Given how many episodes we’ve done, even we lose track of where we’ve been. We aim (among other things) to present the equivalent of an introductory course in all the major areas of philosophy. Here’s where I’ll periodically comment on our progress. Feel free to weigh in on our direction suggest additional topics as comments to this page.
- Consequentialism (episode 9 on Bentham and Mill), which starts ethics by determining what’s the optimal state of affairs.
- Deontology (episode 10 on Kant), which starts ethics by determining principles for right action.
- Virtue ethics (episode 5 on Aristotle, and also episode 40 on Plato).
With those basics out of the way, our next step was meta-ethics: How can moral commands exist in a natural universe? We covered Nietzsche (episodes 11 and 84) and one on moral sense theory (Hume and Adam Smith), and Owen Flanagan spoke to us about naturalistic ethics in episode 53. For the sake of completeness, I’ll include Spinoza’s deterministic ethics (episode 25) in this context. On the flip side, Plato in the Euthyphro (episode 46) argues that morality can’t be just be reducible to the attitudes of God, and G.E. Moore (episode 58) argues that morality can’t be reducible to any factual claims, whether natural or supernatural. Also in the Moore episode, C.L. Stevenson argues that ethical claims just express emotions; they aren’t claims at all. Alasdair MacIntyre (covered more fully in episode 59) argues that without something like Aristotle’s notion of teleology, all ethical claims will be groundless. MacIntyre’s challenge was prefigured by G.E.M. Anscombe (episode 88), who argued that all our modern moral language presupposed some kind of divine command theory, so we either need to throw it away completely or return to something more like Aristotle’s teleology.
Related to this is moral psychology: how do we smooth-skinned animals come to think about moral considerations? We interviewed Pat Churchland in episode 41 about the neurobiology of ethics and discussed moral development patterns according to Carol Gilligan in episode 42.
Moral responsibility is the primary concern of any discussion of free will, and in episode 93, we considered Galen Strawson’s claim that moral responsibility is impossible given that free will doesn’t make sense, and his father P.F. Strawson’s counter-claim that we simply have to treat each other as morally responsible regardless of our metaphysical convictions about free will. For a very different take on this, see episode 87 for Sartre’s views on freedom and self-deception.
More broadly, the fundamental question of philosophy, “how should I approach the world” yields approaches that aren’t quite ethics but are closer to that than to epistemology. Though you’ll get some of this in many of our readings, those most conforming to this picture that we discussed are:
- Plato’s Apology and the unexamined life (episode, 1 part 1 and part 2), with more detail about how philosophy (as opposed to rhetoric) pursues the good life in Plato’s Gorgias (episode 69).
- Emerson (episode 102) and Thoreau (episode 103) tell us how to be an individual and live deliberately.
- Schopenhauer tells us how to be philosophers: to think, read, and write (episode 94)
- Taoism (episode 12 on Chuang Tzu)
- Montaigne (episode 33)
- Heidegger on our proper relation to Being (episode 80)
- Camus on existentialism (episode 4). We got another glimpse of existentialist-type approaches to ethics in our discussion of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men (episode 63) and a variation of this when in Rand’s ethical egoism (episode 78), which professed to give a whole life-approach based on observation of facts and contemplation of the concepts that she thinks are adduced from such facts.
Looking ahead, we hope to get to more of the classical ethical schools (Epicurus, the stoics) before too long, and will have some more existentialist/phenomenological ethics.
- Plato’s Republic (episode 40), the original Utopian vision that asks us what would be the optimal society?
- Aristotle (episode 60)
- Machiavelli (episode 14)
- Hobbes on the social contract (episode 3)
- Locke on the social contract (episode 37)
- Rousseau on the social contract (episode 23)
- Madison and Hamilton in the Federalist Papers on the challenges of organizing government (episode 65)
- With Hegel, we got both a wide-angle view with his account of the progression of history (episode 15) a close-up of the “master-slave” dialectic, which is his version of the social contract in episodes 35 and 36.
- Marx (episode 70) elaborated a specifically materialist version of this progression through history, describing human nature as best described by describing how we make a living at any given point in history, and governments and philosophy itself as driven ultimately by economics.
- For a more modern take on social contract theory, we read John Rawls’s Theory of Justice (episode 85). This was followed up in considering some counter-proposals t Rawls, via Robert Nozick’s libertarianism in episode 104 and Michael Sandel’s communitarianism in episode 97.
- We also talked in episode 98 to Michael Sandel himself about how markets have increasingly taken over society.
