Barry Lam is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Vassar College and the host and creator of Hi-Phi Nation, an innovative philosophy podcast that "turns stories into ideas."
I spoke to Barry to learn more about what led him to start Hi-Phi Nation, his experience of creating the show and what it has taught him about the relationship between philosophy, journalism, storytelling and much more.
Barry Lam. Image by Melissa Surprise.
Ciaran: Hi Barry, so could you start by introducing yourself and your philosophical background a little bit?
Barry: Sure, my name is Barry Lam, I'm an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Vassar College. Before that I got my PhD from Princeton in 2007 and I worked in the early part of my career on issues of epistemic rationality. I had a couple of papers on the epistemology of disagreement, I have a lot of interest in philosophy of language, and more recently I've been working more on applied issues in philosophy, maybe even in ethics you might say, but starting in 2015 I decided to make a podcast: Hi-Phi Nation. The idea was to make an audio documentary style podcast integrating journalism with philosophy and storytelling. I'm in the third season of the show, and this season it has been picked up by the Slate network. I've got funding for the fourth season which is going to be on the philosophical foundations of criminal justice.
Ciaran: Something that interests me a lot with Hi-Phi Nation is the novelty of the form, bringing together philosophy, journalism and storytelling and through a podcast medium as well. I've tended to find that in the increasing coverage of public philosophy there hasn't been enough attention given to the actual practice of it, and this overlooks how that practice can vary a great deal and how it can also reveal some interesting things about philosophy itself, but also about the relationship between philosophy and society.
Barry: The practice of public philosophy or the practice of philosophy?
Ciaran: Well, both I guess. For a long time I was interested in what it could tell us about the practice of philosophy as we typically think of it nowadays in academia, but increasingly I'm more interested in what public philosophy tells us about wider society. What you’re doing, of course, raises questions in both directions.
I saw a video where you were speaking about how doing Hi-Phi Nation has required you to look closer at the relationship between storytelling, aesthetics and philosophy, so it seems like the actual practice, the mechanics so to speak, of doing Hi-Phi Nation is something you’ve considered a lot. Are there aspects of what you've been doing with Hi-Phi Nation that have changed the way that you think about what it means to do philosophy?
Barry: Absolutely, absolutely. In fact, in hindsight, one of the reasons why I probably started it was I was both bored and quite disaffected and I just... I had a very negative view of the way that things were going in the peer-reviewed publication aspect of what the field [of philosophy] is. Even if you looked at people that you can argue are the biggest successes in the field, by number of publications, or invites to conferences and so on, the work that was coming out, the sheer volume of it and the small audience for it, and the amount of time that younger people and people in the field have to go through to produce and create this kind of thing, it just... I mean, people should be proud of what they do, but in the aggregate it just looked futile. That's how it seemed to me. I'm not the only one who has this kind of reaction, a lot of people have this kind of reaction. There's a lot being published and the younger people in order to get a foothold in the field have to publish a lot, but how much is it read? And even if it is how big of an impact is it having really? Are the debates that occupy many of the corners, are they the kind of thing that keep people excited? Do they explain why people were interested in philosophy in the first place? And at the end of a career, is it the kind of thing that people will make people say "I'm really happy that I've spent time doing that"?
It wasn't clear to me that the answer to a lot of those questions were positive! That's a mild way of putting it. I wouldn't say that it's a big fat waste of time, it's rather that when you couple all these factors together I honestly don't think... So, like, one thing that's happened during the Trump era is that younger people and a lot of other people have realised that, maybe we can't just go on talking about infinite coin flips and the Sleeping Beauty problem, right? We have to be engaged in some way or another, in the connection between politics, social life and social problems in philosophy. That's a positive turn but, you know, the outcome of that hasn't been all great either. There's been a lot of very forced, awkward fittings between some narrow area and analytic philosophy and what people have been trying to say about the social and political problems that face, you know, the Anglo world today. This was all in the air about 2014, 2013 when I started deciding that I wanted to do something else. So that was half of it.
