successful blog!)

Pete Mandik said...

Hi Eric,

I enjoyed this post and generally agree.

Some thoughts:

One thing I worry about is the potential for reduction to sound bites. Some thoughts are worth thinking about for more than two minutes. Your advice regarding short posts has some truth to it, but is not exactly right. I'd advise instead that one write something attention grabbing and informative at the beginning, to motivate the reader to explore further if need be, but to allow oneself to write the longer post now and again.

Another thought related to the topic of attention span. One thing that bothers me about the habits of bloggers, especially blog readers, is the attitude that if something isn't recent, it isn't worth reading or commenting on. I wish more people got in the practice of treating things that are still there as being still there. Of course, there are ways of structuring one's blog to get around this, by e.g., having links to selected archived posts from the main page (as you and I do).

Another thought, one thing that I've found really useful about blogging (my second favorite part, perhaps) is the way it allows me to try out chunks of papers in progress. I've gotten highly valuable feedback about what "works" that I would not have gotten from a conference presentation or sending whole drafts to colleagues.

Finally, the best part about blogging has been the way it allows one to stay in pretty regular intellectual contact with the people you would otherwise only talk to at conferences. The savings in airfare alone are staggering.

Pete Mandik said...


Another thing:

I'm curious on your thoughts re: frequency. I know you try to keep to a MWF schedule. I'm curious on your thoughts on the value of regularity and frequency. Why stick to a schedule? Why make it that frequent?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Pete! I think I pretty much agree with you about everything. The sound-bite-ness is a downside, but I think an essential part of the medium, if one is going to be realistic about how much most of one's audience is going to read at one time. One thing to do is to link to something longer and deeper (or explore it below a fold); but another possibility is to take something like (a *little* like) Nietzsche or Wittgenstein as a model -- with the idea that one can approach the same theme from different directions multiple times, with each fragment standing on its own but with a fuller understanding arising cumulatively by having a variety of related fragments.

On the MWF schedule: I have actually been thinking of dialing it down a little, maybe to Mon-Thurs. I find having a regular schedule a useful discipline, though. Do readers, also, want things fresh on a regular basis? I think that varies....

Pete Mandik said...


Your point about N and W is well taken.

It makes me wonder, though, how successful a blog of aphorisms would be...

Don Russell said...

Hey - I am a "gray hair" but feel the opportunity to seek truth in any context is wonderful.

I am working hard on the concept of "doing good" as a part of the international outreach ministry I serve.

What an incredible mess. No matter what is done someone has a reason why what you did is not “doing good” when the dead done was intended to “do good”. Some “do gooders” do more harm than good!

What is "good"? Is it even possible to identify a working definition that everyone can accept? Then if we know what “good” is can we agree to what “doing good” is?

First I am examining the idea of "doing good" from the standpoint of the "spiritual" ideological belief system; groups that identify themselves with names such as Moslem, Buddhist, Christian, Catholic, Protestant, Pagan, Humanist, Atheist, etc.

Each group has firm and certain ideas about what it means to "do good". Few if any identified groups agree at any level on what it means.

So I am seeking information, ideas and thoughts defining what "doing good" is from a philosophical standpoint.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for your comment, Don. That's a tough one! I have some opinions about what it is to "do good", but I'm afraid they're likely to be pretty amateurish, since it's not a question I have focused on professionally much -- so maybe I'll let discretion be the better part of wisdom here and refer you to an ethicist!