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December 24, 2012

Philosophy as interruption

I woke up this morning from an anxiety dream about an event that doesn’t exist. In the dream, I’ve been tasked with replying to a presentation by someone talking about something philosophical, except they’ve never made clear to me who’s speaking or what he (it’s a he) is talking about. So, I write down some ideas, but then the guy doesn’t show up at the event, and I am bed in the theater as the guy ahead of me gives his talk, and then I can’t find my shoes, and then I can’t find my notes. So, I scribble a new talk on a scrap of paper, and wake up before I go on stage.

I woke up from the dream with my notes complete in my head. Here are the notes, fleshed out so they’ll make some sense to people who are not me. But, it is very important to me that you understand that I know I am not a philosopher. I have a Ph.D. in philosophy, but even when I was teaching (1980-1986) I would never call myself a philosopher. There is nothing original or new in the following.

So, with those caveats, here are the notes for my talk as I dreamt them.

1. Philosophy is an interruption. During uneventful times, it is an interruption in the normal work of society the way my old teacher, Joseph Fell, described it as an “open space of play.”

2. Interruptions in the content of philosophies can be brought about by interruptions: by traumatic wars, plagues, genocides, revolutions in science, in technology, in economic infrastructures…

3. This is not supposed to happen because philosophers tend to think that philosophy shapes our understanding, not that not it is shaped by the accidents of what is around us. Philosophy (Western, anyway) is supposed to transcend that stuff and deal with the eternal verities.

4. Except that it turns out that we’re situated creatures. Our understanding of our world depends on our culture, history, language, family, and even accidents of “fate.”

5. But it’s not that simple. We are shaped by our historical world, but how that world shapes us depends at least in part on how we understand that world.

6. The interruptive effect of technology on thought is especially significant when it is the technology by which philosophers engage in the activity of philosophy: talking, writing, talking about what’s been written.

7. Technology doesn’t determine how we understand it, but (a) insofar as the technology offers some possibilities and closes others, (b) insofar as it occurs within a situation that already has meaning, and (c) insofar as it is designed to be taken one way and not another, it affects our understanding of it. How we understand it in turn affects how we understand our world, and how philosophers understand philosophy.

8. The mixed-up mutual effect of thing and world happens because we think in the world by using the things of the world. (Thank you Heidegger, and thank you Andy Clark.) The relation of the two is not mystical.

9. Finally, none of the above escapes the situatedness of our existence. The concept of an interruption itself implies a belief that there is a normalcy of existence — something that is capable of being interrupted — that belief is itself situated.

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December 4, 2011

[2b2k] Truth, knowledge, and not knowing: A response to “The Internet Ruins Everything”

Quentin Hardy has written up on the NYT Bits blog the talk I gave at UC Berkeley’s School of Information a few days ago, refracting it through his intelligence and interests. It’s a terrific post and I appreciate it. [Later that day: Here’s another perspicacious take on the talk, from Marcus Banks.]

I want to amplify the answer I gave to Quentin’s question at the event. And I want to respond to the comments on his post that take me as bemoaning the fate of knowledge in the age of the Net. The post itself captures my enthusiasm about networked knowledge, but the headline of Quentin’s post is “The Internet ruins everything,” which could easily mislead readers. I am overall thrilled about what’s happening to knowledge.

Quentin at the event noted that the picture of networked knowledge I’d painted maps closely to postmodern skepticism about the assumption that there are stable, eternal, knowable truths. So, he asked, did we invent the Net as a tool based on those ideas, or did the Net just happen to instantiate them? I replied that the question is too hard, but that it doesn’t much matter that we can’t answer it. I don’t think I did a very good job explaining either part of my answer. (You can hear the entire talk and questions here. The bit about truth starts at 46:36. Quentin’s question begins at 1:03:19.)

It’s such a hard question because it requires us to disentangle media from ideas in a way that the hypothesis of entanglement itself doesn’t allow. Further, the play of media and ideas occurs on so many levels of thought and society, and across so many forms of interaction and influence, that the results are emergent.

It doesn’t matter, though, because even if we understood how it works, we still couldn’t stand apart from the entanglement of media and ideas to judge those ideas independent of our media-mediated involvement with them. We can’t ever get a standpoint that isn’t situated within that entanglement. (Yes, I acknowledge that the idea that ideas are always situated is itself a situated idea. Nothing I can do about that.)

Nevertheless, I should add that almost everything I’ve written in the past fifteen years is about how our new medium (if that’s what the Net is (and it’s not)) affects our ideas, so I obviously find some merit in looking at the particulars of how media shape ideas, even if I don’t have a general theory of how that chaotic dance works.

I can see why Quentin may believe that I have “abandoned the idea of Truth,” even though I don’t think I have. I talked at the I School about the Net being phenomenologically more true to avoid giving the impression that I think our media evolve toward truth the way we used to think (i.e., before Thomas Kuhn) science does. Something more complex is happening than one approximation of truth replacing a prior, less accurate approximation.

