Can you be a serious thinker while plugged into Twitter all day? Liam Kofi Bright is emblematic of this conundrum, having posted on the platform almost 250,000 times since he joined it — that works out at roughly 60 tweets a day for every day of the past 11½ years.
The philosopher at London School of Economics and Political Science admits to being easily distracted. His core work is on social epistemology — how we produce and spread knowledge — but he likes to hop between different fields of inquiry; a colleague once summed up his peripatetic approach to research as “Ooh, shiny!” Nonetheless, he has published in highly-esteemed journals, has picked up accolades including a prestigious UK trust fund award, and is one of the keynote speakers at the Irish Philosophical Society’s annual conference in Dublin this month.
Being a proper academic and liking cat videos on your social media feed is not a contradiction in terms, according to Bright’s logic; internal tension is part of life.
In a widely-read paper, Bright speaks of the pull of competing tendencies — one to being a “basically pleasant bureaucrat” — meeting the expectations of a professional academic — and the other to being a “sexy murder poet”, essentially chasing pure experience.
The slightly tongue-in-cheek categorisations (philosophers love a good dichotomy) point to a split-personality in all of us. We seek to “get on” in life, accepting social norms, while pushing against conformity.
Twitter comes into this as it allows us to express both personas, or to play around with different voices. While he is not blind to the faults of the social media platform, he believes there are smart ways of using it.
Taking yourself too seriously is a mistake, he believes, arguing that “ironic detachment” is sometimes the most appropriate voice to adopt as even well-meaning users are typically play-acting at concern over social injustices. Bright has a strong Irish connection — three of his four grandparents are from Co Kerry, where he spent his summers as a child — and he speaks further about Twitter and philosophy as this week’s Unthinkable guest:
We could talk a lot about what’s bad about Twitter. But what’s good about it for a philosopher?
Liam Kofi Bright: “There are some mundane benefits to Twitter which are worth mentioning. There are a lot of academics on it so you can contact a lot of people. Also it’s good that it’s not just academics that you get feedback from.
“But I think there are interesting, more characterological virtues. Twitter rewards a sense of humour and punishes taking yourself too seriously. So some ability to have a bit of wit, have a bit of verve, is sort of built up, and I think that’s a virtue in anyone who writes or gives talks for a living.
“Put it this way, there are people for whom maybe they don’t take themselves seriously enough but I think a characteristic vice of academics is too much seriousness — we run in that direction, and Twitter is a correcting force.”
You say Twitter can also help people develop what you call the “underappreciated” virtue of ironic detachment. How so?
“I was thinking about this while working on a paper on the culture wars, which I largely think are one big distraction. A bad thing about Twitter is that it puts a load of distractions in your face but ironic detachment does encourage you to step back a bit and realise not much turns on this, people are just treating this like a game — it’s just obvious people on Twitter are [treating it like a game].
“That can be useful I think in two ways. Firstly, on those specific cultural issues I think that [ironic detachment] is sometimes the correct attitude to have ... and even when you think it’s not good to be ironic about your own philosophical positions, to remember ‘I am not the work, this is a thing I do for a living, I put these papers out there but in the end I’m distinct from that’ — a little bit of irony about it all — my sense is that’s good for academics.
“While I wouldn’t want people to totally check out, giving into nihilism, a bit of distance is good, and again Twitter is a force in that direction.
“These are the good things I think about Twitter and they’re stated in the abstract. They are outweighed by the bad things but I don’t think the good things should be lost.”
Can you explain the ‘basically pleasant bureaucrat’ versus ‘sexy murder poet’ dichotomy?
“What had struck me initially was a distinction between enlightenment philosophers and romantic philosophers. Enlightenment philosophers focused on reason and political organisation, working together to rationally achieve goals and make the world more happy, more ordered and better off. And romantics react strongly against that, and think something would be lost: all this organising would make it dull and conformist.
“And I was struck, reading around in different philosophical traditions [in both European and Eastern traditions] ... the same spirit of opposition appears over and over again, and I see the pull of both.
“I tend to think when the ‘sexy murder poet’ goes bad it’s like German romanticism leading to very bad things — so it has slightly more of a disaster potential. The ‘basically pleasant bureaucrat’ is probably the safer bet ethically. But even that’s not fair. John Locke, the British empiricist, is an example of a basically pleasant bureaucrat who also sat down and wrote down a very detailed, organised slave constitution for the Carolina colonies. So you can do bad in the other direction too.”
Does Twitter promote one identity over the other?
“I think Twitter, if I look at what it has done to academics, not especially philosophers but historians, or epidemiologists since Covid, it seems to push people into ‘basically pleasant bureaucrat’ mode. It really encourages in academics a sense that they have a public duty to communicate on behalf of their field or serve the public by improving discourse by propagating the results of important research in their line of inquiry.
“And what’s particular to Twitter of social media sites is ... you have this idea that I could be read right now by, you know, the aide to the minister of finance in Serbia, and if I’m an economist I really don’t want that person to make the wrong investment so I’d better make sure if I state some economic facts they don’t mislead the aide to the minister of finance in Serbia. So in my impression is what it does to academics is it pushes them into the ‘basically pleasant bureaucrat’ mode.
“I don’t intend to say that’s bad but I don’t know if it’s good when it’s such a uniform tendency.”
Talking of tendencies, Catholicism plays a role in your life. Does it also influence your philosophical work?
“I was raised Catholic and a lot of the early texts of philosophy I read — like Saint Thomas Moore, St Augustine — I thought they were very good and I still think they’re very good. I would describe myself as Catholic, yeah, so I guess I’m a Catholic philosopher. But I don’t work directly on religious questions.
“I work on how we organise science, and what methods we should use in statistics, and that kind of stuff, and there are very few ex cathedra pronouncements on, like, statistical methodology.
“Insofar as my religion comes out, I think it’s the ‘basically pleasant bureaucrat’ aspects of Catholicism ... On issues like how to organise a good society, or war and peace, that’s where it has some influence.
“I think if it wasn’t for being Christian or Catholic I wouldn’t be a pacifist, and I sometimes I get incensed when I hear, like, an American politician say, ‘Let’s pray to Christ our bombs fall on our enemy and wipe them out’; it really gets me on an emotional level. I really feel that’s a perversion of something that’s very important to me.”
Philosophy in the Public Space, the annual conference of the Irish Philosophical Society, takes place in Trinity College Dublin on October 21st-22nd, with more than 20 speakers, including keynote talks from Liam Kofi Bright; UCD’s Katherine O’Donnell; and Angie Hobbs, the UK’s first Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy. www.irish-philosophical-society.ie/
This month also sees a two-part conference exploring John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University which can be attended online or in person at Newman House, St Stephen’s Green on October 19th and 26th. ucd.ie/newman