Following Socrates Online: What the Humanities can Learn from Philosophy's Successful Online Adaptation


When I began my current career as a graduate student in English, the first thing that I did was to go online and look for blogs and communities that I could join and learn from. My partner is a philosopher and philosophers have embraced digital communities, so I hoped to find the same sort of community for people in English. Much to my dismay, there were few digital communities in my subject area, and those that I found were often woefully out of date.

Many fields in humanities have had a difficult time moving online. There are some great examples like Kathleen Fitzpatrick, who have put a lot of thought into writing and thinking online. Unfortunately, Fitzpatrick's remarkably active online work in idea-curation is somewhat of an anomaly in the humanities. It is often easier to remember those humanists who, unlike Fitzpatrick, have tried and failed (with a flourish).

We also can't forget, of course, that there are those who specifically study the digital humanities as a field. But it seems to me like there should be more regular academics in all fields who work and think and propagate ideas digitally. In the words of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in his op-ed “Professors, We Need You!”: “Professors today have a growing number of tools available to educate the public, from online courses to blogs to social media. Yet academics have been slow to cast pearls through Twitter and Facebook.” Kristof ends with a call to action: “So, professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks — we need you!” We do need you. Come and join us. Or, should I say, come and join the philosophers.

Philosophers? What do they have to do with all of this?

There is one area of the humanities (other than those lovely, digital humanists) that is heavily present in the digi-sphere. Philosophers, those great idea-communicators, have quietly, but successfully, moved online. To some in the humanities, the digital world may seem like a strange sphere for philosophers to inhabit. After all, the digital world is a separate sphere to some of us--it's that uncomfortable place over there where people write badly and share funny cat memes. What we overlook, though, is that the digital world is a place of communication. It makes sense, then, that philosophers have adopted the digital sphere for another universe of communication, as philosophy in its nature requires a constant stream of creative communication.  

This website, though, will not define why philosophical communities have adopted--with little complaining--the digital arena. Instead, it is also my hope that other humanities fields can look to these public philosophers as they learn how to embrace and engage the public. Writing and creating online takes quite a bit of thought to make it work well. We can do this, though--we're good at thinking. This website, at least, can give us a starting place in thinking about writing well online.

Academics, humanists, we need you. Come and join us.

Methodology, or How to Read this Website:

Right now there are four main sections to this website. The first section sets up the problem that this website is responding to. The next three sections are divided into two parts: (1) an analysis of one example, which will determine the qualities that make this source successful, and (2) a descriptive list of several successful digital-philosophical items which also fit into these categories.* A short description of each section is as follows:

This section addressed the problems and fears that academics perceive when considering communicating through digital technologies. An alternative title for this section could be "Why academics are hesitant to adopt new media."

This section could alternatively be titled “Simulated Participation.” These sources create the feeling that the viewer can actually participate as a member of a philosophical discussion. 

This section looks at digital sources that illustrate difficult philosophical concepts through videos and comics.

Philosophers also communicate publicly online. This section looks at one of these communities and considers how and why it works.


*Coming this summer: an interactive page and ideas for other public academics who are interested in developing projects

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Scope: Western analytic philosophy, digital enterprises, sometimes cats and philosoraptors.