Friday, March 21, 2008

Linux and Philosophy

"Richard Stallman is "The Great Philosopher"..."

--Linus Torvalds in Revolution OS

Lately, I have been stumbling upon Linux users who blog about Linux whose formal training involved Philosophy.

So what is fundamentally strange about people who have similar backgrounds or profiles so to speak?

Maybe nothing or maybe everything. Is it normal to find people who have the same formal educational background who share the same passion - such as writing about Linux?

What I found interesting about these people is their driving force. Writing about something that is free - in commercial terms - does not bring revenue. Yet despite that, they continue tapping their keyboards in the hope that they are heard.

Could it be that the main driving force to these writers may be the altruistic allure of Linux and the corresponding GNU Philosophy? Let's take a closer look.

Interestingly, you could always find specific terms jumping from the field of philosophy to the diverse field of Computer Science. A good example of such a term is the "Social Contract". Debian, a form of Linux or in more technical terms a distribution of Linux, in particular comes to mind when it used the term "Social Contract" and adopted it for use as the "Debian Social Contract".

It metamorphosed from being "just an agreement". It became stronger, more like a Constitution. Why is there a need for that? Why not just call it: "The Debian Guidelines" or "The Debian Policy"?

In fact, there already is a "Debian Policy" for those who wish to contribute. This is specifically catered to developers who want to share their talent to the community. Among the policies enumerated are:

You are not afraid of reading really LOTS of documentation before asking. You do your homework before.

You are not afraid of asking for help and hints from other developers to learn different approaches.

You are willing to try different solutions in programming. Not afraid of non-orthodox ways of thinking.

Find more about the Debian Policy here.

So who are these people with Philosophy backgrounds that are drawn to Linux?

Jeffrey Oldham
Co-Author of the book, got his Philosophy Doctorate at Stanford and is currently working with advanced algorithms.
Advanced Linux Programming

John Eikenberry
Wrote an article called Linux and AI, has a Master's degree in Philosophy, dealing with the "esoteric area known as phenomenological psychology"
Linux Gazette

Philosophical Geekess
A young prolific Australian linux blogger and web designer


A graduate of Philosophy at the University of Sto. Tomas, Tech Support at #kubuntu, kubuntu contributor

Maybe they are not unique after all. Maybe they are common. After all, so many has been written about Linux and Philosophy already that you can find 728,000 related entries in Google about "Linux and Philosophy".

The first entry as of March 21, 2008 would be Free Philosophy: The Beauty of Doubt.

Whatever their reasons may be. I am pretty sure that they are pretty interesting.

[UPDATE] Due to popular demand, I would be posting some interviews that I got from some of these outstanding philosopher cum Linux enthusiasts. If there are no objections, I already sent out some emails to some of them which include the following questions:

1. Please tell us something about yourself.

2. Which distribution do you use and why?

3. How would you link Philosophy and Linux?

4. Does writing about Linux bring you revenue? If not, then why do you write about it?

5. How do you feel about Linux the way it is now (in terms of trends, prospects, future,)?

6. What is so Philosophical about Linux

Well, I hope they reply.

[UPDATE] I'm very happy to announce that Jucato replied.

1. Please tell us something about yourself.

I graduated from the University of Santo Tomas, Philippines with the degree of
Bachelor of Arts Classical major in Philosophy in 2004. I've been a Linux and
Free Software user for over 2 years now, starting with Kubuntu in January of
2006. Ever since I've gotten my Linux feet, I've been contributing to Kubuntu
and KDE in user support and a few patches here and there.

I have a confession to make first. After graduating from college, my
(academic) Philosophy knowledge has sort of fallen by the wayside. I've been
meaning to "review" my notes and books in college, but haven't really
scheduled it into my life just yet. So don't expect lofty/deep philosophical
discourses from me. :D

2. Which distribution do you use and why?

I started with Kubuntu as my first GNU/Linux distribution. My criteria for
choosing my first distro was quite simple: I needed a 1-CD (easy to download
and burn, didn't have DVD burner back then), KDE-based, Debian-based distro
that was popular enough to have a good/big knowledge base, and it should have
a newbie-friendly community. Kubuntu easily fell into that category
(SimplyMEPIS was the other contender). So I used that as my first distro, and
everything just worked beautifully, so I had no reason to switch.

