Philosophers On the Philosophy Blogosphere


Five years ago Daily Nous came into existence, joining the amorphous and still growing collection of websites known as the philosophy blogosphere.

Socrates: What is this you speak of?
Justin: Socrates? What the—?
Socrates: The “philosophy blogosphere.” You attribute to it all sorts of qualities. You must be an expert on it to proclaim so boldly.
Justin: Er, I’m not sure I like where this is going.
Socrates: Come on, humor me.
Justin: Well, the philosophy blogosphere is just the set of philosophy blogs. Today, there are more of them than ever. I’m aware of roughly 150, but I’m sure there are many others. They vary in subject matter, organizational principles, number of authors, intended audiences, goals, frequency of publication, and so on.
Socrates: Justin, I’ve asked you what the philosophy blogosphere is and all you’ve done is tell me about the number and kind of philosophy blogs. That would be like you asking me what hummus is and me telling you that hummus is just the set of hummuses, of which there are a great number and variety. Classic chick pea hummus. Black bean hummus. Boiled peanut hummus.
Justin: Um, Socrates, why are you here?
Socrates: I thought you might have hummus. I was feeling a bit peckish.
Justin: Why would I have hummus?
Socrates: I heard you were having a thing. You know, for your blog’s 5th anniversary.
Justin: It’s not that kind of thing. From whom did you hear this?
Socrates: No, it wasn’t Hume. It was Liam Bright.
Justin: God, that guy knows everyone.
Socrates: You know, he has a philosophy blog. You should check it out.
Justin: I’m aware. Wait a second. You know what a blog is!
Socrates: Umm…
Justin: So we don’t have to get into some tiresome discussion about the necessary and sufficient conditions for what makes something a philosophy blog, after all, do we, Socrates?
Socrates: Er, where’s that hummus?
Justin: I think it might be good if you leave.
Socrates: “Good,” you say…

[…and scene.] It’s true that I’m having a thing for the 5th Anniversary of Daily Nous, and while that thing is a group post of reflections on the philosophy blogosphere, the focus is less on abstruse philosophical questions about what makes something a blog, and more on the state of the philosophy blogosphere, what it is like and what it does, what’s good or bad about it, what people should do with or on blogs, and what the blogosphere could be.

Several philosophers were gracious enough to contribute. They—and their posts—are:

I very much appreciate them taking the time to write down their thoughts and share them here. Readers, you are, as usual, welcome to discuss their pieces and related subjects in the comments. (I’ll be sharing some anniversary thoughts about running Daily Nous in a separate post later today.)

René Magritte – “Not To Be Reproduced”


Blogging as Service to the Profession
by Helen de Cruz

I have blogged in philosophy since 2010. My first experience with blogging was at NewApps, a group blog concerned with news, arts, philosophy, politics, and science. Co-bloggers included among others Catarina Dutilh Novaes, Eric Schliesser, John Protevi, Mark Lance, Brit Brogaard, and Jon Cogburn. It was a lively blog, with comments easily running in the 40s and 50s and vigorous, but mostly respectful, discussion. Shortly thereafter I joined Prosblogion, a now-defunct specialist blog in philosophy of religion, and then also the Philosophers’ Cocoon, a blog for early-career philosophers, including graduate students and folks off the tenure track.

For me, the main positive feature about blogging is that it provides service to our broader philosophical community in two important ways: first, by providing a relatively low-threshold and egalitarian way to engage in philosophical discussion, and second, by providing mentorship to people who are less networked.

Blogging affords a way to engage in debate in an open, relatively egalitarian fashion, at least compared to other forms of professional engagement such as workshops, conferences, and the like. Geographical location, financial constraints, and the reach of one’s network can severely limit the extent to which some people can partake in philosophical discussion. Going to conferences and workshops is expensive. Many workshops are on an invitation-only basis. The same is true for other forms of group engagement in what is still a very lonely and sole-authoring field, such as edited volumes and book symposia. By contrast, blogs are accessible to everyone, and allow everyone to engage and comment. For example, the Prosblogion at its apex had lots of engagement and hits from readers and commenters in Africa and Asia.