The other half of it was that in terms of making something, producing something, there isn't a lot of room in philosophy - analytic philosophy - for somebody who wants to do something that has some kind of aesthetic value. If you want to write in a more interesting way, it's not a virtue in analytic philosophy, right? And though there is an aesthetic component to writing, there are a lot of other aesthetic components. I ended up in audio and audio has an aesthetic component to it if you decide that you want to do more than just create a talk show; you can do something that has soundtracking and sound design and structuring and so on. So that was another aspect of it that I was a little bit disillusioned about being unable to explore, and in hindsight I needed to do something a little more creative - it's not the only aspect in my life where I felt that. I also took up was woodworking and carpentry, and I took those up probably because I needed to do something more creative, and analytic philosophy wasn't really fitting the bill. The other thing is that I became enamoured with - along with hundreds of thousands of people - with the storytelling structure of audio narrative, audio documentary; you know, BBC 4 is a great example. The rise of podcasting obviously has helped this too.
So all of those factors came together. When I had the idea for Hi-Phi Nation, I thought of it as a different way of doing philosophy. I didn't even think of it as just presenting existing philosophical work in a way that then the public would would like better. I actually thought of it in terms of eventually I'll get to the point when I learn how to make this form, that when I have ideas and arguments for things that I want to present, maybe I don't need to do it in the print form? Maybe print's only one way that I can do it. I haven't done that much of it yet, maybe that's the direction I'm heading eventually, but I had thought of all of this. So it's affected the way I think about what I want to write now, for instance. I've started publishing again - I've got some papers coming out soon - but in publishing I've become a lot more attentive to the kind of style that I have to be attentive to when I produce audio; both the language and the structure but also what you actually present. Do you include storytelling? Do you include narratives for their own sake? I've tried to do that and that doesn't exist, really, in philosophy and I wish more of it did. I know in continental philosophy there's more of it and that's probably to it's virtue, but at the end of the day analytic philosophy doesn't have that as a component. I do still value the argumentative rigour and detail and an attention to clarity that's in analytic philosophy, I still think that that's a form of philosophy that I want to present to the public - it's not that I think it's all terrible! Some of it is great. It's just that, due to institutional incentives, and historical factors, it's become the kind of thing that is completely inaccessible to a lot of the public.
Ciaran: That's really interesting. Not many people that I've interviewed who are still involved in academia have said much about how it’s then reflected back on the traditional form in which they'd done philosophy in that context. I want to dwell on practice a bit more if that's okay. Something that comes up a lot with people doing philosophy in less conventional public philosophy environments - not talks and so on, but in communities, or in prisons, or galleries, or all sorts - is they notice how much facilitating is a part of philosophising, much more than they've previously realised. Philosophers can create spaces or "set the scene", so to speak, for people to engage in philosophy. I’ve thought about this before when listening to Hi-Phi Nation, but also this relates to what you just said about the format as well - the documentary element to it, the thought that's gone into structuring it. Has that element come through for you? Has it made you think more about the way in which, not only it's a way to do philosophy as you've been saying, but also it's a way to get people in a philosophical mindset, or to create space in their day where they might be thinking more philosophically?
