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Internet Technology and Philosophy
(Text as at 24/08/2013 13:48:00)
(For earlier versions of this Note, see the table at the end)
This paper argues for the view that internet technology will be, or at least ought to be, revolutionary for the way analytic philosophy is undertaken. I have kept it brief for two reasons. Firstly, it is peripheral to my current programme of studies. Secondly, I don’t want to impose on the patience of the busy reader. I may expand it in due course in response to comment and criticism.What are the implications of web-technology for Philosophy?
Basically, there are three points at issue here
I deal with these seriatim below, before considering a couple of objections.
- Does web-style technology have the revolutionary and beneficial consequences I claim below?
- Do I have anything distinctive to offer in progressing a project to realise these benefits?
- Should I pursue this matter now? That is, will it conflict with or enhance the work I’m trying to undertake for the MPhil/PhD, and would a conflict be a price worth paying?
Maybe naively, I think that internet technology will change the way philosophy is done, as it is already changing many other aspects of life. From an historical panoramic view, we might say that the mode of presentation of philosophy has moved on from the poetry of the pre-Socratics (when memorisation was important), to dialogues (when philosophy was conducted by conversation in the agora), to books restricted in size to the length of a papyrus scroll, to letters sent by sea and horse, to mass-produced books and so on, all influenced by the technology and available communications systems of the day. The mode of presentation within philosophical circles naturally seems to have reflected the way communication was undertaken in society as a whole. Whether this was a good thing, or could have been avoided, has to be addressed on a case by case basis, and I will only consider the “next step” in this sequence here.
It seems obvious that the benefits of the internet will ultimately be enjoyed by philosophy, and in part already are. These benefits arise partly by the non-revolutionary means of making old-style material available electronically, by having electronic discussion groups, by having encyclopaedias that exploit Wiki technology (Link), and so on. This is very good, but strikes me as being insufficiently radical. What internet hyperlinking, combined with the speed of broadband, allows is a new way of displaying thought, of cross-checking for consistency, spotting how a change of view in one area will impact on others, and so on. I think speed of access is critical. A train of thought can then be followed up quickly without losing the plot (though self-discipline has also to be imposed; but this is nothing new – some of us still end up reading the dictionary).
An important metaphilosophical goal, it seems to me, should be to make philosophical arguments as transparent and easy to access as possible for the sort of human being that is equipped to assess them. There’s no royal road to philosophy any more than to mathematics, but a “no riff-raff” approach is unhelpful and pernicious and job of the philosopher can be made easier and so, potentially, the performance of philosophers can be raised a level. If it is completely open what a philosopher’s presuppositions and commitment are, and the argument structures are more obvious, then arguments can be understood more easily, and the hard work of criticising them, or taking them further, is facilitated.
An analogy. When I first started in IT, it wasn’t then possible for people without a good deal of intellect to make any significant contribution to software development. The tools weren’t there. If your program didn’t work, you couldn’t step through the code to find out why, and if it failed you had to pour over an inch-thick dump of machine code to find out what went wrong, Subsequently, all sorts of aids to software development and debugging have been developed so that any reasonably bright individual can make a contribution. But it’s still the case that a good software developer is 10 times as efficient as an average one (something lost on the software industry, so that the good developer gets promoted to spend all his/her time managing the 10 average persons, using a soft-skill-set he/she doesn’t have, so that in the end 11 people produce less than one). The point I wish to make is that technology can make a good philosopher a better philosopher, not that it can make philosophers from a sow’s ear. But even poor philosophers may be helped. Also, it should be able to help philosophers express themselves better. Most fundamentally, the approach is just multi-level footnoting, but an approach that could not be satisfactorily handled in a world in which the only non-auditory medium of discourse is print.
An example: at a recent research seminar someone stated “I’m not a reductionist”. What does this mean? We can be explanatory or ontological reductionists, and there are probably hosts of other aspects and sub-varieties. In my brave new world, I’d be able to log on to that person’s website and find out what this stance means for the person adopting it. Or if I was reading an on-line paper, there’d be a hyperlink to explain particularly relevant background assumption that affect the argument, but which would confuse the main text if explained “in line”. I would also be able to find out how this position influences all the other positions held (via a list of all the sections in the philosopher’s oeuvre that reference this topic), and how a change in this position might affect the others.