Over the years, I’ve seen the number of comments decline in the group blogs I was following or involved in. The decline began maybe around 2013, and was certainly noticeable by 2015. It seems people today are still very willing to comment on blogs relating to the profession, but not so much on other blogs. Most of that commenting has moved to Facebook, which is regrettable given that Facebook does not provide a permanent record of discussion in the same way a blog does (in any case, it is not as easily searchable). Moreover, access to discussions on Facebook depends on how well networked you are on that platform (this is also true for philosophy on Twitter, where follower reach is very important). In this way, social media are less egalitarian than blogs. I predict that Facebook will eventually decline as a platform of philosophical engagement, not least because of its embroilment in election meddling and dark ads, and its leaders’ unwillingness to fix these problems. I’m curious as to what will replace Facebook for online engagement in the future (it does not seem people are using PhilPeople in this way yet, but it certainly has potential).

A second way in which blogs can provide a valuable service to the profession by offering mentorship and information that otherwise only goes through very oblique and select channels, and makes that many people at smaller, less resourced institutions, miss out. I’ve visited several schools with graduate programs where the person involved with placement, or the graduate students, told me they use the Job Market Boot Camp Marcus Arvan and I co-wrote.  We’re now soliciting pieces on how to write philosophy. These are personal accounts of the writing process which, we hope, demystifies it. I think doing these things is important because we need to pay forward mentorship, and we need to serve our wider communities. I know that the job market and lots of aspects of academia are zero-sum. If I provide help and mentorship on the Cocoon on how to write a good grant proposal, it is not going to magically increase the total funds available for grants. But I still think it is important that people get adequate help and mentorship to write the best grants and job applications that they’d be capable of writing, and mentorship provided in blogs is a good way to do this.

I know there’s a less positive side to blogging (the meltdowns, ad hominems), but nonetheless, I think the openness of blogging and its ability to reach a wide range of people regardless of their standing in the profession are underappreciated features.


 

The Norm-Shaping Role of Blogs
by Regina Rini

Philosopher 1: P, hence Q.
Philosopher 2: My dear colleague, I worry I’ve misunderstood, as it does not seem to me that Q follows so readily from P. Please help me better understand your view.

 – – – – – – – –

Philosopher 1: P, hence Q.
Philosophy 3: Oh my god, how stupid are you? Anyone who thinks Q follows from P should have their doctorate revoked.

The philosophers in these two exchanges are, in one sense, doing the same thing: they are disagreeing about the logical relationship among theses. But they are doing so in quite different ways, according to quite different norms. Where do these professional norms come from? The answer—these days anyway—has a surprising amount to do with blogs.

Once upon a time, philosophical norms were generated formally, in journals, or locally in seminar rooms and conference halls. There was no mechanism for discipline-wide informal norm setting. But blogs have given us that platform. And in some ways this is quite an improvement. The old forms of interaction were irregular and fleeting. It is difficult to reflect upon a norm whose expression leaves no trace beyond memory. (Pet theory: the gradual lessening of Philosophy’s reputation for ‘bloodsport’ is partly a result of the migration of professional activities to the internet. Sharp spoken words fade quickly, but nasty text leaves a digital mark.) Social media doesn’t quite work for this purpose. Facebook threads are semi-private, keeping them from transcending local normative bubbles. Twitter is wide open, but often exhibits its own savage norms that devour anything distinctively philosophical. Blogs stand apart, a nice balance of stability against stasis, freedom against chaos. Or at least when wisely moderated.

