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Essay on Rorty, philosophy

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Here is an interesting essay by Raymond Geuss on the philosopher Richard Rorty. It is interesting because of his more general reflections on philosophy, its history, and the choices professors make in teaching it.

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21 Comments

  1. Kleiner says:

    Very interesting article, and it helped me to formulate a frustration I have been having of late. I will confess, my activity on the blogs (this one and Huenemanniac) has started to become very frustrating for me. In fact, I am considering “quitting” the blogs, I am just not sure that they accomplish anything beyond allowing people to hear themselves talk (I include myself in this, insofar as my finger is pointing it is pointing just as much at me). And it is increasingly my sense that my posts are not advancing the conversations. (In fact, Mike and I seem to be having different conversations simultaneously). Perhaps I have identified the problem:

    The Rorty essay brings up conversation. I am totally committed to this idea, that philosophy is primarily dialogue. But I wonder if we have essentially lost this idea in practice. Class sizes are too big at most schools to really have conversations (I was lucky, at my college I never had a philosophy course with more than 10 people, and it was usually only 5). I find that very few of my students, despite my encouragements, read together. They all read alone all the time, and don’t seem to have the late night (often gin and cigarette fueled) conversations that were the hallmark of my undergraduate and graduate philosophy experience. Instead, the blogosphere has put itself forward as the new communication.

    But not all communication is conversation. I am becoming increasingly convinced that blogging is a largely a waste of time (yes, I know I am blogging about how pointless blogging is), that it is impossible to have a real conversation over a computer. (This fits well with my quasi-Luddite sensibilities, by the way). The only time I have had success with it is when I am blogging/emailing with very good and very old friends (and still then it is wanting).

    Here is the point I want to focus on – I think Plato is right, philosophical conversation requires friendship. What does this mean? Surely it does not just mean “being nice/friendly”. Rather, I take it that it means something like this – philosophical conversation is only possible with people that already agree. Those that at least agree on first principles, probably more. This is why Socrates cannot talk to Thrasymachus, he must move on to converse with Glaucon. Now, this swims upstream of what I think is the conventional view of philosophy and dialogue these days. I think the “common wisdom” these days is that the more voices, and the more variety in voices, the better. I am not so sure.

    Blogging can raise questions and expose you to new ideas, and this is good. But – and this is a point that I think is very often missed – philosophy does not end in questions (wonder), rather wonder is where it begins. The only way we can possibly start to move ahead is if they have some common footing. Huenemann and I, in this regard, are not “friends” and make very little progress when we talk. This is because we cannot agree on the first step to take! (Note: I am now using “friendship in the narrower philosophical sense, something like Aristotle’s perfect friendships – friends who are alike in character/belief. Huenemann and I are “friends” in a broader sense of that word. And I agree with him from Huenemanniac that it is a good model to show that “friends” can disagree but still be respectful, have fun, and in fact enjoy each other quite a lot.)

    I am not suggesting that we rush ahead with our friends to easy answers. Any honest philosopher knows there are no easy answers, and if you have good friends they won’t let you get away with slipshod thinking. But when I converse with my dear friends we at least agree on the mysteries and we agree on the general lay of the land. Sure, we argue and try to hash things out. We are rather like companion hikers who occasionally disagree on route-taking while looking at the topo map. But we usually (but not always) agree on the map, where we are and where we are going. So we do our best to find a way, together, in conversation.

    But the blogosphere is not really conducive to this. The blogosphere brings together utter strangers, attempting to undertake the delicate task of thinking (language) in a radically inorganic isolated state (I think cyber-space is a false community). Conversations need to occur on country paths (Heidegger), not in solitary monologues via the net. Mike and I fail to converse because, in short, (a) we don’t know each other at all and (b) even if we did we may not agree on things as basic as the lay of the land. I have more success with Huenemann, because we know each other (a) even though we don’t agree on the lay of land (b).

    Of course I think it is important to not become self-enclosed in your own views. To quote an old professor of mine (Fred Lawrence from Boston College), “anyone who calls himself an –ist is an asshole”. So I am not proposing some kind of radical philosophical isolationism. So perhaps the blogosphere has a secondary role to play in opening us up to alternative views/ways. But insofar as its role becomes primary, I think we impoverish ourselves.

