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Considerations on Web-Philosophy

Web-Philosophy as the Verification of Intuitive
Knowledge and other Disperse Information

by Martin Herzog

[Original German version:]

1. Contemporary problems with truth-seeking

The basis of truth, be it scientific or philosophical, is formed by analysis, synthesis, critique and dialogue. The thought out (or viewed, inspired) model of reality is shot at with critical questions from all perspectives. Only this will guarantee, that the model is a fitting representation of reality, that the model holds true. The sharper the critique, the harder the defeat of critique, the more one may rely on the quality of the solution. That makes the difference between science and propaganda or mere opinions.

Science is only one way of finding truth. A science that already knows the outcome of its research when submitting the research proposal, is a weak, bureaucratic science. A science, whose main aim is to produce commercially useful knowledge, loses its objectivity. Politics cares as little for truth, as its job is to get power. The only truth business cares for is profit. Cunning strategies and economic (near monopoly) power are much more promising in that field than truth. The media, guardians of public information, are always running after news, presented as entertainment. (A fact that has not to be taken as negative only, because science and philosophy can be presented in an entertaining way as well!). So there remains a gap — and a strong demand for philosophy, that would have to fulfil many duties and would have much more importance, than it assumes today as academic discipline.

In the 20th century, philosophy has been subdued by science, especially as its metaphysical aspects were increasingly considered as not verifiable, which means not rational. This rationalisation tends to forget its own strongly limited perspective. So does the economist only ask for knowledge, that helps him to produce and to sell; so does the politician only ask for knowledge, that helps him to get power; so does the natural scientist only ask for knowledge of things found in the nature; so does any scientist (especially any career-minded scientist) only ask for knowledge that belongs to his discipline and may increase his fame (or at least produce a new publication). That's why scientific knowledge remains island-knowledge, precisely as personal opinions and arguments.

The individual, looking for his place in society — a society, developing a common future through politics — needs orientation in that complex, confusing, often cynical, world. The more complex a system is, the higher its demands in coordination and integration. 'The market' is one cheap (and often not applicable) way out, as it only means: Leave the problems to those that have to solve them, because it confronts them. This simplistic market-ideology is but one of the dysfunctional simplifications ruling the public monologue of the media, as are the dualistic view of 'left versus right' and 'freedom versus the state'.

This banalising populist approach is not only favoured by power-seeking politicians, but also by mass-media, which orient themselves at a mass-taste to be able to sell mass-opinions to consumers. Only a small fraction of press-articles, or media, give reasons for political opinions and actions, so the majority of politics is not done by argumentation, but by statements, what is not really 'reasonable'. What concerns the quality of argumentation in the media, is often restricted to the presentation of opposing arguments in the way: 'x says — y says', but rarely presented as chain of arguments. So philosophy has not only to stand up against the splintered knowledge of sciences, but just a much against indifference.

Neither economics, nor politics, nor science are in search of truth. That is still the job of philosophers [gr. philo-sophia: love of wisdom]. If they leave it to scientists, we will be submerged in an ocean of knowledge-crumbs. Philosophy tries to understand the whole, is searching for meaning and wisdom, not for progress and detailed knowledge. The foundation of philosophy is, that nothing of importance for common orientation, should be given a chance to avoid the philosophical quest for reason and critique.

2. Interrelated thinking is the best means to combat the violence of banality

Interrelated thinking means, not to think, to argument and to decide on the base of selected, preconceived positions. For many people this is a disaster — and the end of clear positions. Does not already the Bible say: 'But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil' [Mat 5:37].

Unluckily in complex situations the answer will often be: 'maybe, under conditions a, b, c; but under condition e, f, g it might be the opposite.' The loss of clarity is not as harmful as it might seem, if we take knowledge more as orientation, as light house, than as paved road. Seafarers do not all drive to the north, just because their compass is pointing to that direction. And seafarers are not lost without the magnetic compass, as they still know how to use the polar star, the sun, the moon, to find their way. So humans will need different possibilities of orientation as well — and they have to know where they are and where they want to go! The economic north pole of business and growth is not sufficient. A compass is useless if you don't know where you are and where you want to go. Moreover there is neither one single way to arrive at some desired point, nor one single way to find out how to go there. In between the yea and nay, in between black and white, in between good and evil, there are much larger fields than those extreme poles themselves indicate.

