Blogging as a Tool for Philosophical Discourse: the State of the Art

15 03 2006

Next week in Portland, I’ll be on a panel with Jonathan Kvanvig, Gillian Russell, and Brian Weatherson, with the title as above. Since Brian has already said something about what he’ll say, I figured I’ll post a bit as well, especially to elicit more suggestions.

I figured, since I’m still in graduate school, and therefore know less about the profession at large than the other panelists, I’ll mainly talk about blogging per se. (Most of the data below I gathered by using the list of blogs that Dave Chalmers maintains.)

When I began graduate school, only 6 of the blogs currently on Chalmers’ list existed, and half of them were non-philosophy oriented. Projecting current trends, by the time I graduate there will almost certainly be over 200, with over 150 on philosophical topics.

There have been some changes in the pattern of blog creation – in the first two years, there were only 6 or so blogs (out of 25) that focus on a particular topic (Will Wilkinson, Brian Weatherson, Greg Restall, Wo Schwartz, Clark Goble, and Jeremy Pierce – to the extent that BW and WS can be said to be topical), and more than half of the blogs were primarily non-philosophical. But in early ’04, a few more topical blogs were formed, and there was a burst in May/June ’04 as 17 topical blogs (and four others) were formed. This brought the total of all blogs from 38 to 59, with almost half of them topical.

Interestingly enough, the second half of 2004 had about the same rate of blog creation as the period before May/June, and was again about equally split between philosophical and non-philosophical blogs, mostly non-topically focused. However, in 2005, the pace of blog creation picked up (with another burst in January, that included my blog) and has tended to be more topically focused.

Interestingly, the topics have grown more specialized. Whereas blogs from before May ’04 that I counted as “topical” often talked about general language/epistemology/metaphysics/mind topics, some more recent ones have focused on philosophy of “real mathematics”, science ethics, and contextualism in epistemology.

Another interesting development has been the rise of group blogs. The first group blogs in philosophy appear to be the grad student blogs at Rochester, Brown, Syracuse, and Arizona as part of the burst in April and May of ’04, followed in June by topical group blogs on free will, religion, epistemology, experimental philosophy, ethics, art, and biology.

It’s interesting to compare the development of blogging in philosophy with that in other academic disciplines. In physics, the major blogs I glanced at mostly seemed to get started in ’04 and ’05, a bit later than in philosophy (though John Baez has been posting This Week’s Finds in Mathematical Physics since 1993!), while the major linguistics blogs seemed to get started around ’02 and ’03, just as in philosophy. I know less about where to look in other academic disciplines, but maybe Brian can use some of his connections at Crooked Timber (established in July ’03) to find out more about the history of blogging in other academic disciplines.

I’ve certainly found it quite interesting glancing through all these different blogs to find out when they were started; whether they focus on a particular topic, are about general philosophy, or primarily non-philosophical topics; and who writes them. The main philosophical benefits I’ve gotten (besides some quite useful comments on ideas I post!) are running into people at conferences who already have some idea of what I work on, and starting up e-mail conversations with people about my interests. I don’t think anything I’ve first written in a blog post has (yet) ended up in a larger paper, but some of it probably will before too terribly long.

Anyway, if other people have thoughts, I’d be glad to hear them (and possibly share them next week, if you can’t make it to the discussion in Portland yourself!)

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8 responses

16 03 2006
Greg F-A

Very informative! Reading this prompted a couple of questions for me; you don’t have to answer them, but at least it might give you some sense of what your audience might ask about afterwards (at least, if there is anyone in the audience who shares my idiosyncratic outlook.).

Do you have any hypothesis about what caused the various bursts and lulls in blog-creation?

And: how does philosophical blog growth compare to blog growth simpliciter? (I know I’ve seen good stuff on the web about this, but I can’t remember where at the moment.)

Lastly, you mentioned some positive things about maintaining a blog; do you have any stories about ‘blog backlash,’ i.e., someone (yourself included) being looked down on (in some way or another) for having a blog?

16 03 2006
lumpy pea coat

I’m also curious regarding Greg’s last comment. It shouldn’t matter what people blog about provided it isn’t obviously offensive (in a bad way).

It would be interesting to conduct a survey of academic bloggers asking why they blog. I initially started because I was on the other side of the world without anybody to share my ideas with…I mean, my philosophical ideas. (I did share ideas about peanut butter and corn.)

I also wonder why most academic bloggers don’t seem to care about anonymity.

16 03 2006
Jason Zarri

I also started a blog to share my ideas. I think the great thing about blogs is that they can serve as a repository of your “unfinished” ideas–you can post something that’s nowhere near publishable, and invite others to come and help refine your ideas. In a sense I think it’s the information age’s version of the philosophical tradition of the dialouge.

17 03 2006
Ming Tan

Kenny, I know that you’ve already mentioned this in an earlier post on blogging, but it is interesting to note that many of the (non-topical) group blogs are only being kept alive by a single individual.

On the whole, it appears that department-based blogs are difficult to sustain in the long run.

17 03 2006
Kenny Easwaran

My main hypothesis for the bursts of blog creation, is that May/June is the end of an academic year, when people have time to devote to something new, and January is the beginning of a new year, when people have an initiative to start new projects. But this doesn’t quite explain why one year there was a burst in May/June, but not the next year. However, it seems possible that the January burst last year may have been repeated this year, if there’s a couple more blogs that were started that haven’t really been discovered yet.

17 03 2006
Kenny Easwaran

As for the other questions, I don’t know enough about blog growth in general – I glanced at the wikipedia entry on blogs, but it doesn’t say much about the history. There was also an interesting article in New York Magazine a couple weeks ago that I read in the airport. I’d be more interested in comparing it to the growth of academic blogging rather than blogging in general, but both will probably be somewhat interesting.

As for blog backlash, I was originally going to mention some of that, talking about the Chronicle article last summer that suggested a blog would hurt one’s chances of getting hired. In investigating the philosophy blogs out there, it seemed that no one who has a blog had been in a position to get hired. But then I noticed that one or two had a couple years ago, and now it looks like you (Greg) have as well (congratulations again!), and so the data generally seem positive (though the sample size is still quite small).

As for group blogs being tough to maintain, this is an interesting point, but I don’t know much about what to say aboutit.

18 03 2006
greg f-a

I found the thing I read about the overall growth of the blogosphere; it’s http://www.sifry.com/alerts/archives/000419.html.

In terms of the job-market process: at one of my campus interviews, a faculty member there appeared impressed that Richard Zach had mentioned my work on his blog; Zach certainly wouldn’t have name-checked me if I hadn’t been a member of the blogosphere. But I’m pretty certain that name-check had virtually nothing to do with that department’s decision.

19 03 2006
David Corfield

To add one more reason for blogging to those noted above, it does make it more likely that you will be read by people outside the field. Non-philosophers really aren’t too likely to dip into philosophy journals. Perhaps this is more important for me than others, but I do find it reassuring when mathematicians, computer scientists, mathematical physicists, etc. indicate that in their opinion I’m onto something important.

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