Philosophers Online: Popularizing Ideas in a Digital Age

Who can forget the existential cat videos?

Overview:

I was recently reading a book review in the Atlantic Monthly (online, of course) called “Playing with Plato.” This is a review of a new collection of ‘modern’ imagined dialogues between Plato and various characters of our time (a Google engineer, for example) in a book titled Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away. The author of the review (philosophy professor Clancy Martin) reminds us that the sorts of questions that this book asks (What is progress? What is morality?) are the same questions that the ancient philosophers entertained and are the same questions that still motivate people—both philosophers and non-philosophers—to try and understand the world.

I was impressed with the review, in which Martin traces his own journey to the welcoming arms of philosophy, but I was dissatisfied with the end result. This is a review published in a digital magazine about a text that engages the engineers of modernity … and the book is printed as a physical book. There is a Kindle version and an audio version, of course, but like nearly every book published in print too, the digital version is a for-purchase, mimicry of the physical text.

Though philosophers often publish academic work like the rest of us in cumbersome, paper journals and university presses (tenure march!), many of them also pride themselves on the free dissemination of their ideas to students and the public through lectures, conversations, and small discussions. “The beauty of philosophy,” these scholars argue, “is the fact that anyone can—and should—engage in these important questions.”

“Surely philosophers can do better than this,” I complained to my own philosopher. “How can philosophy adapt these new forms of media to participate in the necessary exchange of questions and dialogue?”

I could hear the surprise in his voice, “Well, they already have.” Then he flooded my inbox with links to podcasts, videos, and blogs.

Some of these digital texts are extremely popular with  non-philosophers. Something like Philosophy Bitesa free podcast—has hundreds of thousands of hits. Further, philosophers have developed really creative videos which illustrate difficult concepts (and fun thought experiments) like David Harvey’s animated video “Crisis of Capitalism” and a video that my own philosopher uses to teach experimental philosophy in his own classes (“Experimental Philosophy”). Philosophers have also experimented with some very popular Yale Open Courses and Open University courses (one set of which sparked a large controversy). Also see The Partially Examined Life, which is terrifically awesome.

So many questions!

Question or Problem:
My essay will examine how philosophy has used digital media to further the public nature of the discipline (I am not interested in academic philosophy). I hope to explore what kinds of sources work well, identify the factors that are the most successful in these sources, and propose ways that philosophy can continue to be a presence in the public discourse. I hope that the information I compile and dissect will be useful for discussions about public humanities in the future.

I’m interested in this subject for many reasons, but the primary one is that there are lots of awesome ideas that the public would love to engage with so how do we make these ideas free and as accessible as possible?  Philosophy is doing this, therefore let’s look to philosophy.

Texts and Materials:
– Free philosophy sources (videos, podcasts, blogs, open courses) – if the sources are not free then they are not relevant to my study.
– I need to read sources about teaching philosophy, I think.
– Interviews with philosophers (including mine).

Format:
I’ve already created a Google website, which I imagine to be divided into pages in a creative way (not just by an exploration of different media, but by concept perhaps?). This will be a compilation of videos, links, posts, (hopefully) an experimental podcast/interview, and cats.

Text(s) to Imitate?:
I have no idea. I’ve seen nothing exactly like this, though I imagine that there is some sort of educational website in this format.

Questions:
1. Do you think that a website is the appropriate medium?
2. I’m afraid that this might be lingering too much on the cusp of a study and less an argument. What do you think I should anticipate in order to keep this from being a “look, I have cool stuff” website?
3. As educators in the humanities, what sorts of questions/branches/side trails about this potential study are the most interesting or would be the most helpful for you?

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8 thoughts on “Philosophers Online: Popularizing Ideas in a Digital Age”

  1. Katie,

    We’ve already talked a bit about this project, so you know that I’m excited about it. I suspect that the key to making this an essay rather than a data-dump will be finding a way to distinguish uses of digital media to (a) explain philosophy [like Sandel’s MOOC], and (b) to do philosophy. Or another way to put this would be to say that you may want to focus on how the various sites and texts you look imagine their audiences—as listeners, or as something more like interlocutors?

