From library and information science to philosophy and back13 Feb 2019
In a letter to his friend and student, Norman Malcolm, Wittgenstein wrote:
…what is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc., & if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life… (1958, p. 93)
As much as I enjoy a bit of logic talk, this is something I have tried to keep in mind since finishing my undergraduate in philosophy. Which is not to say that I commit myself to the view that philosophy must necessarily be concerned only with practical matters, but rather that since I have chosen not to go down the route of pursuing a career in academic philosophy, I want to be able to apply the skills I gained studying philosophy to whatever I occupy myself with in everyday life, which as it turns out is library and information science.
Prior to studying philosophy, I had been working as a library assistant in an academic library but it wasn't until I graduated and was halfway through my LIS masters a couple of years later that I realised there are interesting philosophical issues to be considered in relation to libraries. By chance, while carrying out research for an assignment, I discovered a paper by John M. Budd, Academic Libraries and Knowledge: A Social Epistemology Framework, where he considered the role of the academic library in knowledge acquisition, and argued that, under a reliabilist epistemology, the library could be considered part of the so-called reliable process through which one acquires knowledge, by supporting the critical evaluation of knowledge claims.
While I am unsure if I would consider myself a reliabilist when it comes to epistemology, I certainly agree that libraries can and should play an important role when it comes to enabling the critical evaluation of knowledge claims. Though arguably not a new one, this issue has risen to prominence over the last few years, with the term "fake news" being thrown around readily and with some now referring to our current time as the era of "post-truth". As a result, many librarians have stepped-up to argue that they are best equipped to help people identify fake news and many libraries have rebooted their information literacy programs to address the issue explicitly. However, an arguably overlooked point is the need for LIS courses to ensure future library and information professionals are equipped to deliver the kind of information literacy training necessary to do so – something which I think could be addressed by the inclusion of philosophy, or at least encouragement of philosophical reflection – within the LIS curriculum.
An apt analogy to demonstrate the importance of philosophy comes from the late Mary Midgley who likened philosophy to plumbing, noting that 'plumbing and philosophy […] both have, beneath their surface, a fairly complex system which is usually unnoticed, but which sometimes goes wrong. In both cases, this can have serious consequences' (2000, p.2). However, where they differ, she notes, is that 'when the concepts we are living by work badly, they don't usually drip through the ceiling or swamp the kitchen floor. They just quietly distort our thoughts and obstruct our thinking' (Ibid., p.2).
To return to the point of this post, after following the threads from Budd's paper on social epistemology I discovered what has become known as the "foundationalist debate" in LIS – the debate over whether LIS needs a philosophical foundation and if so what this foundation should be. This led me to Luciano Floridi's philosophy of information (PI) and, in particular, his paper On defining library and information science as applied philosophy of information, where he argues that philosophy of information should be the foundation for LIS and that LIS can be seen as applied philosophy of information.
While I am more convinced of the former claim than the latter, I have become deeply interested in PI and the methodological framework proposed by Floridi for approaching philosophical problems, as well as in how this approach can be used to deal with philosophical issues as they arise in LIS. Carrying out research in PI has already led to me consider a number of what might be considered metaphilosophical issues such as 'what is philosophy?', 'what constitutes a philosophical question?', 'what does it mean for philosophy to be applied?' and 'what is the relationship between science and philosophy'? – issues which I think attempting to answer can serve to strengthen the argument that a philosophical foundation would be of value to LIS, independently of whether that foundation is Floridi's PI. Though in attempting to do so I will try to keep in mind the above quote from Wittgenstein and attempt to relate the answers to important questions in everyday (LIS) life.
To conclude, I am pleased to be beginning my doctoral research looking at philosophy and LIS, at City, University of London, under the supervision of Dr Lyn Robinson and Professor David Bawden, whose work I have enjoyed while exploring the philosophical and conceptual literature on library and information science. I would recommend their paper Curating the infosphere: Luciano Floridi's Philosophy of Information as the foundation for Library and Information Science to anyone looking for a clear overview of the foundationalist debate in LIS. And for anyone looking for some accessible introductions to philosophy, I would recommend the following recently published titles:
Beebee, H. and Rush, M. (2019). Philosophy: Why it Matters. 1st ed. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Midgley, M. (2018). What Is Philosophy For? London: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC.
Williamson, T. (2018). Doing Philosophy : From Common Curiosity to Logical Reasoning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Budd, J. (2004). Academic Libraries and Knowledge: A Social Epistemology Framework. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 30(5), 361-367.
Floridi, L. (2002). On defining library and information science as applied philosophy of information. Social Epistemology,16(1), 37-49.
Malcolm, N. (1958). Ludwig Wittgenstein : A memoir. London, New York: Oxford University Press.
Midgley, M. (2000). Utopias, Dolphins and Computers. Milton: Taylor & Francis.