Philosophy Via Facebook?

Philosophy Via Facebook?


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.

Consider, too, the emergence of new media. Is there reason to think that journal articles are uniformly better for philosophical reflection than videos, interactive demonstrations, blog posts or multi-party conversations on Facebook? A conversation in social media, if good participants bring their best to the enterprise, has the potential to be a philosophical creation of the highest order, with a depth and breadth beyond the capacity of any individual philosopher to create.

So suggests Eric Schwitzgebel (UC Riverside) in the Los Angeles Times. I’ve seen and participated in some very interesting and fruitful Facebook conversations about philosophical topics and issues facing the profession. However, participation in most such conversations is restricted to the initiator’s Facebook friends. Sometimes that is advantageous, but it is, in a way, limiting for the initial poster. It’s also somewhat exclusionary (which can be problematic for a range of reasons).  I would encourage people to take these discussions to more public venues, such as blogs.

The op-ed is pretty provocative in its claims about philosophical expertise, too:

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. Non-academics can and should be respected partners in the philosophical dialogue. Too exclusive a focus on technical journal articles excludes non-academics from the dialogue — or maybe, better said, excludes us philosophers from non-academics’ more important dialogue.

And about public philosophy:

I would suggest that popular writing can also qualify as research. If one approaches popular writing only as a means of “dumbing down” preexisting philosophical ideas for an audience of non-experts whose reactions one doesn’t plan to take seriously, then yes, that writing is not really research. If, however, the popular essay is itself a locus of philosophical creativity, in which ideas are explored in hope of discovering new possibilities, advancing (and not just marketing) one’s own thinking in a way that might strike professionals too as interesting rather than as merely familiar rehashing, then it is every bit as much research as is a standard journal article. Analogously for government consulting, Twitter feeds, TED videos and poetry.

I’ve already seen a few discussions of this piece on Facebook. But, perhaps in the spirit of accessibility that animates Schwitzgebel’s piece, it should also be discussed in a more public venue. Like here.

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Nick Nicita
Nick Nicita
5 years ago

I graduated from a philosophy program in the CSU system a little over a year ago, and based on my experience I am inclined to agree with Schwitzgebel on most of his claims. The one claim I’m not sure I can endorse is his claim regarding expertise. If you were to compare my work from the beginning to the end, there would be a definitive change in both presentation, i.e., my papers were written language more suitable for acadmeic philosophy (which is less important to challenging his claim) as well as demonstration of understanding. Academic philosophy gives you certain tools that allow a person to clarify their thinking/position more precisely and present it in a more focused and concise manner. That, it seems, is an expertise that one picks up through the study of (academic) philosophy.Report

Nick Nicita
Nick Nicita
5 years ago

Excuse the typos as well. I just woke up and typed the above comment on my phone in bed. LolReport

Lee J Rickard
5 years ago

If public essays weren’t legitimate philosophizing, then we’d have to stop teaching Montaigne and Bacon.Report

Christopher Soriano
5 years ago

I have to agree with Schwitzgebel. I was introduced to Philosophy through various literary essays, which the analytics and academics would deem continental and not-real philosophy. To do that would mean to exclude so many ideas out of the canon that can very well change lives for the better. So to those who say that public philosophy cannot exist: yes it can. And it will.Report

anonymous
anonymous
5 years ago

“A conversation in social media, if good participants bring their best to the enterprise, has the potential to be a philosophical creation of the highest order, with a depth and breadth beyond the capacity of any individual philosopher to create.” The problem is that I can think of only a single time that good participants bring their best to the enterprise. Usually people are just jerks. They take the opportunity to patronize, condescend, and posture–and I think this is in large part because facebook is the toxic combination of a networking tool for desperate grad students, junior, and unemployed people, a place where sometimes people just want to talk to their friends, and a place where occasionally good philosophy happens. If you’re a grad student, junior, or unemployed, unless you’ve been anointed, be prepared for other people in your position to tear you apart to try to look better to all the famous people looking on. I’ve tried to start many philosophy conversations on facebook and nearly all of them have been completely useless because of this. (As for blogs: I’m not sure they are an improvement on this situation.)Report

Yet Another Anon Grad Student
Yet Another Anon Grad Student
5 years ago

I’ll echo Nick @1. While I agree with most of what Schwitzgebel says, there are two things that seem questionable.

(1) “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.”