Barry: Philosophers make great facilitators, I think, because first of all it's very natural in the way we teach; the way we teach philosophy is essentially facilitating between positions in history, or positions in logical space. I think that's what a good philosopher does. In our written work, we're supposed to be the person who takes a strong position and argues against other people and stuff like that. But that's not really what most of us do if we are lucky enough to get a university job, right? And when you branch out as I have, you're going to naturally get to talk about things that you are not an expert in, and that's sort of part of being in the public space, you're gonna have to be more of a generalist. That's not true for everybody, there are celebrity philosophers who are known just for their positions and because of that they they occupy a different role. Celebrity philosophers, I think, occupy a very different role. It's almost by the definition of celebrity that not everybody's gonna be one, and so most philosophers who want to engage are not gonna be celebrities, they're not gonna be the person who is known, like Peter Singer, as the controversial animal rights person. Knowing that, I think they have an even better role to play as a facilitator of people who want to think through particular ideas in a public space. It’s also natural to the way that we think. One of the ways I like to think about doing philosophy in a public space is that people are either going to be ignorant about a topic and a little bit intimidated by entering something calling itself "philosophy", or they're gonna be unjustifiably overconfident, right? You sort of see that in the internet culture, that's sort of what's out there right now. Philosophers are really good at responding to unjustifiable overconfidence, because one of the things that philosophers are trained to do is finding problems that lurk in overconfident people's positions.
Then in terms of people who are ignorant of the topic at hand and intimidated, if at least they're open to being brought along, that's where I think the storytelling journalism element is important for what I want to provide through Hi-Phi Nation. Everybody can listen to a story. To use an example that was on my mind as I walked to my office, I did an episode about a woman who claimed that she was the reincarnation of Anne Frank, and about a doctor that went around the world studying children who had past life memories. Everybody can listen to that and go "Oh! Weird, that is creepy!" This is the kind of thing that sometimes tabloids will cover because it's the kind of thing that brings people in. But what was that episode really about? It was about theories of personal identity and about the philosophy of quantum mechanics, so I managed to bring people in to that, right? And It's not like I just got on the microphone and said "there was a woman who once thought she was Anne Frank", that component of the show is really important. Sometimes it takes two-thirds, three-quarters of the show, because I want the audience to realise that there's this little corner of the world, or corner of life, that's happened and that not only has it happened but it's interesting that it happened and that that's where the big ideas are extracted from.
So almost every episode is the kind of episode where I have to find a thing that you want the big ideas to be extracted from, so that the ignorant, perhaps intimidated but also open-minded people, can recognise where the ideas are and what is interesting to think about there. Then we say "Okay, well some people have thought about this topic and to a large extent". So the listener realises it's not just weird, new-agey people who've thought about these things, that's not what philosophy is. They realise it's actually this interesting, theoretically rigorous thing.
For the people who are super overconfident and so on, they still email me and say "Oh you got this wrong". Well, I know I get certain parts wrong or that I’ve left bits out, but if you are knowledgeable or are in any way trained in philosophy, either as a graduate student or you're faculty or something else, you know well enough that what you're gonna present you've made decisions about. You know what you have to simplify and so on, and you just own that. Nonetheless, you can still present something that is a lot more true to the spirit of the way philosophers research these issues than, say, a journalist. Here I have in mind someone like Malcolm Gladwell who takes a lot of shit from academia for getting things wrong. Now I love Malcolm Gladwell, I think he does a great job for what he does, but there are going to be academic shortcomings due to his position as a journalist, and that’s what he’ll own. But as an academic, I think that we know well enough what the field is to present things in a very different way. The result, I think, is that even the generally overconfident will think, "Okay, this is more rigorous than just some blowhard telling me what to think".
Ciaran: When I first got in touch with you, you explained that you weren't aware of other people doing something like Hi-Phi Nation, and you described it as feeling like you're sort of inventing the genre a bit. What have been some of the breakthroughs and barriers you've found in creating this format?
Barry: So, it doesn't exist, it didn't exist before and, if it existed I wouldn't have done it. It started with me looking for a kind of show like Hi-Phi Nation. To the extent that I found it I found journalists doing pretty intricate things. It would be something like a New Yorker article that is an extended examination of the case of somebody who's straddling the border between life and death, and it would talk about Parfit and McMahan, or something like that, that's what I'm doing, right? But nobody's on that beat in journalism, nobody is assigned. There are people who are assigned to be the science desk, so they get bombarded all the time with press releases of the latest scientific study that someone at a university did that the press might like. For instance, I was given a study about predictive policing that was just done at RMIT University in Australia and because I got that press release, I contacted them. University press departments and publications have communications offices and reporters that are on the beat that are looking for studies and so on, and in long-form publications like The New Yorker or The Atlantic there are always writers who are looking for the best story and occasionally that story will have philosophical themes that, if they're smart, they're gonna go and talk to some philosopher about. It's very rare, you'll get one of these every four years or so.