    For my part, I am finding myself blogging far more than conversing. I am beginning to think I’d be better off just reading and trying to get together with friends more often.

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  2. Huenemann says:

    This is a really interesting comment. I am really struck by your claim that exchanges on a blog fall short of a genuine conversation. I think there is truth in this, though I’m not sure why. You say it’s because philosophical friends need to agree before they can have a productive dialog. I think that’s sort of true: the participants in a dialog need to have a common project or interest, even if it is only adopted temporarily, if anything good is to come of the exchange.

    For example, if I’m trying to work out how, according to Berkeley, we are able to have an idea of God, it will not be of any help to hear objections about how Berkeley’s idealism is wrong from the get-go. We have to “pretend,” for the moment, that it’s viable, if we want to answer my question. Or if we start arguing about the viability of Bk’s idealism, then we need to have agreement about how we measure a philosophy’s viability. There is always a background, or a shared set of assumptions and objectives.

    Maybe internet “dialogs,” because they are so widely open, allow more room for challenging the background. That sounds like a good thing at first, but in fact it leads to “dialogic failure.”
    No one gets anywhere, causing we’re chasing around in the same circles.

    I think Kleiner and I actually are friends in his narrow sense on some issues. We agree largely on the sort of enterprise philosophy is and the sorts of both intellectual and emotional forces which should be at play. But from that point onward, we cease to be “friends,” since we think those forces lead in different directions. This is why we could easily agree on, say, a philosophy curriculum, but not on any substantive philosophical truths!

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  3. Kleiner says:

    I quite agree with what you have said. And it is funny how close we are on the nature of philosophy and philosophical curriculum, despite us being so far away on so many other things! For that reason, I have more fruitful conversations with you than I usually have with people that are wrong on all the key issues (God, man, destiny). :) In all seriousness, the first step in any philosophical conversation is being as clear as one can on what philosophy is – otherwise you’ll get nowhere. Almost every philosopher has known this (great and common alike), that is why philosophers spend so much time talking about what philosophy is. We can make great progress by just “setting the stage” for the conversation we might someday have the time to have!

    A few comments:

    a) You are right, we can make progress by “pretending”. And that is worthwhile. This last semester I worked very hard to get students to pretend, if only for a while, that Kant was really on to something in the first Critique. Had they not, they would have never been able to see and appreciate the profundity of the work (you could deny that we have knowledge to begin with, and so simply deny the value of Kant’s transcendental project from the get-go).
    So this is a good thing, if you don’t do a fair amount of this, you won’t ever be able to understand any text you read.

    BUT, this is, at least for the most part, an academic exercise. You “pretend” with Berkeley so you can grasp his position. But this has been done at “arms length” – because you have bracketed your own point of view. (Granted, later on you could existentially appropriate it, and you’d need to understand it before you can do that). So its value is at best instrumental (it seems closer to history of ideas than philosophy as a way of life).

    There is a potential danger, too, in this academic exercise. It can become indulgent. We can so relish the “discourse” (grounded on pretended starting points) that we become, in Plato’s words, like puppies who pull and tear with their teeth until they lose interest. In other words, it becomes a game of tug o’ war, and the authentic end of dialogue is lost (dia-logue does not mean a discussion “between” two people. Dia means “through”, so it is through the saying that the two arrive somewhere else).

    b) If blogologues (I wanted a new word for e-dialogues) cannot be real philosophic conversations, then their value is at best “instrumental” (getting exposed to lots of different views). This is a good thing. But, it may turn out that blogologues are a really ineffective way of doing this! If you want to know more about teleology, don’t read my stupid blog posts! Read Aristotle and Thomas, or at least Lear and McInerny. Maybe blogologues do a better job of vetting “local” (2.0) issues, but I am not even sure about that.

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  4. Mike says:

    I’m pretty skeptical of online discussion as well. I think if you’ve already worked through some things it can be supplemental but beyond that it has a lot of insanity/inanity to it. I personally think the trick is to try to write more formally and in that way elevate the online discourse. Bring the essay form or an only slightly milder version of it to the net. Note: I’m certainly failing at this at the moment.

    The written word itself has to have some value and this is just the written word.

    I should be understood as agreeing with Kleiner here!

    *Mike looks around at the astonished faces*

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  5. Kleiner says:

    Well, so we all agree. That was boring!