This seems plainly false. First of all, knowing the literature gives one direct access to arguments and evidence. While it may be said that given enough time one could come up with the same arguments as Plato, Descartes, or Quine, this observation is trivial. Given enough time I might be able to rediscover calculus and classical mechanics… or I could just read a physics textbook. The fact of the matter is that no one can be reasonably be expected to come up with all the arguments and nuanced caveats that philosophers have developed over the centuries all on their own. Those who do not have access to the literature are inevitably going to spend most of their time retreading the same ground and repeating the same mistakes as philosophers in the past. In a word; philosophical knowledge is cumulative and thus requires training so that it can be passed down from generation to generation. Second, philosophical training consists of much more than just passively reading what other philosophers have said. You actually have to engage with what they say, and in doing so one hones one’s ability to construct and evaluate arguments. Compare the number of logical and dialectical mistakes freshmen undergrads make compared to professional philosophers and you’ll see how ridiculous it is to say that training does not develop philosophical skill. Third, this ignores all of the helpful formal tools that philosophers have been trained to use.

(2) “If one approaches popular writing only as a means of “dumbing down” preexisting philosophical ideas for an audience of non-experts whose reactions one doesn’t plan to take seriously, then yes, that writing is not really research. If, however, the popular essay is itself a locus of philosophical creativity, in which ideas are explored in hope of discovering new possibilities, advancing (and not just marketing) one’s own thinking in a way that might strike professionals too as interesting rather than as merely familiar rehashing, then it is every bit as much research as is a standard journal article.”

In principal, I have no objection to this. But in practice popular philosophy is going to inevitably sacrifice rigor. The folk aren’t going to read something with a bunch of nuanced claims precisely formulated in symbolic logic, long plodding asides to deal with technical objections, and references to esoteric articles. This means that the popular work in question will inevitably contain a ton of ambiguities and oversights. My objection isn’t to popular philosophy. On the contrary, I think we really need to get better at it. Rather, my objection is that I think the “dumbing down” approach is obviously the way to go. It is much better to take care of the technical details first and *then* present a simplified version to the public once your ideas have been vetted through peer review. If we allow people to represent the field by presenting half-baked theories to the public and these theories then turn out to rest on some bad mistakes then there will be egg on all our faces. Such popular work should clearly count as service, not research. But so what? All that means is that we should put more emphasis on service.Report

MrMister
MrMister
5 years ago

I found Schwitzgebel’s editorial unpersuasive. Most significantly, it seemed to me not to engage with any of the reasons that one might think journal articles are actually quite good venues for scholarship. Here is one: unlike social media posts, journal articles are painstakingly crafted over great deals of time–sometimes years. They are also vetted by a jury of one’s peers. Given that they are subject to so much careful attention, by the author and by the reviewers (and often by the commenters at Q&As, and by seminar participants, and by colleagues and advisors, and by…) it strikes me as perfectly natural to expect that they will be the most fully developed expressions of the ideas contained within.

On a different note: it seems to me sometimes presumed here (and often in other discussions along similar lines) that broadening the ambit ‘normal’ philosophy to include fictions, aphorisms, cryptic fragments, and so on would vitalize the discipline not just by way of increasing our ability to do research in new and innovative ways, but also by making the conduct of philosophy more interesting and attractive to the public. But this would not have been true for me, at least. Before taking a philosophy class, I thought, not to put too fine a point on it, that philosophy was all bullshit. If my first philosophy class had been reading cryptic fragments and literary fiction, I doubt I would ever have changed my mind. But instead I was immediately taken with the methods of philosophical investigation, which struck me as careful, down to earth, and honest, insofar as they made their inferential structure highly public (in precisely the way that literary and aphoristic expression do not). I may be atypical in having found this attractive. I have some evidence that I’m not, insofar as I’ve seen friends make similar transitions, but there’s an obvious selection effect there. Regardless, though, I thought it worthwhile to mention.Report

