As much as I love philosophy, I’ve never been an entirely comfortable fit with academic philosophy or religion departments. But until recently they were more or less the only game in town, the only way to get philosophical ideas heard by the world – unless one tried to be a freelance philosophy writer like Ken Wilber, an even more excruciating path to follow. Randall Collins in The Sociology of Philosophies argued that the great periods of philosophical creativity in the past have come with particular institutional settings – the monastery, the Greek agora – and that in the recent past it has come above all with the research university and the popular-press book, two institutions with whom philosophy’s future may now be in is in some doubt.
Blogs, however, excite me as a new way to do philosophy, one not available to previous generations. What might it mean to do philosophy primarily in this new format? It’s probably too early to tell. But there’s one towering figure in the history of philosophy who gives us a clue as to what it might look like, and his name is Baruch (or Benedictus de) Spinoza.
Spinoza should be an inspiration for philosophy bloggers in two different respects. First of all, he didn’t make money off his philosophy; he stands out (like Leibniz and John Stuart Mill) as a modern philosopher who did philosophy in his “spare” time. His paid career was grinding optical lenses; since Spinoza’s philosophy was deeply inspired by physics, the career certainly had a connection to his philosophical work. But nobody today cares about the lenses Spinoza ground – or at least, if they do, it’s only because they already cared about his philosophy. Spinoza’s paid contribution to the world was insignificant. His name will live on because of his avocation, his philosophical work that is neither career nor hobby. As humanities faculty jobs vanish at an ever quicker rate, it’s vital to remind ourselves of this man who enriched contemporary thought enormously without getting paid for it.
Second, and more fundamentally, Spinoza wrote in hypertext before the concept even existed. Spinoza’s master work, the Ethics, may be the most extensively cross-referenced work in the (pre-20th-century) history of philosophy. Spinoza takes his stylistic cues from geometry, establishing each proposition based on a numbered prior premise, and using the new proposition in turn as the premise for a new conclusion, explicitly referring back and forth in the text to the other places where the proposition is used. Effectively, he was trying to use an extensive network of hyperlinks and pingbacks – on the printed page. Which is a medium poorly suited to what Spinoza was trying to do; I’m told that a young Jacques Lacan, trying to decipher the Ethics, cut his copy up with scissors in order to be able to study the cross-references side by side. I do not doubt that if Spinoza were alive today, he would have written the Ethics online.
Online publication allows further possibilities that Spinoza was even less able to follow up. One no longer needs the start-to-finish progression that a book or article provides. That option is there if one wishes; but it is also possible to write in a different way, branching to different conclusions from the same starting point, allowing a different work to be absorbed by readers with different interests. Will the philosophy done in such new ways necessarily be better? Of course not. But it’s nevertheless exciting to be part of an entirely new venue for philosophical reflection, opening at least the potential for thinking in new and different ways.