Philosophy, horses and quill pens

by Chris Bertram on September 15, 2003

Larry Solum adds his thoughts to the philosophical immortality discussion. His has lots of interest to say, and some extra thoughts on which legal theorists will survive, but I feel a bit sceptical about this:

The twentieth-century was the first time in human history that literally tens of thousands of very smart people worked on philosophical problems for most of their waking hours—with all of the advantages of modern technology—try writing a really big book with a quill pen or traveling four hundred miles by horse to consult a library . In the twentieth century, there was a lot of low hanging philosophical fruit. Much of it was plucked. History will remember.

Does technology really help? Sure, there’s been some philosophical progress but I’m not convinced it has much to do with the availability of typewriters, computers and motor vehicles. Philosophy is a funny business, sort of stuck half way between scientific research and creative writing or music. To the extent to which it is like scientific research then the good thoughts are dissociable from the person having them. But we can also think of a style of writing and thinking as being characteristic of a creative individual and not easily pulled apart from them. Some philosophers are closer to one pole than the other. It is at least arguable that music and literature did a lot better with the horse and the quill pen than they have in the electronic age. Maybe in 100 years we’ll think philosophy did too. Technology might help, but it might just get in the way.

{ 13 comments }

1

dsquared 09.15.03 at 5:55 pm

The twentieth-century was the first time in human history that literally tens of thousands of very smart people worked on philosophical problems for most of their waking hours

This would indeed tend to lead to fantastic progress, if only these people had been working on solving philosophical problems, rather than creating new ones.

2

Neel Krishnaswami 09.15.03 at 6:03 pm

At least for the more mathematical end of the analytic project, the invention of the computer has been a godsend. You can implement your models as a computer program and watch them crash and burn, one after another. This is really great, since it dramatically amplifies the pace of progress — in a hundred years it will be engineering, not science, and certainly not philosophy.

Heck, in twenty years this could well be true — the area of CS I work in (programming language semantics and type theory) could quite fairly be called applied analytic philosophy.

3

Edward Hugh 09.15.03 at 6:59 pm

ooops, you haven’t been reading your McLuhan, now have you?

Technology and thought are intimately connected. Check out Plato and Aristotle if you’re not sure (writing came into use in between, Plato is oral, Aristotle is literate).

Then look at printing and the Enlightenment (circulation of books). Obviously the inter-connectedness of the modern world is going to have a masssssssssssive impact. For just a taster you could try looking at what ‘mad’ Ray Kurzweil does to Chinese Room specialist John Searle. Poor John, he’s reduced to falling back on that ‘causal powers of the mind stuff’. (Actually the Derrida debunk of searle thirty years ago was a lot funnier, but that wouldn’t serve my argument). What I mean is, you’ve got someone who basically doesn’t know s**t about philosophy taking apart someone who is considered to be one of America’s leading philosophers, just because he understands something about technology. Now, Daniel Dennett, he wouldn’t be such easy meat. But I’ve a feeling he just might agree with the point that’s being made here.

4

Chris 09.15.03 at 7:10 pm

Not sure about McLuhan, but why take me to be denying that technology and thought are intimately connected? Maybe they are, and that’s worse for some forms of thought? Is a philosophy essay composed by a student with a pencil likely to be better or worse than one composed with Microsoft Word? Certainly the one composed in Word will be more legible …

5

zizka 09.15.03 at 7:40 pm

During the European scholastic period quite a large number of people were writing abstruse books with quill pens. We don’t read many of them, but you had whole districts of Paris populated with budding theologians. The same is true in Tibet. The Tibetan Buddhist literature is enormous, and the dozens of translations only scratch the surface.

Does this mean that I think (as D2 seems to) that contemporary philosophers are scholastic dunces*? Yeah, but actually I think Tibetan scholasticism is quite interesting, so I have to qualify that.

*Google “dunce” + “Duns Scotus” to see what I mean.

6

Neel Krishnaswami 09.15.03 at 8:38 pm

Chris, try a slightly different question: is the soundness proof of some novel logical system constructed using the assistance of a computerized theorem prover qualititatively different from a proof constructed using pencil and paper?

