At the beginning of the Gorgias episode, we read a few listener emails. I ended up cutting out a section of that where we responded to this email, which I wanted to answer specifically, and then address a related thread that's been going on our Facebook group. This is abridged from "Layne," with the subject line "Request for Explication!!"
I've been a listener for a while now and something I always thought the show needed was more explication. Especially if you're trying to reach untrained/amateur philosophers, I think a write-up would be very useful at the beginning of each episode. I myself studied philosophy in college and still have trouble knowing exactly what the issues at hand are during the podcast... I think a ten or fifteen minute (or however long) *scripted* block at the beginning of the show should simply lay out the issues and history of what will be discussed for the day, much like a Stanford Encyclopedia article might do.
We don't do this for a couple of reasons: First and foremost, it would be too much of a pain for us to put together; it's hard enough for us to read the work and take decent notes, and having to write a Stanford-Encyclopedia-type article would be too much. Second, people can just go read the Stanford, and in our episode announcements, we already provide such an introduction if you would feel more comfortable with solid ground going into the discussion. Notably, I typically write these summaries in full after the discussion, as the discussion itself helps clarify things for me tremendously.
Second, podcasts where people read a pre-written thing are generally boring. I'm sorry, but as much as I appreciate the History of Philosophy without any gaps podcast, I find it very difficult to listen to without my attention wandering all over the place.
Third, the summary of a work is itself a point of contention, and this comes out in our podcasts. We try at the outset to have one of us give a quick overview of the work, but inevitably others need to jump in after or during the summary to add/correct/refocus the account, because we honestly differ about what the important upshot is supposed to be. Uncovering these discrepancies is part of what makes this multi-host format so fun.
That said, of course we'd like to be more consistent and better in these introductory remarks. A related suggestion I recall from some months back asked is we would do a wrap-up summary as part of our closings. While that sounded like a good idea in theory, in practice, by the time we get toward the end of one of these, we're generally too punchy to do anything pedagogical like that, and so use our closings to get off of our chest some last point of contention, or sum up some sinking feeling we've been having the whole time, or assure the audience that despite our tussling with the material, we still highly recommend it.
These suggestions are typical of well-intentioned requests by listeners who see the promise of what we're doing but either get frequently confused by what we're talking about or, even if they personally aren't put off by it, want to help us make this accessible to the wider audience that could benefit from it. So a current Facebook group discussion going on about this (which leads off with the post by Ra Fa called "Julian Bennett "thinks PEL needs to do some basic introductions to philosophy and what it is." What is philosophy?") asks who our target audience for this thing is? Are we trying to exclude newbies?
By no means. I would love if everything said on the podcast were understandable to a general audience, but again, it's often just too difficult and/or too boring to do this. I found when I was teaching that if ever I would let my brain go off and monologuize for a minute to make some semi-extemporaneous point that was actually interesting to me, then I would get a lot of blank looks from the class. So I have to rely on my fellow podcasters to stop me and force me to clarify my point, or we often clarify each other, both for the sake of the audience and for the sake of making sure we understand ourselves. It also works better, honestly, for people to go back to episode #1 and start from there, in part because I feel like a key part of understanding the new figures we read is to relate them to the figures we've previously read (so, like, my appreciation of Marx was greater when I compared him to the historically contemporaneous proto-existentialists). Whereas in the earlier episodes I would define words like "epistemology" whenever I used them, there's only so many times I can do that, and if we bring in a word like "naturalism," we just can't, then, repeat a lot of the previous discussion we've already had on such a term. So while you needn't listen to all episodes in order, if you hear something strange, you may want to browse among our older episodes for something that would clarify it. ...Though unfortunately some of the references inevitably refer to future planned episodes which may or may not have since happened. (Jacques Lacan will come soon, I promise!) In such a case, a little wikipedia research on your part may be called for.
We also sometimes get an objection like "you had a whole conversation on God without first defining the term God," i.e. that we should, to start an episode, stop and define all the key terms. Some of my response to this is the same as the above. I've listened to podcasts where they stop and try to define "good" as a way of kicking off the discussion and it's super boring. Either you're trying to just gather up commonplace, shared observations (boring), or you end up cheating and deciding substantial philosophical issues by fiat. As we discussed with Wittgenstein, meaning is use, and I think if we have a term like God, the meaning we're using becomes clear through the discussion itself, where eventually we have to distinguish between personal and impersonal conceptions or make whatever other relevant distinctions need to be made. To start a discussion, there only needs to be an implicit common, vague conception of what you're talking about, and then either you use the discussion to thresh out the term (as in Plato's dialogues), or it gets clarified as needed (but not more than as needed) as the conversation proceeds in exploring some other point. It's very lucky that for every conversation, we don't have to define with precision every term, and I hope we're conscious enough as we go to give at least a rough translation for any jargon that we might bring into the discussion.
Re. the specific request for a "What Is Philosophy?" episode, that happens to be the name of a book by Deleuze which we will be covering this spring, and also a book by Ortega y Gasset that's on our longer-term list. Trying to generalize about what all these philosophers are doing (or moreover come up with a normative account that would drive us to philosophize more effectively given what philosophy is "supposed to" do) is an interesting philosophical question in itself, but is not necessary to investigate as a preliminary to doing actual philosophical work, for the same reason why precise definitions aren't required for other inquiries as I've described above.
It's the hallmark of philosophic questions that they arise from some mostly unarticulated, often unavoidable wonder about the world. It's (part of) the task of philosophy to figure out what kinds of questions we're actually already trying to ask. To just posit, as a preliminary matter, some set of definitions and precisely formed questions is cheating: we don't earn those until we're far into the inquiry already, and maybe not even then. None of this is incompatible with trying to think and speak clearly and avoid "fuzzy thinking" (this avoidance being the expressed aim, I recall, of the very analytic University of Michigan philosophy department according to one professor when I was attending it).