- For more on the relation of the individual to society, we discussed Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents in episode 26.
- A feminist utopian vision came out in our discussion in episode 42 of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel Herland.
- We got into some realpolitik discussion in episode 52 on race.
- We talked some applied political policy in episode 72 on terrorism.
- We made some attempt to discuss the cross section of politics and religion in episode 44 on the new atheists (e.g. Christopher Hitchens’s view of the religious character of totalitarianism and Sam Harris on how religion leads to violence).
- We delved into the job system with Frithjof Bergmann in episode 83; how can we change the way work is structured?
- Our episode 64 on fame with Lucy Lawless featured discussion of the political dynamics of fame, including its quasi-religious nature.
- We considered the relation between science advisers and politics in episode 96 on Oppenheimer and others.
- Empiricism (episode 17 on Hume, plus we get a good idea of Bertrand Russell’s view in episode 38)
- Rationalism (episode 18 on Plato as well as episode 2 on Descartes; we got a more rationalist/Platonist take on math in episode 95 on Gödel)
- Skepticism (episode 106, about Sextus Empiricus’s writings on the tradition that started with Pyrrho)
- Pragmatism (episode 20 on C.S. Peirce and William James, continued on episode 22, plus a dash of contemporary pragmatism in episode 28’s Nelson Goodman discussion)
- Logical Positivism, an early-mid 20th century development of empiricism and pragmatism, is discussed in episode 8 on Wittgenstein and Carnap, with the details of Carnap’s constructional system outlined in episode 67. Quine, often cited as the “undertaker of logical positivism” was discussed in episode 66.
- Kantianism (episode 19, with even more detail on Kant’s view in episode 20 on Schopenhauer). While the early Nietzsche (episode 61) appears to be saying something radical about truth, he’s basically echoing Schopenhauer and Kant’s epistemology, while making a new point about the strangeness of our “will to truth.”
- If you think epistemology is basically unnecessary because science just obviously gives us objective truth, you might want to listen to our critique of Ayn Rand (episode 78) on this subject.
Much of our reading in continental philosophy is following up on Kantianism, retaining Kant’s view that perception is not a mind apprehending an independent reality while getting rid of his notion of the “thing-in-itself” independent of our experience.
- In episode 35, we provided an overview of Hegel’s view, which I think established the view that persisted through most more recent continental philosophy
- Edmund Husserl (episode 31) established the modern enterprise of phenomenology that attempts to describe “the structures of experience,” i.e. doing empiricism in a way that corresponds what we actually experience.
- Heidegger (episode 32) similarly thinks that skepticism is a non-issue; we’re already indubitably engaged with the world prior to any kind of inquiry.
- We get into some of the details given this starting point in considering the phenomenology of Sartre (episode 47) and Merleau-Ponty (episode 48).
- The other epistemic response within the continental tradition is linguistic: phenomenology is impossible because our experience is tainted by concepts, and concepts can’t be referred back directly to perceptions, but are part of an insular culturally produced structure. We discussed this a bit in episode 51 on Derrida and others, episode 74 on Lacan, episode 75 on Lacan and Derrida, and in episodes 55 and 56, we considered a similar strain in the analytic philosophy tradition by reading Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. The point was also made in a different context by Cornel West (episode 52).
What else is ahead? More pragmatism. More philosophy of science. Yet more phenomenology, existentialism, and post-modernism.
- Leibniz’s Monadology (episode 6), which actually laid out a full metaphysical system.
- Spinoza’s attempt (episode 24) to reconcile naturalism and the existence of God (by defining God as nature itself). A primary question of metaphysics is the existence of God; we considered the classical arguments in favor of this in episode 43.
- The early Wittgenstein’s picture (in episode 7) on “facts” as the ultimate logical components of the universe. For an analytic philosopher, discussions of metaphysics often turn on what metaphysical commitments are supposedly made by our practices in language and logic/math. We discussed Gottlob Frege’s view in episode 34 that the referents of even terms like unicorn refer to something that our ontology (list of things that exist) has to take into account. Carnap (episode 67), following in this tradition, tried to fill out the details of something like Wittgenstein’s project, while Quine (episode 66) challenged it in favor of a minimal, naturalist ontology, where philosophy is seen as continuous with science. We saw a more overtly metaphysical take updating Carnap’s project with David Chalmers (episode 68).