You can make a case either way, but I’d be inclined towards the view that it is. A traditional proof gets its validity from an essentially social process: other mathematicians, logicians, and philosophers read the proof and decide whether it meets the proof standards of their discipline. A theorem prover adds a wholly new component to that process: there’s also a machine checking each of the steps. So now proof is a social and technical process.

That’s a pretty big change in the sociology of the philosophical enterprise.

7

Lawrence Solum 09.15.03 at 11:05 pm

My idea wasn’t that the technology made the thinker or the thoughts better. (That’s a very interesting question!) Rather, my idea was that technology allowed more time for the thinking, because it allows the mechanical aspects of scholarship to be accomplished in much less time. The assumption is that more time to think will translate into more good thoughts. This combines with the earlier point, about there simply being many more philosophers. The corresponding assumption is more people thinking translates into more good thinking. Of course, the ultimate point rests on a further assumption that more good thinking yields more truly great thinking about philosophical problems.

8

matt 09.16.03 at 3:44 am

There is, of course, another way in which technology contributes to philosophic progress: medical technology has dramatically increased average life expectancy, thus making it less likely that great philosophers will die at an early age with much of their work incomplete. Come to think of it, it also probably increases the ease of the discovery process. Technology like the internet and modern communications/transportation makes it easier to find philosophical talent and cultivate it. Tyler Cowen makes some of these points regarding culture in general in the first of his latest trio of books.

9

Robert Schwartz 09.16.03 at 4:49 am

“Rather, my idea was that technology allowed more time for the thinking, because it allows the mechanical aspects of scholarship to be accomplished in much less time.”

Now if only scholarly technology had been invented. No cell phones, pagers, fax machines, blogs . . .:-) My guess is that in the real world we all have less time to think, and more technology leads to more committee meetings, paper work and other forms of wheel-spinning.

10

dsquared 09.16.03 at 6:46 am

Just to note that lots of people, including me, don’t recognise Edward’s characterisation of the Kurzweil/Searle affaire above. I came out of it thinking that Kurzweil had embarrassed himself, and Searle had shown once more that it’s a sight easier to mock him than understand him.

11

Wili WŠchendon 09.16.03 at 1:10 pm

There is, of course, another way in which technology contributes to philosophic progress: medical technology has dramatically increased average life expectancy, thus making it less likely that great philosophers will die at an early age with much of their work incomplete.

Of course the counterpoint here is that that may also have a negative impact on philosophic progress. The whole issue of ageing giants long past their peak stagnating progress in their field through their huge influence, with their ideas only being fully challenged and, where flawed, overturned by the next generation after they’ve kicked the bucket.

On the other hand, if technological progress brings about intelligence augmentation and mind uploading, this becomes much less of an issue.

12

Sigivald 09.16.03 at 10:39 pm

Robert: I have to disagree, at least in general. Comparing the average man’s “time to think” today with that of the “average man”, say, two centuries ago, I reckon today’s man has much more leisure time (and is less exhausted in it!), than ever before.

Now, modern man in general uses precious little of that for philosophical thought… but this was also true for every previous era. The “deep thinkers” have always been a tiny minority (and, well, considering how most of them seem to turn out, that might be just as well), and almost always of the leisure class anyway.

At any rate, I can’t imagine that increased communication and availability of information could be harmful to the production of good philosophy. It does, sadly, make for the easy dissemination of really bad philosophy as well, however. But, well, Sturgeon’s Law applies to Philosophy at least as well as anything else. We can be sure that bad philosophy is by no means a new phenomenon; if it seems so, recall that the most obvious stinkers of bygone days were most likely simply not copied and thus did not survive.

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Neel Krishnaswami 09.17.03 at 2:35 am

Sigivald: experiencing bad philosophy and bad science second-hand is one of the main pleasures in reading about the history of science. For example, I really enjoyed Douglas Irwin’s Against the Tide, in large measure because I enjoyed seeing how little sense 17th century economics (to the extent it existed at all) was.

(Though despite being nonsense it wasn’t at all incomprehensible, once you realized that these writings were attempts to influence the government’s trade policy, and were hence as unbiased as a political party’s position papers. In fact there’s a great deal of continuity between then and now; the miracle is that there’s any clear thinking at all about the subject, not that bad ideas persist.)

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