Sometimes we use blogs to negotiate our norms explicitly, as when we argue about journal review practices or hiring policies. But more often our negotiations take place implicitly, in and around the flow of comments. Did you suddenly turn combative after I wrote X? That suggests I’ve crossed some line in what I said—or perhaps only in how I said it. Am I dancing around some point that seems logically inseparable from my thesis? Perhaps that’s how I imply it is so true as to require no mention—or so distasteful as to merit no voicing. Regularity of these practices ascends toward normativity, while pointed transgression is often the first move in an attempted renegotiation.

Most of the time we aren’t speaking at all. Most of our norm negotiation is indirect, at second hand, from the audience position. We watch others comment at one another, and we build up models of how philosophers may behave—or how we need to reform. Personally, sideline viewing makes up nearly all of my own philosoblogging experience. Early in my career I felt it much safer to keep my head perpetually down. I still now comment only very rarely. But I am often reading along, learning how people relate, what we are all like. I am weighing, recalibrating my own behavior, judging silently—because that’s what norms are for.

A last point: in light of the norm-shaping role of blogs, what should we make of anonymity, that perpetual hobgoblin of bloggery? I think it’s a bad thing. Partly for the familiar reason that, on the internet, all anonymity tends toward ruin. (Though judicious and time-consuming moderation, of the sort seen here at Daily Nous, can keep the worst depredations in check.) But more fundamentally, anonymity warps the function of norm-setting. Norms are accountability mechanisms; we avoid violating norms for fear of foul reputations, so we aim to negotiate norms by which we are willing to have our reputations regulated. Anonymous blog commenting provides some participants a reputation-insensitive influence on norm formulation. We may come to regret the accretion of norms fit to regulate the unnamed and so unaccountable. But at least we’ll still be better than Twitter.


 

The Untapped Innovative Potential of Philosophy Blogs
by Eric Schliesser

I want to thank Justin for inviting me to participate in this discussion. I hope he forgives me for ignoring Daily NousLeiter ReportsFeminist Philosophers (and the rest), which, for present purposes, I’ll treat as ephemera.

When it comes to form and argument, the philosophical blogosphere exhibits little experimentation. This is surprising for four reasons: first, there are a few barriers to entry—it’s not very expensive to set up and maintain a webpage or dedicated site. Second, a few blogs, which clearly aim to attract advertisers, excepted, blogs can be a labor of love and can ignore the commercial need for attracting eyeballs. Third, and most important, hyperlinks and the ability to combine different media liberate philosophy from previous constraints, which, say, impose linearity or ensconce philosophy in written and spoken words.

Most philosophy in the blogosphere—both the outward looking stuff aimed at that magical entity, the public, as well the more recondite material aimed at the professional aficionado—is continuous with lots of pre-internet age philosophy. What’s changed is the potential, instantaneous reach of one’s conversation/dialogue or lecture (e.g., podcasts), which, together with written essays and arguments, can find truly global audiences. Even the well-funded efforts at using the internet to deliver access to courses, both for profit and not-for-profit, have, while making Michael Sandel even more famous (by academic standards) than he was, not transformed the very idea of a philosophy course or a curriculum.

I do not wish to minimize the significance of valuable online resources (e.g., the Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophyphilpapersbooks.google, etc.) and the many online communities, which make the study and research of philosophy easier and less isolated. I can access materials at some of the best libraries without leaving my study. I can participate in online discussion of Margaret Cavendish’s philosophy any time of the day with likeminded enthusiasts. Once the algorithms of Google.translate are perfected (in the manner of Star Trek’s universal translator) we can look forward to an even more globalized, philosophy blogosphere. With liberal arts colleges sprouting up all over the world, we are seeing culturally hybrid curricula shaping new kinds of minds. The cosmopolitan in me rejoices and if mankind can survive the century—not a foregone conclusion—the philosophical future seems bright.

Even so, I am baffled we’re not seeing more innovation that deploys the resources of cheap computing power creatively. Little is done to develop philosophy through, say, spatial or multi-dimensional reasoning. The clever use of hyperlinks could show what happens to arguments or premises in subtly different contexts. While there are fantastically inventive visual presentations of information or of people presenting philosophy (and many terrific memes), I am unaware of attempts to change the visual or tactile experience of philosophy on screen or in virtual reality.