- For a phenomenologist, metaphysics gets more or less replaced by descriptions of the world of our experience. In this vein, we discussed proto-phenomenologist Henri Bergson (episode 92) and Heidegger on “Being” (episode 32). Whitehead (episode 110) also tries to explain how what we experience (“events”) can be analyzed to yield the entities that science needs (objects, motion, space, and time)
- Our episode 13 on quantum mechanics (Werner Heisenberg, with some discussion of Einstein) gave a quick overview of the Pre-Socratics (“everything is water!” “no, everything is fire!”).
- We looked at pre-Socratic Heraclitus in particular (usually but mistakenly described as the metaphysics of flux) in episode 79.
- A Buddhist challenge to metaphysics is presented in episode 27 on Nagarjuna. A different approach to Buddhism using a naturalist metaphysics is briefly discussed in episode 53 with Owen Flanagan.
- The mind-body problem is arguably metaphysical: if “mind” isn’t a substance like Descartes thought, then how can we best understand it? We discussed this in episode 21 on Turing, Ryle, Nagel, Searle, and Dennett.
We’ll be doing more “metaphysics proper,” e.g. we’ve had an Aristotle episode planned for a long time. We’d also like to look more into modern cosmology, i.e. the findings of recent science, and much more into the philosophy of mind.
- Arthur Danto (whose ideas about modern art are discussed in episode 16) has personally prohibited me from calling this category “aesthetics.”
- We also covered Nelson Goodman (#28 on art as a symbol system)
- Kant on beauty (#105), which is of course mostly about Kant and not so much about beauty
- Edmund Burke on the sublime (#107)
- George Santayana on beauty (#77)
We’re planning one on the romantics (Herder or Schopenhauer), on on Adorno, and would like to go into more specific areas of art: music, film, poetry, etc.
Relatedly, we’ve covered Henri Bergson’s philosophy of humor and will do another episode or two on humor, since we’re now making more contact with comedians to have on as guests.
Also related to this is philosophy of literature, which we introduced with our discussion of Saussure and Levi-Strauss (episode 51), which gives some of the groundwork for what is now called “critical theory.” We followed up on this by looking at Lacan and Derrida’s take on a story by Edgar Allan Poe (episode 75). During episode 63 on Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, we talked about how philosophy can be conveyed through fiction, including science fiction, for which we spoke with David Brin about his novel Existence for episode 90 (followed up by more in 91). We’ve read some other philosophical novels: Charlotte Perkins-Gilman’s Herland (episode 42), Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (episode 50), and Voltaire’s Candide (episode 62). (No, philosophical dialogues don’t really count as fiction.)
- Episode 43 considers the major historical arguments for the existence of God (Aquinas, Anselm, Paley, with some discussion of Plantinga and Swinburne; we read a book by J.L. Mackie.
- Episode 101 on Maimonides considers some logical puzzles surrounding the notion of God and the view that God can’t have any properties at all.
- Episode 39 on Freidrich Schleiermacher gives a picture of faith that is largely non-cognitivist: it doesn’t make claims that could conflict with those of science.
- Episode 71 on Martin Buber gives an other phenomenologically grounded picture of religion
- Episode 22 covers William James’s “The Will to Believe.”
- Episode 44 discusses “new atheist” critiques of religion.
- Episode 46 considers the relationship between religion and ethics according to Plato.
- Episode 27 presents the fundamentals of Mahayana Buddhism.
- Episode 53 emphasizes different aspects of Buddhism (particularly modern forms primarily influenced by early Therevadan sources).
- Episode 12 on the Chuang Tzu goes into the fundamentals of Taoism.
- Our episode 29 on Kierkegaard focused more on psychology than faith per se, but still gives a vivid picture of an existentialist breed of religion.
- Episode 62 on Voltaire’s Candide delves a bit into the Problem of Evil, but doesn’t go into a lot of depth.
We’ve got a few more tentatively planned: one on Paul Ricoeur (about the “hermeneutics of suspicion”) and another non-Western one (on the Upanishads or Confucius or Zen).
We’ve introduced philosophy of science with Karl Popper (episode 82) and Thomas Kuhn (episode 86). We also discussed scientific ethos on episode 96 and taken on some actual quantum physics in episode 13. We got a bit into futurism by introducing transhumanism (episode 91).
As I mentioned above, we’d like to do more in philosophy of mind (we’ve only really done episode 21, plus a consideration of the dangers of artificial intelligence in our interview with Nick Bostrom for episode 108), in all the areas listed above, and the more philosophically relevant findings of contemporary science.