And then you'll have philosophers who write for The New York Times' book review or London Review of Books or LA Review of Books and so on. They're doing a kind of... It's a stretch to call them book reviews! They're writing original essays on the themes that are coming from the book. Then there's op-ed writing. So these are the genres that exist for philosophers and the reason why op-eds and book reviews, or essays based on book reviews fit so well is because it's just an extension of the skills that people already have. You're trained in graduate school to do something similar for publications, and all you're being asked to do is write with language that is more accessible, but you're essentially doing the same thing; you're making an argument, you give evidence for it, you're surveying literature, and so on. There's nothing wrong with that, in fact, that skill is difficult, that's why not everybody does it well. That's why only some philosophers seem to appear all the time in these publications.
What I've been doing regularly (and that's also what makes it the first) that I'm doing in audio rather than in print, is to do the kind of thing that say The New Yorker person would do once every four years, coupled with the kind of thing that a philosopher would do in these book reviews and whatever, and then doing it as one person. And no one person has been given that assignment before. Because the assignment didn't exist, I just created it and am seeing how far I can go. Now I'm not gonna be able to do this forever. There's not going to be, as far as I can, indefinite amount of funding for Hi-Phi Nation to continue, and I don't think psychologically I can just keep doing it, or much longer too, because I'm still doing it on my own. These shows normally have teams of, like, five, six, twenty people. So it's not scalable unless other philosophers or journalists or whatever decide that they want to do this, not like I have done it, like ten episodes a year, but one every other year or something like that as a project of theirs. If that were the case then I could work with them and then there could be a show that continues, but with contributors essentially. That's what I envisioned. I don't have too much of that, I have some contributors - in a couple of weeks I'm gonna air an episode that's done by two philosophers that are not me - but so the way that I see it, the breakthrough is to take a form that is the skills of a journalist, and a form that is the skills of a philosopher writing for the public, and combine that form into one thing that is sustained, so that that thing can be seen as a new form that philosophers can contribute to if they admire it.
The thing that's hard, just like it is hard for a journalist to do very well in the philosophy side of their stories, it's very hard for a philosopher who's trained the way we are to do well on the journalism side, because we don't know how to do it. How do you find people, make them talk to you, structure 6 hours, 20 hours of conversations they have with you into something that reads well, keep somebody compelled to keep reading, and also connects with a philosophical issue that you may or may not know about, and that you then survey and maybe say something about? The challenge is to use skills that you don't have! So you just have to learn and, you know, it takes years and decades for journalists to become good, and as you know, years and years for philosophers to become good. When you have to suddenly try new things then it's gonna take a while.
Ciaran: It's very interesting to hear about the kind of thing you're envisioning and I hadn't considered the beat element, or having to extract the ideas from the topic as you described. It makes complete sense, as you say, that someone wouldn't be assigned this kind of beat because there's something very sporadic about it. So I can see that the way you envisioned it would be a good route to go down to give it some kind of regularity.
What you're doing also really brings out the interstitial or the very everyday nature of philosophy, that it's spurred on by things that we all experience all the time and they're questions anyone can think about. So I can see how you could get inspiration almost anywhere, in theory, but I can also see how a beat that's based on being inspired by anything would be a bit unwieldy!
