There will not be a new episode this week as I try to play catch-up and produce the next few pieces, and so I wanted to write a blog post for those of you interesting in the difficulties in this kind of project.

There’s an ethical issue that I face in putting together journalism+philosophy that I do not have when I just do philosophy. If in philosophy, I do not believe something someone says or writes, all I need to do is write an argument giving my reasons as to why I am rejecting it, and why I think everyone else should also. Its part of the job of philosophy.

In storytelling for a philosophical purpose, your subjects may not have agreed to be a subject in a premise of a philosophical argument, where their life experiences or lifework is something that, if the argument you’re making is true, may be invalidated. Now it could be true that they wouldn’t care anyways, but there is a rule I heard a famous journalist say that I want to follow as I embark on story-driven philosophy: don’t do something that will make your subjects regret ever having spoken to you. I don’t think this needs to be a universal rule, but I do think that if I’m searching and asking someone to share their life experiences with me for public consumption, and I’m not trying to do hit pieces or ever take anyone in power down, that its a good rule to follow.

Its not a surprise that the next episode will follow researchers of parapsychology, a field that mainstream academia does not view upon very positively. But the subjects who do this work, and the people they study, are firm believers and stake a lot of their self-worth on this kind of research. And mostly the show is about the issues of knowledge and inquiry that emerge from comparing that kind of research to mainstream science. If this were an ordinary philosophical work, it would be natural to just write a refutation. But with story-driven philosophy, the issue is a lot more delicate.

Hello blog followers, Episode 5 is now up, once again a few hours earlier just for you. Just a quick announcement, I’m overwhelmed with the one-episode-a-week production schedule, and I can’t keep up, so I’m giving myself two weeks to put out the next one, Hackademics. While you wait, I hope you can continue to tell your friends, students, philosophy discussion groups, family, and so forth. We can take the time to help me publicize the show.

About Episode 5. The episodes I’ve done so far have all been heavy and serious, so I wanted to make sure that we have at least one fun and light episode in the first season, lest everyone thinks philosophy is just for the somber. I also wanted to do an episode about a philosophical topic that you could only do well in audio, hence philosophy of music! But talk about getting far outside your comfort zone. I’m trained as an analytic epistemologist, so this was a real stretch. I had to listen to a genre I knew very little about, learn a lot of musicology that turned out to be cut from the episode, and had to acquaint myself with a literature I never read. That said, I hope fans of popular music will find this episode enlightening. Philosophers, well, who can ever tell with them.

Eric Nuzum, formerly of NPR, and currently of Audible, has helped to create the most successful narrative documentary-style shows out there, including Invisibilia and the Ted Radio Hour. In a talk he gave at the Third Coast Festival last year, he says that the thing that separates successful shows from unsuccessful shows is that successful shows can describe their show in 10 words or less. The description must give the mission of the show in such a way that everyone can understand it in one sentence, the particular niche of listeners you’re after will recognize that the show is for them immediately, and you can use the statement as a guide to the stories and episodes you will produce for your show. For instance, Invisibilia’s is “a narrative journey through the invisible forces that affect our lives.” (okay that was 11 words).  Although there is some reason to be skeptical about this as a universal rule (have you seen This American Life’s tagline? Then again, they were rejected by NPR!), it gives me a really good guide as to how the kingmakers of digital audio think about shows and whether to pick them up.

It got me thinking about Hi-Phi Nation’s tagline “a show about philosophy that turns stories into ideas.” This tagline is very much how I constrained myself in my selection of topics and stories for the first season. But after listening to Eric’s talk, it makes me wonder whether it is the best description for these other purposes, which is to get people to know immediately what the show is like, differentiates it from other shows, and attract listeners of your niche immediately. “Philosophy through sound and stories” is another tagline I use, but again, are they too vague? Now that the show has a healthy number of listeners, I wanted to invite you to help me out. Can you do your best to give a one-line description of the show in about 10 words that you think describes it perfectly for all the purposes that Nuzum says? You can leave it here on the iTunes review page for the show. You can leave it as a review on our Facebook page. Or you can contact me here on the website.

Hello everyone. Episode 4 is up a few hours early on the website for the very dedicated. You will get it on your devices first thing tomorrow morning. This was a difficult episode to make for many different reasons. First, it concerns a story that many people heard about in the popular press. Those stories were incomplete in many ways, so I had to think about my particular angle, and I decided to go with the stories of the observers as well as the participant in the story. Secondly, the episode concerned Islamic and Christian theology, which I knew nothing about at the time, but learned a lot about in the course of production. Finally, many subjects, philosophers, theologians, as well as people involved in the story, just weren’t available to speak to, as they were understandably caught up in the surprise and disorder that was the Trump administration’s election and inauguration, and because this episode seemed to touch on issues of Christianity and Islam at a level of abstraction. That being said, I felt quite emotional by the end of the episode only because situating even abstract philosophical concerns in today’s environment surrounding religious toleration struck me deeply.

Hello blog followers, I’ve been really hard at work on Episode 4, and I’ve made a preview of it. Hopefully some of you can share this video on your Twitter or Facebook feeds so that episode will have a lot of listens. I get deep into aspects of the story you didn’t read about from the popular press.

Hi everyone, I went on the Elucidations podcast with Matt Teichman to talk about my philosophical views that I acquired from my work on Episode One. Its a 40 minute one-one interview podcast for more philosophy, less story!


This month, we talk about whether we owe the dead anything with Barry Lam. Barry Lam is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Vassar College, Story Lab Fellow at Duke University, and creator, producer, and lead host of Hi-Phi Nation, an exciting new philosophy podcast that turns stories into ideas. Click here to listen to our conversation.

Barry LamIf your relative asks you to do something just before passing away, chances are you’ll feel like you owe it to them, or to their memory, to do it. Especially if it’s a small thing. But are there any limits to how far an obligation like this can extend? Here’s a simple case that reveals those limits: if your relative asked you to steal money from someone who was impoverished, you’d probably refuse to honor their wishes.

However, it turns out that simple cases like that are just the tip of the iceberg. Rich and powerful people can set up trusts that accrue money long after their death, which (from a legal point of view) means that a dead person can earn money forever. Thanks to our current legal infrastructure, many trusts of this sort are often stuck trying to enforce anachronistic social and political policies, which the dead person who set up would likely want to update, were they still alive.

Join us as our guest shows how it can be trickier than you might think to honor the wishes of the dead!