Maybe all this is too “open and honest” for most. In the early days of a philosopher’s career it would reveal swathes of ignorance and confusion; one can, after all, get away with a lot by keeping one’s mouth shut. Also, I’m not sure how the professional concerns about correct attribution would work out, nor how a natural reluctance for work-in-progress to be quoted would be accommodated, and so on. All these matters tend to get swept away during revolutions. It would, of course, be possible to keep all or most of the website private, so that the individual philosopher still gains, but that would undo the public benefits and limit the philosopher’s ability to communicate in the new way. I’ve tried to accommodate this by having “private” notes that only display on a local copy of the website, and not in public.
Another aspect that I think will be useful is that there’s no need to keep reinventing the same argument, or redefining the same position (unless it has developed). An argument can be assembled from pre-existent nuggets that are built up over time. This can be overdone – Olson seems to do this all the time, and must have coded his own article-generator.
The time-stamped archiving facility will make it apparent how one’s ideas have changed diachronically, and the crystallised web of hyperlinked pages in the archive will show what one’s overall position was at any one time (admittedly only for the industrious point-and-clicker), so that anyone reading one’s old material can see how and why it did or didn’t cohere at that time.
What books and papers influenced one on what topic is also valuable, as will be the summaries or jottings built up over time, and the ability quickly to determine which of one’s papers quote the various sources. Of course, maintaining a database like this is hard work and the style won’t appeal to everyone. Maybe it won’t appeal to anyone other than to me. Nor have I (quite) built all the supporting software, though this part is trivial given what I’ve already done.
I realise that this is all a bit glib. The meaning and import of a nugget is rather context dependent, and may not easily fit into the narrative pre-packaged. I suspect it’s the explication of the premises that will be aided by my approach, not the argument as such. This is the most difficult part of the project, and we’ll just have to see how it goes.
I realise that computers cannot do your philosophy for you, but I think they can make philosophers better philosophers. Or at least they can provide more tools and facilities for good philosophers and expose the shortcomings of bad ones. That’s what I really want. A bad argument should be transparently bad. Then it can be corrected or abandoned. Arguments that are merely obscure are useless.
Do I have anything distinctive to offer?
In my working life I’ve managed to manoeuvre myself into a “prototyping and one stop shop fix-it centre”, where things can be investigated and developed maybe 10 times (occasionally 100 times) quicker (or cheaper) than by the conventional plodding routes. I want to bring that sort of approach to metaphilosophy. Having spent 30+ years in commercial IT, it seems a shame not to use the experience in the service of philosophy.
There are, however, already a number of research projects on the go in this general area – see, for instance, The International Association for Computing and Philosophy (IACAP, Link), Oxford University Research Group on the Philosophy of Information (Link) and the Archelogos Project (Link). There are probably many more, and I haven’t investigated these other than very superficially.
The standard tool for collaborative information management is the Wiki (Link), the most (in-)famous of which is the Wikipedia. But Wikis also exist in specifically philosophical circles - eg. that of the Higher Education Academy’s Philosophy and Religious Studies1 (Link (Defunct)) or Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (Link). Also, content management systems – eg. Plone (Link), see Robert Frazier’s site (Link (Defunct)) – seem to be somewhat similar (though non-collaborative).
So, is the technology already out there? I think not quite, though maybe I’m prejudiced slightly by purely practical reasons. What I’m doing can be hosted cheaply by an ordinary ISP, whereas a Wiki requires either expensive commercial hosting or, as low-bandwidth and low availability, personal hosting (ie. setting your own PC up as a Web Server and allowing outside access to its IP address through your fire-wall, if any). While commercial hosting is essential for a collaborative site, I think philosophers differ too much in their intellectual affiliations to collaborate widely in research projects. Wikis are fine for encyclopaedias, but the collaborative elements are less useful for displaying a sustained argument from a single mind. Most importantly, while these technologies reflect the sort of function that’s generally appropriate, they are insufficiently flexible for what I want to do. Maybe one day I’ll port the functions I’ve developed to Wiki technology (which is open source, so I would be able to add extra function), but I think this would be a major commercial undertaking.
