The initial idea of conducting an experiment in electronic, interactive philosophy and publishing the result in a special issue of The Monist arose in a conversation between J. C. Nyíri and Barry Smith. This impulse led to a proposal circulated in various philosophy lists. J. C. Nyíri, whose initiatives have been essential to the present volume, put it succinctly:
Philosophy, like other intellectual disciplines, has been both constituted and constrained by the media available for the production and exchange of ideas. It is the inventions of writing and print which have made scholarly inquiry possible. And as for philosophy, some of its seemingly perennial problems in fact arose as a consequence of the fact that living (spoken) language had to be transformed into language fixed on paper. Writing created the isolated thinker, while also allowing the time to think and to organize thoughts into lapidary forms; but it could not be interactive in the way that real-time conversation was, and certainly not among multiple interlocutors. Electronic networks now offer new conceptual challenges, a new framework for philosophy, perhaps even a new synthesis. This issue of The Monist will itself serve as an experiment in new interactive methods of philosophical composition.
The process of discussion and publication was to run as follows. Eight mailing lists were to be established, each of them started off by a ``target paper'' supplied by the moderator of the list. Members of those lists were either to be invited by the list-owner or recruited from users of the Internet responding to the original announcement. The proposal envisaged an essentially unconstrained, spontaneous discussion arising from the target papers and archived in the log-files of the list. The accumulated material would then be made publicly accessible and edited for inclusion in the Monist issue by the moderator. Eventually this would lead to a conventional, printed volume, supplemented by a complete archive of all procedures available on the internet.
J. C. Nyíri's original plan was reassessed in the light of the incoming responses and led to the following arrangement. It was decided to run eight electronic discussion groups.
Corresponding LISTSERV mailing lists were established by Herbert Hrachovec and run from the computer lab at Vienna University. While the handling of list-administration proved relatively uncomplicated, breathing life into this electronic shell turned out to be more difficult. As a matter of fact, two of the groups envisaged (the ones dealing with Wittgensteinian issues, as it happened) did not get off the ground at all. Several of the remaining groups had some trouble in developing into a proper forum of scholarly exchange. Supplementing the original plan Fiona Steinkamp was invited to run an electronic panel on ``Gender and Postmodern Communication.'' By September 1996 all lists had concluded their discussions, which were then summarized by the moderators. In many cases, before being finally submitted, the reports were circulated among the participants for comments and corrections. Looking at the result of the project one is immediately struck by the different ways the editorial impulse worked out, as well as by the widely divergent methodological approaches taken by the commentators to sum up the proceedings.
The papers comprising this volume are, consequently, not to be judged by the standards of traditional submitted contributions to an established journal, well worked out and tightly argued. Nor are the papers protocols of conventional debates that have been subsequently prepared for print. Rather, the pieces presented here are attempts to come to terms with a task of largely unforeseen complexity. In writing those reports all authors had - in some way or the other - to accommodate at least three different ``voices.'' Imagine an account of a philosophical conference, written by the organizer, including substantial parts of his or her contribution to the conference and, finally, trying to give due credit to all participants. Such an undertaking would widely be regarded as very questionable indeed. Yet, this is precisely what was called for under the present circumstances. The task at hand might rather be compared to reporting on an expedition or covering an experimental, multi-disciplinary research project. Philosophy, as it is commonly practiced, has rarely responded to the excitement of directly engaging in means of mass communication. Film, TV and video have largely remained outside its scope. In entering the realm of public, computer-mediated interchange, philosophy is suddenly, surprisingly, propelled into a fairly experimental position.
University of Vienna