And I have to say that this entire topic makes me antsy. I have an awkward, uncertain, unresolved attitude about the nature of truth. The same as many of us. I claim no special insight into this at all. Nevertheless, here goes…

My sense that truth and knowledge are situated in one’s culture, history, language, and personal history comes from Heidegger. I also take from Heidegger my sense of “phenomenological truth,” which takes truth as being the ways the world shows itself to us, rather than as an inner mental representation that accords with an outer reality. This is core to Heidegger and phenomenology. There are many ways in which we enable the world to show itself to us, including science, religion and art. Those ways have their own forms and rules (as per Wittgenstein). They are genuinely ways of knowing the world, not mere “games.” Nor are the truths these engagements reveal “pictures of reality” (to use Quentin’s phrase). They are — and I’m sorry to get all Heideggerian on you again — ways of being in the world. We live them. They are engaged, embodied truths, not mere representations or cognitions.

So, yes, I am among the many who have abandoned the idea of Truth as an inner representation of an outer reality from which we are so essentially detached that some of the greatest philosophers in the West have had to come up with psychotic theories to explain how we can know our world at all. (Leibniz, Spinoza, and Descartes, you know who I’m talking about.) But I have not abandoned the idea that the world is one way and not another. I have not abandoned the idea that beliefs can seem right but be wrong. I have not abandoned the importance of facts and evidence within many crucial discourses. Nor have I abandoned the idea that it is supremely important to learn how the world is. In fact, I may have said in the talk, and do say (I think) in the book that networked knowledge is becoming more like how scientists have understood knowledge for generations now.

So, for me the choice isn’t between eternal verities that are independent of all lived historial situations and the chaos of no truth at all. We can’t get outside of our situation, but that’s ok because truth and knowledge are only possible within a situation. If the Net’s properties are closer to the truth of our human condition than, say, broadcast’s properties were, that truth of our human condition itself is situated in a particular historical-cultural moment. That does not lift the obligation on us poor humans beings to try to understand, cherish, and engage with our world as truthfully as we possibly can.

But the main thing is, no, I don’t think the Net is ruining everything, and I am (overall) thrilled to see how the Net is transforming knowledge.

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October 1, 2011

[2b2k] Open access to a life of work

From Kattallus, via metafilter:

Humanities and the Liberal Arts is the personal website of former Middlebury classics professor William Harris who passed away in 2009. In his retirement he crafted a wonderful site full of essays, music, sculpture, poetry and his thoughts on anything from education to technology. But the heart of the website for me is, unsurprisingly, his essays on ancient Latin and Greek literature some of whom are book-length works. Here are a few examples: Purple color in Homer, complete fragments of Heraclitus, how to read Homer and Vergil, a discussion of a recently unearthed poem by Sappho, Plato and mathematics, Propertius’ war poems, and finally, especially close to my heart, his commentaries on the poetry of Catullus, for example on Ipsithilla, Odi et amo, Attis poem as dramatic dance performance and a couple of very dirty poems (even by Catullus’ standard). That’s just a taste of the riches found on Harris’ site, which has been around nearly as long as the world wide web has existed.

There are months of serious browsing in the world of Prof. Miller’s thought. It is a particularly wonderful illustration of the boon of having worldwide access to unlimited worlds of thought.

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June 25, 2011

Interesting reading abounds

Ever since I ended my paper-based relationship with the Boston Globe, I’ve done my breakfast reading in front of a monitor on our kitchen table. Today, I spent a little longer, and read some excellent articles:

  • Stephen Metcalf writes about Robert Nozick’s legitimizing effect on Libertarianism, and the philosophical weakness of the case he made for it. I have not heard anyone else make Metcalf’s critique of the Wilt Chamberlain argument (so far as I recall).

  • In Scientific American, John Horgan defends Stephen Jay Gould from the charge that his brilliant example of personal bias affecting scientific outcomes was itself based on Gould’s own biases. It’s actually a weak defense, with Horgan instead defending a related point SJG was making: “Maybe Gould was wrong that Morton misrepresented his data, but he was absolutely right that biological determinism was and continues to be a dangerous pseudoscientific ideology.” By coincidence, a couple of days ago I came across my old copy of an anthology titled “The Sociobiology Debate” that was compiled in 1978 when the idea that evolution shape ours our social behavior was not just controversial, but to many of us (including me) seemed quite threatening: it implied a lack of free will (which I no longer care about) and it was sometimes used to give a sheen of inevitability to the most conservative and even oppressive of social behaviors. Unfortunately, Horgan’s argument against sociobiology consists of the following single paragraph:

    “Biological determinism is a blight on science. It implies that the way things are is the way they must be. We have less choice in how we live our lives than we think we do. This position is wrong, both empirically and morally. If you doubt me on this point, read [Gould’s] Mismeasure [of Man], which, even discounting the chapter on Morton, abounds in evidence of how science can become an instrument of malignant ideologies.”

