“Philosophy Talk” talks philosophy for two decades

Nearly 20 years after philosophy professor Ken Taylor (1954-2019) and professor emeritus of philosophy John Perry co-founded the radio show and podcast “Philosophy Talk,” an international audience follows the program on over 100 stations. Through more than 550 episodes — with titles like “Why We Hate?” and “Are We Living in a Simulation?” — the co-hosts humorously introduce listeners to philosophical ideas and their everyday relevancy. 

According to Devon Strolovitch, the show’s long-standing producer, writer, editor and occasional Roving Philosophical Reporter, the seed of the idea came from the radio show “Car Talk,which covered all things automotive from a humorous angle. 

He said that Perry thought, “If these guys could make cars interesting to listen to, surely [I] could do the same with something actually interesting like philosophy.” 

After several years of discussing the concept, Perry found a co-partner who believed in his vision: the late Ken Taylor. While they were initially turned down by KQED in San Francisco after creating two demo episodes, they found a home in KALW, a Bay Area public radio station, and started their live pilot in August 2003. 

Since the show’s launch, a key theme has been the intersection of technology, philosophy and science — unsurprising, considering the show’s origins in Silicon Valley. According to co-host and professor of French and comparative literature Josh Landy, people do not always consider the broader societal impacts of pursuing new frontiers, but they should. Apple, among other tech companies, has resident philosophers on staff who help answer questions on whether something should be created, not can be created, he said.

“The extent that people are inventing new technologies, full steam ahead,” he said. “Move fast and break things. How about slow down and don’t break things?”

The show’s format integrates both social and analytical views to unify what is traditionally a tech v. philosophy conundrum.

“I think they’re really linked. Everybody should be scientifically literate, but everybody should also be culturally literate,” co-host and philosophy professor Ray Briggs said. “One of the other things that philosophy and other art disciples do is teach you how to … take apart an argument and see its parts.” 

“Philosophy Talk” was designed to model this analytical approach. According to Stolovitch, the original co-hosts were “discouraged by the nature of public discourse and thought that philosophy offered a way to shed light, not heat, on contemporary social and political issues along with timeless questions about the ultimate nature of things.”

Landy said it is essential to recognize the importance of thinking critically and finding the “joy of the life of the mind.” With ongoing back and forth and the witty probing of ideas, the co-hosts debate topics based on mutual understanding and respect. 

“I would like listeners who have a strong opinion to end up considering challenges to that opinion … not as threats to themselves, but as ways to entertain a different perspective and learn,” said Briggs. 

Each week, the co-hosts discuss extensively with Laura Maguire Ph.D. ’05, the show’s director of research and occasional co-host, and Strolovitch to finalize an episode topic that both sides can debate the following week. As succinctly captured by the show’s famous tagline, the primary goal of these weekly episodes is to deliver “the program that questions everything, except your intelligence.”  

The show’s appeal can also be attributed to the fact that philosophy is embedded deeply within today’s pop culture, as seen in television shows such as “The Good Place.”

“I knew about the trolley problem before it was cool, but I’m really glad that it’s cool now,” Briggs said. “I think ‘The Good Place’ did a great job of popularizing a lot of philosophy concepts, and I was pretty impressed with how well-researched that show was.”

The podcast also lauds popular movies with a philosophical bent, awarding them their very own Oscar-esque awards called the Dionysus Awards. 

“We invent imaginary categories that movies could win,” Landy said. “We think about the movies of the past year that are philosophically interesting, and we have three different segments where we pit two movies against each other and we’ll talk to a different guest.”

One of last year’s winners, the Disney movie “Cruella” received the show’s Dionysus Award for Best Effort to Redeem 80 Years of Questionable Movie History for its intentional complexity.

The enduring relevance of philosophy after nearly 20 years of the show is evident in the annual granting of awards like the one given to “Cruella.

“I was just a listener before I became a co-host,” said Landy. “It’s amazing that John and Ken created a radio show about philosophy. Just to do that is extraordinary… and you know, there’s still lots to talk about.”