Philosophy, Twitter and Hierarchy

This month's post is a guest post by Mason Westfall. Prompted by a recent essay by Martin Janello there was recently some discussion on twitter about twitter amongst philosophers. Responding to the general discussion, Mason wrote a very interesting thread on the topic -- I invited him to expand those thoughts into a blog post. I thought the results very interesting, so read on and see what you make of it!


Twitter promises democratization. When you log on, you can talk to… anyone. Your favorite (and least favorite) journalist is here. You can tell them what you think. Political staffers, novelists, celebrities and comedians are all here, talking. In the real world, it’s a rarity to wind up in the same room as the cultural and political elite. They mostly hang out with each other, and you’re not invited. You have to get lucky, and then maybe you’ll get to mumble ‘I love your work’ or yell ‘Fuck you Ted Cruz’ before they’re gone, back to rooms much too exclusive for the likes of you. But everyone is invited to Twitter. Everyone can talk to anyone. We’re all in the same room and you can say whatever you want. It’s a seductive promise.

It’s unsurprising then that philosophers are drawn to twitter. We’ve long had an obsessive ambivalence about hierarchy. Plato tells us the ideal society is ruled by philosopher kings. He who is best at philosophy rightly enjoys the most power. Though we haven’t managed to institute Plato’s Republic at the society level, we’ve gotten quite a bit closer as a discipline. Academic philosophy exemplifies a rigid status hierarchy, one we talk about constantly. We need to decide what the top ten journals are, the top five departments for metaethics, the ten best papers published this year. The status hierarchy has obvious material consequences. Whatever the mechanism, taking graduate seminars at Harvard or MIT seems to be remarkably correlated with academic success. And most of you aren’t invited to those seminars.

Where you are invited, all of you, is Philosophy Twitter. Bigshots and hobbyists, anonymous grad students and rising stars are all talking about philosophy. You don’t need an NYU affiliation to tell Chalmers what you think about sentient AI. Undergrads—many at schools without grad programs—can ask grad students how to write a statement of purpose, and get notes on their writing sample. For those who aren’t invited to the fancy rooms this is a remarkable innovation. And for those who have come to distrust hierarchy, both as actually realized, and as a matter of principle, it sounds like a salutary one. It’s hackneyed to recite all of the unfair factors that condition who winds up in the Oxford seminar room. But on Twitter you don’t need to be in the room to be a part of the conversation. If the room is unfairly exclusionary, that’s a win.

Only that’s too quick. Twitter makes preexisting elites accessible, but it also creates its own elites. Most likely, you’re reading this because it’s on Liam’s blog and he tweeted it out. I get your attention because Liam is a twitter bigshot, and he decided I deserved it. [A sentence saying something nice about Liam here did not survive the editorial process.] How many people on Philosophy Twitter could get you to read this? Maybe it’s a few, and maybe it’s a lot, but that power to direct your attention is unequally distributed. Liam has more power than I do. For those who are distrustful of hierarchy per se, this is dubious. And for many more, the specific mechanisms of this inequality are suspicious. At least the older hierarchies involved an academic elite who could assess who was most worthy, most skilled. Twitter rewards followers, and followers could be anyone.

A mythos of democratization combined with a reality of hierarchy breeds resentment. Just as people feel overlooked in traditional hierarchies—under-cited, under-placed, under-appreciated—people feel overlooked on Philosophy Twitter. They aren’t followed enough, responded to enough, respected enough. Maybe they’re right. Where someone falls in either hierarchy is the result of many factors, some of which are obviously unfair. Maybe your family couldn’t send you to a fancy high school, or your supervisor was cruel, maybe you don’t project a cool vibe, or your jokes aren’t that funny, or you annoy people by besting them in debates.

So Twitter’s promise is a lie. It ‘deconstructs hierarchy’ by instituting a different, objectionable hierarchy. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. We’re all in the same room, but nobody’s listening to you.

Still, I think our situation with hierarchy is improved by Philosophy Twitter, not because the hierarchy it institutes is more intrinsically fair, but because it diversifies the unfairness of hierarchy. The things that make someone successful on Philosophy Twitter are different from the things that redound to one’s benefit under traditional hierarchies. By diversifying the factors that contribute to who has unfair power in the discipline, we innervate the power of any particular unfair advantage. That’s a good thing.

