Project MUSE - “The Meaning of a Thought is Altogether Something Virtual”: Joseph Ransdell and His Legacy

Project MUSE - “The Meaning of a Thought is Altogether Something Virtual”: Joseph Ransdell and His Legacy: "Joseph Ransdell (1931–2010), who received his Ph.D in philosophy from Columbia University in 1966, where he was advised by Sidney Morgenbesser, and spent most of his career at Texas Tech University, offered an original and focused challenge to academic philosophy at the end of the Second Millennium. His guiding philosophical passion was understanding how communication might best encourage and support truth seeking. This led him to think deeply about the Platonic Socrates and the Socratic Plato, the problematics of early modern philosophy at the birth of the Scientific Revolution, and the nature of signs. Most of all he claimed that the thought of Charles Sanders Peirce held the key to not just endorsing truth as a regulative ideal, but showing how that ideal might be achieved in practice by a community of inquiry exercising critical self-control.

Joe was an instinctive anti-authoritarian who was concerned from early in his career that professional ‘gatekeeping’ was hindering progress in philosophy, and who was unafraid to speak out about it, using trenchant phrases such as “the choreographed presentations of academics at professional conferences” and “the inevitable deference to prestige and intellectual fashion.” From the birth of the internet he grasped its potential as a virtual gathering-place for an exchange of ideas he saw as more vital, due to its essential similarity to the ancient Greek agora where free citizens gathered to converse. This would be a place where “people can and do critically question and challenge one another without the usual protections of office, rank, agenda, and official moderation,” something that he argued had “all but disappeared from public life—including intellectual life—in the U.S. and many other countries as well during the 20th Century” (http://www.cspeirce.com/peirce-l/peirce-l.htm).

Thereafter Joe threw enormous energy and enterprise into realizing this vision against a rising tide of other kinds of scholarly institutional reward. His efforts resulted in the email list and online community peirce-l, which he founded in 1993 and moderated in unique style until his death, and the accompanying website that he beta-launched in 1997 and called Arisbe, after the house where Peirce lived during the later years of his life, dreaming of establishing there “an institution for the pursuit of pure science & philosophy which shall be self-supporting” (http://www.cspeirce.com/faqs/whyarisb.htm).

Joe’s exceptionally conscious, critical and caring approach to nurturing online communication may be seen in the How the Forum Works guidelines he wrote for peirce-l (http://www.cspeirce.com/peirce-l/peirce-l.htm). Much there now seems prescient in the light of subsequent developments on the internet, where one may now see ordinary persons collaborating to build large free public informational resources without monetary reward. A good example of this is the astounding Wikipedia. The success of the “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” (http://wikipedia.org) has arguably been due to its transparent and self-correcting development of its own governing processes—a target for critical community-building at which Joe also aimed. At the same time, not all that Joe planned for the Peirce telecommunity came to fruition: for instance that it might be widely recognised as birthing new developments in online communication, that all of Peirce’s unpublished manuscripts might be uploaded there, and that people might gather in virtual ‘rooms’ in a web recreation of Peirce’s house to discuss them."

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My comment: The first paragraph above might well summarize the project I have undertaken, not to represent Peirce, but to operate within the general framework of his ideas.

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