    Does that help? I haven’t had a chance yet to look through the links you’ve posted, but I am particularly eager to see the texts that you and David find engaging.

    Joe

    1. Joe,

      I think these distinctions are very helpful! I also like the idea of creating terms and types for doing and participating in online philosophy.

  2. Katie,

    Great project, can’t wait to see what you come up with. I agree that distinguishing between pedagogical and knowledge-making purposes will be crucial for your project. I really like the framework of public (rather than scholarly) discourse/engagement for looking at these texts. Something that might be particularly interesting to investigate is the ways in which philosophers try to show the public why philosophy is relevant to current, lived experiences of being-in-the-world. The imagined conversations in _Plato at the Googleplex_ that you describe in your proposal seem like a perfect example of this. But how else is it being done? Are these texts successfully bridging the perceived gap between the intellectual work of philosophy and the experiences of the public? And if so, what can the rest of the humanities learn from these strategies for engaging the public? If you keep your long-term focus on trying to answer questions like these, I don’t think you’re in any danger of this being just a case study.

    Best,
    Kiley

  3. Katie–

    First: Mon ami, Henri!

    Second: I find it fascinating that philosophers are not only trying their hand at new mediums to disseminate ideas, but that we’ve also seen non-philosopher (social) media users attempting to engage (to varying degrees of success/accuracy) with philosophy. This might be another branch of the project you are proposing, or another project altogether, but would you also be interested in discussing the ways in which philosophical ideas are being playfully (mis)represented in things like the Henri videos or other viral “pop” philosophy incarnations like the Philosoraptor meme? (Perhaps JVJ and Harriet Taylor Mill could make another appearance at this point too!)

    Those are just some stray thoughts, but what you have now sounds fantastic; I look forward to seeing what develops!

  4. Katie,

    I know I’ve already mentioned this in person to you but I thought I’d add the link and discussion here too, just in case.

    I think this project is GREAT and I wanted to point you towards at least one trend in “online philosophy” that I have noticed–an attempt to explain difficult philosophical ideas in “dumbed-down” modes. I’m thinking here of http://www.reddit.com/r/explainlikeimfive/ (which is more general and less philosophy-specific) but also Philosophy Bro (http://www.philosophybro.com/), which attempts to explain philosophical texts in “bro”-language.

  5. To me, Alain de Botton is the great philosopher of age. I am fascinated by the way he is integrating philosophy with our everyday life in the 21th century. I have been a reader of his books for years.I have also been following his posts on Facebook and Twitter, but I do find them as appealing as his books. It’s interesting to see that my great philosopher has just shared a link or a quick idea appearing on my iPhone screen, as if he is texting me. What a great pleasure! Still, when I read his books, I find him closer to my inner self. In online posts, he is smart and entertaining, but in his books he is a giant. I think he even does not try to prove being a philosopher in his online posts.
    I suggest you also have a look at his online and offline publications.
    Could we have a kind of online “microstyle” language of philosophy without finding ourselves busy with anecdotes and beautiful quotes?

    1. sorry! an important “not” is missing in my previous comment: ” I do NOT find them as appealing as his books. (2:00 AM and no editing options! )

  6. I’m thinking Joe’s distinctions are important for keeping your project manageable, since what I immediately started thinking was “isn’t tumblr basically just ENTIRELY philosophy-doing on the internet?”, and it called to mind my own unaccomplished plan for doing philosophy on the internet. (A long time ago, Lara Southgate and I pondered the idea of a theory blog–where we practiced philosophy be deconstructing things and sometimes positing humorously hyperbolic implications. The first entry was to be a postcolonial/Peirce-ian reading of shopping in Ikea, no joke, but I never finished it). The allowances of the internet make both doing and explaining philosophy particularly promising (the doing, in particular, seems marked by the internet’s tendency towards the anecdotal, hence my Ikea project), but the reading practices of the internet make that reception rather difficult, since philosophy might mandate a different reading practice, traditionally.

    Sorry–not so much a suggestion as a wiggly paragraph of loose thoughts, but maybe helpful?

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