Blogs as Catalysts

Virtually all the new academic publishing I’ve done in these six years began as a couple of posts on Understanding Society. You might say I’ve become an “open-source” philosopher — as I get new ideas about a topic I develop them through the blog. This means that readers can observe ideas in motion. A good example is the efforts I’ve made in the past year to clarify my thinking about microfoundations and meso-level causation. Another example is the topic of “character,” which I started thinking about after receiving an invitation to contribute to a volume on character and morality; through a handful of posts I arrived at a few new ideas I felt I could offer on the topic.  This “design and build” strategy means that there is the possibility of a degree of inconsistency over time, as earlier formulations are challenged by newer versions of the idea. But I think it makes the process of writing a more dynamic one, with lots of room for self-correction and feedback from others.

That’s Daniel Little, reflecting on six years of blogging. To me, what Little describes in that paragraph is the reason to do this. Big ideas don’t spring forth wholly developed. We cobble them together over time. Sometimes we discard parts that turn out not to fit or work, and other times we chuck the whole assemblage and start over. Every so often, we make something that really hums for a while.

We like to think of this process as something that happens inside our individual minds—especially when it turns out well. I create an idea; the world provides some feedback; and I decide how to tweak the initial design to make it better. However long that process takes, we often describe the end product as our own. That’s my idea, my theory.

But it isn’t. That “world” providing feedback isn’t a particle accelerator or a Magic 8 Ball. It’s other people, either conversing directly with you or contributing to the process through the ideas they have already built for you to hot-rod or to strip for parts. Intellectual work, and science more generally, is not something that occurs in isolation. It is, essentially, a social process.

Blogging ideas as you develop them makes the social aspect of intellectual work more explicit and accelerates it. A blog expands the power of the “computer” working on a particular idea by orders of magnitude, and it opens channels to streams of thought that were harder to discover and flowed more slowly when print journals and letters and conferences had to suffice. This expansion doesn’t make every idea turn out better, but it does increase the chances that one will, and it accelerates the process either way.

These benefits are not inherent in the internet, or in the act of blogging. They depend on the willingness of people engaged in intellectual work to share their half-formed designs, and on the willingness of others to respond constructively. When we wait to share ideas until they feel whole and polished, we often respond defensively to criticism, and the creative process gets stifled. When we deliberately engage in a “design and build” strategy, as Little calls it, we give that creative process more room to unfold.

Not many people get to do intellectual work; not everyone who does can afford the time to blog; and not everyone who reads and reacts to blogs is interested in developing the ideas they present. Still, given the technology available to us right now, it’s hard to imagine a medium better suited to this purpose. As elements in the process of developing ideas, blogs are neither necessary nor sufficient for the task, but they are undoubtedly powerful catalysts.

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