Fast forward 2 years later, I'm now using another distro: Source Mage
GNU/Linux, a source-based distro with a fantasy/RPG metaphor. This time my
requirements have been different. I wanted a source-based distro that gave me
full control over my system (rules out all binary distros) and had a small
but active and friendly community (rules out Gentoo on the "small" part). I
was also quite interested in the RPG-like setup. So I've been using it on my
desktop since September. Kubuntu remains my binary distro of choice for my

[3. See below]

4. Does writing about Linux bring you revenue? If not, then why do you write
about it?

I wish it did. And maybe it could, in the future... But anyway, I do it, even
without getting paid, because of two reasons. First is that I like writing,
specially about things I'm passionate about. Although the actual process of
writing seems to be highly dependent on my moods (but I do have lots of ideas
for future writeups). The second reason is that I am eager to share what I
know or have learned, and also to learn from others in the process. That's
why I like to write on my blog, so that others can comment and share their
knowledge with me. Fulfilling those two things is somewhat enough for me to
keep on writing.

5. How do you feel about Linux the way it is now (in terms of trends,
prospects, future,)?

I don't have a krystal ball, so I can't really say anything about the future
for certain. I haven't used FOSS that long to be able to assess its current
status based on its past. All I can personally say is that I believe that
Linux and FOSS is at a very important stage in its growth. More and more
people are growing aware of problems with proprietary software and formats.
More and more businesses are seeing FOSS not just as a fad but as a genuine
opportunity for growth. But at the same time, Linux must not lose its sense
of self and be carried away by trends or be taken advantage of by
unscrupulous people. It must continually define and redefine itself to adjust
to the times yet remain steadfast in its identity. We have seen such a
process in the drafting of GPLv3.

I can also say that the movement now is not only on the area of free and open
software, but on the turf of open formats and standards. That's where the
battle lies now, IMHO.

3. How would you link Philosophy and Linux?
6. What is so Philosophical about Linux

I'll answer this two together, since I consider them to be similar and/or
related. I'm also going to replace "Linux" with "FOSS", since it applies more
to the movement than to a specific product (like the Linux kernel or
GNU/Linux distributions).

I think Philosophy and FOSS share certain qualities, such as how they both
started and developed through time. In the beginning, there was a free
exchange of ideas. Philosophers would have access to the thoughts and
writings of their fellows and would discuss, critique, or support them. They
would also build upon the ideas of their predecessors and contemporaries. It
was this freedom that enabled great thinkers throughout history to produce
such thoughts and writings that we now have in our hands. Free and Open
Source Software's history is also similar. The culture that gave birth to
Free Software, the hacker culture, was a culture that nurtured the free
exchange of ideas, in the form of software, or more specifically, source
code. Just as Philosophy grew and thrived in this freedom, so would Free
Software. This freedom is something that we should take care of and protect.

Another "link", although a very soft one, that I have between Philosophy and
FOSS is the fact that there are so many varied, and sometimes conflicting
philosophies interwoven throughout the "movement" (if you could call it
that). Not only is FOSS a bazaar of goods (source code/software). It is also
a bazaar of philosophies, of ideologies. There is no single, dominating,
shoved-in-your-throat philosophy. Philosophies can also change over time. It
adapts to the particular context that it is in.

What I probably find most philosophical about Linux and FOSS is the fact that
it is a melting pot for a myriad of different philosophies, or more
properly, "world views" (which, essentially, is what Philosophy is about).
Each project goals, each document, each license, is a resource for
philosophically thinking about that project. How do these people think of
software? How do they think of other people? How do they view society or
community? What do they think is the most essential aspect of software? What
is their "ultimate good"? And other stuff like that. The Free Software
Definition, The Open Source Definition, the Debian Free Software Guidelines
and Social Contract, the Ubuntu Code of Conduct, the BSD Licenses, the
Creative Commons, GNOME Human Interface Guidelines, KDE identity, goals, and
policies, etc. All of these give a glimpse of the world view of these
communities, of how they see the world of software, and how they think that
world should be.

Maybe if I had known about Linux more than 4 years ago, I would probably
written my thesis about Free and Open Source Software Philsophy. It's
probably an interesting and relatively unexplored field in academic
Philosophy. But I would probably have a hard time looking for an adviser and
convincing the faculty about my topic, since it's an unspoken requirement
that one should have a (relatively) known philosopher to use as our
reference. I'd imagine such a thesis would be a strange mix of social
philosophy (community structure, politics), ethics (freedom, sharing, law),
epistemology and philosophical pyschology (HCI), and other fields. Or maybe
it's high time for the thinkers of our age to come up with something we can
call the Philosophy of Free and Open Source Software.

Juan Carlos G. Torres

[UPDATE] April 6, 2008 John Eikenberry Replies to Interview Request


Brian Donohue said...

I'm sort of in that group -- I write a political blog that advocates for what I call an "open source society." Here's a sampling of my approach.

The main point is that what these FOSS people are doing -- from big players like Red Hat, Mozilla, and Canonical/Ubuntu all the way to the lonely, anonymous geek writing application code for anything from Firefox add-ons to entire Linux distros -- have plenty to teach us about taking a radical new approach to everything from corporate management to personal self-development. What open source reveals is that there is an alternative to corporate hierarchy, capitalism-as-usual, and the zero-sum game of getting ahead at others' expense.

dannybuntu said...