Lynda OReilly says
I was attracted to PEL by it’s ‘balance between insight and flippancy’. There’s just enough structure to let me find my own way, the information is out there and we who love PEL will find it. Rigor is great but if I wanted rigor I wouldn’t be hanging around with these lunatics, there are plenty of dry texts available on aspects of philosophy when I need hard facts and guidance. I’m thinking we’re all adults here and capable of turning what Mark, Seth, Wes and Dylan offer us into a jumping off point for our own research.
PEL lights the fuse for us but the work is ours.
I really appreciate your observations, most especially your final paragraph. My understanding is what’s being called “loopy” or “fuzzy” thinking is the analytic-continental divide and the use of deductive-inductive reasoning that, in my experience, shuts down the inquiry which one isn’t able to articulate or fine-tune what one is asking without having to defend, yet, you yourself aren’t quite sure what it is you’re defending.
However, it is there and you are on the verge of forming a question to understand using clear or precise articulation. I become annoyed, this analytic, and/or pervasive “push” (more like a pound [hammer!]) when I am still in the process. I do not know if this makes sense but it does to me, and I hope I have understood you correctly.
Simon Borrington says
Leave it as it is – it is all fine and groovy, and has gone a long way to bringing philosophy back to life for me. It’s like sitting in the student union bar with some friends discussing a philosophical argument after a lecture. I even join in – you just can’t hear me.
All the other stuff is out there in plenty for anyone even mildly bothered to look around. There are plenty of other podcasts with a more, shall we say, formal approach; there is the university stuff on itunes; there are stacks of lectures on youtube; there is an Intro to Philosophy course being run over a few weeks on Coursera – absolutely free and put together by Edinburgh Uni; and people can even go out and read a goddam book like we used to in the old days. You can even access the MIT philosophy courses online without having to stick your hand in your pocket. Meh! Use your initiative I say! (Not you Mark – you have obviously done so. I mean the ‘complainants’. (Is that a word?)
All the best and keep up the good work.
p.s. if anyone hears a word they don’t understand, get a dictionary and LOOK IT UP. It’s a great way of learning stuff.
David Rome says
I do think sometimes there are runs of podcasts which have more abstract and difficult subject matter. The recent sequence of Quine, Carnap and Chalmers was quite heavy going and difficult to follow, especially the latter two. Its difficult for novices to understand what the issues even are in these works, and when there’s a few like this in a row, it can be a bit off putting. I’m not saying don’t do them, because obviously there is interest in them, but interspersing them with lighter, easier to follow episodes, like the current one on the Gorgias, would certainly help me (and perhaps other novices!) stay on board through these more difficult texts.
Love the podcast, keep up the good work!
Simon Borrington says
But the thing is David, there isn’t any such thing as easy philosophy, and it is a credit to the way these guys do it that if you give it a couple of listens, maybe while you are doing something else, you will be surprised how much you can pick up of this really heavy stuff – you might not get it all, but you’ll get something if you open your mind – and its nice to hear them struggle with the concepts as well.
Gary Chapin says
I think there’s probably a broad spectrum between pablum and obscurity, and you’ve found the sweet spot on that spectrum. As David Rome says above, some episodes require more heavy lifting for me than others, but I don’t begrudge you that. As much as the podcast is about philosophy, its theory of action is that of watching you guys DO philosophy. The content of the shows IS interesting, but the spectacle of “philosophy in action” is genuinely inspiring. That sense must be preserved or all is lost.
Part of the issue is the nature of the medium. The nature of the podcast — especially your podcast which does not purport to represent the cutting edge, as you said in the Gorgias episode — is such that the archive and the current episode exist side by side. If you have not heard any of them, there’s nothing privileging access to more recent episodes over the early episodes. Referring listeners to earlier episodes is exactly the right response. The new listener loses nothing by beginning with episode 1 or 5 or 45 … however they desire … and in fact they can gain a lot. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton on the deficiencies of modernity, finding a work of art (or podcast) more desirable because it was made yesterday makes as much sense as finding a work of art more desirable because it was made on a Tuesday.
Aaron Watson says
I am definitely an amateur when it comes to some of these topics, however, I’m not looking for an extremely concise summary in the beginning discussion. I agree, it would get very boring, very quickly. What makes the show good is the lack of formality, and the feel that you’re apart of a discussion of people who are generally interested and knowledgeable about these topics.
Even when you’re giving the summaries in the beginning, it sounds like you’re talking more from your gut – or at least, trying to distill some of the important points on the fly, and even if this isn’t as rigorous of an explanation is certainly comes off as a more ardent or honest one – and this is what attracts people (or me anyway). And if the audience is more interested they can ask questions on these secondary sites or go to the literature.
I don’t want to sit in a classroom and define terms, I just want to hang out with a couple of really knowledgeable, passionate people and just listen to them argue and laugh about the topic and absorb it that way — that’s how this whole western philosophy got started right?
K. W. B. Hayes says
Mark: You’re right on point about History of Philosophy w/o Gaps! I love the podcast, but some episodes I’ve ‘listened’ to twice and couldn’t even say who they were about!
Don’t change your presentation. I know zip about philosophy (yeah, I got a C in Intro Phil as an undergrad 30 years ago), and some of the episodes can be tough sledding. But a difficult episode always has me finding something to read and coming back for another listen. Stuff tastes better when you are hungry and you have to work for it; being spoon fed just gets boring.
Jon says…it all.