Also, there’s a question of scope and direction. Researchers into the use of computer technology are tempted by matters of artificial intelligence, which is not at all the issue I’m considering. There’s a temptation to think that the real role of computers is to check the validity of arguments, but I’m not hopeful of much progress at all in the near future in this area. This seems to be what the Archelogos Project (Link) hopes to do for the works of Plato. The premises and conclusion of an argument would have to be tightly and unequivocally atomic for any automated argument-validator to work, and most interesting philosophical arguments are more complex than this, or are struggling to say things that can hardly be said. However, the difficulty of successful research in this sort of area can only be exposed by trying it, and I’m glad to know that there is research underway; I just don’t feel inclined to join in at the moment.
What about the encyclopaedias? Given that there are many positions that can be taken on any substantive philosophical point, there’s no community-wide consensus on what is the philosophical import of any term or position with a particular name. Their precise meaning is peculiar to particular philosophers, or at least can be. An encyclopaedia can show the range of positions on offer, but even this is biased towards the views of the author of the entry.
Should I pursue the project now?
My aim is to build and prove operable a computer system whereby a single philosopher (me, in the first instance) can build up a knowledge and argument base appropriate to him/her. I want to prototype the system and try it out in practice using my thesis as a trial. Each time I think of some useful function, or run into a problem, I want to have complete flexibility so that I can quickly upgrade the system to satisfy the requirement.
I’ve a lot of ideas I want to try out, and there’s something of a start-up and maintenance cost that will have been apparent. Occasionally I‘ll be diverted while I develop some new function. But I think this is so important that it can’t be left for another 5 years. Additionally, so many computer systems and computer-assisted approaches fail because they are produced by software developers who specialise in software development, rather than in the field the software is meant to assist.
I appreciate that there’s a distinction between form and content. By form I mean functional capability, not flashy graphics. Over the last 6 months I’ve been focusing on the form, and this has run into the first month or so of the MPhil course. I (considered I) had to make some emergency changes to my website generator, which were to the printable outputs (a note2 on my website explains this; I will need to explain the other functions in detail in due course) and adding a password-protected area. The content hasn’t progressed much recently, and needs to do so soon, or all credibility will be lost. However I think I’m now ready to move on (though there will be on-going intermissions, I expect). One of the most important aspects of the project is its practicality in use, and how it accommodates changes in the high-level structure of one’s views, and with a growth of understanding. That’s why the project must proceed in parallel with my MPhil / PhD. Admittedly, there’s the challenge of the “transitional” phase where old-style essays and theses need to be produced in parallel with the on-line versions. One day PhD examiners will look directly at websites, but that day is not yet. However, transitional phases are necessary concomitants of revolutions.
Maybe my “cascading hyperlinks” approach is a resurrection of the “geometrical method” in a new technology. The fact that this method is exemplified by two of the most obscure and difficult philosophers in history (Spinoza and the early Wittgenstein) may count against it. I don’t think it needs to, except as exemplified by those who take pithiness to extremes.
Also, I’ve stressed the importance of arguments above, but a cobweb of links may not display an argument well. This is a software development challenge, as well as a conceptual one.
No doubt more objections will follow the review of this paper.
I’d be interested in your views on this matter, and of other faculty members who might be interested. I hope that this sort of thing has been done rather better elsewhere. Maybe it’s just mind-mapping in disguise, without the visuals. If it really hasn’t been done this way before, the work is even more important than I already think it is. This is a practical project, the benefits of which can only be displayed in the use and the success or failure of the prototype. So, I think the jury will be out for some time.
A current status report on my web-tools project appears here3.
In-Page Footnotes:Footnote 1: Now defunct, by the look of things.
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