    To make this interesting, let me make a stronger case. We all agree that blogloguing (I hope that catches on) is at best supplemental and cannot replace actual conversation. But what I had in mind when I posted was something stronger, something like: blogologuing is actually a waste of time. At best, it accomplishes next to nothing, at worst it is “violent”. We should all stop doing it.

    Let me unpack that a bit.

    a) Blogologuing at best introduces you to new ideas/perspectives. But it is not an efficient instrument for this purpose. People waste time reading blogs (snippets of thought) instead of spending time with essays or books – more substantial treatments.
    So, blogologuing is a waste of time, read more traditional materials instead.

    b) Blogologuing is best (I think Mike is right) when the online discussion is elevated and in depth, something like an essay form. Which is to say that the “old way” of doing philosophy (scholarly journals, essays) is, in fact, still the best way. The internet is a very useful tool for disseminating that information, but otherwise we should return to business as usual. (Add in a bit of elitism, that in the wiki world any dumbass out there can post essays, so we might even turn back to fairly traditional modes of vetting good material (editorial boards, etc).

    c) Here is the attack with the greatest rhetorical flourish: Blogologuing actually does violence to the other (I am thinking Levinas and Derrida here). Since blogologuing is essentially a collection of monologues, it tends to talk at rather than with the interlocutors (there is no listening, the “author is dead”, etc etc). The discussions do not have an organic flow, they are choppy bits of thought strung out over many hours or days. This loosens the conversation and frustrates it. In addition, there is no “face” on the web, so there is a greater tendency to objectify/enframe the interlocuting subjects.

    So, the stronger claim here is that blogologuing is not just second rate – it is at best a total waste of time (better to read a book or a journal in the library) and at worst it actually is a “community” built on violence (objectification).

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  6. Doug says:

    So let me get this straight; the only time any of you have seemed to agree with each other on this blog (other then what time to meet at the pub) is when the notion is posted that “blogologuing” is a waste of time and does not contribute to the advancement of philosophy? WOW!

    It seems that a little disagreement has hurt a few “philosophers” feelings, and now blogging is being blamed, rather then the possibility that since the launch of this blog there has only been about five active people consistently participating in the “discussions”. Is it possible that the problem with “blogologuing” is that so-called philosophers have yet to figure out we are in the computer era?

    This forum was created to stimulate and encourage students to think, participate, and learn. However, it has turned into a pulpit for a few former students and professors to argue insignificant things that seem to be off-topic anyway. It usually works like this: Dr. Hunenemann places a very interesting post on the blog. Mr. Kleiner then adds a comment, most likely quoting Hiedigger somewhere within his comment. Mike then adds his comment, most likely criticizing something Kleiner said. Then there is a back and forth for many posts, then a random post by Vince. Then it seems Dr. Hunenemann has to put on his stripped t-shirt and referee the constant bickering.

    Now of course this “blogologuing” seems to be a waste of time when it is utilized in this way. Why cant this fantastic forum that Dr. Hunenemann created actually be used as it was intended? If you feel that you want to discuss Hiedigger in depth, then write a paper and submit it. Then you can discuss his philosophy all you want, and you might even be able to stay on topic. Not to mention that the writer can actually defend his views online. How great would that be? How about writing a little original philosohy and simply submitting a post about your views?

    Finally, how about finding a way to get more students involved in the discussions. I realize that you “old tymers” (thought I would put in a little country slang in there) believe that you can really only have a productive philosophical discussion with fewer students; however, is that what this forum was designed for? No, it was made to get students involved. Let students post a few topics and postings, then maybe things that interest students of USU can be discussed, which may bring in more student participation.

    I believe that this forum has great potential and can certainly increase interest in the USU philosophy program. Is it possible to advertise in the Statesman about the Philosophy program and the forum? Can you professors bring up the forum and ask for advice in classrooms? Instead of focusing a GREAT DEAL on the uselessness of blogging, maybe we can focus on how we can utilize this great tool for the philosophy department and its students.

    I am not trying to offend anyone, it just seems absurd to act as if this forum failed and should be scrapped because of immature bickering. It just needs to be utilized in a different way.

    Thats just my point of view!

