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Episode 141: Rob Goodman discusses eloquence

Ep. 141

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

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10/5/2022

Episode 143: Mark Linsenmayer discusses alternative models of education

Ep. 143
This episode, Matt Teichman talks to Mark Linsenmayer about alternative models of education. Mark is creator and host of the Partially Examined Life, Nakedly Examined Music, Pretty Much Pop, and Philosophy vs. Improv podcasts. He is also the author of the recent book, Philosophy For Teens.There’s going to college and there’s listening to podcasts. Both can give you a way to learn new things, so in that general sense, both can count as forms of education. Going to college has advantages over listening to podcasts when it comes to learning—a college class can kick off a feedback loop where you’re given work to do, then you’re given one-on-one feedback on that work, then you do more work, and so on. In the best college classes, there’s a dynamic interplay between the state of your understanding and what happens next in the lesson. That means that at least for people who end up connecting with the college experience—not necessarily everyone, but some significant number of people—being in college has a certain intensity to it. It feels like you’re gaining understanding at a more concentrated dose.That said, though, in addition to these upsides, there is a downside to college, which is that it ends! The learning is nice and concentrated, but it’s also relatively short compared to listening to podcasts, which you can do for way more than just four years—theoretically, it’ll be possible for as long as the technology exists. (And it’s showing no signs of ever going away.) Sure, people can’t just go to college forever. If literally every single person went to college for their entire lives and no one ever did any of the work that makes society function, it wouldn’t be clear how we’d keep the lights on, run hospitals, create enough food for everyone to eat, build houses for everyone to live in, etc. At the same time, a lot of college students have the joyous experience of having their intellectual horizon expanded for four years, only to get suddenly thrust into a demanding work environment upon graduation that may not afford time for all that. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a way to embark upon your career while not giving up on exploratory learning? At least not entirely?This is where podcasts come in, according to our guest. They let you continue to explore new topics with a more free-form, lower-stakes structure. Maybe you don’t know whether you want to know more about something yet, but you suspect you might, and that’s enough. The fact that listening to a podcast doesn’t have to end means you can do it at your own pace, and more fundamentally, that you won’t suddenly go from having it to not having it anymore—the way it always seems to happen with formal education.Tune in to hear Mark Linsenmayer explain the kind of experience he seeks to foster in his listeners by way of four (!!) different podcasts!
8/2/2022

Episode 142: Emily Dupree discusses the rationality of revenge

Ep. 142
In this episode of Elucidations, Matt sits down with Emily Dupree to learn about whether it’s rational or irrational to try to seek revenge.As a culture, we kind can’t decide what we think about revenge. Out of one side of our mouths, we talk a big game about letting bygones be bygones, about how revenge and retaliation lead to cycles of violence, and about how nothing good can really come of getting back at people. But acts of revenge, where clearly warranted, also have a visceral moral appeal that it would be absurd to deny. If we didn’t think there were at least some situations in which a person ought to get their comeuppance, then there wouldn’t be so many heroic adventure movies centered around the protagonist’s quest for revenge. When the hero gets back at the villain, it just feels right, like the movie needs to end here and we can all go home; and no amount of pedantic, post-hoc reasoning can ever make that feeling go away.Solving that dilemma is hard, but as a way of working up to it, our distinguished guest decides to tackle a slightly different question. Not: can seeking revenge ever be the right thing to do—but: can seeking revenge ever be a rational thing to do. Traditionally, most philosophers have answered that question in the negative. Calling it irrational means that it’s senseless and unintelligible, like anyone who does it is undergoing a (possibly temporary) lapse in their basic mental faculties. The reason most philosophers think that it’s irrational to take revenge is that there’s no way to undo the wrong that was done to you in the past. If Person A did something truly horrible to Person B, that thing doesn’t get undone when Person B does a new horrible thing to Person A. And if that’s the case, why do it? Doing it is all cost and no benefit.In this episode, Emily Dupree argues that in fact, it can be rational to take revenge. How come? It isn’t all cost and no benefit, because in some cases, successfully taking revenge can lead to a unique benefit: namely, the restoration of the vengeance seeker’s moral personhood. For the unique benefit to come, certain background conditions have to hold: the original harm has to have been genuinely morally wrong, it has to have been as egregious as it can be (so it can’t be minor/inconsequential), it has to have taken place under conditions of the political state failing, and it has to have undermined the vengeance seeker’s moral personhood. In that case, it is possible for an act of vengeance to be intelligible as an attempt on the part of the vengeance seeker to get their moral personhood back. Note that our guest isn’t saying the vengeance seeker is right to seek vengeance in these circumstances. The view is just that seeking vengeance under these circumstances can be comprehensible, rather than just bonkers.Tune in to hear our guest discuss some historical examples of revenge that we can comprehend!Matt Teichman
4/10/2022

Episode 140: Meghan Sullivan and Paul Blaschko discuss the good life

Ep. 140
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