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Sharing, Truth, and Context - a Reply to Mark Sample on Open Access

Mark Sample has written a very passionate opinion piece on the notion of sharing in the digital humanities: The digital humanities is not about building, it’s about sharing. In this, he mentions in passing some typical challenges to new models of scholarly publishing coming from representatives of the ‘traditional humanities’:

And to every person who objects, But, wait, what about legitimacy/tenure/cost/labor/& etc, I say, you are missing the point. Now is not the time to hem in our own possibilities. Now is not the time to base the future on the past. Now is not the time to be complacent, hesitant, or entrenched in the present.

Philosophers rarely are interested in ‘basing the future on the past’ - they are trained to think in alternatives. Neither are they “entrenched in the present”. It is rarely the case that philosophers overemphasise the relevance of endoxai.

Yet, we seem to be hesitant to adapt to the brave new world of digital publishing, knowledge commons, open access etc. If campaigning for the digital turn in the humanities is meant to be more than preaching to the converted, we should ask what exactly stands in the way of a broader acceptance of this digital turn in single disciplines. To me, this attitude seems to be a bit more productive than mere name-calling.

When asking this question for philosophy, the answer may be quite simple: philosophers are obsessed with Truth. On the level of theory, this is, of course, a gross oversimplification: pragmatists, poststructuralists, Kuhnian philosophers of science and others have tried to combat this obsession quite intensively. But as soon as you ask a pragmatist, poststructuralist, or Kuhnian about his or her own writing, the situation changes quite radically: philosophers generally are convinced that their own position is correct and that their opponents are wrong - until they are convinced by argument. What to others may appear to be a regrettable ‘deformation professionelle’, is in fact an indispensable presupposition of philosophical writing. As far as his or her own work is concerned, every relativist philosopher is inevitably dogmatist, at least in the sense that even relativists  strive to make themselves understood in order to convince others that their stance is justifiable.

But what we understand in a philosophical text is to some extent determined by its context. Some of this context may be provided in references etc. within the text. But a significant portion of context is provided by the ‘textual environment’ the text resides in. For this reason, control of the ‘textual environment’ for one’s own work is an essential presupposition for philosophers in order to make themselves understood correctly. Open access forces us to relinquish this control.

So the philosophical obsession with truth comes at a price. Of course, I won’t deny that philosophers care as much about ‘legitimacy/tenure/cost/labor/&’ as the next guy. But if we accept - at least for the sake of the argument - that truth is what the philosopher wants most, any plea for the adoption of new strategies of scholarly publishing by philosophers must show how to deal with these legitimate concerns that form a constitutive part of our professional identity.

Stefan Heßbrüggen-Walter

  1. emto posted this
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