William James and the Google world – not kidding

What could turn of the century (19th to 20th that is) philosopher William James possibly have to say about interconnectivity in a Google world?  As it turns out, quite a bit.  Ok, he wasn’t so ahead of his time as to be able to predict the advent of the internet or any such things, but his essay “The One and the Many” echoes the ponderings of many social and tech theorists of the 21st century (Jeff Jarvis for one).

He begins this essay by recognizing that philosophy has generally been concerned with the quest for unity in the world, but James is more interested instead by the variety of things.  Ultimately, James argues that “what our intellect really aims at is neither variety nor unity taken singly, but totality.”  In other words, we strive to understand the world in all of its manyness, and the totality of the world includes this variety organized into multiple hubs of manyness.

James goes on to describe the result of human efforts to unify the world:  “The result is innumerable little hangings-together of the world’s parts within the larger hangings-together, little worlds, not only of discourse but of operation, within the wider universe.”  These networks, as he calls them, become “superposed” such that nothing escapes being a part of one network or another.  Interconnectivity is ultimate.

How might the world in which we now live exemplify James’s understanding?  Let me suggest a few ways:

  • In the Google world, interconnectivity is fundamental:  individuals can easily organize themselves into communities (whether virtual or “real”) that become the “hangings-together” of our world.
  • No blog is an island:  the principles of web 2.0 go along with James’s view that “everything that exists is influenced in some way by something else.”  Most bloggers desire readers and comments.  By commenting in return, the blogosphere comes to embody mutual influence.  My ideas are shaped and furthered by those who critique them, comment on them, and dialogue with them.
  • Overlapping networks is inevitable:  our various selves in the social networking realm bump into each other and overlap with each other.  Consider the number of times you been to a friend’s Facebook page and noticed the surprising number of “mutual friends” you have.  Consider the ways in which you are connected to different networks and how these networks overlap when you write for, to, or about them and post it in a common space.

How do you see the web 2.0 world as embodying the one and the many?  In what ways does our interconnectedness change who we are and how we act in the world?


Author: Jeremy

I am happiest outside, surrounded by trees or water. I rarely go anywhere without my camera, and I actively seek ways to connect my work as a philosopher and theologian with regular people who are trying to make sense of this world.

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