19 December 2005

Aristotelian Flatworlders

I've been consoled that, with grading and extra advising responsilities at the end of the semester, I've not had the time to post on this blog. Doesn't that mean that I blog only when I genuinely have spare time for doing it? That a blogger blogs usually, but not always, shows that blogging has the appropriate degree of importance for him.

Admittedly, these extra responsibilities haven't kept me from doing some reading on the side. Well, there is reading, and then there is reading. Looking at Thomas L. Friedman's bestseller, The World is Flat, hardly counts as reading in the sense of looking at, say, Crivelli on truth.

If you haven't read it: Friedman's book is about recent trends in globalization, which have the effect of removing inefficiencies and barriers to business, especially for India and China; hence the playing field of the world is increasingly becoming level and therefore, in Friedman's term, 'flat.'

My interest in the book is from the point of view of academia. How will universities change, how should they change, if at all, given trends in globalization? What new form might scholarship take? What will count as 'publication'? What role will major academic presses play in the future? Will their importance inevitably diminish? And also that of libraries? Etc.

I've been thinking of to what extend these new trends in globalization have analogous applications in scholarship. For instance, in software development, there is something called 'open sourcing'. This happens when some geek figures he can write a program that works better than an expensive version offered by Microsoft or Adobe; he makes a rough attempt and puts the program and its source code on a server for everyone to see; and various programmers around the world then work on parts of the program, as they wish, and improve them--until the program, the result of the combined efforts of this informal community, ends up being as good as the industry standard or better. For instance, Linux was developed in this way, as a free alternative to Microsoft operating systems.

What are possible analogues in scholarship? It seems to me that translations might be done in a similar way, through a kind of 'open sourcing'. Someone posts a rough translation of a commonly studied text, or the starting point is an outdated translation in the public domain (Jowett's Plato, Ross' Aristotle, etc.). Call this the 'Working Translation.' Then, when a scholar writes a translation of part of this text for a reading group, say, or because he is studying some passage, he is free to edit and improve the corresponding part of the Working Translation accordingly. Naturally, some working equivalents would have to be decided upon and followed, to insure consistency. And someone would need to check, to be sure that changes are truly improvements, or at least arguably so. So the project would need a General Editor. Yet conceivably in a year or so the latest version of the Working Translation, which would be free and freely available on the internet, would be superior to any translation available in print.

Suppose the corpora of Plato (Jowett) and Aristotle (old Oxford) were dealt with in this way. Could an excellent, free translation be arrived at for these works in the collaborative manner described above, and how long would this take?


Eric Brown said...


I assume you've seen theSuda on-line. It seems to operate as you propose for the Corpora Platonicum et Aristotelicum. All to the good, it seems to me.


Michael Pakaluk said...


No, I didn't know about this. Thanks for the link. Have you contributed?


Anonymous said...

I don't know if you've heard of wikipedia, it's a free open-source encyclopedia, that anyone can edit. This approach has its own strengths and weaknesses, summarized in wikipedia's article on itself:


Here's the wikipedia article on Aristotle:


Anonymous said...

It seems to me that open source is just reproducing what is already done in academia: That is, a shared body of developing knowledge that no one owns and that is "freely" distributed. Just as with the Open Source movement where developers are often employed by big corporations to work on these projects, academics are employed as teachers who also contribute their scholarship to external projects.

There are of course differences, but it seems to me that the Open Source movement is a the migration of the predominant model in academia to the world of technology. Ironically, perhaps, at the moment when most universities are adopting the business model for research and development (at least in the sciences).

Michael Pakaluk said...

Anonymous 2:

What is distinctive about open source collaboration is that:

1. It tolerates rough work that is 'public', for the short term.

2. The participants are willing 'to correct and to be corrected in turn'.

3. Everyone with a computer and internet connection is invited to participate--although self-selection determines who in fact participates and how much.

I can think of very few projects in the humanities that have had this character. Professors are loathe to make anything public unless it is polished; no one expects or aims to provide correction simply as a matter of course; and--in collaborative projects--typically only a few associates and colleagues, judged in advance to be sufficiently skilled, are invited in.

I don't say that it has always been this way in academia, or that it needs to stay that way.

One might even say that, in its origins, academia had more of an 'open source' character. For instance, one might think of Aristotle's remarks about sketching the 'outline' of the human good to be an invitation to others to collaborate. Plato of course regards the dialogue form as a way, par excellence, of practicing 'refuting and being refuted in turn'.

I suppose one might say, too, that commentary tradition had many of the attractive features of open source collaboration.

Anonymous said...

To push the analogy a little farther: If the unit of work is for example a critical edition of a text then there does seem to be a striking difference between academia and open source projects.

But if the unit of work is, say, the interpretation of Metaphysics L. Then the free contributions of anyone who meets certain scholarly standards in their work (coding standards for O.S.) contributes to a shared project of understanding the text. The work is contributed for others to extend, utilize, and criticize (with appropriate citations (cf. GPL)).