Philosophy Talk Brings Theory to the People

And now it's coming to The Marsh Berkeley.

At first blush, a show devoted to philosophy and hosted by two academics is about as unlikely a concept for a radio program as you’ll find. No one’s quicker to admit that than Ken Taylor, one of the creators of Philosophy Talk. “Well, I wouldn’t say it’s crazy, but it goes against the grain of what most radio is,” he said. After all, talk radio tends to favor sexy, slickly produced, fast-paced news and opinion — not the long, languid discussions of abstract concepts and dead intellectuals often associated with philosophy. The label “philosophy” alone, with all its connotations, could easily alienate the average radio listener — even the average public-radio listener, for that matter. “I think if we had to do it over again, we might not include the word ‘philosophy’ in the title,” Taylor laughed. “People think philosophy is abstract, difficult, abstruse, inaccessible.” It scares people off.

When Taylor and co-host John Perry, both professors at Stanford University, first pitched the concept at a radio conference, they were met with cold shoulders, arched eyebrows, and the occasional polite listener — plus, fortunately, one serious believer: San Francisco-based radio producer Ben Manilla. But even then, it was a long-shot; there was no market research to suggest that this kind of show would work, and Taylor and Perry had next to nothing in the way of radio experience. But seven years later, Philosophy Talk has acquired something of a cult following, playing on forty-odd public radio stations across the country (including, locally, KALW 91.7).

That success owes largely to the care that Taylor and Perry put into preparing each episode. Each show centers on a cohesive theme — Neitzsche, for example, or genetic determinism, or leadership — and follows a three-part story arc, with a beginning, middle, and end. The hosts are careful to frame the issue at the top of the show, use concrete language, and break up the headiness with short, funny segments, like Ian Shoales‘ “Sixty-Second Philosopher.” Since many of their guests are academics, Taylor said, he and Perry try to train them to ditch the jargon, speak linearly, and use terms that non-philosophers would understand. It also doesn’t hurt that Taylor and Perry are naturally charismatic, funny, and well-spoken, and that they have a clear rapport between them. Philosophy Talk sounds less like a lecture than a conversation between two of your smartest friends — Car Talk for the philosophy set, perhaps. “The idea is, we want to use the show to help enliven public discourse, and we want to communicate to thoughtful people who aren’t necessarily philosophers,” Taylor said. “It can reach out to ordinary thinking, reflective people, and give them new ways of looking at the world and looking at themselves — to have a conversation that ferrets out assumptions and digs deep. I believe that people are hungry for this, people are hungry for what we do, just not necessarily under the title ‘philosophy.'”

On Sunday, April 24, Taylor and Perry will record two of their upcoming shows live at The Marsh Berkeley (2120 Allston Way, Berkeley). The first, starting at noon, is entitled “Gay Pride and Prejudice” and features anthropologist Gilbert Herdt, author of Moral Panics, Sex Panics: Fear and the Fight Over Sexual Rights. The second, starting at 3 p.m. concerns the philosophical and lingual basis for conceptions of agency and responsibility. $15.

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