A New Way of Doing Philosophy

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Hi-Phi Nation, the philosophical podcast developed and produced by HWL Visiting Faculty Fellow Barry Lam, is now six episodes into its first season, with several more in the works. Topics covered so far include the morality of war, parapsychology, pop music, and the burden imposed on the living by the wishes of the dead.

An article posted by Vassar College, his home institution, neatly outlines the project and its genesis.

What ethical dilemmas does a soldier face when he or she witnesses atrocities on the battlefield? Why does society often honor the wishes of the dead even when they conflict with the needs of the living? What theological questions are raised when an evangelical Christian is fired for suggesting that she worships the same God that Muslims do?

Vassar Associate Professor of Philosophy Barry Lam raises these questions, and many others, in a series of podcasts called Hi-Phi Nation, and he draws on philosophical discourse to answer them. ...

Lam says the idea for Hi-Phi Nation began germinating five years ago after he attended a conference at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. “What I learned at that conference was that philosophy is a very big deal at West Point,” Lam says. “I was surrounded by a dozen soldiers, all of whom had served in wars and who wanted to become philosophers. I wanted the public to hear their stories and hear about their philosophical ideas about the morality of war.”

Lam's podcast is not, as one might imagine, built around lectures, discussions, or explanations. It is an exercise in storytelling. In a sharply detailed interview on the American Philosophical Society website, Lam places Hi-Phi Nation firmly in "the genre of the narrative-driven storytelling audio program"—shows like This American Life, Radiolab, and Freakonomics Radio.

"Philosophers use stories all of the time," he says. Stories are "central aspects of philosophical thinking, writing, and teaching, [so] it isn’t a stretch to think that you can have something–an essay, a book, and in my case, a piece of audio–that is as much a story as it is philosophy."

Lam's twist on the usual practice in his field is to highlight "stories that present conflicts that are inherently philosophical." Conflict is a powerful narrative engine, of course, but it serves a pedagogical purpose, as well, by forcing the listener to think "seriously in detail about the philosophical assumptions or background that make the conflict possible."

Episode 1, the case of the Milton Hershey trust is one example. Episode 4, the case of Larycia Hawkins and Wheaton College, is another. In the former case, many of our legal practices have, as a moral justification, a suspect thesis about posthumous harm. In the latter case, someone actually lost her job because people were not clear in their thinking about what proposition a claim actually expressed....

The stories, then, are not just in the service of philosophy, philosophy is very much in the service of the stories, which I think can be powerful if you’re trying to bring people to philosophy, rather than just advance a philosophical thesis. Not everyone is naturally philosophical, but I think everyone loves a good story.

It's one thing to have a concept and a format and quite another to turn them into polished audio, as Lam elaborates.

Everything is challenging. Securing funding is challenging. Doing investigative research into stories has been challenging. Structuring a story for maximal impact is challenging. Getting my colleagues to talk on mic has been challenging. Getting them to talk accessibly while still preserving the essence of their idea is challenging. Learning how to interview like Terry Gross, rather than as a philosopher having a philosophical conversation, has been challenging. Containing a philosophical issue into a single episode is challenging. Convincing the curators in public radio that I have something worth listening to has been challenging. Finding free music that is not copywritten is challenging.

Asked what advice he'd give to colleagues who are interviewed on a podcast, Lam started with the basics ("relax and stay close to the mic") and then addressed issues that are more specifically academic.

Try to avoid the use of the suffix “-ism.” Avoid avoidable abstractions, such as “transitive relations” and “pairwise indistinguishable.” ... [T]ry to stop anticipating objections when you’re talking, and forget about “the dialectic.” Finally, think of the person listening to you as kind, curious, generous, and charitable.

Wouldn't you like to wrestle with philosophical dilemmas while being treated as "kind, curious, generous, and charitable"? Visit the Hi-Phi Nation website to listen or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play.

Photo: Duke Photography/Megan Mendenhall (from Duke Today)

Referenced People

Associate Professor of Philosophy