On Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (1981), mostly ch. 3-7 and 14-17. What justifies ethical claims? MacIntyre claims that no modern attempt to ground ethics has worked, and that’s because we’ve abandoned Aristotle. We see facts and values as fundamentally different: the things science discovers vs. these weird things that have nothing to do with science. In Aristotle’s teleological view, everything comes with built-in goals, so just as a plant will aim grow green and healthy, people have a definite kind of virtue towards which we do and should naturally strive.
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On Aristotle’s Politics (350 BCE), books 1 (ch 1-2), 3, 4 (ch 1-3), 5 (ch 1-2), 6 (ch 1-6), and 7 (ch. 1-3, 13-15). Aristotle provides both a taxonomy of the types of government, based on observations of numerous constitutions of the states of his time, and prescriptions on how to best order a state.
On Friedrich Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” (1873). What is truth? This essay, written early in Nietzsche’s career, is taken by many to make the extreme claim that there is no truth, that all of the “truths” we tell each other are just agreements by social convention. WIth guest Jessica Berry, who argues that that Nietzsche is a skeptic: our “truths” don’t correspond with the world beyond our human conceptions; all knowledge is laden with human interests.
On Candide: or, Optimism, the novel by Voltaire (1759). Is life good? Popular Enlightenment philosopher Leibniz argued that it’s good by definition. God is perfectly good and all-powerful, so whatever he created must have been as good as it can be; we live in the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire loads this satirical adventure story up with horrific violence to demonstrate that Leibniz’s position is just silly. Life is filled with suffering, and human nature is such that even in peace and prosperity, we’re basically miserable. Yet we still love life despite this. Tend your garden!
On philosophical issues in McCarthy’s 2005 novel about guys running around with drug money and shooting each other, and about fiction as a form for exploring philosophical ideas. What can morality mean for people who have witnessed the “death of God,” i.e. a loss in faith in light of the horrors of war? Who knows what McCarthy himself thinks? With guest Eric Petrie.
On Fame: What the Classics Tell Us About Our Cult of Celebrity by Tom Payne (2010). What’s the deal with our f’ed up relationship with celebrities? Payne says that celebrities serve a social need that’s equal parts religion and and aggression. TV’s Lucy Lawless (Xena, Spartacus, Battlestar Galactica) joins us to discuss the accuracy of this thesis.
On Alexander Hamilton/James Madison’s Federalist Papers (1, 10-12, 14-17, 39, 47-51), published as newspaper editorials 1787-8, plus Letters III and IV from Brutus, an Anti-Federalist. What constitutes good government? These founding fathers argued that the proposed Constitution, with its newly centralized (yet also separated-by-branch) powers would be a significant improvement on the Articles of Confederation, which had left states as the ultimate sovereigns.
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On W.V.O. Quine’s “On What There Is” (1948) and “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” (1951). What kind of metaphysics is compatible with science? Quine sees science and philosophy as one and the same enterprise, and he objects to ontologies that include types of entities that science can’t, even in principle, study. Also, troubles with the concept of synonymy, i.e. “same meaning.” With guest Matt Teichman.
On Rudolph Carnap’s The Logical Structure of the World (1928). What can we know? Carnap thinks that all the various spheres of knowledge are logically interrelated, that you can translate sentences about any of these into sentences about sets of basic, momentary experiences. This book, aka the Aufbau, is his attempt to sketch out how this system of linguistic reduction can work (it doesn’t). With guest Matt Teichman.
Excerpts of discussions about David Chalmers’s The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory, Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, and Paul Auster’s City of Glass.
On David Chalmers’s book Constructing the World (2012). How are all the various truths about the world related to each other? David Chalmers, famous for advocating a scientifically respectable form of brain-consciousness dualism, advocates a framework of scrutability: if one knew some set of base truths, then the rest would be knowable from them.
Three podcasters and two listeners join to read Plato’s fabulous dialogue.
On Plato’s Dialogue, “Gorgias” (380 BCE or so). Why philosophize? Isn’t it better to know how to persuade people in practical matters, like a successful lawyer or business leader? Plato (via Socrates) thinks that the “art” of rhetoric isn’t an art at all, in the sense of requiring an understanding of one’s subject matter, but merely a talent for saying what people want to hear.
Excerpts of discussions about Deleuze & Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, an article on emergence called “More Is Different” by Nobel Prize Winning physicist P.W. Anderson, John Searle’s Mind: A Brief Introduction, and Italo Calvino’s trippy science fantasy novel Cosmicomics.
On Karl Marx’s The German Ideology, Part I, an early, unpublished work from 1846. What is human nature? What drives history? How can we improve our situation? Marx thought that fundamentally, you are what you do: you are your job, your means of subsistence. All the rest, this culture, this religion, this philosophy, is just a thin layer over our basic situation. Ideas are not primarily what changes the world; it’s economics.
On Buber’s 1923 book about the fundamental human position: As children, and historically, we start fully absorbed in relation with another person (like mom). Before that, we have no self-consciousness, no “self” at all. It’s only by having these consuming “encounters” that we gradually distinguish ourselves from other people, and can then engage in what we’d normally consider “experience,” which Buber calls “the I-It relation.” Buber thinks that unless we can keep connected to this “I-Thou” phenomenon, through mature relationships, art, and nature. With guest Daniel Horne.
We’re joined by an international terrorism expert to discuss how to define terrorism and whether it can ever be ethical. With readings by Donald Black, J. Angelo Corlett, Igor Primoratz, Karl Heinzen, Bhagat Singh, and Carl von Clausewitz.
Mark, Seth, Wes, and Dylan share what drove them into philosophy and keeps them there. How is philosophy different than (or similar to) science? Than religion? Art? The consensus seems that philosophy, to us, is inevitable for the curious. It’s just inquiry, unbounded (in principle at least) by any fixed assumptions. We did no formal reading for this discussion, but did tell each other to keep in mind Plato’s “Apology.”
On Bruce Fink’s The Lacanian Subject (1996) and Lacan’s “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience” (1949). What is the self? Is that the same as the experiencing subject? Lacan says no: while the self (the ego) is an imaginative creation, cemented by language, the subject is something else, something split (at least initially) between consciousness and the unconscious. Lacan mixes this Freudian picture with semiotics–an emphasis on systems of linguistic symbols–using this to both create his picture of the psyche and explain how psychological disorders arise.