Without authority...

Tuesday August 25, 2009

Hobby Horse

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…

# · Jayarava

The subject of authority in Buddhism is very interesting. There are assumptions underlying the apparent lack of authority amongst amateurs – often related to protestant presuppositions on authority.

I often find that the fact that I have been a practising Buddhist for 15 years does not make me an authority on Buddhism – people expect an expert to either be a monk or have a PhD. I also find that an informed opinion usually counts for less than a scriptural quote (no matter how badly preserved or translated) – though the point being made might be that experience is everything!

Peer review can also lead to hegemony’s which squeeze out new ideas, and are corruptible. In medicine for instance drug trials which have negative results are seldom published. The amateur by circumventing the in-crowd one can express new ideas or just use more casual language (which may be no less precise!)

Anyway a good subject that we could spend more time on I think.


# · Will

I agree, Jayarava, and there is indeed much more to be said on this. I always maintain, incidentally, that – at least according to the etymology – to be a philosopher one simply must be an amateur, and that “professional philosopher” is an oxymoron. A professional lover of wisdom? Of all the virtues that lovers might have, professionalism is probably not high on the list…

# · Robert Ellis

I enjoyed this post, Will. I, too, have been frustrated by the socially-organised expectations of “authority” in academic writing, that often (in philosophy, particularly) amount to conventionality and (as Jayarava says) squeeze out new ideas. Blogging, and also wikipedia, are certainly ways that more objective standpoints can emerge simply because they allow the hegemony to be challenged. Websites generally also allow this, and I have gone for a website rather than a blog on www.moralobjectivity… because I wanted to make systematic connections between ideas, rather than just have a temporal progression as you do with a blog.

However, I think your concept of authority here needs to be more incremental. You do not lack authority in the sense of influence and “pull”, only a certain formalised authority, when writing here. A degree of authority is needed to get people to read your blog in the first place, otherwise they will just ignore you. The key point is that this degree of authority shouldn’t inhibit provisionality of judgement.

I have a similar problem with your interesting idea that philosophers should be amateurs. Perhaps you mean that we shouldn’t be constrained by the pressures on professional philosophers – peer review, publishers’ expectations, research assessments etc – in which case I agree. However, if ‘amateurism’ means resistance to organising our thoughts or creating something more detailed, developed or systematic out of them, then I think we should try to develop out of amateurism. Philosophy has, and should have, a deep end too.

# · Will

Agreed – authority is, in a sense, incremental, and it is also multi-stranded. It is not all-or-nothing. And so I think you are right to say that what is important is the provisionality of judgment.

As for amateurism, in part my contention is one that could be seen to go back to Greece and the disapproval, in certain quarters at least, of the Sophists. And amateurism can mean a lot of things. If it means being just a bit rubbish, or being unsystematic, then I think that there is of course scope for philosophy beyond amateurism seen in this light. But if it means keeping alive a kind of passionate engagement with what you do, then perhaps we could do with a bit more or it. And, I should add, being systematic is not exactly the same thing as having a deep end.

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