Fourth, underlying the puzzle is the assumption that technology and accessibility of new sources of inspiration influence the development of philosophy. Anybody who reads Plato is reminded that Socrates thought it significant that Anaxagoras’ works circulated in scrolls that could be bought (presumably also after his exile)—see Phaedo 97b, and Apology 26de. Plato records for us Socrates’s ambivalence (or worse) about philosophical writings in the Phaedrus 275. To jump to a period I know better, much philosophical innovation by the Novatores who now have familiar names (Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, etc.) took place outside universities and monasteries; the riches of early modern philosophy were made possible by the cheapness of print and the relative reliability of logistics. Of course, early analytic philosophy was jumpstarted by breakthroughs in conceptual and inferential tools. And Islamic philosophy by translations from the Greeks, etc.

Surely the time is ripe for a philosophical, avant-garde techno-punk that reboots philosophy outside the academy. During the last decade, there has been a decisive shift in analytic philosophy (our culture’s hegemonic species of philosophy). It used to be that in it knowledge of the cutting edge, or research frontier, of professional philosophy could be mastered by one or two graduate seminars building on a fairly minimal undergraduate curriculum. Now, competent professional philosophers who mind their own business outside the major research universities may find it difficult to understand the arguments in, say, formal epistemology or modal metaphysics. Concept inflation and concept refinement are the characteristics of our age.

My point is not to be critical—I am no enemy of esotericism or the division of labor; but rather to admit that the philosophical historicist in me expects that when philosophy develops subtle refinement and technology can ferment innovation and revolt, the ground will move under our feet.


 

Philosophy Blogs: What Happened?
by Tamler Sommers

As a grad student and early-career professor I contributed regularly to The Garden of the Forking Paths—a free will and moral responsibility focused blog founded by John Fischer, Justin Coates, Gustavo Llarull and Neil Tognazinni out of UC Riverside. It sounds like a fairytale now, but here’s how I remember the Garden. There were roughly ten posts a month, and the authors ranged from the most distinguished professors in the field to grad students and non-academics. It was a supportive, open, good humored community. The Garden was a place where we could be creative, float ill-formed ideas, and challenge own positions. I still remember my post Argument from the Authority of my 2 ½ Year Old Daughter about my daughter’s reaction to Toy Story 2—a post that started my journey from free will skeptic to Strawsonian compatibilist. The Garden played a key role in my philosophical development. It was also a place where you could get your name out in the discipline. I was in PhD program ranked in the mid-30s at the time, one that had no professors who specialized in my area. The Garden allowed me to connect with other prominent researchers in my field. I was very lucky to start my career during its run.

But the run couldn’t last. The egalitarian and open spirit of the blog became untenable. In early 2010, the Garden shut down. Flickers of Freedom replaced it, thanks to Thomas Nadelhoffer. The contributors were mostly the same, but this time they had to be invited. Flickers of Freedom had a few good years, but the golden age, the innocent age, of philosophy blogging had long past.

So what happened? I don’t know. The same decline has been true for blogging in general, but here are some philosophy-specific factors that may have played a role.

