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Increased Inter-Textuality: Papering Plato's Cave

The web also fits well with a development within philosophy itself: Jean-Fran├žois Lyotard in his La Condition Postmoderne proclaimed the end of great stories and over-arching theories. Instead he saw a diversity of small stories, each competing with others in their own domains. If we can assume that this is happening within philosophy, then we can also see a move to a bazaar-model in the content of philosophical thinking itself. A second development that Lyotard pointed out was the increasing importance of texts, textual production, and language. At the same time Saussure argues for the disappearance of the referent in word-meanings, Baudrillard pointed out the virtualisation of society, and Derrida and Foucault spoke of the materiality of texts, where texts and intertextuality gave meaning instead of `pure' ideas.

This increasing materiality of texts is not surprising if one looks at the increasing amount of texts that philosophers have to deal with. Eventhough the re-reading, re-interpretation and reviving of the writings of previous philosophers is an old tradition in philosophy, the more extreme current-day cases are sometimes jokingly called philosopherology, instead of philosophy. However, normally in philosophy there is a thinking in response to texts, where the text itself is a source for inquiry. Then, when commentaries are written down, and related to other texts, these become a part of the shared textual space again. In this way a textual universe, with its own meanings and key-words, is constructed around every specialisation (the textual counter-part of Wittgenstein II's language games), almost like a cave of Plato, with the difference that currently postmodernism doesn't assume the existence of pure ideas outside of it anymore. And where Weber already called machines congealed spirit, text in intertextuality almost literally functions like it.

This cave of sources, and experiences in the light of those sources, has become the world of our ideas. It is an externalisation of thinking. Now of course this statement should not be taken literally, as a magically transcendent mega-brain or something alike, but it can provide a good metaphor for understanding the collective intelligence that the web can encode: with its billions of texts, connected by hyperlinks, created, shifted and maintained by people who traverse them; readers, writers and people rating things. And at least both for simple organisms (ants finding the shortest path to food), and in humans for simple instances (the average of all guesses of the number of beans in a pot is always very accurate), collective/swarm intelligence has already been proven to be effective. In a similar vein the web could enable an increased collective intelligence by providing a virtual textual space that can represent or come to represent a continuously sifted and sorted representation of collective wisdom.

As a clear example of what an increased intertextuality can mean, we can have a look at Sic et Non (1120), by Peter Abelard. In this work the contradictions between church fathers were problematized by consistently juxtaposing them by theme and concluding with a synthesizing analysis, while paying careful notice to differences in the meaning of words in different contexts. It started the scholastic tradition. And while scholasticism has its problems (especially later scholasticism), it was very suitable for dealing with the almost post-modern textual reality of their high-context, religious texts. Now the web as a medium allows for even more and easier intertextuality. Collaboratively annotating, juxtaposing, creating, expanding and publishing texts has never been technically possible to the extent that the web can provide. This is what inspired Michael Heim to call the web 'Platonism as a working product'. And we argue that it will work.

Next on read-path: Dynamic Texts: Beyond the Tablets o...
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