Philosophy and the Internet Public

Philosophy and the Internet Public

Though the internet is, in a number of ways, good for philosophy, it isn’t always good to philosophers. The needless hostility, harassment and scary threats, personal insults, bullheadedness, impatient demands, etc., widely broadcast for all to see (and discussed a bit here) can be a deterrent to participation and a nasty “reward” for engaging with the public.

Examples of these problems, a discussion of their effects and the issues they raise, and strategies for handling them will be the subject of a special session at the Eastern Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association (APA) later this week (Friday, January 8th at 1:30pm). Arranged by the APA’s Committee on Public Philosophy (CPP), the session includes the following talks:

  • “The Implications of Anonymity in Social Media” by Margaret Crouch (Eastern Michigan)
  • “Strategies for Dealing with Online Harassment” by Karen Frost-Arnold (Hobart & William Smith)
  • “Fear and Loathing” by Jason Stanley (Yale)

I’ll be there, too. Moderating.

This is a topic of keen interest to the members of the CPP, and to many others in the profession. If you have a view about these and related matters, or questions about them, feel free to post them in the comments here. If time allows, we can take them up during the session.

(image: “When the Universe Is Addressed Ceremoniously it Will Respond” by Sheila Ghidini)

Ghidini when universe addressed

Beyond the Ivory Tower. Workshop for academics on writing short pieces for wide audiences on big questions. Taking place October 18th to 19th. Application deadline July 30th. Funding provided.
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felonius screwtape
felonius screwtape
8 years ago

if we were to limit the internet to just social media, such as Twitter of Facebook, I would say this : it’s not a good place to “do” philosophy, but it is a great place to “share” philosophy, or more exactly, stories and articles about philosophy, philosophical humor, philosophy “at work” outside the classroom and beyond the university, philosophical blog posts written in a manner that non-specialists can understand, and the manifold ways in which “Philosophy Matters” for everyday people in everyday ways.

“Doing” philosophy on the internet, on the other hand, is fraught with the kind of risk mentioned above, and frequently tends to degenerate into the kind of nonsense we all witnessed last year with those anonymous blogs. Or it often generates hysteria (of the type “omg leiter said something odious! quick everybody, light your hair on fire!”). Or it becomes shamelessly narcissistic self-promotion. Very good philosophical blogging is, I think, relatively rare, and even this falls into two species : the more common philosophers-talking-to-philosophers-about-philosophy-in-philosophese, and the rarer still philosophy that addresses itself to the common people without degenerating in to the self-help feel-good drivel of the deBottons and Popovas of the internet world.

So I guess my question then would be twofold : first, is it possible (and if so, how? what protocols are necessary?) to guarantee a safe space wherein philosophers can “do” philosophy with other philosophers and without fear of idiotic trolls; and second, can philosophers find ways to use the internet to “do” philosophy in a manner that speaks to the concerns and interests of the non-specialist in a thoughtful, non-patronizing, non-reductive manner, i.e. in a manner that challenges and elevates readers?

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  felonius screwtape
8 years ago

“second, can philosophers find ways to use the internet to “do” philosophy in a manner that speaks to the concerns and interests of the non-specialist in a thoughtful, non-patronizing, non-reductive manner, i.e. in a manner that challenges and elevates readers?”

I don’t know, but if it is, it will have to involve the idea that nonspecialist readers can also contribute in ways that challenge and elevate the philosophers they are engaging with. Any attempt to treat philosophy as something delivered by experts to a passive audience is bound to fail, both because philosophers lack the recognized social authority to be taken seriously in that way, and due to the necessarily interactive nature of philosophical understanding.

Matt LaVine
Matt LaVine
8 years ago

I don’t exactly know what my question is here, but I wonder if any of you think there’s an interesting way to tackle the original question in terms of the contrast between writing for the internet and writing for a publication. I bring this up because of a couple of thoughts I’ve briefly considered:
(1) I’ve wondered if ONE OF the reasons philosophers go so extreme in their internet writings is because of the arcane and byzantine requirements of academic writing. Maybe if it was okay to use contractions, get excited or angry, and just talk like a real person in our publications, we wouldn’t feel the need to go so far in the opposite direction in our internet writings. I bring this up because it seems to me like it’d be nothing but good for the relationship between philosophy and the public if published philosophy and internet philosophy resembled each other more (and if neither was stodgy/pretentious or overly-adversarial).
(2) It also seems like it’d be good for there to be more obvious connections between published writings and internet writings for the sake of future historians of philosophy. Historians of philosophy inevitably use unpublished writings to help understand published works. I, for instance, work on Wittgenstein. It’s impossible to do historical work on Wittgenstein without eventually having some thoughts on conversations Wittgenstein had with Anscombe, Drury, Ficker, Sraffa, etc. How trustworthy of a process is this going to be in the future if we have ultra-formalized publications being interpreted in the wake of invective-laden tirades?