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  7. Huenemann says:

    Cheer up, Doug — the forum won’t be scrapped. and we’d welcome more voices in the discussion. I’m not sure how to get more students to post — please pass along any ideas, or let me know if there’s any post topics sure to be more relevant to students’ philosophical interests. In the meantime, we old-timers will keep bickering!

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  8. Mike says:

    I am not suggesting that we rush ahead with our friends to easy answers. Any honest philosopher knows there are no easy answers, and if you have good friends they won’t let you get away with slipshod thinking. But when I converse with my dear friends we at least agree on the mysteries and we agree on the general lay of the land. Sure, we argue and try to hash things out. We are rather like companion hikers who occasionally disagree on route-taking while looking at the topo map. But we usually (but not always) agree on the map, where we are and where we are going. So we do our best to find a way, together, in conversation.

    Re-reading Kleiner’s first comment there, I especially like the quote above and this quote, “insofar as its role becomes primary, I think we impoverish ourselves”.

    What about the possibility of using the blogosphere primarily for explication rather than for argumentation? So that would mean when you post something the readers read in order to understand and make the initial argument better instead of in order to get their own view across. This limits the sorts of stuff you post but I get the feeling if Kleiner were posting the first draft of an essay that he intended to get into a journal and wanted some feedback on that, I would enjoy it quite a bit and I might even be helpful. I’d look for weaknesses as well as strengths of course but I’d be looking to make it better. We’d have to all agree this was the sort of tone we’d be shooting for. I’m not sure how it would work if you’re trying to post a particular article. Maybe we’d start fighting about which parts of the article were the weakest/strongest and why. (I think “friends” more naturally chose this tone.)

    I’m tempted to say I disagree with Huenemann on a few things that he and Kleiner agree on. Perhaps the ones that Charlie mentioned, the “sort of enterprise philosophy is and the sorts of both intellectual and emotional forces which should be at play.”

    This particular blog is supposed to be about USU philosophy so I’m not sure this is really the right place for me. I think you guys could work out how you want it to be associated with the program and how you want it to be oriented toward your students. You probably want it to serve some function but maybe that should be more explicitly designed/decided.

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  9. Mike says:

    I absolutely loved Doug’s post.

    Sorry if my post was confusing, i was writing it before I read Doug’s post (I know, that’s some slow posting, i was doing a couple other things).

    Isn’t Doug and old tymer now too? or is he still at USU? or is he a different Doug? If he’s the Doug I’m thinking of then we sorta know each other from MSS.

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  10. Doug says:

    Ha, I am always cheerful!!

    What about passing out a few pamplets to students at academic events? The Honors Department has several gatherings, Pi Sigma Alpha Political Science Honor Society has several meetings and invites speakers, etc. If current students (since I am one of the former students that posts on here) were told that there was a forum that they could participate in that would allow them to learn or participate in discussions of philosophy, I believe they would at least check it out.

    What I mean is, there are many speakers that come to USU and give speeches/discussions about various things like politics, war, religion, etc. What about inviting students/faculty/ and the speakers themeselves to join the forum so that they can ask questions they were not able to ask at the event, and maybe they can discuss their views on the subject. Philosophy is so broad that it covers far more then Plato, Nietzsche, and, Hiedigger it covers politics (John Locke), Religion (many philosophers), etc. Why not try to invite other departments and their students to participate?

    Maybe I am just a little to Idealistic (I have been listening to a lot of Obama Speeches), but I think it can be done. Students that participate in the philosophy honor society should help accomplish this.

    Oh, and Charlie you unfortunately do not qualify as an old-timer! You are too student oriented, and I doubt very much that you believe this forum is a waste of time. Then again, I believe that everyone that writes on this blog believes it is not really a waste of time or they would have to admit they have too much time lol!

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  11. Doug says:

    Yes Mike, I am an old-timer too! Although it took me forever to actually graduate. Now that you mention it, I believe I do remember you from MSS. I spent a lot of time with with BSU.

    Honestly, I love the bickering-its pretty entertaining!

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  12. Doug says:

    I probably didnt make it obvious, but I was including myself in the “few former students and professors”.

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  13. Mike says:

    Doug — it’s nice to get that perspective to get a better understanding how you’re being perceived to work on self correction.

    As a former student, I agree that this should be a useful resource for current students.

