Meta-Metacognition

17 Jan 2018

It seems to be popular to spill philosophical ramblings onto otherwise technical blogs like this one. The prospecting is alluring: a blog is a place to write about what you know, and what do we know more than ourselves? But this question has a faulty premise – that by virtue of existing with a brain, we are capable philosophers. To know oneself – let alone to know oneself well enough to make sweeping statements about all of humanity and the very fabric of the universe – is a monumentally difficult task as numerous giants throughout history have observed.

Still, I’m tempted. I live and I exist, and I think a lot and write a lot. Ostensibly it is appropriate for me to write about my technical findings, such as in my write up about the blobless Raspberry Pi. When I wrote about my refusal to carry a cellphone, a number of my peers in the free software community appreciated the essay – one reader, Jorge Maldonado, went so far as to translate it into Spanish! And on a much more personal note, when I shared a series of vignettes about my experience growing up as a transgender girl, response was similarly positive.

Why should my philosophical ideas be any different?

For one, there’s a lot less opportunity for original thought. The number of people who understand the low-level details of the Raspberry Pi number in the dozens. Plenty of people don’t carry a cellphone for a variety of reasons, but there are few people in my social circles in my young generation who refuse on ideological grounds. And finally, while there are millions of trans people in the United States alone, our stories are diverse and underrepresented; my contribution there is worthy.

For comparison, nearly eight billion people alive today have the intellectual capacity for armchair philosophy. The number of competitors further skyrockets when counting the rational thinkers who lived through history. The novelty train has left the station.

Of course, there is plenty of philosophy left. No field is truly complete – today’s mathematicians still have much to do on the front of “why does one plus one equal two?” But the people who will be making those advances are, almost certainly, people with a deep understanding of the existing philosophy.

That there is a critical difference. There is comparatively little to study formally about the Raspberry Pi architecture or the ideology of cell phone refusal. There is almost nothing to study about what it means for a transgender experience to be valid, since the diversity there is boundless. What remains to be studied in any of these areas I have already studied, perhaps as much as I can. It is not that there is no more learning to be done, but that the new advances have yet to come. I am just as capable of contributing to those new advances as anyone else similarly well read.

For philosophy, for me personally at least, it is not so. The subject fascinates me, of course, but I have not committed myself to intense study of the subject matter. I have yet to take a deep level university class on the subject, nor read fully the works of the classical geniuses, nor engage meaningfully with students who have. Statistically, it is extremely unlikely that I originate novel philosophical thought – thought which is plausible, but has neither been refuted historically nor already posed and accepted.

(Of course, this consideration is not novel at all. It is the justification for the entire modern educational system. I’m comfortable repeating it for the sake of a tangential blog post, but I take no attribution for the age old idea.)

Does the improbability of original thought explain my abstinence from publishing philosophy on my blog?

No, the underlying answer is even more nebulous. I do not expect my blog to be an academic journal or a textbook. I don’t expect for readers to come expecting world-view shattering insights; to suppose such a thing would require a level of hubris unthinkable to me. But it seems that other people, my potential readers, do have the expectation.

A mild example of this phenomenon was a reader who remarked that my philosophical posts were “pretentious”. Although frank, the reader was right, and I can handle this style of feedback. A harder pill to swallow is feedback of the following form, directed at Aaron Swartz as a comment on one of his many philosophical posts:

Bottom line is, you’re struggling with concepts that are well addressed in the early parts of a philosophical education. If they bother you, go take some community college classes and stop making an ass of yourself on the internet.

Ethically, I am not sure of the appropriateness of a comment like this; arguably in context it is constructive criticism. But sentiment is clear – and I am terrified of this sentiment.

I’m somewhat fragile. Notoriously, when someone posted an (easily refutable) comment on one of my stories, argued with me, and proceeded to click dislike on every one of my stories, I quit writing for a few months. I’m not proud of the incident, and there are a million better ways I could have handled it. But the effect is clear. I know if I were to blindly publish philosophy like Aaron did, I would be setting myself up for that type of comment. I don’t think I can handle it, and I don’t think the world needs that kind of writing anyway. It is awful to self-censor as I am, but I see no better alternative.

You can expect more posts on this blog relevant to my core areas of interest and expertise. More technical write ups of cool projects I work on, more political articles relating to the free software and free culture movements, and perhaps more reflection on my life as a trans person. But, this meta post aside, for better or worse I will be shying away from controversial philosophical musings.

As I publish this, I am afraid to look up the subject, only to discover a thousand other authors with the same complaint. I’m sure a reader will “helpfully” point this out to me.


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