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Philosophy and the World Wide Web

Edward N. Zalta
Center for the Study of Language and Information
Stanford University

In this note, I plan to describe some of the procedures I followed in creating the World Wide Web site for the Metaphysics Research Lab at CSLI. Its URL (Uniform Resource Locator) is:

http://mally.stanford.edu/

If you examine this site with a graphical Web browser (such as Netscape, Internet Explorer, Safari, and OmniWeb) or even a with a text-only Web browser (such as lynx) and are intrigued by what you see, you may be interested in what follows. I shall presuppose a basic understanding of what the World Wide Web is and basic familiarity with the concepts of Web site, URL, Web browser, links, Web file-server, home page, hypertext, and graphics. These concepts are explained in numerous publications and are now assumed in the popular press, and so I shall not cover this basic ground in detail. Let me just say that the World Wide Web is a distributed, linked file network the files of which exist on Internet machines having an HTTP (HyperText Transport Protocol), FTP (File Transport Protocol), or other file-server that will send the files (for display) to any browsing program on any Internet machine which can broadcast requests that those file-servers understand. The files in the network not only contain data that can be displayed in the form of text, graphics, sounds, etc., but also contain links that seemlessly and transparently point towards documents on other machines on the Web. These links are displayed as highlighted text or labeled icons and they can be followed (i.e., the material to which they are linked can be displayed) simply by ‘`selecting’ them, without entering any special or arcane commands and without knowing the Internet address of the machine where the linked material is stored.

So with a sophisticated set of tools (programs), one can create a Web site (a set of documents distributed by a server) containing hypertext, graphics (in a variety of file formats), special print files, and sound files, and these files can be viewed from any machine on the Internet with a (graphical) Web browser. However, one need not have such tools to create a simple ‘home page’ on your University's Web site. You just need a text editor, a rudimentary knowledge of the language HTML (HyperText Markup Language), and ‘write privileges’ to the (special directory on) the University machine on the Internet which has a World Wide Web server.

Why bother creating your own Web site (for your department, lab, or research project) or a home page on the University's Web site? Well, in the first month it was up and running, the Web file-server I installed (1994) on my NeXT/Unix machine, which is now, in 2004, an Apple/Unix machine, responded to queries issued from over 500 machines located around the world, including such exotic places as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Australia, Brazil, Oklahoma, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Turkey, and many others. How do I know? Every time the file-server responds to a query, it prints a line in a log file, and so I can tell that people are not only examining the top page for the Metaphysics Research Lab, but are following links to documents describing my research, my publications, abstracts of my papers, syllabi for courses I've taught, etc., all of which I have on-line in HTML files (some of these files I created ‘by hand’ from scratch, others were generated from preexisting LaTeX sourcefiles by a latex2html utility that converted them into HTML sourcefiles). Probably many of these queries were from students and people surfing the net (only the machine name is registered in the log file, not the user), but I can tell (from the time-stamp on each line of the log file) that, in some cases, the user had spent up to twenty minutes examining certain documents (I am assuming that the time which elapsed between queries was spent reading the documents served and not on distractions). Therefore, my home page is already a more important Internet address than my email address.* Those who send me email have to wait for me to respond to get any information. But those who examine my home page can get my email address plus all sorts of information about my professional activities. This could therefore reduce the volume of email; instead of sending me email asking where a paper of mine is published, for example, a colleague could just point his or her Web browser to my home page, select my list of publications, and have the information at hand immediately.

There are other benefits as well. Before going to Australia last spring, I did online CD-ROM searches on the Philosopher's Index, using the names of colleagues I knew I would meet as keywords to search. This allowed me to get a sense of the range of their research interests and to learn their views on topics that intersect with my interests. But the searches on CD-ROM were time consuming (I know, those of you without access to on-line CD-ROM searches of the Philosopher's Index won't believe what you are hearing). Ideally, I should be able to point my Web browser to the URL of the Philosophy Department where I would be speaking (this should be information that is published in the International Directory of Philosophy and in the Directory of American Philosophers), find the link to my colleague's list of publications, and not only would I be able to browse abstracts of their papers, but I could be presented with a photographic image by which I could recognize him or her at an airport (such images can be produced by digitizing photographs with a scanner), among other things. But probably the most important benefit of having a home page on the Web is that one can create descriptions of one's research and even tutorials on one's theories. The Web is a way of publishing philosophy (though, of course, it is a kind of vanity press).





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Next: Setting Up a Home Page



Edward N. Zalta
Originally written: October 1995; revised February 2004.