[FOM] FOM Potential

Neil Tennant neilt at mercutio.cohums.ohio-state.edu
Wed May 28 07:01:18 EDT 2003

I like the idea of interactive discussion that draws in the leading
figures in their fields within FOM. As Torkel has pointed out, however, a
great many of those figures tend not to let themselves get embroiled in
such exchanges in email fora of wide membership. This is unfortunate in
the long run. The opportunity is missed to reach a wide and willing
audience of people who are eager to learn something about the field 
---people who in turn can influence their colleagues and students, by
passing on the best bits of the discussions.

One can easily think of positive reasons for some leading figures'
reluctance. Time is precious. One wishes to concentrate on work in
hand, which one is not yet ready to discuss with others. The medium is
not ideal: it conveys no observable physical gestures, no voice
modulations, no subtle facial expressions, no explanatory and
clarifying doodles on overheads.  And many an email discussion list
has its cranks, its incompetents, and its timewasters.

Before we lament these facts and resign ourselves to a suboptimal rate
of list-participation in the foreseeable future, it might be worth
inquiring---however cynical it might seem---into the possible social
and institutional factors that both disincline established figures
from participating in such fora, and also enable them at the same time
to maintain their established positions in the academic world outside.

Before I venture some suggestions on this score, I would like to point out
something with which I think every long-standing member of this list is
likely to concur. If anyone on this list volunteers a claim or an argument
that is ill-informed, or wrong-headed, or based on a misunderstanding, or
given fallacious support, a wonderful thing happens: at least one, and
possibly several, voices from the cyber-wilderness chime in with the
needed corrections. It has been, and can be, rough at times; but the aim
seems always to be to find the truth, to understand the problem, to
appreciate the significance of something, and to share one's knowledge and
understanding. This list is remarkably free of rank-pulling and
put-downs. If members contend over something that cannot be resolved on
the balance of considerations, they almost always withdraw temporarily
from the exchange, a little battered perhaps, but the better for it, and
go away and think about what they might have learned from the others.
There are no embarrassingly visible blushes as might be remembered from an
actual face-to-face encounter between, say, someone on a raised dais and
someone on the conference floor.

Which brings me back to the foreshadowed task of cyncical speculation
as to why certain leading figures will not be heard from on such a
list, and how they nevertheless manage to maintain their visibility
and their reputations within the profession.

We are in a state of transition between the age of the university and
of the conference center, with bodies shuttling between them; and the
next age of the internet, an age in which almost all academic
discussion will be conducted by email and other electronic means, an
age in which hardly any journals will be available in hard copy, an
age in which an idea will survive solely by the credentials that can
be established for it in Popper's third realm, without the audience
needing to put a face to it. This coming age of the internet will have
its drawbacks, to be sure (some of which I have already listed above);
but those drawbacks will in all likelihood be outweighed by a
multitudinous mass of countervailing considerations. For example, many
scholars will be reluctant to travel, for many and varied reasons:
endemic terrorist threats; lack of grant monies in times of cutbacks;
family commitments; etc. As their own scholarly and research
productivity is increasingly sustained by having everything they need
for their research at their electronic fingertips, so to speak,
actually having to travel to get to a conference will disrupt their
pattern of work more than it will stimulate it. In the past, one had
to seek one's "fix" of intellectual stimulation by making annual or
biennial pilgrimages to certain conference sites, and/or by receiving
colloquium visitors or guest lecturers. In the next age of the
internet, I believe, that "fix" is going to be, not the old-fashioned
occasional jolt, but rather a steady sustaining drip of helpful ideas
on tap, as it were, from cyberspace---from lists such as this.

So, why don't those leading figures all see this, and establish a presence
on these lists? It's happening in some sciences, as M.J.Murphy has pointed
out. So why not also in philosophy and the foundations of mathematics?

Cynical answer: We have not yet reached that transition phase, because the
reputational game can still be, and is still being, played under the old
rules. What are those rules?---or, better, what social mechanisms
currently in place lay down the rules? Here are some cynical suggestions.

