Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

The State of Philosophy on the Internet

1. Sometimes the Internet and modern media technology are responsible for explosions of new talent. There’s no doubt in my mind we’ve been treated to a bunch of exceptional chess players and some great photographers because of our increasingly digital life.

I have reasons to suspect that despite access to a number of terrific resources, quite a few philosophy majors, and intelligent philosophy blogging that philosophy as a field is not blossoming online.

2. Notice that I say “as a field.” I don’t expect people to be reincarnations of Socrates or Wittgenstein. I’m not sure I even want that. What I do want is familiarity with the basics, an ability to think critically, appreciation and discrimination of the better from the worse in terms of philosophy itself.

It’s a losing battle. When philosophical thinking is not reduced to justification for various ideologies, it is needlessly complex and always shallow – the goal seems to be to show who can “win” on comment threads. The only thing even approaching something like intellectual honesty is the population of would-be cheaters posting their homework questions in forums. I can’t stand them. But at least their assignments ask “What does so-and-so mean by such-and-such?”

I’m not unhappy with philosophy blogging. Then again, we’re talking about academics blogging primarily. That’s exclusive in some awful ways. Academics not only tend to talk to other academics, but to a very specific segment of them. None of this, of course, helps the field significantly, especially when more “accessible” posts are ideological rants.

3. There is no solution that will make what I’m complaining about go away. I’m writing so that way a few serious minds who are dabbling in the field but not doing something more rigorous get away from news aggregator sites like Digg or Reddit and start making good notes on primary sources for themselves. I’m actually happy philosophy isn’t worse online – after Colin McGinn’s ridiculous proposal, it is clear things could be a lot worse overall.

I’d better tell my story. In my undergraduate studies, I understood virtually nothing in philosophy for 3 years. I was lucky to encounter some lectures on Aeschylus that explored the mythic foundations of the city. There was little or nothing to sustain those thoughts, though. The course I was in blazed through the Apology and Republic and Aristotle’s Politics. I couldn’t keep up and every time I got confused there was not only too much to do, but it wasn’t clear how I should even approach the texts.

Things only started opening up for me when I had time to breathe and a rough idea how the history of ideas worked. Yes, I’m not even talking about critical thinking or appreciation/discrimination at this point. Everything I’ve said so far is about “basics.” It took repeated attempts of reading with the question “Who cares about this stupid book?” in the background to bring the better books to life. Plato’s Republic was notorious in this regard. I tried reading it several times over a number of years. Each time I tried, I got the feeling that the book read “What is justice? Yes.”

4. So I think this. We can remedy a lot of what’s wrong with philosophy online if a few know some more basics and are willing to read carefully. Eventually they’ll ask serious questions. They won’t see everything in terms of arguments or argumentation. They won’t be taken in by big names and ideological agendas.

A few posts I’ve got to help people get started:

  • On Machiavelli’s Prince – a brief overview of the history of political philosophy. I’ve got my biases. They’re pretty clear in this post. I still recommend it: it’s a starting point.
  • Xenophon, Memorabilia III.7 – I’ve got the whole section here where Socrates exhorts Charmides, Plato’s uncle and an awful human being, to hold office. The commentary shows that this might actually be an attempt of Socrates to moderate Charmides. The larger point: ancient philosophy is very tricky stuff. Usually it requires ridiculously good reading skills. I confess I’m still lacking in many regards.
  • On Oedipus Tyrannus – short post showing how Greek tragedy may create a counterpoint to political philosophy.
  • On Plato’s Minos – you don’t need to know the text to know the status of “What is law?” is a solid question.
  • On Aristotle’s Politics I.1 – the text in question is very important. Aristotle lays out a plan for politics on vastly different grounds than we use.

I’ve got so much more lying around. Wish I could link you to all of it. I’ll just say this – I started writing so that way people could pick their text and stick with it. They’d know someone had read it or was reading with them. The big problem with the Internet is simply this. With all these texts available and the ability to publish, we do surprisingly little reading. Surprisingly little consideration of the voices of others.

1 Comment

  1. The points you make here definitely make sense, and it is the case that quite a few of these things, I have to agree with you on. The internet for all of its resources and splendors, in terms of philosophy, hasn’t really taken its potential in stride quite yet. People are mistaking philosophy for opinions and vice versa without understanding the reason they’re talking about these things. Understanding the principles of philosophy and developing your etiquette when approaching it can be a daunting task for the common internet-dweller (myself included!)

    I find, though, that it may not be a lack of knowledge that is holding back the floodgates of the philosophical society, but rather it may be the lack of creativity. In a practical sense, you could have all of the philosophical knowledge in the world but it doesn’t matter if you don’t do anything with it. I think that a lot of people may be stuck in this mentality that if we read it in a book, it becomes irrefutable fact and they adapt that as truth instead of a philosophical talking point (which doesn’t necessarily discuss universal truths, merely observations).

    That is to say, to read the Tao te Ching is one thing. To understand it is another, and to apply it is even different, and to transform it into your own philosophy is another. I feel that people get lost in the middle… kind of like having a large storage tank, full of knowledge, yet no output to pump their contents into.

    That being said, I’m glad that you feel this way. I enjoyed reading this, definitely.

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