One from the vaults. In response to DavidWeinberger :

Sent: Tuesday, February 27, 2001 7:53 PM

To: David Weinberger

Subject: on academic philosophy

Hi David,

just read your February JOHO on academic philosophers as gatekeepers.

Here's a couple of thoughts. I have a lot of empathy.

I've just fucked up my Phd after 7 years, and I'm feeling pretty

out of sympathy with academia. I worked in an area (Artificial

Life) which

allowed a lot of interdisciplinery reading and dialogue between AI,

philosophy, biology, psychology etc. I loved the interdisciplinery

atmosphere, I loved the discussions, I loved hanging out with smart and

enthusiastic students. But I was also unable to discipline myself,

too easily sidetracked by one idea after another. My actual work seemed

narrow, and lacking in content. I couldn't read real academic papers

because of the extraordinary dullness of the language. My eyes slipped

over the words and equations, taking in nothing.

So I screwed up. I wrote a pathetic thesis in the last 6 - 8 months of

my 7 years. I didn't sleep properly. I wrote sarcastic footnotes and made

puns and used ironic quotations, because I was too tired to care

that this

wasn't the correct way to write. The examiners

said I demonstrated no understanding of scientific method (in fact I read

too much Popper and Fayerabend) - and worst of all I didn't cite

hundreds of other sources to demonstrate that my work was the result

of systematically reading all the possibly relevant literature.

Naturally enough, failing is very very painful. It's great to be in

academia when you feel you have a right to be there. But the moment you

fail, you feel delegitimized. How can you sit in on a talk and ask

demanding, critical questions of a speaker when you (and your

colleagues) all know that the speaker is qualified but you aren't?

At the same time, I've been an avid reader of web writing, of Cluetrain,

of the weblog phenomenon. In a sense I feel like someone realizing that

they're gay, and struggling to accept their sexuality. On the one

hand I'm

seduced by the sense of freedom, the exhuberance of web-writing. And the

possibility : "I can take my research, my philosophical thinking and

writing to the web. I can discuss freely. I can say something meaningful

using aphorisms, or anecdotes, or weblog entries. I don't have to be

scholastic to contribute to knowledge."

OTOH there is a repressed side, where the academic super-ego still

dominates. "Publishing outside the official journals, without

peer review,

is for the eccentrics, the nutters. Only those whose work isn't valuable

enough to publish in journals will resort to vanity publishing on the

web. That's for the coloured crayon brigade. Without the self-discipline

to organize your ideas into a thesis format, to survey the relevant

literature, your ideas will be half-baked. " And perhaps its true.

Anyway, that's where I'm coming from. But when I read your piece something

clicked into place for me, and weirdly web cultural theory has made me

suddenly more sympathetic to academia. The realization I just had was that

"citing is linking". Of course, in a sense, that has been obvious all

along. But culturally the two stood (at least in my mind) for entirely

opposite things. Citing was part of the mystic rites of academia. Boring

days in the library searching and photocopying papers that said pretty

much nothing more than you expected them to (or that a dozen others

also said) in laboured detail. Why does it matter to note that Hegel

said something similar two hundred years ago? I'm saying it now!

Whereas linking stood for the alchemical magic of the web. The chain

reaction that let the world's online knowledge reach critical mass and

explode in a utopia of free discussion. When I think about the hyperlinked

web, I am happy that due to blogrolling hundreds of weblogs say pretty

much the same things, each from a slightly different perspective. I am

happy with pages that serve no function other than to link other


and whose only real contribution is that they present a different

clustering criteria for these resources.

Suddenly, now I realise that citing is linking, I can forgive

exegetic philosophers that behave the same way. Perhaps when your

correspondant sent you a large list of previous philosophers who have made

similar points, the spirit isn't RageBoy's cynical "shut the fuck up" but

a present of a page of links to other resources,

Thinking about it, before computers could automate the process, the skills

of "scholarship" (a word I used to detest) were the only way for humans

to animate a web of hyperlinked information. And of course, (I think

optimistically) now that computers DO automate the process for us, we

really don't need to do it for ourselves. There is no other magic

of scholarship that we need to concern ourselves about.

What, Panglossian? Me?


phil jones

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