Five Questions with Philosophy Talk’s Ken Taylor and John Perry

[This interview was conducted via email in February 2005 and published in a local (metro Atlanta) freethought newsletter. Dr. Taylor died in 2019, but Philosophy Talk is still going strong with Dr. Perry and other co-hosts. –JCS 12/24/2021]

Philosophers love to talk. And talk and talk and talk. Give a philosopher your ear and he’ll talk all night. But what happens when you arm two philosophers with microphones and let them duke it out?

Philosophy Talk, hosted by Kenneth Taylor and John Perry (both with Stanford University’s Department of Philosophy) airs live every Tuesday at noon (PST) [Sundays at noon] on San Francisco’s KALW 91.7FM. And don’t worry, if you don’t live in San Fran, you can listen live on the internet! Previous shows are also indefinitely archived on the Philosophy Talk website (http://www.philosophytalk.org). Taylor and Perry tackle the “big issues” (everything from consciousness, the nature of evil, science vs. religion, animal rights, the meaning of life), all in an easy-going and straightforward way that’s devoid of the contentiousness that infects most talk radio.Philosophy Talk is “the program that questions everything… except your intelligence.”

Q: How did you guys become involved with Philosophy Talk?

Ken Taylor: John had an idea, long before I joined the department, for a radio show, sort of loosely modeled on Car Talk. John will say he kind of let it sit there and didn’t do much about it. All I know is that when he first mentioned it to me, it struck me as a really cool idea. I expected that John would be great on radio. He has a natural, easy and often hilarious wit. Plus, he’s an incredibly good philosopher and just a wise man. So I thought it would be fun to work with him. I thought maybe I could be his straight man and maybe be more of a hot passionate voice to his cooler voice. But an idea is a long way from being on the air. It took us quite a while to get airtime. We started out with a pilot produced in house here at Stanford. That eventually led to our hooking up with Ben Manilla, of Ben Manilla Productions. Lots of people were skeptical that we could make philosophy interesting to a general audience, even an educated reflective audience of the sort that listens to public radio. Three years later we are on the air, and headed into our second season, but we’re on in a pretty limited way. We’ll see where we go from here. Thanks to the internet, the reach of the show seems to be exceeding the reach of the radio signals from the stations that carry us.

John Perry: That’s about right. I loved Car Talk and it made me think if public radio audiences can listen to intelligent conversation about cars, why not about philosophy. Although Click and Clack are funny, I think it is the detective work and the back-and-forth analysis of problems that engages a lot of the audience. So, since philosophy is intrinsically more interesting than cars, even though Ken and I are intrinsically less funny than Tom and Ray, there should be a balance there. 

Q: Is there any topic you won’t feature on the show? Something that’s just too nuclear to touch?

Ken: So far, we haven’t censored ourselves at all. I don’t imagine we ever will. We aren’t advocates for anything except clear thinking and dispassionate rationality. So why should we ever need to censor ourselves? I’m sure there are people who are made uncomfortable by clear thought and dispassionate rationality—our current president [George W. Bush] comes to mind—but I doubt they’d be listening to the program anyway.

John: I don’t think we would avoid topics because they are too nuclear too touch, but some topics that are philosophically quite intriguing may just be too hard to engage a reasonable number of listeners with; e.g., a lot of topics in metaphysics and ontology or the philosophy of mathematics. 

Q: This question might be cliché, but I’ll ask anyway: Who’s your favorite philosopher, and why?

Ken: I’m not sure I have a single favorite philosopher. Probably some combination of Kant, Hume, and [Gottlob] Frege. Kant because he was in my estimation the first truly great student of the human mind. Hume because, unlike Kant, he was what philosophers call a naturalist—and a clear-eyed, courageous naturalist, who didn’t shrink from the consequences of simply seeing human beings as part of the natural order. And Frege because he single-handedly invented modern logic and laid the foundations of the special area of philosophy in which I’ve done most of my scholarly work—the philosophy of language. By the way, I disagree with all three of them on very fundamental issues. In philosophy, though, you often take as heroes those you view as profoundly wrong.