Why not just make a discipline that’s actually non-hierarchical? Justice is fairness, these hierarchies are unfair, justice doesn’t involve them. Only I don’t know what that would actually look like. The way I learned to do philosophy is essentially hierarchical. I learned to assess arguments as more or less persuasive, dialectical moves as more or less novel, views as more or less interesting. Likewise, I assess jokes as more or less funny, takes as more or less insightful, memes as more or less dank. If I consistently judge that one philosopher’s work is better than another’s, I don’t know how to avoid thinking they’re better at philosophy. If I consistently like one person’s tweets, I’ll follow them. If the tweets are bad, I’ll unfollow. Sure, in some abstract way I might be ‘suspicious of hierarchies’, but my form of life is deeply committed to them. I find a real alternative literally unimaginable.

Philosophers have the concept of a regulative ideal—a goal that’s unattainable but aiming at it does us good. A non-hierarchical discipline can’t be our regulative ideal, because we can’t even imagine it. How could we aim at something unthinkable? Bizarrely, more hierarchies might be the best we can do right now. The point generalizes. If two hierarchies are better than one, three are better than two. This seems almost silly, but I think it’s right. What’s most objectionable about hierarchies really, is not that people are ‘ranked’ differently, but that how they’re ranked conditions how good their life is in profound ways. The less a hierarchy affects someone’s life outcomes, the less worrisome it is, even if it’s still unfair. When relatively few hierarchies condition our lives, the stakes are high. When more hierarchies condition our lives, the stakes are lower for each individual hierarchy. So, Philosophy Twitter can be both an unfair hierarchy, and democratize the discipline. Maybe we need more unfair hierarchies like it.


  1. This is certainly a novel argument for philosophy twitter that makes me somewhat more positively disposed to it. But I suspect the utility vs number of hierarchies function might be u-shaped, with just one hierarchy being preferable to a medium number (<5?) which is in turn less preferable than a big number.

    The reason for this worry is that while I can buy the argument for the diversity of hierarchies helping if there are enough hierarchies that most people can rank reasonably well on at least some of the important ones. I suspect (and am certain in my own case, since I avoid it like the plague) that just adding social media standing to traditional prestige hierarchies won't allow that many more people to do well—because not that many people are good at social media.

    That wouldn't be an objection if adding more hierarchies was neutral for those who didn't do well on any of them, and positive for those who did well on some. But I think that fails for two reasons:

    First, because it is very difficult to have a neutral position in a hierarchy. If social media presence comes to be important to hiring etc. then not having social media presence is likely to become a negative for me that it wasn't before (or perhaps it already is and I've missed that boat).

    Second, there is a cost arising from having more hierarchies if you don't happen to do well on any of them without effort: the more there are, the harder it becomes to learn/work hard to improve one's standing on them in an effective way. If there is just a single hierarchy then it is clear what needs to be done to improve your chances. If there are many you face many epistemic problems about determining which ones are most important, which ones you might reasonably expect to succeed on, etc. And adding more hierarchies forces you to make tradeoffs on effort: Splitting your effort across multiple hierarchies might be worse than concentrating it in terms of payoff per unit of effort, and concentrating effort on one out of many hierarchies is a high risk strategy. If there is just a single hierarchy then you should dedicate as much effort to it as you can before that effort would be better spent just having hobbies or doing something entirely unrelated with your time.

    Of course, the positive effect of having a smaller number of hierarchies will depend on how easy it is to move up or down them (knowing that going to a high ranked, US, school for my PhD would have been better for me is no use to me now I've already finished it somewhere else). And on that score twitter is pretty good: stars seem to rise and fall very rapidly. But for those of us who don't feel that we're doing too well on the traditional hierarchy and don't have the skills (or perhaps more importantly, mental fortitude) to take advantage of social media, its being added as a second hierarchy might just make things worse for us.

    I guess in the end I'm just adding grist to the mill: more hierarchies for everyone!


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