Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Crowdsourcing philosophy

I am starting work on the Wikipedia book.  One of the central themes will be the ideology of crowds: are they mad, or are they wise?  Probably a little bit of both.  Wikipedia is good at handling matters of detail. But as I have said before, if Wikipedia tried to write the decline and fall of the Roman empire, which requires assembling the right 'little facts' in the right order, and placing a narrative around these, the result would be very bad.  I periodically return to the philosophy article itself, looking for evidence of progress.  Here it is at the end of Wikipedia's first year of existence.
The definition of philosophy is a philosophical question in its own right. But for purposes of introducing the concept, we can say that, approximately, it is the study of the meaning and justification of beliefs about the most general, or universal, aspects of things--a study which is carried out not by experimentation or careful observation, but instead typically by formulating problems carefully, offering solutions to them, giving arguments for the solutions, and engaging in dialectic about all of the above. Philosophy studies such concepts as existence, goodness, knowledge, and beauty. It asks questions such as "What is goodness, in general?" and "Is knowledge even possible?" Some famous philosophers include Plato, Aristotle, Rene Descartes, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant.
The article lacks any of the formatting that Wikipedia developed later, and there are no pictures, and it is short. But the definition is as good as you are likely to get for such an abstruse and difficult subject. As it points out " the question "What is philosophy?" is itself, famously, a vexing philosophical question.  That was probably the high point of the article, more than ten years ago.  It has had some spectacular low points, in particular here, when two rather deranged editors took control of the article ("As a consequence of the collapse of colonialism and imperialism in the twentieth century, philosophy now is classified according to three major geographical regions, Western philosophy, Eastern philosophy, and African philosophy").  The worst degradation is prevented largely because of two academically trained editors who try to take care of it. However it seems to be reaching a low point again.  Someone has arranged the article around geographical headings, which makes no sense.  As one of the better editors remarks on the talk page.
I notice some editor(s) have hamhandedly integrated the history sections with the previous "Geographical" sections of the article. Since the geographical sections were very poorly written (i.e., terribly sourced, tendentiously written, riddled with dubious claims, huge WP:UNDUE problems), this has the net effect of seriously degrading the quality of a half-decent section of the article. Can we revert to the prior organization, or substantially rewrite the entire section to repair these huge problems? To put it simply: if you open almost any reference book on philosophy, or encyclopedia article on philosophy, you will see in the corresponding "history" section a far, far better treatment than the eyesore this article is currently burdened with. And such treatments will be substantially closer to the previous "history of western philosophy" section than the current revision. 271828182 (talk) 00:13, 16 September 2011 (UTC)
Take a look at a previous version, ... compare it with the current version, which is barely coherent. Or, as I suggested, compare it to virtually any "history" section of a competent encyclopedia article or reference source on philosophy. The "non-western" sections have always been rubbish, and this just embeds the rubbish front and center. 271828182 (talk) 22:29, 16 September 2011 (UTC) 
Quite.  It makes little sense to organise philosophy geographically.  It is a single subject with a single tradition that begins with the Greeks, passes to the Romans, and to the Western medieval philosophers by way of North Africa, Persia, Moorish Spain and many other places.  The geography and history are interesting, but incidental to the subject matter. As Larry Sanger (who wrote the 2001 version referenced above) wrote in 2004
One has only to compare the excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy to Wikipedia's Philosophy section. From the point of view of a specialist, let's just say that Wikipedia needs a lot of work. (Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism by Larry Sanger  Kuro5hin, Fri Dec 31, 2004)


Michael Sullivan said...

One of the central themes will be the ideology of crowds: are they mad, or are they wise? Probably a little bit of both.

Have you read Neal Stephenson's science-fiction novel The Diamond Age? "Crowdsourcing" the development of highly sophisticated and abstract information constructs by largely unconscious mass participants is a major plot device. It's worth reading.

Edward Ockham said...

>>Have you read Neal Stephenson's science-fiction novel The Diamond Age?

It's a long time since I read a science fiction book, but I will investigate!

William M. Connolley said...


metasonix said...

Once again: make up a list of philosophy articles that are badly done, and put them in the book. You can post them on a blog but it may not be around in 5 years.

(and yes, The Diamond Age is recommended. Stephenson is loads smarter than Wales or any of his fanboys.)

William M. Connolley said...

If you're looking for an utter abomination of an article, look no further than

Edward Ockham said...

Thank you William. And thank you for the Ockham cartoon. I shall post it some time.

Edward Ockham said...

" It is possible that an intentional act may have multiple and hierarchisated purposes, only some of which is primary intentions while the remainder are secondary (or tertiary or more) intentions."

That is really beautiful. That has made my weekend.

Michael said...

I have been neglecting Wikipedia this year, preferring less frustrating pursuits. But thank you for the support from afar. I am afraid, having examined parallel Wikipedia articles on the history of science, that restoring the coherent Western Phil narrative will be a very hard pitch. Someone (possibly I) may have to swallow hard and attempt to tell a semi-coherent story including traditions wholly alien to one another. Or maybe I will simply port the worthwhile work to the "history of western philosophy" article and try to pare the history content in the main phil article to almost nothing, if only to spare casual readers horrific misconceptions such as thinking that Ptahotep has something to do with philosophy.

Good to hear from you in any event.

Wilfrid said...

Bless your patience with this. I just glanced at a philosophy article I spent a lot of time on a few years ago and it had degraded into bilge.