You will say that it is vulgar and contemptible to drag all this into public after all the tears and transports which I have myself confessed. But why is it contemptible? Can you imagine that I am ashamed of it all, and that it was stupider than anything in your life, gentlemen? And I can assure you that some of these fancies were by no means badly composed […] And yet you are right — it really is vulgar and contemptible. And most contemptible of all it is that now I am attempting to justify myself to you. And even more contemptible than that is my making this remark now. But that’s enough, or there will be no end to it; each step will be more contemptible than the last….
– Fyodor Dostoevsky in Notes from Underground
Anyone who has been involved in forums on the Internet probably recognize the issue with off-topic posting. Posts that don’t concern the original topic of the thread. And perhaps you noticed too the posts that complain about that other posts are off-topic, and further on the remarks that the one who complains about off-topic posts are in fact also off-topic. What we tend to get is a kind of meta-analysis syndrome. People meta-analyse, meta-meta-analyse, meta-meta-meta-analyse etc.
To make an off-topic complaint about off-topic posts in a thread, one may claim is an example of something that defeats its own purpose. If one is against off-topic posting and wants people to stop off-topic posting, then one shouldn’t off-topic post oneself (as one automatically is doing when one complains about off-topic posting of others).
(One may get away from this by either sending a private message to the user one think is writing off-topic, or by posting it in another thread like for example in the section entitled “feedback” where it is considered acceptable to speak about the issue of off-topic posting. But sometimes such alternatives don’t exist.)
Let’s for a while consider another story:
Some time ago I read a newspaper where a political columnist had written a column concerning recent party congresses in Sweden. In the column she pointed out that instead of focusing on the political decisions made at the congresses, almost all attention these congresses get in media concern certain scandals, and she argued that this was a serious problem.
Her point in the column certainly appeared reasonable, something which most readers probably would be inclined to agree to. But if we stop for a while, and regard this article from another perspective. What did her own column concern – the politics of the congresses, or the scandals of the congresses? Then one may note that she explicitly mentioned the so called scandals of the congresses, (especially the turns around Omar Mustafa), but nothing were mentioned about substantial political matters. – To sum it up, the columnist complained about media talking too much about scandals, while her own article concerned the scandals and nothing about substantial political matters.
This may also appear like what could be called defeating of it’s own purpose. But really, is this something that truly defeats its own purpose?
One way to go would be to question what is the actual purpose. One alternative then would be to make a “cynical turn”. We could for example imagine that the interest of the author is to please her employer in order so that she may get a higher wage. Her employer gets pleased when many people buy the paper. And then, what do people want to read about – substantial political matters or the scandals? The scandals, of course! The employer is thus likely to encourage the columnist to write about the scandals as the scandals are what really interests the readers. From this perspective there is no self-contradiction, no defeating of its own purpose to write this kind of meta-analysis about the scandals. By writing about the scandals she pleases her employer, she pleases the readers, and with the negative attitude towards the talking about scandals she may perhaps keep up a feeling of self-respect (as if almost she isn’t really talking about the scandals herself).
It would be foolish to believe that this “cynical turn” is all of the truth, but it would also be foolish to believe that there is no truth at all in it, I believe. The typical cynical dismissive reading is usually far from the truth, but so is usually also the naive always justifying reading.
In the quote above from Notes from Underground by Dostoevsky, the narrator repeatedly gives different explanations of why he is writing what he is writing. At one point he claims that the reason he is writing is merely to argue against some political/philosophical idea, at one point he claims he only writes for himself as a therapy, at one point he let us know he wants it to be a work of fine art etc. My view on this is not that we should see him as a liar. In fact each reason he presents as the purpose of his narration may appear plausible in itself as the one true purpose. One could claim that he is being undecided about the actual purpose of his writing, that he is being ambivalent – but really that would only add as one more layer of explanation, not above but rather parallel to the other explanations. Ultimately what I want to say is that actual purposes is a transcendental issue, something that may be more or less sensed, more or less known, but cannot completely be spoken about.
In order to get away from poor judgements, I believe that it’s often important to see things from a wider perspective. It’s easy to be dismissive, when you are poorly oriented in the context, and you look at things stripped out from its original context. The less you know a person, the less likely are you to understand what that person is trying to mediate. The less likely are you also to understand whether the meta-analysis is being taken too far.
I’ve been involved quite a lot on forums on the Internet. The person who might have influenced and taught me most at these forums, was an impulsive and artistic minded person. He would always give quick and spontaneous replies, which sometimes could result in that he made off-topic posts complaining about the off-topic posting of others. This was in line with his own principles and I wouldn’t blame him for it. As for the columnist mentioned, now I happen to know that she also is a known and well respected politician (Maria Wetterstrand, former leader of the Green party in Sweden). Considering a larger perspective, it would be hard to blame her for not focusing on substantial political matters, as after all that is what she has been doing for most of her career. When she says that media should focus less on the scandals, maybe people in media actually will listen and take her by the word (I’m skeptical about this myself though – partly due to the fact that I have heard so many people before making same claims as she did in the column).
I remember reading about Georg H. von Wright‘s first encounter with Wittgenstein. Wright went to England in order to follow some talks held by Wittgenstein. But Wittgenstein wouldn’t want to let him in, with the explanation that he demanded all his students to follow the meetings from the very beginning – otherwise they would get a skewed understanding of it all (in one sense it may not sound so remarkable that a teacher demands his pupils to join the course from the beginning – but Wittgenstein’s typical philosophizing is different, it doesn’t have beginning or end, it’s just continuous activity). So he asked Wright to come back the next term instead (Eventually Wright managed to make Wittgenstein change his mind though). Such requirements would be difficult to have in today’s society. Here on this blog, I’ve noticed that most visitors only come and view one page before they leave. At first I thought this was very surprising, but then I’ve come to realize that is probably what one can expect. Yet, I do still have hard to understand this, and I can’t help but think that those who visit only one page, without viewing any external links, would be just as well off if they hadn’t come at all.
“Reading literature and doing philosophy” by Dawn M Wilson
Rorty and the game of philosophy
A philosopher’s guide to Pierre Bourdieu (especially the part concerning contextual orientation)
“Games Critics Play” by Carter Kaplan