That sounds a bit relativistic, yes, but let's take an example covering the field politics, economy, society and the individual: To care for one's own business, to take responsibility for one's action, for one's family, sounds good. Economy, society, state and religion would mostly agree with that. And still this set makes instantly clear, that in spite of this clear orientation, there are many decisions to be taken every day: What is more important for me? My family or my company, my career, my job? If we look at state and society the problems get worse. Here families and companies are just two of many elements that are conditioning each other and depend on each other. Nevertheless business traditionally opposes the state, often even society, when those demand more respect for themselves or for nature. It's a constant fight of differing interests for dominance. And the problem is, that if one element wins the fight, the system will break down.

In this game not one of the participants can claim dominance or exclusiveness. History presents us with many examples, how cruel the exclusive dominance of politics (e.g. in communism), of economy (e.g. in the Manchester-type liberalism), of society (e.g. in each narrow-minded traditional small-village society) and individuals (each dictatorship, be it political or economic). And it's the same problem the free market has: Everyone tries to beat the competitors. The one that succeeds overtakes the losing firm or its share in the market and is thus grows — and the end result is, that the free market, eaten up by global giants, disappears. (See 'Economy of scale'.)

3. Web-philosophy is moreover a philosophy of intuitive thinking

Positivism dropped all search for Being, its primary reason and ultimate purpose, in favour of explaining structures, relations and processes. Philosophical speculation and religious gnosis gave way to the discovery of natural laws. The dominance of science led to a dominance of abstract rational thinking. But rational thinking is not the only way of thinking and not the only way of acquiring truth. Precisely because modern science limits itself to narrow academic fields, studied with a restricted methodology (sc. Feyerabend), enormous amounts of knowledge get lost. Especially intuitive knowledge, favoured by romanticism and gnosis, which leaves a place for emotions and spiritual longing (as Plato's idealism). Also lost is the knowledge of the unity of mankind and God, common sense and traditions.

Intuition solves many problems by itself, if given time and relaxed working conditions (as meditation). Intuition is not as mystical as one might imagine, as it creates new thoughts out of existing pieces — without a predetermined, most often without predictable, outcome and result. Depending on the pieces of knowledge available in the brain, conscious as well as unconscious knowledge, the results may look quite different and change suddenly. Intuitive knowledge, well probably all knowledge, is a bit 'jumpy', if fed with new information.

Intuitive knowledge seems to be located on the right side of the brain and is often associated with the female way of thinking, opposed, or better complementary, to the male way of thinking, the rational left brain thinking. That explains, why men often have difficulties in understanding women (and why women often have difficulties in understanding each other and creating a common platform). Intuitive knowledge works a bit like neuronal networks, but with much larger potentials of self-construction (autopoiesis).

Another interesting form of thinking is 'thinking with the stomach'. Our nerve-cells store unconscious memories of pain, wellbeing, success, failure, joy and pain. The thinking out of the belly is most often overestimated, especially by populist political leaders, because each belly has only its own and so very limited experience, an experience strongly influenced by what one has eaten or drunk.

Web-philosophy has a large advantage over science and logic: The jumpy, unsystematic and unrelated ideas, not grown out of logical relations or disciplinary perspectives, can be linked, woven into a whole — and checked for consistency!

Contradictions and errors will be visible and lead to a constant rephrasing, reshaping and refocussing of the bits and pieces, that are mostly results of descriptions made out of certain perspectives.

Web-philosophy can be tested for truth and logical reliability just as well as science and philosophy. For that purpose not only the links, the networks, are important, but also the pieces of thought that form the basis of the intuitive solutions have to be determined. As intuition is largely an unconscious process, the determination of the decisive pieces of knowledge comes close to a kind of psycho-analysis. The dependency of intuition on knowledge present in the brain shows as well its limits: An empty head will only create empty thoughts, no matter how intelligent (fast thinking) he may be.

4. Web-Philosophy: A grid needs poles to fix it

Now, let me give you an example to illustrate why I'm using this rather pleonastic term 'web-philosophy'. Pleonastic it is, because philosophy always tries to understand the whole — with its interconnections. Philosophical thinking is (almost) always the networking of thoughts that are born out of different perspectives. So why should I create that pleonasm? The answer is: Because philosophy does not seem to do its job (or better: philosophers their job). The increasingly anomic state of our societies is used by polemic and populist politicians for their purposes, but does not seem to incite philosophers to create new orientations.