That is very interesting and I will support that idea to my very core. In fact, this open source thing has caught on to so many fields already, that I firmly hold that the only way for it to go is up!

One very offbeat example I might give is the pursuit by these guys and this fellow's effort to produce the sangreal or to some the myth of boundless clean energy. If they succeed, it would be the most awesome discovery that has ever happened in the history of mankind. *IF*

Anonymous said...

So, what is so philosophical about Linux?

Alex said...

Oh come on

You can't seriously believe that there's something special here, can you?

I don't want to brake a nice idea here, but have you checked the facts to the end? I mean, how much philosophers out there with Windows? And Macs?

Does person's education have direct corellation to his/her operating system choice? Or the fact that for many years major schools choose had UNIX as a common computing system, all those smart guys and girls feel just native in Linux?

I'd just check the facts first. Take Leo Laporte for example (Google him if you don't know the name) - this guy is in tech for more than 20 years now, and he has a degree in Chineese History. How's that for techie?

Just a humble thought.

dannybuntu said...

In a nutshell? Its core principles. Its bedrock. While software is essential there is something more than the software - the human aspect. Consider giving volunteer work for nothing. It is altruism at its most distributed form. Something that is shared for the whole world to see.

dannybuntu said...

Alex, I must say that I agree with you a 100% that there is no correlation to Linux and Philosophy, except maybe, maybe, you will never find any other group of people who will profess some sort of altruism than the Linux/FOSS community.

What does Linux stand for? What does Microsoft stand for?

Let's take the Microsoft Windows world for example, what is the first thing that comes to mind when you utter Microsoft Windows? Software, Operating System, right? What about Linux, specifically Ubuntu - Do you really think about just software? Personally, I think about people.

These people stand for something - and you must admit that it is a very noble stand - in fact most of the principles enshrined and propagated by Linux advocates go beyond computers and software as Mr. Donahue pointed out above.

Linux, Ubuntu, Debian, etc. most of the underlying core behind the software involves something more. They're all about values and ideals. Values and ideals that you, Americans have been admired for - the values of freedom, tolerance, and respect for each other's contribution to the 'whole'. IMHO This is Linux's core. This is its Philosophy.

As for Mr. Leo Laporte, I know the guy and sincerely admire him that's for sure. I watched several of his episodes when they were still airing here in the Philippines. :)

Chris Casey said...

seriously? Altruism? Give me a freaking break. Altruism is so far removed from the concept of freedom that I question if this blogger has any clue about either. I seriously wonder sometimes about the mentality of some users who think that linux or BSD and all the software in between was create by some benevolent group of monk like programers so that the world would be free to benefit from affordable software. The reality is this, you have a bunch of self intrested individuals who decided to trade tit for tat so that they could do what they want (we call this being free). This is not altruistic, but capitalism at its most pure form. Captialism is NOT commerce at other peoples expense, but commerce in the most free sense.
Just because the programmer shares his code for free, does not mean that he fundame tally believes that others have the right to the products of his mind as a principle. More than likely, he is using that code as payment for the knowledge or utility he has gained from the other code he has borrowed. Free software is about the selfish persuit of doing as one sees fit and not as one is mandated in an EULA. Only some one that takes without contributing would only see the free as in beer side of the equation and wrongly assume that the whole movement consists of philisophi al altuistic hippies, bent on sharing their code out of love for their fellow man and a duty to the human race.
Get a clue.

dannybuntu said...

Thanks for the counter point of view chris, I do agree with you you know. People got to eat, people got buy their ipods, people got to have some of that moolah and that is a fact of life. I admit to my imperfection and maybe most of the time my downright cluelessness on some things. My motto above is - "I am the living proof that even an idiot could run Linux."

But, at the very least, let us all not generalize some presumptions about the whole community. Getting rich is good for open source developers. I am not saying its bad. Related wired article quite the opposite this one.

What I am saying is that this "altruism" exists. There are many contributors out there who would not ask for a dime but would do so for their "love of the code" and their "love for others". True you might say that their "payment" may be non-financial such as use of other people's code. But all of that are just the side issues. I cannot give you concrete examples since I am speaking speculatively - but from what I've seen, so far, in my short, infantile knowledge about the Linux world - the kind of people that I am talking about "do exist".

