Tuesday August 25, 2009
The other day, I was listening to Australia’s ABC radio philosophy show, The Philosopher’s Zone. I had tuned in to listen to a programme exploring what was rather grandly called the epistemology of blogging. I’m grateful, incidentally, to Loden Jinpa for pointing me in the general direction of The Philosopher’s Zone, a resource that will, I think, provide plenty of philosophical fodder to download to my MP3 player. Anyway, the question under discussion was whether, as a result of blogs, we are ‘epistemically better off’.
Now, this is something that interests me, given that I’ve been writing this blog for something around the past four and a bit years. After all, at times the question “Why am I doing this?” does indeed occur to me. So I hoped that the show might have something interesting to say. However, whilst the discussion was interesting enough, I could not help feeling frustrated by the narrowness of focus. The main questions under discussion seemed to be these: What is the relationship between blogging and the traditional or mainstream news media? Can the clamour of a thousand individual voices build a better picture of reality than a handful of trained, rigorous and dispassionate investigative journalists? And, is the world of the blog parasitic on the mainstream media, or is it independent of the mainstream media?
These are all perhaps questions worth asking, but they are not the kinds of questions that preoccupy me when I write this blog. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, no doubt, it is because thinkBuddha.org is about as un-newsy as it is possible for a blog to be. From time to time, if there is something interesting happening in the world, or in the world of Buddhism or philosophy, I post something news-related. But I’m not usually to be found grappling with the latest issues from the morning news. Secondly – and this is not unconnected – I don’t think that seeing blogging only in the light of the mainstream media is really a useful way of understanding what role blogs play in the way that we deal collectively with knowledge, or what passes for knowledge.
Ultimately the question here is one of authority, a word that was not mentioned in the discussion on The Philosopher’s Zone, but that seemed to be implicit throughout all the discussions. The questions lurking in the background seemed to be these: Who has the authority to speak? And, why should we listen to those whose authority is in question? These, I think, are more interesting questions, because it seems to me that blogging invites a kind of writing that is without authority, whereas the mainstream news media invites a kind of writing that at least pretends to a kind of authority. Put differently, blogging is, I think, an essentially amateur form of writing. By this I do not mean that it is inept or unskilled. There are many inept and unskilled journalists and the world, and there are many good bloggers; conversely there are many good journalists and many inept and unskilled bloggers. Instead, what I mean by “amateur” is that we often approach blogs without the assumption of expertise. Instead, we approach them knowing that the person who is writing is fallible and human, that their perspective is partial and almost certainly skewed. At least, I hope that is how you, dear Reader, approach this particular blog: as fallible, human and skewed. And, whilst I sometimes can be tempted to climb up upon my high horse and wave around my little wooden sword (it’s nice and breezy up there, the view is quite pretty, and there’s a certain pleasure to be had…), nevertheless one of the things I like about writing here is that I can write without any assumption of authority, that I can write to try out ideas that may be stupid or foolish or just plain wrong, and that I can trust that a large number of my readers will read what I have written with a degree of scepticism, saying, “Sounds a bit suspicious… But, then, who the heck is he? It’s hardly as if this stuff is peer-reviewed…”
This certainly gives me a sense of freedom as a writer, a freedom that simply does not exist in the writing of academic papers and tomes. But it is not just about this sense of freedom. Because – to return to the question of whether we are ‘epistemically better off’ thanks to blogs – I suspect that this kind of writing without authority is epistemically extremely valuable, because what it does is it demands of the reader a certain critical intelligence that can be obscured by the pantomime of authority, and in doing so, it opens up a space for the kinds of naive questions that are often unasked between the narrow lines of close, well-referenced arguments. It is not so much a matter of possessing knowledge as it is of exploring in dialogue with others the processes of knowing, or of coming-to-know. And if this is not social epistemology in action, then I don’t know what is.
But, as I said, I’m no authority on any of this. And so, if I were you, I’d take all of the above with a healthy dose of salt…
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