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Flash Philosophy

M.G. Piety quickly considers condensed contemplation.

Most contemporary philosophical writing has little impact on the profession as a whole. David Rönnegard already pointed this out in ‘Escaping the Academic Coal Mine’ in Philosophy Now Issue 137. The problem, he asserts, is the focus on quantity over quality of publications in tenure and promotion decisions, and “the arcane research interests of many an academic.” Those aren’t the only reasons that most philosophical writing fails to have much impact, however. Another problem is that philosophical writing tends to be conceptually dense, which makes it difficult and time-consuming to read, even for professional philosophers. In fact, most contemporary academic philosophical writing still follows the late-nineteenth-century model, as exemplified in articles such as McTaggart’s famous ‘The Unreality of Time’, which took up eighteen pages of the journal Mind in 1908.

explosive abstraction
Explosive abstraction by Paul Gregory (detail)

Life was slower back then. There were fewer universities. Classes were smaller and teaching loads lighter. There was also less pressure to publish. Philosophers had the luxury of spending vast amounts of time developing a single thesis that they would then put forward in a lengthy and densely argued article that they could reasonably expect their colleagues would have more than enough time to read. But nearly everything has changed since that model of scholarship seemed the best way to communicate philosophical insight. There are more universities, more professional philosophers, and more pressure to publish. As class sizes and teaching loads are increasing, so time to devote to research and writing is dwindling.

Some time has been saved by advances in communication technology, true. The internet makes it possible to do a lot of research very quickly, without leaving home. Email makes it easy to get swift feedback from colleagues. None of these changes appears to have had any effect, however, on the model of philosophical articles inherited from the nineteenth century. We need a new genre of writing to add to the traditional model. I propose flash philosophy, modeled on flash fiction.

Flash fiction is very short short stories, also known as short-shorts. They haven’t replaced more traditional short stories, but exists alongside them. Flash philosophy, understood in a similar way, has actually existed for a long time; it just wasn’t considered a distinct genre. A great example is Edmund Gettier’s ‘Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?’ which appeared in Analysis in 1963. The paper is just over two pages long and well under a thousand words, and yet few articles in the entire history of philosophy have been so influential. Gettier’s paper created a whole cottage industry of articles, even books, responding to it, including The Analysis of Knowing: A Decade of Research (1983) by Robert Shope, and more recently, Explaining Knowledge: New Essays on the Gettier Problem (Rodrigo Borges et al, Eds, 2017). Short-short philosophical articles can be genuinely ground-breaking.

Flash philosophy would be a more flexible genre than the traditional philosophical article. It could include not only full pieces, such as Gettier’s famous essay, but also aphorisms of the sort found in the works of Nietzsche, E.M. Cioran and Kierkegaard, for example this one: “Whatever can be the meaning of this life? If we divide mankind into two large classes, we can say that one works for a living, the other has no need to. But working for one’s living can’t be the meaning of life; to suppose that constantly procuring the conditions of life should be the answer to the question of the meaning of what they make possible is a contradiction. Usually the lives of the other class have no meaning either, beyond that of consuming the said conditions. To say that the meaning of life is to die seems again to be a contradiction” (Eitiher/Or, p.49, 1843).

The idea behind flash philosophy is not merely to prove a point, but to stimulate thought, to encourage dialogue among philosophers. Short-short philosophical articles also take less time to read, which increases the probability that people will actually read them. And the more people who read an article, the greater its impact. Flash philosophy would thus have a democratizing effect on the profession, in that it would make it easier for lesser-known scholars to have their work read more widely.

Brevity also makes this a good vehicle for addressing current social, cultural, and political issues. Serious flash articles with titles like ‘A Utilitarian Approach to Lockdown’ could appear while the issues they address are still fresh in public debate. In this way, flash philosophy could help demonstrate the relevance of philosophy to matters of public concern. Flash philosophy could even serve to promote philosophers as public intellectuals.

Demonstrating the relevance of philosophy is especially important now given the devastation that COVID-19 is wreaking on higher education. Enrolments are plummeting. Many colleges and universities are slashing programs to cut costs. Philosophy programs are too often seen by administrators as expendable. That situation could change if an institution’s philosophers were getting media attention.

Flash philosophy would also be a way of quickly sharing and getting feedback on ideas for more traditional philosophical articles. It’s important for scholars to be able to share their ideas as they’re developing them. Dashing an idea off in a flash would create publicly-acknowledgeable ‘ownership’ of the idea, even when it’s still in the developmental stage. Journals could devote a special section to such articles. As I envision it, however, flash philosophy would be published primarily in online venues, such as blogs, since this is the fastest way of making it readily available. Journals, even online ones, usually involve long waits for publication before an author’s work can be read by others. But flash philosophy pieces can be made publicly available almost instantly.

So what does a piece of flash philosophy look like? Here is an example entitled ‘Sight and light’. It’s a little stand-alone portion of Robert Audi’s Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge (2011), reprinted here and on flashphilosophy.com with Audi’s permission:

Sight & Light

‘’We normally regard seeing as intimately connected with light. But must seeing involve light? Suppose you could step into a pitch-dark room and have precisely the experiences you would have if it were fully lighted. The room would thus look to you just as it would if fully lighted, and you could find any unobscured object by looking around for it. Would this not show that you can see in the dark? If so, then the presence of light is not essential to seeing.

However, the case does not establish quite this much. For seeing is a causal relation, and for all I have said you are just vividly hallucinating precisely the right things rather than seeing them. But suppose you are not hallucinating and that if someone covered a coin you see with lead or covered your eyes, you would no longer have a visual experience of a coin. In this case, it could be that somehow the coin affects your eyes through a mechanism other than light transmission, yet requiring an unobstructed path between the object seen and your eyes. Now it begins to seem that you are seeing. You are responding visually to stimuli that causally affect your eyes. Yet their doing so does not depend on the presence of light.’’

This insight is expressed clearly and persuasively in just over two hundred words. Other examples of flash philosophy can be found on the Flash Philosophy blog. So far I am the only editor. However, I hope to enlist the help of other philosophers to serve as additional editors and as referees of submissions.

It will take some time, of course, for the academy to recognize flash philosophy as a legitimate scholarly genre. We need to build it up first. But let’s start to reap the benefits now as we help to bring philosophical writing into the digital age.

© Marilyn G. Piety 2021

Marilyn G. Piety is a professor of philosophy at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Her area of specialization is the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard. She blogs at Piety on Kierkegaard.

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