Let's have a look at the traditional virtues, one of the strongest fields of ethical orientation:

prudencethe right measure between licentiousness and apathy
justicethe right measuree between doing wrong and suffering wrong
couragethe right measure between recklessness and cowardice
generosity — the right measure between pettiness and extravagance
gentleness — the right measure between irascibility and inability to feel justified anger

The virtues, seen as right measure, make it immediately clear why there is most often no clear answer to complex questions and no simple way out of chaos and insecurity. Life always demands decisions between extremes. Each 'philosophy' that emphasises too much one-sided aspects, be it the nation, God, intelligence, material values etc. is not philosophy but mere PR, sectarianism, fundamentalism. The philosopher's job is not to beat the PR drum for one of the extremes, but to find the right way between the extremes. Wisdom is the art of the right measure — an art that needs life long learning — seldom from books, most often from the life itself (and that's exactly the reason, why one surely gets old before wise, but not always wiser with increasing age.)

The 'compass' of virtues shows us, that there is no either-or, no yea or nay, no clear good and evil, but only hints where the right way might be and what the right decision might look like. The free human being may and must decide, which road he or she wants to take. So people should not be asked, to which party they belong, which extremes they adhere to, but rather, in between which poles their grid of thinking is hanging and how large it is. The larger the grid, the more poles it is fixed to, the freer is the decision searcher.

Now, if you keep this image in your head, the image of a thinking (and decision) grid, hung up between juxtaposed poles, then you understand, what I mean with web-philosophy. The web, hypertext in general, allows us, to span and spin incredible grids of knowledge — and to subject them to testing at the same time. Hypertext-presentations allow us to see things from different perspectives and to create multidimensional presentations. Most people and institutions still stick to one-dimensional presentations, limiting themselves to their own business (what is not an utterly bad thing to do). Philosophers might profit from that, and interrelate those one-dimensional presentations. This has two positive effects:

1. The interrelation allows us to check, under which perspective, assumptions, context a theory, an opinion, a statement, is valid.

2. Embedding philosophical thinking in contemporary real world problems gives philosophy a new chance to reassume its duty and to give wisdom a chance to develop.

Precisely because neither science nor politics nor economics really care for truth, not to speak of wisdom, this duty stays with the philosophers. More truthful approaches would be most important in those fields that concern social development, as in politics.

I see the (ideal) state as an organised forum of citizens. This forum has to deal with ever-increasing complexity, which makes more and dialogues necessary. As this is a kind of mediation and mostly bound to values, it's not really the business of the sciences (if we accept Max Weber's separation of science from valuing and theory from practice), but the job of philosophy.

5. The current confusion between epistemical, poietic and practical knowledge — and some ideas of sociologists, to re-philosophize their science

"Science has not only the duty, to formulate the ideals of justice, it has to describe as well the roads leading to their realisation."

Leon Walras, quantitative economist (1834-1910)

Aristotle's' systematic of philosophy split knowledge in mainly three categories:

Logic/ analysis: Mathematics, physics, metaphysics, theoretical philosophy (cognition)
Practice: Ethics, politics, economics, education (action)
Poiesis: Technique, aesthetics, rhetoric (modelling, forming, executing, producing)

The contemporary lead-science is economics. Scientific research that promises economic growth is good research. Unluckily Aristotle's classification has been totally forgotten. Otherwise economics could never have assumed any authority as 'science'. And this authority is dangerous, as it claims truth in fields, namely the future and the aims of social development, where there is no truth to be found, especially no scientific truth. But the confusion between practice and epistemic science breeds more problems. If science is subject to 'usability' — saleability, profitability — truth comes definitely second. We can easily observe that in most new fields of science, especially genetics and nanotechnology, where any opposition against the use of the ideas and possible products are rejected as restraints to the freedom of science, while in reality our concern is to restrain commercial spread and its risks. So the primary objective of science, to find true descriptions, relations and, where possible, predictability, is more and more overruled by economic interests.

While technicians may get away with the excuse, that they produce what they are asked to produce, this rather foul excuse can't apply for 'sciences' that produce guidance (orientation) for human action. Politics, ethics, economics and education are eminently practical activities with real effects in the real world. They have to stay submitted to the free decision, acceptance or rejection, of their subjects.

An interesting science here is sociology, that tries to form a counter-science to economics, assuming for sociology the position philosophy once occupied:

"Sociology is the queen of the sciences. Unlike other sciences which analyse one narrow segment of life, sociology integrates all knowledge about humanity."

Steven Seidman: Contested Knowledge. Social Theory Today. Blackwell Publ. Malden, Oxford, Victoria. 1994, 98, 2004 (sec. ed.) [p 18:]

Charles Wright Mills (1916-62: The power elite, White collar: The American Middle Class) saw sociology as engaged public discourse. Theories were of minor importance for him and serve just as concepts, how to do empirical social analysis. Mills wanted to create a public sociology.

