Sunday, July 19, 2015

Philosophy Via Facebook? Why Not?

An adapation of my June blog post What Philosophical Work Could Be, in today's LA Times.


Academic philosophers tend to have a narrow view of what is valuable philosophical work. Hiring, tenure, promotion and prestige depend mainly on one's ability to produce journal articles in a particular theoretical, abstract style, mostly in reaction to a small group of canonical and 20th century figures, for a small readership of specialists. We should broaden our vision.

Consider the historical contingency of the journal article, a late-19th century invention. Even as recently as the middle of the 20th century, leading philosophers in Western Europe and North America did important work in a much broader range of genres: the fictions and difficult-to-classify reflections of Sartre, Camus and Unamuno; Wittgenstein's cryptic fragments; the peace activism and popular writings of Bertrand Russell; John Dewey's work on educational reform.

Popular essays, fictions, aphorisms, dialogues, autobiographical reflections and personal letters have historically played a central role in philosophy. So also have public acts of direct confrontation with the structures of one's society: Socrates' trial and acceptance of the hemlock; Confucius' inspiring personal correctness.

It was really only with the generation hired to teach the baby boomers in the 1960s and '70s that academic philosophers' conception of philosophical work became narrowly focused on the technical journal article.

continued here.


Richard Baron said...

There seems to be a fair amount on the use of new forms of communication in the conduct of research in other disciplines, which might form a useful point of comparison. Examples are:

Krugman, Paul. "The Facebooking of Economics". New York Times, 17 December 2013.

Nentwich, Michael, and René König. "Academia Goes Facebook? The Potential of Social Network Sites in the Scholarly Realm". Chapter 7 of Sönke Bartling and Sascha Friesike (eds.), Opening Science: The Evolving Guide on How the Internet is Changing Research, Collaboration and Scholarly Publishing. Dordrecht, Springer, 2014.

Puschmann, Cornelius. "(Micro)Blogging Science? Notes on Potentials and Constraints of New Forms of Scholarly Communication". Chapter 6 of Sönke Bartling and Sascha Friesike (eds.), Opening Science: The Evolving Guide on How the Internet is Changing Research, Collaboration and Scholarly Publishing. Dordrecht, Springer, 2014.

This sort of material is only a point of comparison, though. There is an important difference in that most disciplines do not have the special feature of philosophy that you pick out when you say:

"Philosophical expertise is not like scientific expertise. Although academic philosophers know certain literatures very well, on questions about the general human condition and what our fundamental values should be, knowledge of the canon gives academic philosophers no especially privileged wisdom".

Unknown said...

'The Way' from Wikipedia represents the same limitations, before and after Socrates.
Reports from Ways are very direct, pointing direction in'field shaping philosophical work'..

chinaphil said...

That paragraph that Richard picks out is very challenging for philosophers! If they don't have privileged wisdom, then what do they have? I think you're right, and it's because philosophy perpetually shifts its ground to be asking the next difficult question, but this conception does create a real problem in defining what philosophers do.

I was interested by the reference to the lives of philosophers. It seems like the lives of philosophers have been regarded as separate from their work for quite a while, with the rather curious exception of the recent Heidegger scandal. I was wondering whether it has something to do with the complexity of lives, and how it's difficult to draw conclusions from a life which has not been simplified and mythologised, but the founders of religions still seem to be getting away with it. New religions are still being started with some regularity, presumably by people as fallible as the rest of us.

Slightly curious that you didn't mention Zizek and Chomsky, who seem to be fairly powerful figures doing philosophy in non-academic settings (I think Chomsky's political activism counts, because it posits, argues for and discusses novel political concepts, as well as being a call to action) - whatever you think of the quality of their work.

Anonymous said...

New to how you moderate comments ..did you receive my short comment about Ways and direction of attitude...thanks, Arnold...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Richard: Cool, thanks for the references! Given the last point you raise, there's a way in which philosophy plays out differently -- as you say. Krugman, for example, advances his academic opinions through Facebook, but I doubt he takes non-experts' input seriously, whereas in philosophy there's less of a clear expert/non-expert divide, except in issues like knowledge of the existing written literature (which can be important, but isn't everything).

chinaphil: Philosophical expertise is a tough issue! I agree that there are areas of expertise (esp. in knowledge of existing written arguments), but the gap is not as sharp and an outside perspective can counterbalance trends and groupthink within academic philosophy. Chomsky and Zizek do quite a bit of public philosophy in my view, so they are nice examples. Peter Singer too. I wanted to stick with canonical non-contentious figures in the piece rather than contemporary figures that people have strong and conflicting opinions about.

Anon Jul 21: Sorry about the slow approval. Not quite sure of your point. Could you clarify more?

Unknown said...

That even when philosophers enter metaphysics they can turn to Facebook and radio...
..NPR, 13.7 Cosmos and Culture, "Does Mindfulness Mean Anything", blog/comments by Adam Frank)

Some of the postings, express Values in Sincerity for physical exercises from practice...
..providing as you have proposed, a broader range of genres in Western philosophy..