A few months back in response to a blog post where I lauded our podcast over/against other philosophy podcasts, Jon recommended Philosophy Bites, Little Atoms, and Philosophy: The Classics, among others. Two of these have in common that Nigel Warburton is involved, which is a very good thing.
Warburton is a Philosopher and scholar of the history of Philosophy at The Open University and is involved in a number of other things (I won’t pretend to understand how all the Fellowships work). From a media perspective, he’s a polymath, having published books; written, appeared in and produced television and radio programs; contributed to a multimedia museum presentation and recorded a number of podcasts.
Philosophy: The Classics is his reading of excerpts from his book of the same name. Each episode is like a chapter summary, covering one philosopher and text. Clocking in between 12 – 25 minutes or so, Warburton concisely and clearly explicates and explains the major themes in the work, gives some background on the philosopher and provides some criticisms. As introductions for the lay reader, these are hard to beat, but even experienced students of philosophy will benefit from his framing of the motivations, problems, arguments and critiques of the texts. For the topics we have covered in common, the diligent PEL adherent would certainly gain from listening to the corresponding episodes from P: TC (Aristotle, Machiavelli, Descartes, Hobbes, Hume, Mill, Kant) and the lazy PEL listener could even use his casts as a substitute for reading the texts. Here’s the iTunes link.
P: TC is great, but it is through Philosophy Bites, however, where I feel Warburton is making a significant contribution to the world of philosophy that we inhabit, and the larger culture as well. [Although he partners with David Edmonds, Warburton is the primary interlocutor so I'm giving him credit for what I like most about the podcast]. PB is a series of short, focused interviews around philosophical topics, specific philosophers as well as contemporary topics in ethics, politics, etc. The interviewees are subject matter experts (SME) from the world of British academia, both current and past, with the occasional American or Aussie thrown in.
What is impressive about Warburton in each episode of PB is his deep understanding of the topic at issue as well as the SME’s point of view and his ability to turn that into concise, articulate and insightful questions which invite exposition and challenge the guest. This skill is remarkably more difficult than it sounds and he does it phenomenally well – with genuine interest, reserve and occasionally, a bit of British wit. While I am sure many of the interviewees are colleagues and acquaintances, it is not uncommon for them to express what sounds to me to be genuine surprise and delight at Warburton’s insightful questions that cut straight to key issues. I get the sense that many are thrilled to have the opportunity to discuss something about which they are passionate with someone who cares enough not only to give them a forum, but also to be educated on the subject and, most importantly, rhetorically (or perhaps pedagogically) gifted enough to guide the conversation to cover issue, context, significance, position and challenges clearly in a short period of time.
There are well over 100 episodes covering a broad range of topics. I enjoy most of the episodes about historical figures, have gained some insights through the more contemporary issue-focused episodes and have discovered a few personalities I didn’t previously know to whom I really like to listen (A.C. Grayling, Quinton Skinner, Simon Blackburn). Whether selectively or simply working through catalog as I have, I believe most PEL listeners will gain from checking out the podcast as well.
My admiration for Warburton’s style and commitment aside, let me enumerate a few of the ways that he is enriching our intellectual and cultural life:
- He has created a bridge between traditional academia and ‘new media’, bringing philosophers and philosophical issues into broader consciousness with digital mass communication
- Along with the Ideas themselves, he is exposing a broader audience to contemporary philosophy and in turn modern philosophers to an extra-academic audience
- He is tremendously skilled at clearly framing questions and issues in such a way that they can be (mostly) understood by a lay audience in a digestible format
- He’s generously sharing his knowledge of and respect for philosophy and the tradition
- Philosophy Bites is a model for civil discourse, which is in catastrophically short supply not only in this field, but in social/mass media in general
A few of the limitations of the podcast, which are not criticisms:
- It is fairly limited to the British/Analytic tradition and approach. The majority of the participants are from British universities.
- Depending on the topic and guest, there can be a lot of “-isms” thrown around.
- Some of the dinosaur guests trot out the tired ‘clarity’ & ‘rigor’ refrain and do some continental bashing, which is tedious and unhelpful
- Some of the topics may not have a lot of relevance for our peer audience (e.g. The Problem of Evil)
You’ll find that the comments on iTunes more or less reflect my opinion. I want to reiterate, however, that Warburton through Philosophy Bites and other media is using his not inconsiderable skill, intellect, knowledge and experience as well as leveraging his network to bring Philosophy to a much broader audience and to do so in a way that hopefully will engage them. It’s free and he’s demonstrated commitment over time and a generosity of spirit which is to be commended. And so, I do. Thank you, Nigel Warburton.
[ADDENDUM - Nigel sent me a very nice note of thanks and noted that David Edmonds is involved in the conception, structuring and editing of the interviews, the last of which is critical to making the episodes as coherent and smooth as they are. We, certainly Mark, can appreciate that.
He also noted that there is a Philosophy Bites application now, which you can find here. Use this code JFTH9NEXEHWL in the next couple of weeks for a free download.]