1. The phenomenon of X's reputational ratcheting depends on slow
turnaround in the process of reading figure X's views, and eventually
criticizing them in print. Many more people absorb the expression of X's
views than will eventually read subsequent published criticism of X's
views. So X enjoys a net gain in both positive impressions made, and
citations garnered.  If, however, X's first place of publication were
something like this list, there would be a torrent of immediate criticism,
and the "positive halo" from slow turnaround would be almost immediately
extinguished---unless, of course, X's views had real intrinsic merit and
X could vigorously and successfully defend them against all comers.

2. The phenomenon of X's reputational ratcheting depends heavily on
the institutional structure of the disciplinary profession to which X
belongs.  These structures are composed of prize-selection committees;
annual conference symposium organizers; program committees; etc. These
structures allow coteries of mutual back-scratchers and the new
cohorts they train to enjoy disproportionate influence.

3. Discussion on a conference floor, in my own quite extensive
experience, has hardly ever attained the level of informedness,
incisiveness and sense of joint quest for the truth that is routinely
attained by contributions to this list. On a real conference floor,
the asymmetries of advantage described in (2) will often be further
exploited by adroit operators. Who has not seen the telling, critical
question from the floor cleverly deflected by the condescending sneer,
the conspiratorial snigger with co-symposiasts, and the insincere
thanks for the comments about which "I'll have to get back to you"?
Who has not seen an obliging chairperson doing the speaker's own dirty
work, by simply not noticing the waving hand that holds the greatest
intellectual threat for the unsound argument just heard? None of this
posturing, posing and conniving can possibly work on a list like
fom. The sheer beauty of our exchanges is that, at the touch of a
button, one can get the result

> your most recent piece of meaningless rubbish, verbatim

and proceed to skewer it in a way that all can see. Nothing like this ever
happens on a conference floor, because of that familiar ritual of "Correct
me if I heard you wrong, but ..." followed by a possibly not quite
verbatim rendition of the speaker's remarks, which of course the speaker
can then disavow,... and so on. Electronic writing has this single huge
advantage over actual speech: it can be cited flawlessly and
instantaneously. Moreover, we can create living fossil records of
continuing exchanges, as we iterate the embeddings of point and
counterpoint. What audience on a conference floor ever gets to witness
exchanges of dialectical depth 2, let alone the depth of 4 or 5 that we
can handle among ourselves on this list?

In the new internet age, we can perhaps look forward to the further
spread of this ideal Habermasian forum of free intellects in real-time
exchanges.  Hopefully Truth will emerge the victor, in some slow
Peircean process of approximation to the limit of ideal inquiry. But
that will be thanks to the possibility, continually realized, of fast,
frequent and accurate exchanges on the topics of the day. Naturally,
we shall all need lengthy time-outs from time to time, in order to
nurture our best works in more prolonged bouts of creativity, without
the interruptions of electronic exchange. But when one wishes to
communicate and test the resulting ideas, what better place than an
electronic medium such as the fom?

A natural and quite logical extrapolation of this will be an academic
state of affairs in which the award of research grants is adjudicated
on the basis (at least in part) of qualified, but much more widely
sought and scrutable, public comment on grant proposals posted on
grant-agencies' websites; and when the highest academic awards within
the profession are adjudicated in like fashion. In this way, work
would be more likely to be recognized for its genuine significance,
its wider impact, its ramifying consequences---than would be work
which, while very competent by its own localized criteria, does not
connect with wider intellectual concerns. This would break the current
stranglehold---the academic "laying on of hands"---enjoyed by small
coteries in elite establishments who have ratcheted their way up by a
process determined in small part by a measure of workmanlike merit, in
small part also by astute handling of institutional hurdles, but in
large part by both the good fortune of knowing, and the self-interested
practice of grooming, the right people in the right places at the
right times.

By contrast, electronic media such as the fom will be the great
enablers of ideas and arguments whose merits can speak for
themselves. We face an age of a newly emerging "democratic
intellect". The old forms of ideational lobbying will be swept
away. And we need to seize the newly created opportunity to ensure
that something way better is put in its place.

Neil W. Tennant
Professor of Philosophy and Adjunct Professor of Cognitive Science


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