Barry: Yeah! And also, who knows that much? I mean, you know how sprawling philosophy is. You know, there could be a beat - we assign people to criminal justice, we assign people to international news, or international politics, we assign people to science, we assign people to sports. Then you have long-form people who are assigned to find longer stories, and then in every one of these areas you'll find a connection to philosophy. In criminal justice, for example, there might be a lot more but, you know, if you're assigned to environmental reporting then you'll get something there too, if you're assigned to healthcare you'll get something there. That's where you get the philosophy, right? A little bit everywhere, that's sort of what Hi-Phi Nation is. It can go on. If you were assigned music, for example. During the origin of digital music there was all these weird metaphysical disputes that were happening in the courts about whether or not somebody “owned” a song when they bought it and what the hell that meant. A philosopher has a lot to say about that, but of course it makes sense for people not to have assigned one person to all of these different beats just to find the philosophy in them. Still, we know as philosophers that that's how sprawling our field is, so it's cool if there was such a thing.
That's what it would take to have a regularly produced program or publication or article series or something, it would take somebody who at least had enough training to know where to look in all of these different areas in life to find the philosophy, because it has to be that many areas, right? In order to do something for everybody that's in the field. Let me give you an example, philosophy of mathematics is a thing, but where are you going to find the right story for that area? It's gotta be somebody who's at the science desk or something, about some new proof or star mathematician, or something super abstract. The more I'm talking about it the more I'm thinking there has to be something like Hi-Phi Nation to exist, or it has to be some subsidiary of some bigger program, in order for there to be a regular contribution that philosophy has to what’s being reported. It just doesn't make sense for there to be people working for journalistic organisations that are always aware of this kind of stuff.
A selection of episodes from the most recent series of Hi-Phi Nation
Ciaran: Are there elements of journalism that you want to try out in addition to what you've employed so far through Hi-Phi Nation? Or do you think that the way that you've been doing it is the only way that it would work? I'm thinking, for example, something like a deep-dive investigative story. Also, when you mentioned earlier how part of an audience can be overconfident, it made me think of the idea of journalists speaking truth to power and holding people to account, for example, so that could be another approach.
Barry: I would love to be able to do long-term, investigative stuff about an area of life that connects with philosophy based on just a very long-term, sustained investigation that goes into Freedom of Information requests for government documents, or an investigation into a certain particular legal case, or a medical case, I would love to do that kind of thing. Because I've had to do so many episodes on so many different kinds of things, whenever I have hit upon something that I would want to spend a lot more time on, I haven't had the time to do it. Part of the motivation for season four is to have an entire season on one area, so that I can do that. Still, it's not gonna even be that focused, you know, it's gonna be on different areas of the legal system. So I'm gonna be doing a deeper dive, but not that deep.
And is there one particular story? I would love to have been the person who, for instance, broke the Theranos story, that was a Wall Street Journal reporter, or something like that. I don't even have to break a story, I just want to take a deep dive because at this stage I have stumbled across things during the course of Hi-Phi Nation where it makes sense to do so. So to do one story, for instance, that raises ten different philosophical issues would be great. It could be one story that raises questions about personal identity and free will and whatever, and it's rolled into one, like a medical mystery or something. Something like that would be wonderful.
I want to figure out how it would look in print for me to do this as well. I've shit on print a lot, you know, "people give way too much respect for print and not enough to audio and other media", and I think that's absolutely true in academia. But, given that, I've done a lot of audio now and I'd like to see if there's a form in print that would work. I want to test myself a lot, doing this has been a test for myself. Eventually I want to see if academic philosophy proper will in some way have room for me again. Academic philosophy proper is way less journalistic and a lot more argumentative.
Another thing is that, if I wanted to stop right now and start writing books I could because there are book agents who love that somebody has an existing audience and so they're willing to sign people right away. But I'm doing something else right now and I don't really need it because I have the audience. Still, I see that as another challenge for myself in the future. Somebody I have recently come to admire greatly is the writer Michael Lewis, he wrote The Big Short and Moneyball and Flash Boys and recently The Fifth Risk and he's wonderful. He has this skill that I've never had and I wish I had, which is the ability to write in a way that brings joy and makes you want to read! Trained as an analytic philosopher you're not writing to make somebody want to read, you're writing to make clear that the thing you have to say is new and interesting and better than what everybody else is saying. So, I do want to try all this kind of stuff and I'm working towards it.
