With the coronavirus pandemic upending every aspect of our lives, it can feel like so much is out of our control. But instead of feeling helpless about what is unraveling all around us, Stanford professor Joshua Landy wants us to focus on what can be managed in these challenging times: our reaction.

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Philosophy Talk co-founder John Perry and current host Joshua Landy reflect on how philosophy is part of daily human discussion and interaction.

“Our response to it – that’s something that’s under our control,” said Landy, the Andrew B. Hammond Professor of French and professor of comparative literature in the School of Humanities and Sciences (H&S). From the books we choose to read to the movies we decide to watch, Landy said there are two directions to go: “One is to plunge yourself deeper into misery and make yourself even more afraid, and the other is, well, not escapism exactly, but the kind of writing that keeps your mind alive, alert and active.”

Landy, who co-hosts the popular radio program Philosophy Talk, which is reaching its 500th episode, hopes that the show’s upcoming programs will help listeners find new ways to experience the crisis through the power of storytelling. Landy and philosopher Ray Briggs – who joined the show as co-host this year – have spoken with various Stanford humanities faculty about how music, drama and literature can provide comfort, connection and a sense of community during this challenging period.

For example, in their interview with Michaela Bronstein, an assistant professor of English, Bronstein discussed the idea that the more stories one reads, listens to or watches, the more expansive one is in their thinking.

“You’re not locked into just one idea of what this has to be,” Landy explained. “Here we are in the middle of a story and we don’t quite know how it’s going to turn out. There’s a variety of different possible endings.”

These discussions, titled “Comforting Conversations” – will broadcast in two parts beginning in the weeks of May 17 and May 24. The first episode will feature Bronstein, fellow English professor Ato Quayson and philosopher R. Lanier Anderson. Part two includes designer and musicologist Ge Wang, French and Italian scholar Laura Wittman, philosopher Antonia Peacocke and Harry Elam, vice president for the arts.

“I hope that people will find some inspiration and a sense that we’re all in this together, even if we’re physically apart,” said Landy.

Quandaries under quarantine

In addition to “Comforting Conversations,” Philosophy Talk is also dedicating an upcoming episode to some of the moral dilemmas that are unique to the coronavirus pandemic. Philosophers have long engaged with the ethics of human behavior, and Landy hopes the discipline may help its audience as they navigate new norms of social distancing.

Landy and Briggs asked listeners to send the quandaries they have encountered as they navigate their new lives while sheltering-in-place and living in lockdown. One listener wondered how they should handle a roommate who is putting their health at risk by refusing to follow social distancing guidelines; another wanted to know whether it is ethical to order non-essential items online – an act that could put low-wage workers in danger.

These are not easy questions to answer, said Landy. But they are questions many of us are confronting on a daily basis.

“I think one of the things that the show tries to do is essentially to remind people that you’re doing philosophy all the time, whether you’re aware of it or not,” he said.

500 episodes of a philosophical ‘Click and Clack’

Philosophy Talk’s 500th episode will be celebrated in early June with the program’s annual summer reading show.

Philosophy Talk, “the program that questions everything, except your intelligence,” first aired in 2004 co-hosted by Stanford philosophers John Perry and the late Ken Taylor. Perry had been kicking around the idea of a philosopher’s version of Car Talk, the comical NPR syndicated show about automobiles and automotive repair, for several years before finding the Click to his Clack with Taylor.

Philosophy professors John Perry and Ken Taylor were the founding co-hosts of Philosophy Talk, which first aired in 2004. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

“Now, admittedly, the Car Talk hosts are funnier than us, but philosophy is more interesting than automatic transmission. So, between the two, we thought we would do OK,” said Perry, the Henry Waldgrave Stuart Professor, Emeritus.

It was only a matter of time (and yes, they have a lot to say on that subject, too) before Perry and Taylor’s lively banter gained a cult following of listeners who tuned in to their weekly, down-to-earth discussions on out-of-this-world ideas like extraterrestrial life, magical thinking and quantum physics and faith, and their debates about everyday life and sometimes even nothing at all.

“Over the years, we’ve done a pretty good job of showing people that it’s fun to think about ‘What do you mean?’ ‘How do you know?’ and ‘So what?’” said Perry.

Each episode features a guest – a fellow philosopher, another scholar or public intellectual – to challenge long-held beliefs and assumptions.

“I think it’s very easy for people to get used to the way things have been in their lifetime and to assume that’s just the way they have to be,” said Landy, who joined the show as co-host when Perry retired in 2017. “But philosophers come in and ask, ‘Why?’ Why does it have to be that way? What evidence do you have for thinking that’s the way it should be? How could we do things differently?”

As Perry and Landy reflect on Philosophy Talk’s past 500 episodes, they acknowledge that the show would not be where it is today without Taylor, who died unexpectedly in December 2019.

“He was something special. He was a force of nature, a polymath, a fountain of wisdom on any subject,” Landy said. “We’re trying to continue the legacy of this show that John and Ken created, and they’re big shoes to fill – but we’re doing our best to grow our feet.”

In thinking about what the next 500 episodes will bring, Landy said he looks forward to being surprised by what the next generations of scholars and thinkers will offer.

“New generations bring new attitudes,” Landy said. “They’re intrinsically unpredictable – and that’s a great thing, because otherwise we’d be locked into whatever we are in currently. So I’m looking forward to being surprised.”

Media Contacts

Melissa De Witte, Stanford News Service: (650) 723-6438, mdewitte@stanford.edu