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February 18, 2007


The Combat Philosopher

Around the end of December, there was a related discussion on the status of academic blogging (the details can be found by following the links on my blog). This discussion was prompted by the MLA (Modern Language Association) holding a panel on the topic of blogging. The general consensus seemed to be that blogging was NOT an academic activity on a par with writing papers, but was more like a service activity. This stance appears to be basically correct.

With this insight on board, the question of philosophy and blogging becomes easier to assess. There is certainly a role and some historical precedent, for public philosophy. Consider so-called 'Philosophy Cafes' as an instance of the former and the activities of Socrates, as a case of the latter. Thus, blogging and philosophy do appear to be compatible.

A friend of mine, on a blog which has now disappeared, has argued that blogging is an activity similar to the activities of the pamphleteers of the sixteen and seventeenth Century. This too may be a valuable insight.

I certainly attempt to do philosophy on my blog. Recently, I have posted on topics as diverse as the concept of Objective Reality in Descartes third Meditation and the influence of Plato on popular culture. I have also initiated a series of post on critical thinking. All these appear to be philosophical activities under taken on a blog.

Now, that being said, if I wanted to work out a detailed position on a philosophical problem in my area, a blog would not be an appropriate place to do it. Such work is much better suited to academic papers, if only for the simple reason that the interested and informed audience for such discussions are the readers of journals, not readers of blogs. This fact though, is not sufficient to support the claim that there is an incompatibility between blogs and philosophy. That being said, there is always a danger that the 'instant gratification' of blogging may in certain unfortunate cases, become a substitute for submission to academic journals. This is a danger that should always be resisted.

Thus, for certain philosophical tasks, though not all, blogs and philosophy appear to be well suited to one another.

The Combat Philosopher

Ophelia Benson

You suspect correctly, Nigel. After all, I was writing it in the first instance for Julian to read. (In fact the original opening was even more teasing than that one.) I was indeed taking Julian's parody blog as my starting point, because I was well aware that both editors of The Philosophers' Mag have (or had), erm, doubts about the value of blogs, so I felt an obligation to start from the jaundiced view and then go in other directions.

It may amuse you to know that Julian has now decided he and Jeremy have to do a TPM blog; it's almost up and running. He told me it was partly this article that persuaded him blogs have possibilities.

If I hadn't had the existing skepticism in mind as something to acknowledge from the start, I would have begun from my own liking for diaries and letters and, as you say, commonplace books. It seems to me completely obvious that blogs can be good for the same sort of reason that diaries and letters and commonplace books and even notebooks can.

It's good that we've persuaded Julian to see it that way...

Ophelia Benson

Only that's not putting it strongly enough, of course, because as you point out, there are all kinds of things you can do with blogs (being instantly readable by an open number of people anywhere on the planet would be one) that were beyond the reach of commonplace books and diaries until they went electronic. I've always liked scribbling in notebooks, so I can assure anyone who doubts it that the ability to join notebook scribbling with a potential or actual readership makes a large and interesting difference. (That's a bit of litotes.)

The Barefoot Bum

I have to disagree with The Combat Philosopher. I think there is indeed an audience in the readers of blogs both interested in and informed about detailed philosophical problems--I myself am a case in point. There is, of course a certain degree of technical minutia in any field, including my own (computer programming), that is not of general interest and is suited only for specialized journals.

I also have to disagree with the idea that blogging by professional, academic philosophers is somehow a "service" activity. Philosophy (unlike, perhaps, literary criticism of the philosophical canon) is perhaps unique in its non-reliance on detailed technical expertise.

This is not to disparage you or other professional philosophers. I'm certainly pleased that there are people who can get paid and devote their full attention to philosophy. But because of the democratic and universal nature of philosophy (and not any lack or failing of the professionals) I don't see the need to offer professionals the same sort of deference to expertise that I would accord a biochemist or physicist.

Ophelia Benson

And another comment - several hours later, but they'll all be posted at the same time. I realized I missed a trick: I should have pointed out that of course I was aware that my question was rather like asking whether ink on paper is compatible with philosophy, and that I'd have thought it was obvious that I knew that, on account of the irony in the wording. The 'real, grown-up philosophy', especially paired with the (ever so slightly mocking) 'rigour, discipline, and seriousness', is not quite straight-faced!

But Americans don't do irony, so maybe the irony escaped detection? [That's more irony.]

Actually there are probably layers of irony. The very slight mockery of the 'rigour, discipline, and seriousness' for instance derives partly from Julian's own take on the pretensions of philosophy and philosophers, as in his recent piece at Comment is Free for example.


"If there's one thing philosophers are not in short supply of it's confidence and self-esteem."

So there's an odd combination of irony about Julian's parody blog along with Julianesque irony about the self-esteem of philosophy; the two perhaps cancel each other out. At any rate it's not a flat-footedly literal question.

Is irony on weblogs difficult to spot?

heh heh

Andy A

I'm rather pleased that there are such things as blogs by philosophers. My only brush with it is a second-level OU course, for which Nigel Warburton wrote some of the material (and for which one of the course books was his own Thinking from A to Z, of which I'd had a copy for some years anyway. Coming at philosophy via blogs as well as any books one finds popularising (I'm a layman, don't forget) the subject and its many sub-subjects makes for an engaging (literally in some cases) way of learning. I visit Nigel's blog now and then, and read Ophelia Benson's Butterflies and Wheels, largely because it deals often with religious matters and I like her in-your-face style. So let's see more philosophers' blogs and not become snobby about them.

Paulo Ghiraldelli Jr.

Dear Nigel
Weblog is the good place to do Philosophy. I dont have douts about this. It is like a newspaper in a TV, but you can use your serious language in this. I have done this since 1996. Please, see: www.filosofia.pro.br


I don't now why anybody would think you could not or should not do philosophy on a Weblog. I do.

Perhaps Leo Strauss would disapprove of it.


Michael E. Hunter

While not a newcomer to philosophy, I certainly am new to the whole issue and activity of doing philosophy with weblogs. My first impression is that it provides a range of opportunities for doing the best and the worst. The best in terms of creativity, openness, and innovation and the worst in terms of banality, sloppiness, and redundancy.
Yet it is unquestionably tied up with the future and, for this reason alone, is to be ignored, as I'm starting to think, at one's philosophical peril.

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