Ciaran: One of the things I am interested to understand through these interviews is the effect of a couple trends on people engaging in public philosophy at the moment. One is the pressure for academics to engage in public life, to show the “impact” of their work and so on. The other is this sense of decline in the public sphere, be that due to changes to and distrust of the media, distrust of politicians, social atomisation, all these things. So I usually ask people how much these factored into their motivations when they started doing the public philosophy project they are doing.
Barry: I think, with the public, the demand is there. The public has showed itself to the surprise of most observers and maybe even participants that once content and its producers have become available more freely, that they are willing to consume it. So, whether it's podcasts that last three hours long, or articles on Aeon, or whatever, when somebody on the internet decides that they were gonna do something that hadn't been done before, it turns out they had an audience for it! The reason why you know it wasn't foreseen is because publications beforehand didn't do it - they didn't do it because they didn't think there was gonna be an audience for it! So I think the demand is there. I think that when people engage in major cities and so on, when the Night of Philosophy happens for example, people show up and they're hungry for stuff.
Whether the demand is there in such a way that allows people to make a living doing it is a different issue, because people will accept it but they'll only accept it if it's free. They're not gonna pay for it, so that's a different issue! But I think the demand is there. At the same time people are isolated in their own media bubbles too. The people who consume Aeon or Philosophy Bites are probably not the same people who consume, I don't know, my favourite murder mystery podcast or something like that. One of the things I'm trying to do is expand the people who like Philosophy Bites to the people who also like, I don’t know, This American Life, right? That's what I'm trying to do and I hope that other people are trying to do other things. But the product that I'm creating is not as attractive to people who want to listen to four hours of graduate students talking about On the Genealogy of Morality, or something, because remember there's those people too - that audience could be quite large actually! So I think the demand is there first of all.
With regard to impact and assessment, in the UK and in Australia I believe, there's funding that's connected to this kind of work or this kind of audience and this kind of distribution. People have argued about whether that's a good thing or bad thing, whether it's diluting or making people who aren't good at engagement do it anyway, but I think net it's probably a good thing. Yes, people are worried about it in various ways because, you know, they're not good at doing certain things that they're now required to do, but I think it's a bad thing for philosophy to have continued on its course of being less and less accessible. Sometimes I mean that literally. Everything that's published is behind a paywall, right? But of course you can also mean that in terms of how easy it is to understand, and then you also can mean that in terms of how much the public can get out of it for pure pleasure or for learning. That's a bad direction for the field. Philosophy has never been and will never be the kind of thing that is financially supported without heavy public subsidies, or some kind of philanthropic view of its value in a society. It's not gonna be a market, it's gonna be something that's gonna have to depend on enough people seeing it as of value that they're going to shift resources toward people who do it.
Luckily in the West that has come in the form of the university where we're subsidised by wherever it is that a university will get its money, but quite frankly, you know, this isn’t true everywhere in the world. It isn’t true in the most populated parts of the world. Let me tell you a story. When I started Hi-Phi Nation I didn't have a marketing team, so my wife and I were just like, "let's look at different countries where there's lots of people and tell people there to listen to the show". One thing we thought was that, at universities there's got to be philosophy department and there's gonna be instructors, and those instructors might like to have their students listen to it. And, of course, there's the US, and the UK, and all that stuff. So we did all that. But where are most of the people in the world? They're in China and in India. So who is at their institutions of higher learning or high schools who are teaching philosophy who have a lot of students who we could reach? It turns out, there are very little! That's not withstanding people who are in India who contact me and are like "I love what you're doing this doesn't exist and can you help me? I'm trying to start our school program that teaches philosophy".
