By Erica Evans
With the goal of making philosophy accessible to the average person, “Philosophy Talk,” an original radio talk show starring Stanford professors Kenneth Taylor and John Perry, has grown to reach over 100,000 listeners per broadcast and has inspired several similar programs across the country.
By presenting philosophy in an entertaining and engaging way, the show has been able to capture the interests of a wide variety of people. The show, which is part of Stanford’s Humanities Outreach Initiative, is syndicated to over 100 different stations and also has an active web presence.
Taylor is a philosophy professor and the director of Stanford’s symbolic systems program. Taylor’s on-air counterpart Perry is a professor emeritus of philosophy.
Perry and Taylor have been hosting the show for over a decade with the intent of bringing philosophy to the world.
A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education noted that similar radio talk shows across the country have also discovered the value of making thoughtful academic discourse available over the airwaves.
But before “Philosophy Talk,” this particular type of programming was unprecedented.
“We were the first,” Taylor said.
The original idea was conceived by Perry, who found inspiration in shows like “Moneytalk” and, in particular, “Car Talk,” which relies on witty dialogue between two hosts.
Perry thought that if these shows were successful, a show about philosophy could be, too.
“Cars are not intrinsically interesting,” Taylor said. “Philosophy is much more interesting than cars.”
Perry saw that radio could become a great forum for discussing philosophical issues in a witty and captivating way. He found the perfect partner when Taylor joined the department.
“A lot of philosophers have a very complicated theory developed into really long books that nobody reads,” Perry said.
“But philosophy isn’t so much understanding complicated theory as it is understanding ordinary concepts we use to think about things,” he added.
On a weekly basis, the team engages in a casual but stimulating discussion about a pre-determined topic and broadcasts the dialogue to the nation. The topics are diverse and cover anything from politics to science to pop-culture.
While the two hosts are great friends and agree on many points, they still offer a unique balance to the show.
“They don’t think exactly the same way, so you’re going to get some different perspectives coming from them,” said James Hanley ’16, who works on the research team of “Philosophy Talk.”
For instance, Taylor considers himself more of a Kantian while he regards Perry as a Humean.
But when recording, Taylor and Perry don’t just argue about their personal points of view. Instead, they try to attack each subject from multiple perspectives.
“The show is not really about what John and I think, but what could be thought,” Taylor said, “We’re trying to get the range of reasonable points of view out there.”
When the show is recorded in front of live spectators, audience participation is encouraged. In addition, the show often brings in special guests in order to provide more diversity of thought.
“We’re not really interviewing the guest, we’re probing the guest, we’re challenging the guest,” Taylor said.
Perry and Taylor have spoken to a wide range of audiences, from elementary school children to senior citizens, in the hopes of showing that anyone can participate in philosophical thinking.
“Philosophy isn’t about being pretentious and quoting dead people, but actually thinking about why you believe in what,” Perry said.
One of the most memorable shows for Hanley was the one titled “Neuroscience and the Law.” During the show, Perry, Taylor and neuroscientist David Eagleman discussed how the law should apply to people who commit crimes due to mental conditions.
“As we learn more and more about the brain, it becomes easier to identify specific causes for behavior within the brain,” Hanley said.
“This raises questions like do we have control over our actions,” he added.
While the show continues its successful on-air run, Taylor noted that current students seem to be less aware of “Philosophy Talk” than students have been in the past.
In order to involve more of the student body, “Philosophy Talk” hosts free live shows on campus from time to time. On Feb. 6, “Philosophy Talk” will have two lives shows, hosting Professor Francis Fukuyama at 4:30 p.m. and Humanist Chaplain John Frigor at 7:30 p.m. in Annenberg Auditorium.
Hanley ’16 explained that the show will involve audience participation and also incorporate music by the Platones and a comedic routine by Ian Shoales, the 60 second philosopher..
“It is a show. It’s not just philosophy,” Hanley said.
Contact Erica Evans at elevans ‘at’ stanford.edu.