Friday, June 11, 2004

Philosophy, Arguments, Blogs, and Nietzsche

Camille Paglia makes a passing anti-blog reference. Her point is essentially that blogs and related media reduce our respect for rational, sustained argument. I agree completely. (Have you read some of these blogs?) Scribo picks up on this and disagrees. Scribo claims that the medium is neutral and it is what gets done with the blog that counts. I sort-of agree there too, but what Scribo misses is that (1) in practice, not much that passes for good argument is getting done with the medium, and (2) blogs actually are harmful to what can be called the "culture of argument".

Let me explain. Hermann Cohen, the founder of the Marburg neo-Kantian school had a very strong gripe with the aphoristic style of doing philosophy. He does not mention Neitzsche by name, but I and many others suspect that this is who he has in mind. For Cohen, aphorisms are an insult to the philosophic spirit. Aphorisms pretend to present truth as a flash of insight or a moment of inspiration. He thought that the spirit of philosophy goes directly counter to this.

The spirit of philosophy involves argument and reason. It involves the analysis of language or of premises which are taken, for a variety of reasons, to be true.

Neitzsche was a master of the aphorism. Being a master of aphorism involves a different skill than being a master of philosophical argument. Being a master of argument involves understanding logic. Understanding logic involves two things. First is coherence with the world, the second involves coherence with human intuitions.

Logical rules of inference must preserve both of these to work. Mastering the aphorism involves only a psychological skill, , ie, the second one we mentioned, coherence with intuition. However, intuition is more easily fooled than the world. Ultimately all sloganeering and marketing involves this kind of skill. Respect for truth or accuracy has never been a goal of advertisers and slogan makers.

Merely presenting something as true seems to close the possibility that it is falsifiable, and it leaves the impression that it needs no further thought. (Also, this is not the place to argue about the place and role of axioms and intuitions in philosophy.) There is also tons of research out there showing how you can get people to believe something clearly false without actually arguing for it. (Eg, rhyming, showing that "everyone believes it". . .)

(I am sure there are Nietzsche scholars out there who will tell me about Nietzsche's "system" or whatever. Whether Nietzsche is actually guilty or not of what Cohen is accusing (what appears to be) Nietzsche of, is another matter entirely. I am not a historian of philosophy and what Nietzsche actually did is not the point here. Also, I am aware that you can say the same thing about Wittgenstein. That too is a whole other story.)

Bloggers are in a similar boat as aphorists. The blog as a writing style is still in its nacent stages. The original paradigm for blogs was "link and comment". This allowed for someone to link to an argument and perhaps post a counterexample or something like that. But those days where only the geeks had blogs are very gone. Everyone has a blog now. Blogs are supposed to be small and clever and frankly everyone who has one seems to think their voice is small, but clever.

Nonetheless, the blog is a style that is particularly conducive to the aphorism. Blogs are generally short, and present their messages in the same way as an aphorist might present his or her message. As a quip.

The blog was not ever intended for or used as a forum for lengthy careful arguments. The blog has always been about "throwing something out there". That is not to say that there is no way to use blogs for more careful and thoughtful argument, but a blog definitely gives one the feeling that he or she can say something meaningful and convincing in four poorly written sentences, a clever tag-line, and a link. Generally this is not possible.

I am therefore in general agreement with Paglia's assessment. A blog is generally a forum for those who want to substitute rhyme for reason, those who think being cute is better than being clever, or those who think that if they foam at the mouth it is as good as an argument from their mouth. Blogs have shown us that many people's intellectual limits reach about a two step argument, and generally one that is fallacious for more than one reason. Careful distinctions are rarely made, nor are premises or conclusions delimited. The people who like sitting around and telling you how other people are wrong are often no better.

This post, and this blog, is naturally not an exception, though there are some exceptions. There are a few bloggers who really do a good job at presenting good ideas, and good arguments. But in general this is the exception rather than the rule. Also, blogging can be extremely valuable independently of this. Some things to not rely on argument - like the news. Having numerous voices simply telling you what happened seems like a valuable service.

Other things are also likely to be done poorly now that we have millions of people raising themselves on blogs. Fiction is likely to suffer too. After all, blog-sized fiction seems hard to do well. Then again, maybe there will be a new genera. I seem to recall that Asimov once wrote a few pieces of postcard-sized fiction for use on postcards.

Perhaps we will start seeing pieces in Analysis that were originally blogs and were refined by the philosophical community, and then made it to print. I would not hold my breath, but I would not be too surprised either.

The medium may not be the message, but it certainly influences it a

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