  • PeaSoupification – I love the people over at Pea Soup, but they may have killed substantive philosophy blogging for all of us. The posts on that blog were like journal articles (now they often are journal articles)—and that virus spread to other blogs, including Flickers of Freedom. Posts got longer, more meticulous, less creative. Younger philosophers—the life blood of blogs—were understandably intimidated about posting.
  • Meta-fication – For various reasons philosophy blogging became less focused on philosophy, and more focused on the philosophy profession and how to talk about it. In the so-called golden age, there was a decent balance of observation/gossip/bitching/reflection about the profession vs substantive philosophy. Today blogs tilt far more towards the former. That combined with the rise of anonymous comments have made blogging way less fun. Bitterness, vitriol, and snark has always been with us but it’s pervasive now. Philosophy blogs once offered an escape from polarized political antagonisms. Now there is no escape. Except maybe…
  • Podcasts – I’m not the first to make this observation, but podcasts are the new blogs—a reliable place to find the spirited, funny, good faith discussions that characterized blogs in early to mid-2000s. I launched my podcast Very Bad Wizards in part because I missed that dynamic, and although we aren’t quite prominent enough for a certain well-known blogger to deem us “a breakthrough philosophy podcast”, we’ve done OK—over 17 million total downloads, roughly 200,000 per episode. (For the record I’m a big fan of Hi-Phi Nation too.) But podcasts are designed to appeal to wider audiences, and can only offer vicarious discussions for listeners. So they can’t replicate one of the best aspects of golden age blogging.
  • Overcautiousness – Finally, (old man voice) young philosophers have gotten too goddamn risk-averse. I know, I get it, the job market got tighter, social media turned people into assholes, everyone is worried about posting something that could come back to haunt them. I get why young philosophers are wary about putting anything out in public. But since blogging is typically a young person’s sport, blogs have suffered. As an aside, I think the new generation’s hyper-cautiousness is a mistake—both for philosophical development and as a matter of strategy in a tight market. But that’s another conversation.

Obviously these are trends, not rules, and there are plenty of exceptions. Eric Schwitzgebel’s blog The Splintered Mind is still going strong. Justin has done a nice job here overall mixing philosophical discussion with meta-commentary. I even enjoy the blog that belongs to Justin’s arch-nemesis. But I do miss the Garden, and I’m truly grateful for what it offered.


 

The Philosophy Blogosphere: Observations and Advice
by David Wallace

Almost all my engagement with the philosophy blogosphere has been through short(ish) comments, so a substantive original contribution is a bit outside my comfort zone. Here instead are some semi-random observations from the last decade of philosophy blogging:

    • Blogs are unambiguously public, and that’s a good thing. A lot of what makes social media so toxic is that it’s an ambiguously public space: the group of people who might conceivably participate is much larger than the group you expect to participate; even with privacy filters, things can easily get forwarded beyond the intended space; the medium encourages conversational style but is preserved for eternity. Blog comments are pretty unambiguous: it’s a form of publishing, permanent and open.
    • Often the best way to suppress bad ideas is to ignore them. In a world with enormous competition for attention, engage with something only if (a) it’s right; (b) it’s wrong, but interestingly so; (c) it’s misguided and silly but so many other people are paying attention that it needs to be criticized. Most misguided and silly arguments or articles pass unnoticed; why draw attention to them?
    • It is in your self-interest to develop a reputation as measured and charitable. It’s more likely to get people to engage with you when you criticize them rather than ignoring you or lashing out; when they do lash out anyway (which will happen), third parties are more likely to see your point if you’re obviously behaving reasonably. And if you do need to speak strongly on occasion, it carries a lot more force if you have an established reputation for not responding that way most of the time.
    • Publish under your own name if you can. It makes it a lot easier for people to assess what you are saying if they know who you are and from what background you are saying it. If I say something contentious about, say, hiring experiences then probably people will believe me because they know who I am and I have an established reputation, whereas it is very easy (and often sensible!) to dismiss anonymous comments. And posting under your own name is a good discipline: since you know what you write will have a permanent effect on your reputation, you’ll be more careful, thoughtful and constructive, and find it easier to resist the temptation to snap. (It seems to be a trend, at least at Daily Nous, for more people to be using their name; it’s a good trend.)
    • If you can’t use your own name, be stably pseudonymous. “Yes, David, but you have a very comfortable safe position”. Fair enough. But if you’re not comfortable using your own name, use an distinctive and stable pseudonym. I reliably read comments by (e.g.) Sikander and YAAGS, who have been able to build up a reputation for being interesting and thoughtful even though I don’t know their real identities.
    • Change the valence of a situation to sanity-check your response before commenting on it. This is pretty much Intellectual Honesty 101, but it seems to come up a lot, especially in academic-freedom discussions.
    • Even if something is true and important, this may not be the right time to say it. To use the example that’s still most vivid to me over many DN discussion threads: maybe Charlie Hebdo is Islamophobic; but the immediate aftermath of their massacre was not the right time to focus on that fact.
    • Most people are reasonable and intelligent most of the time, and as a corollary, if someone appears not to be being reasonable and intelligent, you may be misunderstanding them; or else it’s a random silly comment that doesn’t express what they’re usually like. (I don’t actually know if this is true, but living on the assumption it’s true does make life online less stressful!)
    • Don’t read anything by people who say “I haven’t had time to read the comments, but…” Those people are the exceptions to rule (8).


