Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Weblogs and the Conversible World

I confess, bloggers puzzle me.

As you might know, Scott Adams of 'Dilbert' fame has his own weblog. Recently he had a post about the intelligent design debate, written in his usual barely coherent and not-very-serious way; PZ Myers responded, in a post in which he said that Adams had blindly accepted the claims of the IDers; Adams protested Myers's representation of his post, mocking him in the process; and then Myers responded with a reply that, I must confess, I find so completely mystifying I must be missing something, since the only thing PZ attributes to Adams that I can actually find in Adams's post is Adams's claim that he's not an IDer (which he had already said in the first post). The dust-up actually doesn't interest me much, except insofar as it, particularly as represented in the comments on the posts in question, illustrates a characteristic of the blogosphere that sometimes worries me, namely, the ease with which it slides into reactionary, Us vs. Them responses. There is a side of blogging that is very progressive and constructive, in the sense that it encourages people to expand their horizons and try to understand each other better -- one sees this most clearly in interactions between academic bloggers and (often, although not always) in Carnivals. There is also a side of blogging that is exactly the opposite, reactionary and destructive. Part of this, I think, is the ease with which blogging turns into ranting. Everyone lets off a little steam occasionally; but for some people blogging, or commenting on blogs, becomes simply an occasion for ranting at other people, and ranting can get a little contagious (a rant from one side inspires a rant from the other; one rant is confirmed by a chorus of supporting rants; etc.). Part of it is that weblogs are a quick-reading medium; a weblog is not a forum that naturally encourages close or careful reading of what other people write. As such, it is easy for people to be misinterpreted. There are, I'm sure, other reasons (e.g., I have very little doubt that political punditry is a contributor).

So this has started me wondering whether there are any ways to improve the blogosphere in regard to this -- a sort of grass-roots movement devoted to improved exchange in the blogospheric sector of the Republic of Letters. I haven't been able to think of much. But it occurs to me that bloggers might be well-advised to start thinking of themselves more explicitly as part of a Republic of Letters, a system of thoughtful correspondence in which members cooperate with the goal of mutual improvement and progress -- blogging as a civilizing process in which we carry civilization to new heights. Hume in one of his essays (Of Essay-Writing) makes a distinction between the learned and the conversible realms of rational discourse ("The elegant Part of Mankind, who are not immers'd in the animal Life, but employ themselves in the Operations of the Mind, may be divided into the learned and conversible"). Both are of importance and, Hume says, the separation of the two is a defect; there needs to be a free communication and correspondence between the two worlds. One of the things academic bloggers often like about blogging is that, since they are ordinarily engaged in learned discourse, it provides them a convenient forum for participating in conversible discourse -- they get to be, as Hume considered himself to be, "a Kind of Resident or Ambassador from the Dominions of Learning to those of Conversation"; likewise, they get to take the materials of common conversation and reflect on them as members of a learned community (manufacture, is Hume's metaphor). Learning suffers when shut off from the conversible world. This is one reason why I think academic blogs are often so good: they are at least trying to unite the two worlds into one Commonwealth.

For this approach to blogging to work, however, it is necessary for the blogosphere to make of itself a reputable Conversible World, a polite society ('polite' here not meaning 'nice', but the old sense of 'civilized', 'exhibiting cultivated taste'). It's a world that doesn't have to be pedantic or academic or even, in the strict sense, scholarly:

The conversible World join to a sociable Disposition, and a Taste of Pleasure, an Inclination to the easier and more gentle Exercises of the Understanding, to obvious Reflections on human Affairs, and the Duties of common Life, and to the Observation of the Blemishes or Perfections of the particular Objects, that surround them. Such Subjects of Thought furnish not sufficient Employment in Solitude, but require the Company and Conversation of our Fellow-Creatures, to render them a proper Exercise for the Mind: And this brings Mankind together in Society, where every one displays his Thoughts and Observations in the best Manner he is able, and mutually gives and receives Information, as well as Pleasure.

Surely that sounds rather like blogging at its best? This requires that the conversible world be treated as part of the Republic of Letters, however; when it is not, problems arise:

Must our whole Discourse be a continued Series of gossipping Stories and idle Remarks? Must the Mind never rise higher, but be perpetually

Stun'd and worn out with endless Chat
Of WILL did this, and NAN said that.

This wou'd be to render the Time spent in Company the most unentertaining, as well as the most unprofitable Part of our Lives.

And that sounds too much like blogging at its worst, and not merely on the personal-journal weblogs (which, after all, have an excuse): bloggers when they rant are just devoting themselves to a less benign set of 'gossipping Stories and idle Remarks'. There must be ways to cultivate the blogosphere as a more successful Conversible World than we have yet done. Any ideas?

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