Episode 89: John Collins discusses language universals
In this episode, John Collins discusses the philosophical significance of Noam Chomsky's theory of universal grammar, along with some of the scientific evidence for it.
Episode 141: Rob Goodman discusses eloquence
This time around, Matt sits down with Rob Goodman to talk about political eloquence. Goodman is the author of a new book on this topic called Words on Fire, which you can pick up a copy of wherever you like to get books. Can you think of the last time you saw someone give a rousing speech? They step up to the podium with throngs of onlookers staring at them. Somehow, rather than nervously scampering offstage or melting into a puddle, they speak off the cuff in a way that transfixes everyone listening. Their words feel fresh, sincere, and yet somehow also perfect, like a movie star nailing their big scene on the first take. You’d think that someone speaking from the heart would falter or stumble the way the rest of us do, but against all odds, this feels both maximally authentic and maximally polished.What is it that makes a speaker compelling to listen to? Rob Goodman thinks that in order to understand what eloquence is, we need to look not just at the person up on stage and how they’re talking, but how the people in the audience are responding, and how the speaker is responding to their responses, and how they’re responding to the responses to their responses, and so on, ad infinitum. What makes eloquence happen isn’t really individual speakers talking in vacuum, so much as it is groups of people conversing together. Or at least that’s his idea. Eloquence isn’t just one person speaking skillfully; it’s several people conversing skillfully.In this episode, our distinguished guest also argues that when a public speech goes well, it goes well because both the person speaking and the people listening are taking some risks. The person speaking is sort of on the spot, risking embarrassment, and the people listening might have to rethink their prior beliefs, which takes a lot of work, at least assuming they make an effort to live by their beliefs. When a speech does what it’s supposed to, these risks are shared between all parties, rather than farmed off onto just one. But when the speaker tries to give the appearance of taking risks without actually doing so, you end up with the audience shouldering 100% of the burden, and the exchange ends up somewhat dysfunctional. This, argues our guest, is what happens when politicians go to great lengths to control or sanitize the environment in which they speak, so that no matter what, they don’t embarrass themselves. Sort of like riding a roller coaster with a safety bar.Tune in to hear more about what makes for a great speech!Matt Teichman
Episode 140: Meghan Sullivan and Paul Blaschko discuss the good life
Intro philosophy classes often get stuck in a rut. Some philosophy classes go through a list of old dead people and try to understand excerpts from some of their most influential writings, over the course of a semester. Could be something like: Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Mill, and Nietzsche. Other types of intro classes go through a list of topics that contemporary philosophers feel are canonical and have students read papers on those topics. Could be something like: the problem of evil, the mind-body problem, arguments for the existence (or non-existence) of God, the is/ought distinction, and external world skepticism. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with that type of class per se—I’d bet a lot of listeners tune into Elucidations precisely because of a kickass class they took on those lines. But sometimes, an instructor will quickly throw a syllabus like that together just out of a general feeling that that’s what you’re supposed to do. Not because the syllabus consists of material that they personally feel excited about. When that happens, what we often end up with is a room full of people who kinda don’t know what they’re doing there, including both the teacher and the students.This month’s Elucidations guests have a different approach. Their first-year students come from all different backgrounds and majors, and when they walk in, Sullivan and Blaschko immediately ask them: what are you planning to do with your life? Why? What do you hope to get out of it? What is it that makes this plan superior to others? This format still gives the usual suspects like Aristotle, Mill, etc. a seat at the table, but now they’re brought in specifically to help students figure out what they’re going to do when they graduate. Part of what makes this work is that Sullivan and Blaschko are completely open about sharing their own life stories, including big decisions from their past and the reasoning that went into them.With these background conditions in place, the class turns into a vibrant debate about how to make a future for yourself, thus bringing philosophy back into contact with its original mission from 2500 years ago in ancient Athens. Namely: to give everyone the skills they need to live a good life, to understand what makes the life they’re living good, and to define what a good life is going to look like for them personally, as opposed to for other people.Their course at The University of Notre Dame, God and the Good Life, has taken the higher education world by storm, and in order to bring some of what they’re up to to a bigger audience, they have adapted it into a new book from Penguin Press, called The Good Life Method. Tune into this month’s episode to learn all about how to live your best life!Further ReadingIf you’re interested in getting a glimpse of the book, you can look at excerpts from it here:The Good Life Method, Meghan Sullivan and Paul BlashckoYou can also take a look at the authors' personal website, which contain links to many of their writings on this and other topics:Meghan SullivanPaul BlaschkoHappy reading!Matt Teichman
Episode 139: Jessica Tizzard discusses the philosophy of pregnancy
This month, Jessica Tizzard (University of Tuebingen) makes her second appearance on Elucidations to talk to Matt about pregnancy.Human pregnancy is weird. Try talking to a reproductive endochrinologist about it, and you’ll soon find that there’s a lot we don’t really understand about it even at the scientific level. But even when it comes to thinking about pregnancy at the commonsense reasoning level, puzzles begin popping up the second you start trying to think about it systematically. Like, consider the commonsense idea that a fetus is ‘inside’ the person who is pregant with it. They clearly are, in the sense that they aren’t out and about in the world the way a marsupial fetus is. But if you think about how containment and interiority are defined mathematically, there’s also a sense in which the fetus can’t literally be inside the womb, because in order for one thing to be inside another they have to be physically disconnected.In this episode, Jessica Tizzard argues that our commonsense thinking about pregnancy is dominated by ‘container’ metaphors: i.e. we think about a fetus inside a womb the way we think about a cookie inside a jar. However, she thinks that ‘parthood’ analogies are often an equally good fit for how a fetus relates to the person pregnant with it. That is, there are also biological analogies you could draw between a fetus and a body part: a body part is seamlessly physically connected to the body it’s a part of, and a body part is subject the same organism-level system of homeostatic regulation that the rest of the body is.The next step is to start thinking about how these observations ramify morally. Can acknowledging that the ‘parthood’ way of thinking is at least as biologically accurate as the ‘container’ way of thinking help shed light on what kinds of duties a pregnant person has to their as-yet unborn fetus? Join Matt and Jessica as they dive right into these thorny but important questions!Further ReadingOur distinguished guest recommends the following literature on pregnancy, which she draws on heavily in her own work:‘Lady Parts’, Elselijn Kingma‘Were You a Part of Your Mother?’, Elselijn Kingma‘9 Months’, Elselijn Kingma‘Neonatal Incubator or Artifical Womb?’, Elselijn Kingma and Suki Finn‘Abortion, Intimacy, and the Duty to Gestate’, Margaret Olivia LittleHappy reading!Matt Teichman