That's what makes Linux so good. It is not driven by profit margins, regardless of the markets whim and caprices - it will continue to exist - as long as the people I talk about exist. :) Cheers!

chris casey said...

never in the history of man has any social experiment succeeded where the reward was solely the good of the collective. Linux is not an example either. In not talking about people getting rich from their code either. What I'm talking about is the philosophical underpinnings of the motivation that cause a person to give it up as free. It is plainly obvious that altruism is not the reason for it, although I'm sure some people feel a bit of chariable pride from giving back. The motivation for using and improving or starting a project based on free code is simply the selfish desire to do what one wishes with the code. The fact that others use it for free is the price you pay for the help others give to the project.

This is not Altruism at all. The altruistic coder would be churning out code andgiving it to the masses out of a sense of duty that says he has an obligation to sacrifice himself so others may benefit.
I just don't come accross very many projects which fit that mold. Even the "human" distro, Ubuntu is being built around a business model and has a proclaimed goal of replacing Microsoft as the number one desktop, not for any ivory tower altruistic principles, but due to freedom and the fact that microsoft is so closed.
If the comunity as a whole existed as you say, any that derive a profit would be chastised, and it would not be enough to gpl the code.
By the way, if you want to point out the humanity of open source, please do not cloud the concept by association with altruism. Altruism is a form of slavery to society, and a denial of the worth of the individual. All open source projects exist only as a result of individual effort. While the products are collective efforts, the community does not exist without the individual. The greatness of open source is that it champions what can happen when men are free to produce with out the shackles of tyrany, and that is the true humanity associated with open source.
Btw the GPL exists to protect the freedom so that a corporation doesnt patent the software that Is made, consider it a bonus that it becomes available in source for for you to improve recompile and redistribute for free if you like.
Sorry for the rant, but the sooner the worldrealizes that Altruism is a failed and hypocritical philosophy the better of we all will be.

dannybuntu said...

I have no problems with the rant - in fact I welcome it - it makes me write about "adobong manok" :)

"never in the history of man has any social experiment succeeded where the reward was solely the good of the collective"

Never is such a strong word and history has a history of always being backward looking.

"It is plainly obvious that altruism is not the reason for it, "

Is there such a thing as "plainly obvious?". :)

"The motivation for using and improving or starting a project based on free code is simply the selfish desire to do what one wishes with the code."

I agree on this one, but maybe the choice of words "selfish desire" is too strong. I agree with it though.

"Altruism is a form of slavery to society, and a denial of the worth of the individual."

-If that is slavery then I will embrace it, It's quite amazing how, the central figures of most world religions embrace this slavery not as such but as "true emancipation"

"I just don't come accross very many projects which fit that mold"

-An admission that you do come across a few, perhaps :)

"The greatness of open source is that it champions what can happen when men are free to produce with out the shackles of tyrany, and that is the true humanity associated with open source.
Btw the GPL exists to protect the freedom so that a corporation doesnt patent the software that Is made, consider it a bonus that it becomes available in source for for you to improve recompile and redistribute for free if you like. "

-Very well said.

I must admit that your comments have contributed much to this insufficient article and I have benefited from some insights including those against my own.

I guess that is the beauty of it all.

Great thanks! Cheers! :)

sevkeifert said...

For me, I learned about Linux from other philosophy majors.

I think Linux and philosophy are a natural fit.

IMO people that use Windows only do so because they've never thought too much about it.

I was a double major in philosophy and math ... and am now a software engineer.

dannybuntu said...

"IMO people that use Windows only do so because they've never thought too much about it."

-Makes sense too since majority of people view computers as something like a playstation with a keyboard. People who use Windows never really bother to look under the hood - unless something is broken.

Much like Heidegger's hammer. You are only made of the hammer once it is broken, lost or if it hits you.

When you are driving the nail, you don't think of the hammer! :)

Cheers! Thanks for dropping by!

David J. said...
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David J. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David J. said...

this comment is for Chris:

you have not existed for the duration for human development. therefore, you may not sufficiently comment upon what has effectively endured for motivation along its brief path. had greed been a sole motivating factor then cooperation would not be as deeply engrained in our psyche as it is. BTW, i minored in philosophy at Oklahoma State University, and have been using a form of Mandrake Linux since 2003. Linux and philosophy are thoroughly entwined and i do love this blog. make no mistake about the true motivations of human beings and the force-fed reality-tunnels of your TV.

Thanks danny for drawing these lines of association. you're on the right track, IMHO

dannybuntu said...


My heartfelt thanks for the heartwarming gesture. :)

I am happy (and surprised) to know that you love this blog :)

Right now I am in the middle of a big crossroads in my "real" life. So sadly, I won't be able to devote as much attention to the blog. I have a semi-weird life that maybe if I get through the personal circumstances would fit great in a book - if I become successful in overcoming the trials and tribulations.

Anyway, I hope that you find my howtos useful. :) For now, the latest post would just be the TTFN post.

Hopefully in the future I would post again writing about green grass, freedom and pristine air that tastes like sugar.

Cheers! :)