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  14. Kleiner says:

    Thanks for the suggestions, Doug. We should all be willing to laugh at this. It is quite funny that the only thing we’ve agreed on is that we are wasting our time (a true Monty Python type moment!). A few thoughts:

    My critique of blogologuing was meant as a philosophical point, not a criticism of this particular forum nor as a mere scapegoat. I am all for this site (otherwise I wouldn’t post here), I think it has the potential to be anything from a place to post announcements to – hopefully – a place where students and profs can come to do philosophy outside the classroom.

    That said, I do think there are legitimate philosophical questions to be raised about doing philosophy online. I think it is really difficult to create online communities that are worthy of the name “community”. It is hard for blogs, by their nature, to be much more than momentary ejaculations of thought. While the intention is to spur thinking, it may be that this instrument frustrates thinking. That is a legitimate question and concern.

    So, in addition to the blog, I wish we could do a monthly or even weekly in-person gathering. Have someone present something or just have an open forum discussion. Huenemann and I tried to do a “philosophy lunch” on Fridays last year. 2 or 3 of my Intro students made a habit of coming for a while, but it petered out pretty quickly. I just don’t know if there is sufficient student interest, though the Religious Studies Club has been incredible successful in this respect.

    So I am afraid Doug is, at least at this point in time, being too idealistic. I advertise and announce this blog repeatedly throughout my courses. I announce it at every Religious Studies Club meeting I attend. While I am sure we could do more to get the word out, we are doing a fair amount of that already. Lots of students seem to check the page, but very few seem to be posting. I don’t know why that is.

    Maybe I am scaring student participation off with my Heideggereese (though I doubt it, most of my students are enthralled with Heidegger) and my name-dropping (I always assume this gives readers important context). That might be. And it might be that I just suck at blogging (I think I am staying on topic, but apparently I don’t always succeed). But, I am afraid, the bigger problem is just a lack of motivation on the part of those we all wish would contribute more.

    Anyway, I (and more importantly Huenemann since he runs this show) am open to suggestions (and Doug already shared several good ones) on how to better advertise and how to better manage the blog. I’ll be frank, the Luddite in me is skeptical about these new communicative technologies. So I might cool off on the blog for a while. But I’ll probably continue to bicker (I prefer thinking of it as being a gadfly). An old prof of mine once told me that if you are not pissing people off, or at least annoying the hell out of ‘em, you are probably not doing philosophy.

    ps – By the way, a good friend of mine is an editor for The Unexamined Life online philosophy journal, and he often moderates the discussion forums there. They usually devolve into “bickering”. I’m not sure if I have ever been to a blogologue site that doesn’t, but I am not well traveled on the web. Is there a philosophy blogologue out there that Mike, Doug, Charlie, or anyone else is aware of that we could hold up as a model of a well run forum? We all learn by imitation you know (Aristotle).

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  15. Alex says:

    I’ll try to explain why I visit this site daily, yet have failed to respond to all of the (interesting) discussions.

    Since my first encounter with philosophy in Kleiner’s intro a few years ago I have found myself truly enthralled with philosophy – I’m not sure why (I’m not very ‘good’ at it, I fail to understand much of what is said, etc) but there is simply something that draws me in. I recently purchased some Nietzsche, Rousseau, and Singer for the summer. Why I don’t post here can be boiled down to one thing:

    I’m scared shitless!

    Most of the time what is said goes WAY over my head. The few things that aren’t over my head seem to quickly escalate into discussions that (from what I can tell) stray from the original topic.

    An idea to get more students to post:

    Throw us timid readers a bone – we need some articles we can relate to! I have understood some of the articles and topics posted on this blog, but keep in mind who your audience is (assuming this is a blog intended for Utah State students to participate in). I just finished Kleiner’s Kant and his Successors class, so I am somewhat familiar with Kant, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard. Most of the people responding to this blog are able to reference philosophers that students at USU (me) are probably not familiar with yet. Although I appreciate these references, for they provide new avenues to explore, it gets frustrating constantly being on the outside looking in.

    When I would attend Kleiner’s office hours this past semester (which I am sure became tedious for him!) I would pester him with questions that were probably a bit too simple for his taste. But in the end, we would nearly always seem to end up talking about South Park (Cartman’s newest diabolical plan or Randy’s deviate internet activities) and its philosophical implications. I probably couldn’t explain Kant’s Categorical Imperative to save my life, but dammit, I can tell you Butter’s real name (anyone else know?)! Months ago there was a video of Ms. Garrison’s classroom instruction on evolution, I loved that! Perhaps if there was more light-hearted (though perhaps evolution is not a light-hearted matter in Utah) content that was easily accessible – and was left light-hearted (yes, I am talking to you Kleiner and Mike!) it would give us simple-folk an opportunity to respond.

