The Structure of Internet Revolutions pt.1

(I’m currently reading Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) with the direct intention of making a comparison between his analysis of scientific revolutions and our present (revolutionary) information age. Such a comparison will not be able to do justice to Kuhn but I believe his methodology to be of value when trying to understand our current information age.)

The establishment of the internet as a social medium has created a paradigm for a new science.

The tools offered by Google, Facebook, Twitter and Web 2.0 have transformed the way humans interact in an unprecedented manner. But the outdated claim that our social lives have experienced a paradigm shift in the information age has not, in my opinion, been taken seriously enough by philosophers. Philosophy can offer an interesting approach to this new paradigm and help understand the importance of such a scientific revolution. Philosophy has more to offer than the mere regurgitation of the ethics of intellectual property a lá Locke, Hegel and the school of utilitarianism.

How can philosophy operate in this technical field? Scientific revolutions, paradigms of thought, the studying of differing ages and ideologies are the playgrounds for philosophers – so why should philosophy be dumbfounded when presented with claims of a new age of information and a revolution in the fundamental way in which humans interact socially? I apologize for the rhetorical questions, I really do.

The first task of philosophy would be to analyze this paradigm in the context of past scientific revolutions. As much as one age revels in the thought of being unique, especially clever and innovative, temperance shows this attitude to be quite the norm in developing periods. Luckily, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is a book (and quite a good one at that) which means my only job is to make the pieces of this information revolution fit within the structure of past scientific revolutions. The point of doing so is not to fortify the claim that a “revolution” is a revolution by comparing apples to apples but to realize what it actually means to have an apple in the hand. Without trying to become biblical, I would have to say an apple in the hand is an occasion for a new normal science.

At the heart of innovation, invention and revolution is a paradigmatic shift and, as Thomas Kuhn once told me in his aforementioned book, a paradigm is a beginning and not an end – it is “a route to normal science“. This must not be something realized in retrospect, rather, it can be a tool used to help shape the emerging science; all one needs is a little historiography (this is my shout out to Karl Löwith – wink, wink).

(Part II coming soon).

The Cow

Somebody asked me the other day if I knew of Nietzsche’s cow.  I stopped, I thought and I couldn’t remember Nietzsche ever having a cow – just a town named after a cow in Zarathustra [die bunte Kuh].  So I answered, “huh? Nietzsche and a cow?”  To which I was pointed towards Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations [Vom Nutzen und  Nachteil der Historie für das Leben].  Nietzshe’s cow represents the power of forgetting.  To all of those philosophers and scientists who are worried about taking the next step, about making concrete progress, Nietzsche presents a cow.  The cow forgets and forgetting births the possibility of creating something new, of becoming individual.

I forgot about Nietzsche’s cow, which has me convinced that I remembered him all the more.  Convenient!


p.s. Nietzsche’s cow is not to be confused with his camel, his lion, his snake, his eagle, his donkey, his human or his sister.

The Great Chain of Being

A good read for anyone interested in the history of ideas is The Great Chain of Being by Arthur Lovejoy.

Throwing yourself bodily onto his introduction your ribs will be thoroughly massaged with the following:

There are, first, implicit or incompletely explicit assumptions, or more or less unconscious mental habits, operating in the thought of an individual or a generation.  It is the beliefs which are so much a matter of course that they are rather tacitly presupposed that formally expressed and argued for…

A hearty rib massage is never to be underestimated.  What a power this is, what a thing it would be to have the ability to string contemporary thoughts, attitudes and beliefs with their ancestors, undermining their virgin birth by pointing to the father.  This is a branch of philosophy that is associated with the history of philosophy.  That is one sexy branch – I would not lie to you.

What else could Lovejoy’s book do to your body without making this sexual?  Comb your eyebrows.  It is a soothing act that he accomplishes through philosophical semantics. Sacred words and phrases of a period or movement he says?  Comb my eyebrows I says.

I hold dear to my heart all works that strive against the idea of intellectual progress.  Knowledge is a giant wave in Mavericks, California that sweeps up all people in its path.  The educated and the non-educated become wrapped together in their watery somersaults.  Those that hold degrees distinguish themselves by proclaiming and pointing, “we’re going in this direction!” – forgetting that they are being propelled forward by cold, salty and sometimes unsanitary water.

Nobody likes metaphors, nobody likes being forced to read one and one can only feel embarrassed after having written one.  It is like having your pathetic creative powers strapped to your forehead – the perfect place of shame, since you cannot really see it yourself (delicious simile is not shameful).

I offer an example so as to stray from the eyebrows: the principle of plenitude.

What does it really mean to say that God is all powerful?  For Galileo and Descartes it meant the creation of a principle – the principle of plenitude, the principle of there being plenty of stuff.

The presumption from which we must reason, where other evidence is unavailable, is that what, so far as we can judge, is capable of being, is.  The production of an infinity of worlds was possible to the Creator [among many other awesome things – e.g. flying T-Rex]; and the principle [of plenitude] which we must always accept in such matters is that the possibility has been realized.