  • Also in Slate, I disagree so sharply with Jack Shafer’s criticism of Jose Antonio Vargas that I think I must be missing something obvious. Jose is the former Washington Post and Huffington Post journalist (and Pulitzer-prize winner, by the way) who came out as an undocumented immigrant in an article in tomorrow’s NY Times Magazine. Shafer declares himself to be an “immigration dove”: “I believe in open borders and detest our current laws and their enforcement.” If you hate the law’s enforcement, how can you also get in a snit about someone who lies to evade that enforcement? Or perhaps it’s only journalists who shouldn’t lie to their employers about their immigration status because there needs to be a special bond of trust between the editor and the journalist. So, which jobs does Shafer think do not require trust? Or is this just journalism dealing with its self-esteem issues again? Jose didn’t lie about his credentials, and he didn’t lie in his stories. He lied about the thing the bad laws Shafer “detests” made him lie about, just as forty years ago he likely would have had to lie about his sexual preferences. If Shafer thinks Jose’s admission makes him unreliable, then go through his work and find where this lack of reliablity manifests itself. If it doesn’t, then salute Jose for his honesty and courage. (Disclosure: Although I haven’t talked with him in a year or two, I count Jose as a friend, beginning in his pre-Pulitzer WaPo days. He has struck me as an honest, open-minded, and impassioned inquirer. I like him a lot.)

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June 8, 2011

Six degress of philosophy

In what is certainly the coolest proof that philosophy is the Queen of the Sciences, and also the Duke and all of the in-laws, xefer shows the relation of any Wikipedia topic to its “Philosophy” article. (Hat tip to Hal Roberts.)

Kevin Bacon to Philosophy

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May 30, 2011

The titles of philosophy

Philosophers Carnival at Philosophy, etc. points to philosophical posts from around the Web over the past three months. Many of them weigh in on age old questions about the continuity of consciousness, whether objective morality is possible without Heaven and Hell, and whether time travel is possible.

But I was especially struck by the online sites and journals where the articles were posted:

This is a far cry from titles such as the Review of Metaphysics and Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies typical of the printed output of the old school. (Browse a list here.) The new titles seem to mock the academy, even though many of the papers would be at home in its traditional publications. But slowly the wrapped will take on the properties of the wrapper…

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March 13, 2011

Former philosophy majors

Here’s a list of famous people who started out as philosophy majors.

You can take this either as evidence of the utility of majoring in philosophy, or as evidence that if you want to succeed, you should flee from your background as a philosophy major.

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August 25, 2010

[2b2k] Philosophy as writing, science as publishing

I’ve been struggling with a section of my book that maintains that science is a form of publishing. It’s a useful lens, I think, for understanding some of the ways the Net is changing science.

This morning, I went for a book to read on the bus and came across Richard Rorty‘s Consequences of Pragmatism, a collection of essays that I had read half of and put aside about six months ago. And what’s the very next essay I was up to in it? “Philosophy as a Kind of Writing.” Here are the opening paragraphs:

Here is one way to look at physics: there are some invisible things which are parts of everything else and whose behavior determines the way everything else works. Physics is the search for an accurate description of those invisible things, and it proceeds by finding better and better explanations of the visible. …

Here is another way of looking at physics: the physicists are men looking for new interpretations of the Book of Nature. After each pedestrian period of normal science, they dream up a new model …. and then they announce that the true meaning of the Book has been discovered. But, of course, it never is, any more than is the true meaning of Coriolanus or the Dunciad or the Phenomenology of Spirit or the Philosophical Investigations. What makes them physicists is that their writings are commentaries on the writings of earlier interpreters of Nature, not that they all are someow “talking about the same thing,” the same invisibilia Dei sive naturae toward which their inquiries steadily converge.

Rorty’s essay applies the same distinction to philosophy as a way of explicating Derrida … and it is one of the clearest, most sympathetic, and most delightful explanations I’ve encountered.

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July 21, 2010

Iris Murdoch on studying as a virtue

I’ve been reading Iris Murdoch’s The Sovereignity of Good. The first two essays are written a little too much (for me) within the particular philosophical debates of the 1960s, but the third remains pretty wonderful. Here’s a short paragraph that is not central, but that I really like:

If I am learning, for instance, Russian, I am confronted by an authoritative structure which commands my respect. The task is difficult and the goal is distant and perhaps never entirely attainable. My work is a progressive revelation of something which exists independently of me. Attention is rewarded by a knowledge of reality. Love of Russian leads me away from myself towards something alien to me, something which my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal. The honesty and humility required of the student — not to pretend to know what one does not know — is the preparation for the honesty and humility of the scholar …[A]part from special contexts, studying is normally an exercise of virtue as well as of talent, and shows us a fundamental way in which virtue is related to the real world.

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May 23, 2010

Martin Gardner should not have been possible

The world is less curious, reasonable, fun and awesome now that Martin Gardner has died.

The Nature of Things / Martin Gardner from Wagner Brenner on Vimeo.

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