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[2b2k] From thinkers to memes

The history of Western philosophy usually has a presumed shape: there’s a known series of Great Men (yup, men) who in conversation with their predecessors came up with a coherent set of ideas. You can list them in chronological order, and cluster them into schools of thought with their own internal coherence: the neo-Platonists, the Idealists, etc. Sometimes, the schools and not the philosophers are the primary objects in the sequence, but the topology is basically the same. There are the Big Ideas and the lesser excursions, the major figures and the supporting players.

Of course the details of the canon are always in dispute in every way: who is included, who is major, who belongs in which schools, who influenced whom. A great deal of scholarly work is given over to just such arguments. But there is some truth to this structure itself: philosophers traditionally have been shaped by their tradition, and some have had more influence than others. There are also elements of a feedback loop here: you need to choose which philosophers you’ll teach in philosophy courses, so you you act responsibly by first focusing on the majors, and by so doing you confirm for the next generation that the ones you’ve chosen are the majors.

But I wonder if in one or two hundred years philosophers (by which I mean the PT-3000 line of Cogbots™) will mark our era as the end of the line — the end of the linear sequence of philosophers. Rather than a sequence of recognized philosophers in conversation with their past and with one another, we now have a network of ideas being passed around, degraded by noise and enhanced by pluralistic appropriation, but without owners — at least without owners who can hold onto their ideas long enough to be identified with them in some stable form. This happens not simply because networks are chatty. It happens not simply because the transmission of ideas on the Internet occurs through a p2p handoff in which each of the p’s re-expresses the idea. It happens also because the discussion is no longer confined to a handful of extensively trained experts with strict ideas about what is proper in such discussions, and who share a nano-culture that supersedes the values and norms of their broader local cultures.

If philosophy survives as anything more than the history of thought, perhaps we will not be able to outline its grand movements by pointing to a handful of thinkers but will point to the webs through which ideas passed, or, more exactly, the ideas around which webs are formed. Because no idea passes through the Web unchanged, it will be impossible to pretend that there are “ideas-in-themselves” — nothing like, say, Idealism which has a core definition albeit with a history of significant variations. There is no idea that is not incarnate, and no incarnation that is not itself a web of variations in conversation with itself.

I would spell this out for you far more precisely, but I don’t know what I’m talking about, beyond an intuition that the tracks end at the trampled field in which we now live.

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