The demand is there because people, or some subset of them, are always going to be interested in philosophy. That's true historically, it's always going to be true. Just like there's always gonna be people who are writing and performing music and people who dance, people who are gonna be writing literature, there's going to be people who are gonna be thinking about philosophy. They're just human beings. But in India, a country coming up on two billion people, you go to every single one of their universities and the extent of their philosophy programs is one or two faculty doing something in philosophy, that's it. There's good explanations for all this, these are up-and-coming economies that are trying to build something that's worthwhile in the global capitalist system and philosophy is not going to be as worthwhile there, everything's in engineering and so on and China is the same way. But as these economies grow I would hope that they will transform into places where the millions and millions of people who are interested in philosophy are going to be able to find it.
Now, in the West, you know, we got to keep an eye out on that, right? Because even within my lifetime with the rise of China, opportunities and people and just what's going on in the world, everything is going to shift eastward, right? And we don't want to be completely irrelevant. I'm ethnically Chinese but I was born in the US and I was raised on Western philosophy. We keep engaging with it because we think there's value in there and it better not be that the best thing that we can provide when all of these Chinese universities or Indian universities get enough capital that they are going to start creating philosophy departments and teaching it and distributing it, that the best thing that we can provide to them is the, you know, the most technical corners of analytic philosophy. No, they're not going to see the value of that, they're just not. So there needs to be people like me, or like my colleague Brian van Norden, and also the leaders in the field, right? Like Tim Williamson. Tim has done some great mainstream stuff, he's branching off with the Tetralogue and so on. We need everybody hopefully organised in the public sphere in such a way that eventually as the world changes that you're gonna bring new people in, because if you don't it's gonna shrivel up. There are these disciplines in universities across the West that are just shrivelling up and just disappearing, Greek and Roman studies, Classics, is one example of that, and it's sad.
"In every one of these areas [of reporting] you'll find a connection to philosophy. [...] A little bit everywhere, that's sort of what Hi-Phi Nation is.
Ciaran: I agree with that, especially in the degree of lack of organising. The US is better about it generally I found so far, but the lack of networking and organising amongst people who are doing different kind of things in the public sphere with philosophy, whether that's something getting people doing philosophy, or popularising philosophy, or whatever, there’s still not enough. There's organisations in the US and and in the UK and in Europe as well I know who are doing more, and that’s admirable, but there’s still more that can be done. There’s not enough of sharing best practice, and people who do public philosophy in one place are still relatively siloed off from people who are working in a completely different part of public life.
Barry: A lot of us who are not the superstars in the field are doing it. But we need some prominent superstars to help take leadership, I really do believe that. Because we're doing it, I'm doing it, from the ground up. Public Philosophy Network is doing it from the ground up. People who are doing philosophy for kindergarten through 12th grade are doing it from the ground up. Nigel Warburton and David Edmonds basically did it from the ground up. So we have our little niches that are doing it from the ground up, but the power of celebrity is important. The power of the leadership of people like Tim Williamson, or whoever, to serve as role models for younger people within academia is important. They’re the ones who exhibit to younger people that not only this is okay but that this is something valuable. The future philosophers of academia aren’t looking to people like me as a role model.
We need more institutional incentives within the university system where most people are still trained in philosophy. We need elite institutions, like the elite graduate programs, to take enough leadership to guide changes in the way that graduate education works, so that some tenure-track hiring and promotions are such that this kind of work will advance your career. Once that's done you're going to get an influx of public philosophy, because I have met enough people who want to do this but are prevented from it because they have all this other work that they have to do in order to move ahead in the field. Also the highest rewards go to people who are not doing that kind of thing and the only people who are doing it are not people who are super prominent to them. So I think we need leadership on this front.
Ciaran: So everything we've been talking about so far is premised on you being a philosopher and you engaging in this public philosophical project. But I'd like to know whether, through doing Hi-Phi Nation, has it changed you? Some people I speak to, for example, have talked about how doing what they've done has made them a better listener. Thankfully no one so far has said it's brought out something really awful!
