Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Philosophy and popular consciousness

Larry Sanger's current battle with Joseph Reagle at Reagle's blog reminds me of odd ways in which philosophers have influenced popular culture. Aristotle is a case in point (but I will leave him for later).

First, there is Sanger's sly link to 'On bullshit' (see also here)by the philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt . Frankfurt's book is brilliant. His aim is to present, using philosophical principles how bullshit "and the related concept of humbug" are distinct from lying. He concludes that the liar is concerned to communicate something false as if it is true. The bullshitter is indifferent to the truth. It is a work of genuine, and serious philosophy, yet it has also penetrated the popular consciousness (I first became aware of Frankfurt when I noticed the book on the rack by the till at Waterstone's, the rack intended for impulse purchases).

Second, there is the influence of philosophical principles, via Sanger, on Wikipedia itself. Sanger took the neutrality policy he wrote for the now-defunct Nupedia and introduced it to Wikipedia in this significant set of edits over December 2001-January 2002. This became the famous Wikipedia policy on 'Neutral Point of View'.

The policy will strike any philosopher as the work of a philosopher. It says, for example, that rather than attempting to state what the truth about T is, one should attempts to state, fairly, the various different views about T. In representing views fairly, we must recognise that on any topic about which there are competing theories, each theory represents a different view of what the truth is, so that its adherents believe other contrary theories are not knowledge.

We could do far worse than to accept, for purposes of working on Wikipedia, that
"human knowledge" includes all different (significant, published) theories on
all different topics are parts of human knowledge. So we're committed to the
goal of representing human knowledge in that sense. This is, to be sure,
something like this is well-established sense of the word "knowledge," a sense
in which what is "known" has changed considerably over the years.

The policy also makes the distinction between presenting a popular view without asserting the popular view. "Writing unbiasedly can be conceived very well as representing disputes, characterizing them, rather than engaging in them". This idea (namely that 'S says that p' and 'it is true that p' have independent truth-conditions) is key to modern (and ancient) work in the philosophy of language. Like Frankfurt's book, Sanger's work on the core policy of Wikipedia involves ideas which are fundamental to philosophy and part of its core set of principles and methodology, but which at the same time has entered popular consciousness in a roundabout and odd way.

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