Old-Fashioned Thoughts about Old-Fashioned Blogs
by Brian Weatherson

When philosophy blogging started, in the early 2000s, the primary focus was on doing philosophy. There were many, many, distractions, but the core plan was that posts would be reflections on, or contributions to, the kind of debate that you’d see in journal articles. Indeed, plenty of us who were active back then managed to turn posts into article sections, or expand posts into entire articles, or to cite posts or comment threads in published work.

That aspect of blogging hasn’t entirely stopped. The original and best philosophy blog is still active. But it’s mostly faded. In part this was because of technological changes to do with the introduction of HTML5. In part is was because the broader academic blogging community withered, though again some greats remain. And it was in part because some people got a rude shock when they found out how much their senior colleagues had been protecting them from administrative work when they were pre-tenure. Well, maybe that was just me.

But it’s a shame that this disappeared. That’s not because places like Daily Nous don’t add value; of course they do. It’s not even that the kind of high quality philosophical exchange that characterised the best of the blogs doesn’t take place on places like DN. Some of the discussions here, both in posts and comments, really are great philosophy. It’s just that the choice of topics is driven by the news or other external factors, and not simply by curiosity. And there should be a place for that kind of blogging too.

That old-fashioned blogging has four big virtues. It allows folks who are geographically isolated to interact with the rest of the world. It provides an outlet for ideas that are too interesting to just file away, but not really interesting enough for a whole journal article. (That is to say, most philosophical ideas.) It is open-access, public philosophy, that can get read by non-philosophers. And it helps people learn how to write.

Academia is one of the few places in the world where people have jobs that consist in large part of writing original works, and yet what they write is not independently edited. Academics are expected to be their own editors, and a lot of us are no good at this at all. [Ed. Note: Tell me about it.] One solution that works for some people is to practice. And, for some people (though not all) practice works best if you have to show your work. Writing something that someone you don’t know might read is a distinctive skill, and one that requires practice. And being able to write something clear, informative and interesting to that unknown reader in under 750 words is a very rare skill these days, yet a vitally important one.

In my not at all humble opinion, philosophy is rapidly improving along most dimensions. You see graduate students these days with better teaching records, and better service records, than most full professors. Philosophical research skillfully integrates work from across disciplinary boundaries – though perhaps less so across sub-disciplinary boundaries. And the quantity of engagement with our fellow philosophers is going up. But I’m not sure the quality of it is. Not enough philosophers can write a clear and succinct summary of an important view, or tell a story about how a debate has progressed that is more than a play-by-play rehash of the moves that were made.

In general, we’re not great writers. (I don’t mean you, dear reader; you’re in a class with Austen and Austin. But you’re the exception that proves the rule.) We could all use more practice. Old-fashioned philosophy blogging isn’t the perfect practice – it can inculcate bad habits as well as good ones. But it is a start.


Socrates: …red lentil hummus, carrot hummus, white bean truffle hummus…
Justin: Seriously do you ever stop?


(If you have a blog you think I should keep an eye on, perhaps because you think an occasional post from it might make for a good addition to the Heap of Links, let me know about it by email at [email protected].)

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