Short and tweet: modern philosophy and Twitter

It's challenging, but not impossible to form ideas that work Tweet-length, reports Matthew Reisz

August 27, 2009

Philosopher Carrie Jenkins attracted attention in 2006 when she published an article on "The Philosophy of Flirting", to which her partner Daniel Nolan, professor of philosophy at the University of Nottingham, wrote a reply.

It all started over a romantic dinner in Lisbon, she explained, where "being two philosophers, we weren't actually flirting, we were talking about flirting".

Professor Nolan gallantly thanked her for "extensive discussion and field testing" of the topic.

Now Dr Jenkins, who is a reader in philosophy at Nottingham, has tackled another equally intriguing, if less romantic, topic: the role that the microblogging tool Twitter can play in her discipline.

Mulling over the subject in a podcast on the university's website, she is positive about its role in philosophy, particularly as a way of keeping communication channels open.

"If I'm stuck for ideas when half-way through a paper, a Tweet can generate input from others which gets me through a block," she said.

However, while welcoming the ease with which Twitter can be used, she said it is less important than face-to-face discussion when it comes to thrashing out an idea.

"I would prefer going to a conference to philosophising by Twitter or blog or email, but I can't spend my life doing that," she said.

Since many philosophers are already on Twitter, Dr Jenkins is also a great proponent of "live-tweeting" philosophy conferences - posting updates as the events are happening.

All this leaves unanswered the key question: can one really do philosophy on Twitter, which limits users to 140 characters per Tweet?

Dr Jenkins works within the analytic tradition which, unlike Zen Buddhism, seldom tries to compress deep thoughts into brief enigmatic statements. She said that while Tweet-length poetry could be a genre of its own, Tweet-length philosophy is unlikely to develop in any serious way.

But she added: "If you think and express yourself for a living, it's good to get to the heart of an issue as quickly and concisely as possible. That's what a philosopher does in a lecture or short paper - Twitter is just taking the idea to the limit."

Earlier this year, she launched a competition on her blog - "Philosophy Short and Tweet" - to find the best Tweet-length philosophical argument. Of the 72 responses, some were gags - "I'm pink, therefore I'm spam" - and, with no room to define terms, genuinely original ideas proved difficult to get across. Nonetheless, for those who understand the vocabulary, there were some brilliantly compressed summaries.

The winning entry apparently captured, with 57 characters to spare, the essence of an important paper by Peter van Inwagen, professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame: "Ordinary objects are mereological sums. Objects can change parts, so sums can too."

The rest of us are just going to have to take Dr Jenkins' word for it.

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