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August 14, 2009

Stanford's 'Philosophy Talk' duo answer life's tough questions on Facebook

By Cynthia Haven

"Philosophy Talk" is a radio program with an attitude – an attitude that philosophy is more than a mandarin pastime for unworldly academics.

Its agenda is ambitious: "I want to affect public life. There's a place for us," said Stanford philosophy Professor Kenneth Taylor, co-host for the program. "I want more philosophy."

Six years ago Taylor and his co-host, philosophy Professor Emeritus John Perry, launched the radio show on San Francisco's enterprising public station, KALW-91.7 FM. The program, now on 50 stations nationwide, alternates call-in questions, guest speakers and featured spots. It has showcased cyberlaw guru Lawrence Lessig, controversial ethicist Peter Singer, even poet Troy Jollimore, as well as historic figures – for example, political thinker Hannah Arendt and psychologist B. F. Skinner.

They're getting another chance to spread the word: This week they're on Stanford's "Open Office Hours" on the university Facebook page.

"Open Office Hours" begins with an introductory video from Perry and Taylor, inviting questions. In subsequent weeks, the professors will answer questions on video. (Anyone is welcome to watch the videos online for free. To comment or ask questions, however, viewers must have a Facebook registration and be logged in.)

Taylor said that philosophy encompasses "the broadest intellectual discussion of them all – our noses are everywhere." He pointed to philosophy's "sweeping intellectual agenda" and its diffusion into other disciplines. For instance, courses in "philosophy of science" and "philosophy of history" – and has philosophy ever deserted politics, where complicated, life-and-death issues abound? For example, the philosophical duo point out that people underscore Israel's "right" to exist – but what, exactly, is a "right" when applied on the scale of nations?

"If your neurons are tangled up right, everything leads to a philosophical problem," said Perry.

Taylor is confident that radio can tackle these complex kinds of issues and you "don't have to trade in academic rigor."

Never was it so much needed: "Our culture is debased. Public discourse is pretty debased," he said, adding that people have lost the ability to "bracket your assumptions and examine them."

A surprisingly large swath of the public apparently agrees: The philosophizing team has met with surprising success: They regularly tour the country to do live shows, most frequently at Marsh Theater in San Francisco. In some cities, they admit, they're treated almost like rock stars. They have 2,000 fans on the "Philosophy Talk" Facebook page.

During their premiere month, their website received 200 unique visitors a day; now they average 3,000 from all over the world. They've been featured in the Los Angeles Times and mentioned in the New York Times, and have earned $40,000 in podcast sales.

"If we can play Appalachia, we can play anywhere," said Taylor with characteristic optimism, noting that the show is carried by statewide networks in Oregon and West Virginia. "It's amazing we've come so far."

KALW General Manager Matt Martin agreed that "the response from listeners has been powerful – from its debut, 'Philosophy Talk' drew a significant audience, and now more than 10,000 listeners tune in every week to hear one of KALW's broadcasts of 'Philosophy Talk.'"

When they started "Philosophy Talk," Taylor and Perry admitted they had been naive. Martin said that when the two "brought the idea of doing a 'Car Talk' about philosophical issues to other stations, the doors didn't exactly fly open."

Taylor agreed the road has been "a long, tough slog."

"Program directors are busy – they already have programming wall-to-wall. To put something new on they have to take something old off. There's not a lot of space out there."

But they were naive, in particular, about money: It costs about $250,000 to tape 40 installments of the weekly program. About 80 percent comes from Stanford; about 20 percent from outside sources, including grants. They have hired a marketing assistant – Stanford senior Kasiana McLenaghan – to promote the program.

"We need an angel," Taylor told the San Francisco Chronicle five years ago. They still do, even though they've proven that philosophy can build an "intense and devoted" listening audience.

They aren't likely to run out of material anytime soon. As Taylor said, "Science constantly delivers us the news." Just when philosophy risks settling into a rut, he said, the news arrives to jiggle man's notion of himself.

"How shall I put this? Little is known. There's no accumulation of knowledge to master. There's a lot unknown," said Perry.

Editor Note:

Facebook video online at



Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service:(650) 724-6184,


Kenneth Taylor, Philosophy: (650) 723-1840,

John Perry, Philosophy: (650) 723-1619,

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