John: Hume is the philosopher I most enjoy reading, and I agree with the spirit of much of his philosophy, as I more or less understand it. Among twentieth century philosophers, [Bertrand] Russell, I’d give him the edge, as a philosopher, over Frege, although he wasn’t as clear a writer and probably too overwhelmed with ideas to develop a few ideas very clearly, as Frege did. Among living philosophers, I find I agree with almost everything I say.

Q: How do you respond to folks who think that philosophy never really solves anything? That all the Big Issues have either been answered thousands of years ago, or are just inherently unsolvable?

Ken: I think that’s much too simple. But there is a point to it also, though not the one that people who say that sort of thing think. 

Part of philosophy’s job is to take problems that are so conceptually confusing and challenging that we can’t even say what even a possible solution could be when we first approach them and to make them conceptually tractable enough that we can turn them into something that, say, science can deal with. 

Philosophy does this by asking a lot of “how possibly” questions. How possibly could matter give rise to consciousness, rationality, intentionality? If you think back to the time of Descartes, say, there were very powerful arguments, made by very smart people, that matter couldn’t possibly give rise to consciousness or thought or rationality. Nothing in the science of those days, by the way, was enough to convince very smart people otherwise. 

Lots of things have contributed to our now believing that it is possible that mind arises out of matter somehow. But one thing that plays an indispensable role is philosophy. We tend to ask “how possibly” when our concepts are greatly in need of sorting out. Once we think very, very hard about these questions and we get clear about how such things are even possible, we tend to turn the remaining questions—the “how actually” questions—over to the scientist or engineer or politician. Because at least one stage of philosophy is “finished” with an issue when it’s no longer a matter of conceptually clarifying such how possibly questions, it can feel as though philosophy doesn’t tell us much about what we really want to know—which is how, for example, a mind actually works.

To answer the how actually question about mind arising out of brain we need someone to tell us the detailed story about how neurons and neurotransmitters and synaptic junctions and the like are organized to give rise to thought and consciousness. It’s not the philosopher’s job to tell such a detailed story. 

My point is that the how actually questions arise and can be fruitfully addressed only after philosophy has already done a great deal of clarifying of the possibilities. Plus, it should be said that once we do start to focus on the how actually questions, that itself gives rise to brand new how possibly questions. So philosophy is off and running again. Philosophy is never done and it isn’t just about great imponderable questions bequeathed to us from the past. Our own best current science, our current political and social arrangements, the arts and literature all keep giving rise to fresh philosophical questions. That’s one of the things we’re trying to demonstrate with Philosophy Talk

John: In a way philosophy’s job isn’t to solve problems but to find new ones. Intellectual problems are what makes the whole intellectual enterprise run. The philosopher is like the two-year-old, constantly asking why questions, and every so often coming up with something that really is puzzling and takes some interesting theory of resolve. Now, consider the Enlightenment. Was it a philosophical solution?  Probably not, but it was quite an accomplishment. Or consider the questions that Hume taught Adam Smith to think about. So, there may not be solutions, certainly agreed upon solutions even to the extent that those are found in science. But there are plenty of very solid accomplishments that have intellectual and social consequences – sometimes for good, sometimes not. Ken said the other day in talking about [the late sex researcher Alfred] Kinsey that science was much better at undermining systems of cultural norms, like those pertaining to sexuality in the first half of the century, than replacing them with something else. I think that is often true of philosophy as well.

Q: Any recommendations on good resources for adults who are interested in studying philosophy on their own?

Ken: The best resource I can think of is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It’s a great online resource, filled with accessible articles on a rapidly growing array of topics, written by some of the best philosophers in the world. Plus, it’s completely free. Combine that with Philosophy Talk and you couldn’t ask for more.

John: Yes, the SEP is great. For a little more gentle introduction I’d suggest the first philosophy book I read, Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy; I suppose it’s getting dated, but the way he combines biographies of people like Spinoza and Schopenhauer with their philosophies is very readable and thought provoking. Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy is fun reading; not always a good source of the best scholarly thinking, but lively, readable and packed full of insight. Both of these books are widely available at used bookstores and library book sales.

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