If all possibilities have been realized somewhere, meditates Descartes, then our position here in this world is not as special as our parents told us.  If this is the case we might as well detach our affections from the things of this world… and play in the chambers of our insanity (or, pure reason, depending on who you ask).

If Earth is not the center of all that is gnarly, if there are other worlds and if there is a creator that is infinitely powerful then there is a high chance that we have bretheren on Saturn.  It isn’t like God would invest time in creating a world and not put some creatures on it.  Let me be earnest, I would be a lot more interested in theology if the theologians were still worried about aliens and whether or not they have their own personal Jesus.  That is a serious conversation I could dig my teeth into.

I also meant to say that things like the principle of plenitude, although thought to be genial, new and intriguing, are, well, ridiculously not – like most genial ideas.

want to go to grad school?

When I asked my Professors (both as an undergrad and as a Masters student) for advice about graduate school I generally received one reaction and it usually had to do with the word “passion“. If I wasn’t passionate about philosophy, if I didn’t want to eat breakfast while reading philosophy, if I didn’t want to shower while reciting sound arguments, if I didn’t want to do battle over my favorite philosophy of language theory than I shouldn’t go to graduate school. The quip, “I live, eat and breathe philosophy”, was something I heard once. It left me with the impression that people who went to graduate school were people that wept at night because of the physiological impossibility of having sweet romantic intercourse with their books. What I’m trying to say is that I couldn’t find good advice and heard nothing less than people expressing how proud they were of their “passion.”

If there are people out there looking for some helpful advice there currently is a discussion at A Philosophy Job Market Blog that is helpful. Don’t forget to read the comments to these posts because there are people who disagree –

Advice points 1 and 2 can be found here.

Advice point 3 can be found here.

I don’t want to give people the impression that I don’t recite sound arguments while showering because not only do I recite, I sing.

der Gott der Philosophen, 2

I’ve realized that some of the terms I’m using may not be the same as you’ve heard before. I’m translating my notes as literally as possible to try and stick to Prof. Halfwassen’s version of this story. I’m also trying to concentrate on the thread that connects the philosophers and not really making much effort to elucidate the details of the philosophies.

Part 2

Xenophanes separated god from the world and Parmenides took away the world, leaving god (Being).

Enter Plato. Plato brings an idea of “change” or “becoming” back to our history of metaphysics. “Change” bridges the gap between the “Oneness” of Parmenides and the indeterminate duality or multiplicity of daily experience. Plato places a “One”, or a “Good” as being beyond existence and this “One” is responsible for all knowledge. Knowledge is then a level of understanding between “oneness” and “duality” – true knowledge lying closer to oneness and opinion lying closer to duality.


[I’m very proud of this diagram that I just made, is it not beautiful?]

Xenophanes took god away from the world, Parmenides took away the world and Plato returned it to us as a changing, moving substance.

Enter Aristotle. The cause for change and movement in the world was, for Aristotle, the most important principle (not the “Good” or the “One” as is the case with Plato). Instead of levels of knowledge we are given levels of movement:

    3. finite moved substances (humans, things in the world, etc.)
    2. infinite moved substances (planets, moons, etc.)
    1. eternally unmoved substance (the unmoved mover)

Substance 1 causes substance 2 to move but is itself unmoved – substance 2 then has a role in the movement of substance 3. [On a side note, I recently depicted substance 1, the unmoved mover, as a creepy girl.]

Xenophanes took god away from the world, Parmenides took the world away, Plato returned it to us as a changing substance and Aristotle gave us the god of change, the unmoved mover. I suppose it might make even more sense if we leave Parmenides out of our line of thought:

For the first time Xenophanes removed god from the world turning him/her/it into an otherworldly entity. Plato showed us that knowledge was looking past the fleeting quality of objects and towards the forms of life. The forms were entities most similar to god because they resembled the unity of god (as opposed to the multiplicity of mere appearances). Aristotle then tied this god to the world through a cause and effect relationship.

I’m not sure if I’ll continue in elucidating this project – let me know if there is actually any interest.

der Gott der Philosophen, 1

Part 1

Der Gott der Philosophen (the God of the Philosophers), was a project and year and a half long lecture series by Professor Jens Halfwassen (link is in German) of Uni. Heidelberg. This lecture series took a look at the Western tradition of philosophy using God, or an idea of an absolute, as its theme. I was able to attend the lectures for a year and listened to Prof. Halfwassen make it up to Meister Eckhart (in the last semester he ended with Kant). Prof. Halfwassen was sketching not the whole philosophy of the Western tradition but the history of metaphysics, connecting one system of metaphysic to the next.

Step 1 was to discuss polytheism, henotheism and monotheism in terms of a metamorphosis from poly- to monotheism.

  • Polytheism: gods are part of the world and include one god that is stronger, more powerful than the others.
  • Henotheism: being devoted to one god but recognizing the existence of lesser gods (a proto-Monotheism).
  • Monotheism: accepting the existence of a God that is distinct from this world.