Barry: Yeah, absolutely. So one thing that you know philosophers don't get to do is to sit down, as part of the job, one-on-one with lots of different people and have a conversation for an hour, hour-and-a-half. Every interview that you hear, even if it's a one-minute clip or a 10 minute clip or something, came out of an hour, hour-and-a-half interview. So every person that I've ever had on the show I've sat down and spoken to. These have run the gamut from all of the different philosophers who I would never otherwise meet or speak to because the field is large enough, to the person who's the reincarnation of Anne Frank! Or, you know, the guy who makes the annual pop music mashups. The same goes for the people I work with through Hi-Phi Nation, like my editor at Slate. These are interactions that you don't have as an academic and so playing journalist is an interesting experience that most other philosophers don't have. I mean some have, some have actually been journalists. So that's one thing. It's something that I didn't know was going to benefit me positively, but it really has. It's helped me come out of my shell a little bit and it's also helped me learn to, yeah, be a better listener and to talk. I've learned a lot of skills, like an enormous amount of skills, from interviewing skills, to audio editing skills, to music making and so on.
I guess, gosh, it's changed me a lot. Weirdly though, one thing I've noticed is it hasn't changed this aspect of me which I'd like changed! Which is that I'm never satisfied. It's one of the things I've noticed is a feature of my personality. I remember being there as an undergraduate and thinking that the only thing that'll make me happy is if I got into a great graduate program, and I get there and I'm miserable! Then I think I just gotta get a tenure track job and I get it and I'm happy for a while but then it's like, I'm disaffected, it feels like a grind. So then I think, if only I make these podcasts, that would be super cool. So I start doing that and I get some success at it, but I'm just like, "Oh my god, this is a grind I wish I could stop!" That hasn't changed and I think that it's not going to.
I think one of the lessons is - and any adult will tell you this - everything that becomes a job becomes, well, a job, right? That's just the way it is, there's nothing more. Be careful what you wish for because what you wish for, it could become your job - and then it's a job! There's always gonna be really annoying and frustrating things about any job. So, for instance, I think some people who think about public philosophy have these visions of becoming this worldwide-known speaker who gets invited to give talks for like $20,000. Maybe that'll happen, right? Suppose that happens. Then you got to get to the airport two hours in advance, right? And then you're never at home and you want to see your dog! Then it's the sixteenth time that you've given that same talk, but you're given a $100,000 dollars for it. That's just the way life is! I'm always not satisfied and that's true of the work too. Each episode I always come away thinking it wasn't that good, next season I could do better. I'm not fully satisfied, ever.
Ciaran: Well, let’s see if you’re satisfied with the questions I’ve asked! That's pretty much covered everything at my end, but was there anything you felt we haven't addressed at all, or anything that we have brought up that you want to expand on?
Barry: I think what's important to me when I'm doing these interviews and hopefully reaching people who are in philosophy, is that I want people to want to do their public facing work in this genre, whether or not it's for my show or not, I want people to see that there actually is a value to yourself and to the world when you present philosophy through narrative storytelling or journalism, or something like that. Because, there's gonna always be a sub-portion of the population that just naturally thinks philosophically and is attracted to it. That's a very small subset of the bigger set of human beings who are attracted by interesting storytelling. People know this from just teaching, right? You teach a hundred students, three are gonna be majors, and the other ninety-seven, some like it but they're done with it, and some will have not liked it! And out of all one hundred of them, ninety eight of them will probably really like the new Marvel Avengers movie! Or will walk by a tabloid and read about the woman who thinks she's Anne Frank. It's just the way human beings are wired. So what I'm telling philosophers is tap into that, maybe not in all of your work, but in some of it. Recognise that that's what you're tapping into. Tap into that and maybe they'll get some philosophy out of it.
Ciaran: Great point to end on. Thanks Barry!
Barry: No worries!
Barry Lam. Image by Melissa Surprise.