Yesterday or today, my blog got its three millionth pageview since its launch in 2006. (Cheers!) And at the Pacific APA last week, Nancy Cartwright celebrated "short fat tangled" arguments over "tall skinny neat" arguments. (Cheers again!)
To see how these two ideas are related, consider this picture of Legolas and his friend Gimli Cartwright. (Note the arguments near their heads. Click to enlarge if desired.) [modified from image source]
Legolas: tall, lean, tidy! His argument takes you straight like an arrowshot all the way from A to H! All the way from the fundamental nature of consciousness to the inevitability of Napoleon. (Yes, I'm looking at you, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich.) All the way from seven abstract Axioms to Proposition V.42, "it is because we enjoy blessedness that we are able to keep our lusts in check". (Sorry, Baruch, I wish I were more convinced.)
Gimli: short, fat, knotty! His argument only takes you from versions of A to B. But it does it three ways, so that if one argument fails, the others remain. It does without without need of a string of possibly dubious intermediate claims. And finally, the different premises lend tangly sideways support to each other: A2 supports A1, A1 supports A3, A3 supports A2. I think of Mozi's dozen arguments for impartial concern or Sextus's many modes of skepticism.
In areas of mathematics, tall arguments can work -- maybe the proof of Fermat's last theorem is one -- long and complicated, but apparently sound. (Not that I would be any authority.) When each step is unshakeably secure, tall arguments go through. But philosophy tends not to be like that.
The human mind is great at determining an object's shape from its shading. The human mind is great at interpreting a stream of incoming sound as a sly dig on someone's character. The human mind is stupendously horrible at determining the soundness of philosophical arguments, and also at determining the soundness of most individual stages within philosophical arguments. Tall, skinny philosophical arguments -- this was Cartwright's point -- will almost inevitably topple.
Individual blog posts are short. They are, I think, just about the right size for human philosophical cognition: 500-1000 words, enough to put some flesh on an idea, making it vivid (pure philosophical abstractions being almost impossible to evaluate for multiple reasons), enough to make one or maybe two novel turns or connections, but short enough that the reader can get to the end without having lost track of the path there.
In the aggregate, blog posts are fat and tangled: Multiple posts can get at the same general conclusion from diverse angles. Multiple posts can lend sideways support to each other. I offer, as an example, my many posts skeptical of philosophical expertise (of which this is one): e.g., here, here, here, here, here, here.
I have come to think that philosophical essays, too, often benefit from being written almost like a series of blog posts: several shortish sections, each of which can stand semi-independently and which in aggregate lead the reader in a single general direction. This has become my metaphilosophy of essay writing, exemplified in "The Crazyist Metaphysics of Mind" and "1% Skepticism".
Of course there's also something to be said for Legolas -- for shooting your arrow at an orc halfway across the plain rather than waiting for it to reach your axe -- as long as you have a realistically low credence that you will hit the mark.