Some Qualifications Of My Suggestion For Moving Philosophy Debates To The Internet

Some Qualifications Of My Suggestion For Moving Philosophy Debates To The Internet July 29, 2009

I appreciate Professor Harman’s willingness to exchange a couple rounds of debate with me across blogs against his stated desire to avoid such exchanges and so I will remain grateful to him even if we do not hear further reply from him.  Here are his reasons for rejecting my notion of having a centralized message board or set of interconnected blogs which required a philosophy PhD for participation:

I wouldn’t be in favor of this, since I don’t think the dominance of Philosophy Ph.D.’s in philosophy has been a good thing for philosophy. For my generation there still wasn’t a very good practical alternative, except for studying a neighboring discipline and writing philosophical books from out of that discipline– Latour would be a good example (or Nietzsche, further back). But for the coming generations, I think there’s a real chance that having a Ph.D. in philosophy, and perhaps in anything else, will sink to near-irrelevance in determining who is or is not treated as a philosopher. This feeling is based on the suspicion that universities, largely for financial reasons, are about to enter a long, cold winter with many fatalities. But perhaps I’m underestimating the ability of universities to reinvent themselves on the fly. Professionalizing disciplines does increase organization and filter out the real kooks, but it doesn’t always increase the overall quality of a discipline. Sometimes it stifles or crushes those with the most independent minds, and creates legitimized careerists. It all depends on the extent to which it’s done.

I think these are superb points.  But I do not think they are reasons to reject my position.  First, my suggestion is somewhat radical and involves these message boards and interconnected blogs replacing the academic journals and being the primary forum for academic discussion.  I am not saying philosophy would not still happen outside of this system as it right now happens outside the journals (how could it be stopped even if one tried?) but that instead of having the slow and scattered interchanges in the journals, that system would be replaced with one wherein every philosophy faculty member and loose cannon PhD would have democratic access to speak up and would be subject to expert attention at the same time.  This sort of free-flowing forum would decrease control by a chosen few even if there was a minimal requirement of credentialing necessary.

If the next generation’s Nietzsche wants to do earth rattling philosophy from outside the system, she is still welcome to try and she might be able to compete in the blogosphere admirably well on her merits just as Nietzsche himself did.  And who knows, maybe she might wind up absorbed into philosophy institutions or philosophy institutions might grant her access out of respect for her demonstrated competence and insight.  Nietzsche earned his way into philosophical discussions by eventually impressing those engaged in academic philosophy enough that they considered him worth including.

But provisions for philosophical outsiders by definition can’t be the norm.  Ultimately either the radical will start to get traction with philosophers and be considered one of them by at least some of them.   If the entire community of philosophers is unimpressed and finds someone’s work unsophisticated, I think there is some credit to be given to that expert judgment.  Especially if one cannot find respect either from the analytic or the Continental wings of philosophy or within any of the sub-niches, considering how relatively large the total tent of “philosophers” ultimately is, then I don’t think there is much loss if a thinker who may be more popularly accessible and liked nonetheless remains outside the institutional system that functions like the journals do now.

What matters is that instead of journals we would have the equivalent of constant worldwide conferences with thousands of philosophers regularly engaged in vetting each other’s ideas more quickly, getting each other caught up to speed and offering everyone access to be heard and communally vetted in real time.

Finally, this process happening in a major, centralized fashion would actually help revitalize philosophy’s relevance by making its debates accessible to everyone on the world wide web, helping to reverse that bleak trend towards cultural irrelevance you described.   More accessible formats with vigorous, shorter form debates would attract and educate non-philosophers watching and participating via remote on their own blogs.  I think it would simultaneously band together in common cause those with genuinely valuable expertise in philosophy who are right now specializing themselves out of mainstream relevance and make possible a group demonstration of the fruits of their labor, while also preserving the integrity of the discipline as a community with actual experts with actual training that makes an actual difference like it does in other areas of learning (against false impressions that just anyone can do or is doing rigorous enough philosophy).

I think careerism would be countered in such a system because the whole nature of assessment of academic performance would shift with the move away from journals as they are now.  But I’m not exactly sure how this would work out because I am not clear on how disciplines breed careerism exactly so not sure exactly what will effectively undermine that tendency.

Finally, he stresses:

I’m not in favor of hardened positions. I’m in favor of discrete projects that are finished and then left behind, to be replaced by new projects that are outgrowths of the later ones. There is plenty of room for ad libbing discussion and back-and-forth discussion on topics that arise from the flow of the conversation. But at a certain point it’s important to back away from such interaction and say: “OK, here is the complete version of what I currently think.” That’s not a hardened position, because you can always change it over time, and in fact it should evolve over time if you’re doing honest work.

I agree completely.  I think blogging (or a messageboard or something similar) replacing journals only enhances that process but I do need to concede (as I did in the last post) that it cannot replace the process of periodically summing up one’s lines of thought in more settled, book-length forms.  I think it’s just a way to enhance the individual and communal processes of working through the raw material on the way to such temporary stages of “completion.”

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