Robert Bellah (1927-) tried to change sociology back into public philosophy. Against the scientistic trend, Bella stuck to the conviction, that sociology is not only value oriented, but has to promote certain values. While Marx, Weber, Durkheim had written for the educated citizens, Bellah saw sociology as part of the ongoing discussion about societies common interests such as freedom, justice, poverty, war and community.

Antony Giddens (1938-) was also of the opinion, that sociology should not only explain the nature of the social world, but should help as well to shape it. Giddens strengthened the reflexivity of our society. While in the pre-modern cultures traditions controlled our daily behaviour, based on best practice, knowledge is in a perpetual movement in our post-modern society. Trends change the knowledge, considered as important, almost faster than books on trends are written.

Zygmunt Bauman (1925-) sees the modern spirit as reckless and relentless drive to extinguish everything that is chaotic, ambivalent, different and insecure. The heart of modernity is this unscrupulous drive to organize, to classify and to control. Post modernity stands for decentralized social order, that, as an ideal, should create institutional spaces for an ongoing dialogue, in which competition and negotiations on the endemic socio-political conflicts should be possible. For Bauman the character of sociology is narrowly connected to the role of the intellectual. While intellectuals lost their social authority in its legislative role, they now assume a role as interpreters. Their aim is now less to dictate standards and norms, than to facilitate communication between traditions and society.

The new millennium presents lots of complex problems to be solved by knowledge-workers and philosophers — but it also presents us a useful tool: the web.

The most common reason for social decline is — no, not zero growth or recession, but anomie, the lack of reliable orientation, or prevailing wrong orientation. So any kind of fundamentalism, populism, banalising polemics, in short, any terror of stupidity, has to be refuted. This duty can't be overtaken by politicians or the economy, as both use such methods extensively to get what the want.

This fight against decay of orientation and secure knowledge is not only needed since post-modernity, but was fought already by Plato, as the fight against the death of reason (misology). Reason has to fight, where people may have different opinions, where decisions between alternatives have to be taken. Reason has a strong relation to action, but tries nevertheless, as philosophy, to keep some distance, not to be submitted by force of things (Sachzwang).

To be able to develop new orientations in the Babylonian confusion of the post-modern era, we need a more intense and better working netting of the partial systems. As sciences themselves are partial sub-systems, I guess it would be a new duty for philosophy, to replace the honour and budget-oriented monologue of disciplinary scientific tribes by a philosophical, truth-seeking, dialogue.

As Seidman wrote [p. 282-83:]: 'Most problems and debates can't be assigned to single disciplines, but form clusters.' Discussions on globalization or the civil society do not take place in sociological newspapers, but under titles as: Public culture, social text, theory, culture, society, constellation. Today, in most clustered debates theorists must have at least some familiarity with classical sociology, neo-Marxism, identity-theories such as feminism and queer-theory, post structuralism, critical theory, varieties of psychoanalytical theory, and often postcolonial theory and critical race theory.

That's said for the field of sociology. To be able to hold a discourse on social development, integrating not only social sciences, but everything relevant for development, we probably have to make a step backward in order to advance faster, and revive the philosophical art of rhetoric, especially topics and argumentation, with the objective to:

enhance critical thinking

— The sciences have to learn again, that the right answer can only emerge, if the right questions are asked.

reintegrate speculative thinking, especially heuristics

— Speculari (Lat.) means: to look at something from far away. Speculative thinking, something unthinkable for scientists, is needed, if you want to deal with ideals (platonic or other) and utopiae. Without such speculative fore-sights its not possible, to create political or social development plans for the future, as any future is always (more or less) speculative.

reintegrate values in argumentation and decision processes

— Values are decisive in that field, but disintegrated from scientific research.

interrelate cluttered knowledge and preserve contexts [the foundation of web-philosophy]

— Each scientific discipline should in fact have its philosophers, mediating between related fields that might be quite far from each other, what concerns academic structures, especially what concerns the split between humanities and natural sciences. The multidimensionality of the web allows us to group themes, to form clusters. Such a way presentation may tackle large as well as deep contents. The arrangement of knowledge in clusters allows access from different perspectives, which do not get lost in a tangled mix, thanks to the subportals in the center of the clusters.

intensify and clarify dialogue with knowledge users and in general with the population

Scientists (and philosophers) should defend their thesis publicly, not the commercial use of their inventions.

There should be a philosophy, and philosophers, that tackle real world problems and real time problems.

That would give philosophy a real push, as few people are interested in academic discussions on reinterpretation of old texts.

© Martin Herzog 2005