    South Park, sadly, is taking its mid-season break right now, so we might need to find another topic to philosophize over for now (though old episodes are easily found on the ‘net).

    Alex

    PS – Once the World of Warcraft servers come back up you probably won’t ever hear from me again, I’ll be too scared to post here again! :-)

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  16. Huenemann says:

    THANK YOU, Alex, and Doug, for these insights. Of course, one of the problems with being an old-timer is one loses touch with ‘beginner’s mind.’ I enjoy the South Park episodes, too — I will try to lighten things up a bit, at least now and then!

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  17. Kleiner says:

    Alex sells himself really short, he is a great student. His crisis of confidence is unwarranted. I know that he has read primary texts including Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Hume, Sartre, Kant, Marx, Nz, Kierkegard. He’s well read!!

    I think teaching and discussing philosophy always involves a balancing act between the accessible and that which is over your head. If you make things “too accessible” (over-simplified) you do violence to the integrity of the views as well as the complexities of the questions. But if everything is over your head all the time, it can be a real disincentive to keep thinking about it. For my part, I like it when I feel as if I got enough to understand the basic story, but found myself in wonder (and confusion) with the intricacies. I’ll try to strike a better balance here, Alex is exactly the kind of student (and I think there are dozens of others out there like him) who this forum is for.

    So, public service announcement: I think everyone on this blog welcomes and encourages everyone from “newbies” to “experts”. If there is something you do not understand – ASK! It would do us well to have more explication here.

    ps – Alex, we are not asking you to join the real world, just move from one artificial environment (World of Warcraft) to another! :)

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  18. Huenemann says:

    If anyone’s interested, I just posted on this topic over at huenemanniac:

    http://huenemanniac.wordpress.com/2008/05/13/blogologues/

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  19. Shaun Miller says:

    I’ve been reading this for a while and I was thinking that maybe it’s word “blog” that we don’t like. “Blogging” has the connotation of ranting or just plain bitching on some topic that seems trivial or very temporary. But when I read these things, I don’t think these are rants or complaints (at least, I’m hoping no one does either). So here’s something to imagine:

    Suppose instead of blogging, we did something different, say a group email. Now, I’m not suggesting that we do this, just follow me on this thought process. Now I would imagine that someone would object to this because it loses its authenticity or we lose “real dialogue,” then what about simply writing letters to each other (ignore the fact that we would have to make copies and that it would take a day or two for us to receive and send mail). Now if someone objects to this, I would remind them that this is what philosophers used to do. After all, Descartes correspondence and letters to his Meditations are usually part of the book itself. So couldn’t we say that group email is just an advanced technological way of writing letters? But then go a step further, couldn’t we say that blogging is just like group email except that it’s open to everybody? Thus, the people that want to partake in this “community” are welcome to participate, and those that don’t, they can simply leave. After all, in writing letters or even just simply talking, if no one wants to participate, s/he may just stop writing or leave the conversation. The Socratic dialogues are full of people leaving Socrates in the conversation.

    In short, I think we’re getting caught up in the word “blogging” and seeing the bad connotations to it.

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  20. Shaun Miller says:

    By the way, in reply to Alex, I’ve got to say the same thing. I’m scared shitless too. However, part of philosophy is to run the risk of being wrong. I could be wrong in what I just wrote up above. But throwing ideas out there means that it has the willingness to be scrutinized, criticized, supplemented, or perhaps even built upon. So please throw ideas out into the open. It helps develop your own ideas as well as bringing new insight to what other people are thinking about.

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  21. Kleiner says:

    I like the idea of treating this almost as a “letters” page. That way, we avoid acting like we are having a “conversation” – instead we are “corresponding” through letters, though with much more immediacy. I agree, “letters” as opposed to “blogs” (with all the connotations of each) seems to be a more elevated form of communication.

    This may irk the Web 2.0 folk, who I’m pretty sure want to think that we can have a “dialogue” (something like a live interaction).

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