Enter Xenophanes. Xenophanes critiqued the anthropomorphic view of the Homeric gods. If the gods of the humans look human and act like humans than the gods of the horses are horses and act like horses. As a consequence of this critique he argued that god must be distinct and beyond the world (neither human or horse) – leaving him with a view of god that was more powerful than Zeus and larger than all gods that had been thought of. The world, for Xenophanes, represented change and multiplicity and God represented the absolute and unchangeable, indivisible oneness. He also argued that the idea of an all-powerful god necessitated the existence of only one god. Prof. Halfwassen declared Xenophanes, in being the first to separate god from the world, as our first monotheist.

Enter Parmenides. Parmenides followed Xenophanes’ idea of an absolute God and followed through on what he thought were the consequences. If there is an absolute and indivisible oneness, than there can be no such thing as multiplicity. Something absolute cannot be separated from something else because it implies a negation. That which is absolute cannot be divided or separated. Everything is existence (or absolute) without the possibility of changing. Xenophanes’ God turned into Parmenides’ Being (something cannot arise out of nothing, that which exists has always existed and is one, the world as we know it is a delusion). Xenophanes took God away from the world and Parmenides took the world away, leaving God (which he called “Being”).

What happens to this absolute Being? Part two will discuss Plato and Aristotle and how they moved forward from Parmenides.

Rorty and philosophy in America

I’ve mentioned before Rorty’s sentiments on philosophy in America and thought I would go a little more in depth. The following is from an essay he wrote, Philosophy in America Today, written in 1981. Even though the article is 27 years old, his analysis fits with my impression of philosophy departments in the US from my perspective in Germany (his more current work not only affirms what he wrote at this time but is even more critical).

A quip by Quine helps explain the direction American philosophy has taken – namely, “that people go into philosophy for one of two reasons: some are interested in the history of philosophy, and some in philosophy.” Being interested in “philosophy” means being interested in solving a set of identifiable problems (Quine is giving credence to the American tradition). Here in Germany the problems of philosophy are problems in writing the history of philosophy (something less valued by the mighty Quine). That is mainly why my current research on Karl Löwith is accepted as doing philosophical work in Germany but would less likely be accepted by American universities since I am not addressing a specific philosophic “problem” or entering into a specific philosophic debate.

Rorty continues on to describe the scientific, argumentative American style of philosophy in contrast to a “literary” Continental style:

The former style asks that premises be explicitly spelled out rather than guessed at, that terms be introduced by definitions rather than by allusion. The latter style may involve argumentation, but that is not essential; what is essential is telling a new story, suggesting a new language-game, in hope of a new form of intellectual life.

Training in analytic philosophy has become akin to the training done in law schools. Arguments and problems are treated with standard casebook procedures in attempts to find objections or weaknesses.

Students’ wits were sharpened by reading preprints of articles by currently fashionable figures, and finding objections to them. The students so trained began to think of themselves neither as continuing a tradition nor as participating in the solution of the “outstanding problems” at the frontiers of a science. Rather, they took their self-image from a style and quality of argumentation. They became quasi-lawyers rather than quasi-scientists – hoping an interesting new case would turn up.

This description fits my experience as a Masters student in California. The most “lawyer style” of philosophy done at my department was in the form of an Ethic’s Bowl (see detailed description here). Undergraduate students are asked to prepare cases in the field of ethics and be able to debate these cases against other teams. Philosophers and philosophies are invoked much like a lawyer invokes past cases to support their claim (bringing utilitarianism to bear on a problem is a small step from bringing Engel Et Al vs. V. Vitale Et Al to bear on a court case).

On the other hand, popular philosophers of Continental philosophy (Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault) were encouraging their readers to give up notions of “system”, “method” and “science” – notions that find central importance in Analytic philosophy. They wanted to “blur the lines between disciplines” and were against the idea of philosophy having a set of problems that were foreign to other departments.

While in California there were also talks about bridging the divide between Continental and Analytic philosophy. For Rorty, such a “project would make sense if, as is sometimes said, the two sides were attacking common problems with different “methods”. But in the first place, there are no such common problems…”

For those living in America and interested in Continental philosophy comparative literature departments, where a literary style is accepted, are the departments to turn to. Popular philosophical projects here in Heidelberg are akin to projects done in comparative literature courses in the US – one such project, “The God of the Philosophers”, I will hopefully address in the future.

Rorty describes the problem as such:

Although philosophy is not something which once was whole and now is sundered, something else is – namely, the secular intellectual’s conception of himself.

and later:

It is the contrast between the “scientific culture” and the “literary culture.” It is the antagonism which begins to become explicit when analytic philosophers mutter about the “irrationalism” which rages in literature departments and when Continental philosophers become shrill about the lack of “human significance” in the works of the analysts.

Saying that philosophy is on its deathbed comes from the Rorty interview that I’ve mentioned all too often on this blog. He claims that the argumentative Analytic philosophy has lost substance, that the problems they are fascinated with go out of style within a generation and that they produce a body of literature that is forgotten within 10 to 20 years.  He said this, of course, as a Professor of Comparative Literature.