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.


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