TheWeepingMan
TheWeepingMan
5 years ago

Multiple objections spring to mind.
1. The corporatization of academic media is bad enough, why would anyone want to drag yet ANOTHER media corporation into it? Keep in mind that everything you post on Facebook is owned by Facebook. We should opt for Open Access journals instead.
2. Popular philosophy in the broad daylight of the public sphere has been tried before. How many people – even WITHIN academic philosophy – read the stuff written by Johann Jakob Engel, Friedrich Bouterwek, Jacob Hermann Obereit, or Johann Karl Wezel? Yeah, nobody does, and there is a good reason for that.
3. Good philosophy can outlive anyone of us. Good papers, good books can be read a hundred years after they’ve been written, some even longer. With online media, there’s no guarantee that the blog posts or Facebook posts written in 2015 will still be accessible in 2035. It’s highly probable that they will simply be deleted. What good is philosophy if it is deemed or doomed to be short lived? What does that (publicly!) say about the self-understanding of those involved and our discipline?
4. Good philosophy takes up space and time which is simply not given on Facebook. Gettier’s paper aside, there simply are not many arguments that can plausibly be developed and defended within a few lines.
5. Also, we already have the ability to conserve each and every debate between philosophers, eg. those which take place at conferences or classrooms. However, we never do, because these debates are usually only interesting for the few people involved. What IS more interesting is the result of these debates, namely the paper which will implicitly take these debates into account.
6. What we need INSTEAD is philosophy that is actually RELEVANT for the public sphere, that has something to say that is INTERESTING outside of academia.Report

Yet Another Anon Grad Student
Yet Another Anon Grad Student
5 years ago

RE: 7 & 8,

Technology has made information very cheap. It’s not a zero-sum competition. Different forms of media can serve different purposes. Facebook can be used as a testing ground for ideas prior to publication in articles and books. Though as anon @5 pointed out, the informality of Facebook has certain drawbacks. As far as I’ve seen, people primarily use it to (1) post links to their published articles/humblebrag, (2) survey other philosophers’ intuitions regarding a specific question, (3) utilize the collective knowledge of the literature (i.e., “I’m starting to think about this question/argument. Do ya’ll know if anyone has published on this?”), and (4) (unfortunately) engage in the sort of self-congratulatory political groupthink that is more or less universal throughout facebook. Aside from (4), I think this is about right and that in doing this people have naturally stumbled onto the most effecient use of facebook as a medium, likely due to selective processes. (I think there is a sort of survival-of-the-fittest process wrt what is a successful facebook post, though it obviously isn’t Darwinian.) The more formal discussions that Schwitzgebel wants occur in blogs like Pea Soup that have greater formal expectations regarding who will post what. Though I will also point out that Facebook posts hardly count as public philosophy in the sense of “philosophy that is made available to the public”. Even public facebook posts are most likely only going to be viewed by other academic philosophers.

Note also that articles themselves have limitations. There is no reason to think that every important philosophical point can be made within the space of 30 pages. Moreover, there is no reason to think that one can break down an important project entirely into 30 page articles that are publishable. It is not only possible, but I think probable that many arguments that are essential to a large philosophical project may be deemed too limited in scope for publication on their own. If we become too focused on articles there is a risk that we will just get stuck in certain paradigms because no one will be able to publish the sort of wide-reaching arguments necessary to see that the paradigm as a whole is flawed. Here I think it might be best to emulate the sciences, which realize the importance of the distinction between original research articles and the review articles that summarize and synthesize the results of many original research articles. We seem to be severely lacking in the latter department. This is nuts. Any scientist will tell you that review articles are an essential part of the process; without them everyone would be swimming in a sea of indiscernible information. I think this is precisely what is happening in academic philosophy.Report

ck
ck
5 years ago

With respect to this point about multi-author collaborations on social media: “A conversation in social media, if good participants bring their best to the enterprise, has the potential to be a philosophical creation of the highest order, with a depth and breadth beyond the capacity of any individual philosopher to create.”

If this is correct, there are at least two quite different explanations that one might worry the piece is conflating.

One explanation would be that there is something interesting about facebook et. al. such that “multi-party conversations” there are valuable in virtue of their form, and indeed valuable enough to be “philosophical creation of the highest order.”

Another explanation would be that the discipline of philosophy has for so long been so scandalously inept at collaborative work and co-authored writing that a few anecdotal experiences of interesting conversation on social media are easily misconstrued (by us) as evidence that there is something about the form of the media that lends itself to “philosophical creation of the highest order.”

If the latter explanation is more accurate (I am not *sure* it is, but *if* it is), then it may be that there is something about the way in which we construe the achievements standards and process of production of “the academic journal article” that get in the way of certain kinds of “philosophical creation.”

If all that is correct, then one might agree with ES that the academic journal article is a warpingly narrow format for us to be so mortgaged to, but might also think that we should follow some of our colleagues in other disciplines to expand the ways in which we conceive of what a journal article is supposed to do. In other words, there might also be a problem with philosophy’s conception of the journal article at work here. Typically, that is a conception of an article as a statement of the Great Thought of the Great Thinker. Not, for instance, a more humble record of results in the lab, as it is often rhetorically presented in many (not all) of the sciences.Report