Philosophy Bakes Bread podcast

How Can Philosophy Bake Bread?

Philosophy Bakes Bread is a radio show and podcast that promotes public philosophy by showcasing philosophy’s relevance for everyday life as well as public policy.  Philosophers including Martha Nussbaum and Tommy Curry have been featured, and Daniel Dennett will be on the show in the spring.  It was launched early in 2017 and is produced by the Society of Philosophers in America (SOPHIA)–which was awarded the 2017 APA/PDC Prize for Excellence and Innovation in Philosophy Programs.  I connected with co-hosts Eric Thomas Weber and Anthony Cashio via email about the show.

Philosophy Bakes Bread logo smallAt the beginning of your podcasts, you have a segment called “Know thyself” where you ask guests about how they came to be interested in philosophy and how they approach it… so I’d like to throw that question back to you!

Eric Thomas Weber: Nice! Well, I’ve always loved to think and to argue. I was told that I should be a lawyer. My greatest interests early on were about how to live a happy life. Most people will say that they want to be happy and to make a difference. Some people will say that they want to make a lot of money in life. I knew that I wanted to make enough money, whatever that was going to mean, but that money wasn’t my goal. What I did wonder a lot about was what would make a person happy, and me in particular, of course. When thinking about that, I found that it was the philosophers who considered that kind of question most seriously. People often come to earn a lot of money, yet can still be very unhappy. “What makes the difference?” I wondered. I loved Aristotle early on, but to be sure, it was Plato who hooked me, with Socrates asking the kinds of questions I would wonder about.

I continue to see philosophy in terms of pursuing happiness. Thinking can help us to be happier, to be smarter, more considerate, and reasonable. It helps me to think about others’ motivations, to question my own when I get upset, and so on. I was drawn to the pragmatists. I love the insight that ideas have seriously important value for real life. Even while I appreciate puzzles and curiosities for their own sake, I also note that it is vital for people to think clearly, cautiously, and with consideration of and goodwill towards others.

Anthony Cashio
Anthony Cashio

Anthony Cashio: I suppose turnaround is fair play. I have always had an interest in philosophical questions, perhaps it was my Catholic upbringing.  But, like many of our guests my interests in philosophy really began to crystalize in the classroom. I was originally studying history but my history professors began to complain that my papers read more like philosophy than history. They encouraged me to take philosophy classes and I was hooked. I quickly fell in love with various philosophical methods, questions, and the history of thought. I had planned to become a lawyer but realized shortly after graduation that I would not be happy unless I found a way to do philosophy for a living.  That has turned out to be a fantastic decision; every day I get to share my passion and enthusiasm for philosophy with others.

I love asking our guests how they would define philosophy. Their answers are always quite insightful. I take a broad view of philosophy. In my work and in my teaching, I approach philosophy as the art of living a full human life. It is the intentional practice of seeking to understand what it means to live a life full of meaning and purpose. Whether wrestling with contemporary questions in the philosophy of mind or working to understand the writings of ancient philosophers, philosophy is the study of and reflection upon what it means to be a human being living and struggling and doing your best in the world. The study of philosophy is the development of skills and virtues to let us clearly, cautiously, and critically understand and grapple with life’s puzzles and problems. And, if we are lucky it might even lead to a bit of happiness.

Philosophy Bakes Bread Skype Recording © Daniel Brunson
Philosophy Bakes Bread Skype Recording © Daniel Brunson

Why a podcast?  How did it come about?

ETW: In my studies of the pragmatists, I found a hero and role model in John Dewey. He was a frequent contributor to newspapers. He gave interviews, public lectures, and occasional radio addresses. He was deeply engaged with the public and was the quintessential public philosopher. In addition to writing traditional scholarship, I have ventured into newspaper writing and public addresses as well. Philosophy has so much to offer for public leadership, I believe, and there is an incredible need for that contribution. Beyond writing for newspapers, I would give occasional radio and television interviews, following Dewey’s example, and trying to weigh in on important public matters. In discussing next big goals when I was seeking advice, one of my mentors noted that far more people watch television than read newspapers today. The Dewey of our day would be on television and social media. Considering that, when I next gave a radio interview, the host asked me if I would be interested in hosting a show of my own on WRFL Lexington, 88.1 FM radio. It wasn’t TV, but might be an even better medium for philosophy, especially if it ventured into the podcast realm after airing.

A podcast is a fantastic medium for philosophers, since it is one of the new media. Starting off as a radio show first, it can begin with a significant local audience that listens to the station, and then add to it from there all the people around the globe who listen to podcasts these days, which is an ever-growing number. The big challenge, though, concerns accessibility, as the deaf and hard of hearing do not easily have access, especially to radio shows and podcasts, unless they are transcribed. So, we had a lot to learn about ways to get our work transcribed. Plus, it is hard work and thus is not cheap. That said, we’ve got a great person helping us with that, and so our podcasts air first on the radio, second on the podcast feed, and then third in digital text format, shared on our site as well as on Academia.edu. With a transcript, a podcast can serve as a professional and academic reference that can be cited in scholarship or just read by people interested in the show. A transcript also improves search engine optimization as well.

A podcast is a great format because it is conversational in a way that journal articles are not. It’s fun, even if a lot of work. It’s very real public engagement, too. We have people call in and leave voicemails. Others write to us from prison. Listeners contact us on Facebook and Twitter too. Plus, unlike traditional radio, we can see how many people download an episode or all of them, where from, and so on. We’re just getting started, but it’s exciting to see public engagement with philosophical ideas. The feedback we’ve gotten has been incredibly encouraging and rewarding.

On your website, you say that your goal is to showcase the public importance of philosophy, both for our everyday lives and for leadership in the policy world.  Can you expand on the ways in which you hope you can change the world for the better?

I’m presently finishing up a book called A Culture of Justice: On Pragmatism and Fairness. It’s about the ways in which culture can impede or enable the pursuit of justice. Culture is made up of the symbols and language we use, our beliefs, practices, and institutions, handed down from one generation to the next. Philosophers are the gadflies who question our beliefs, and Dewey thought of philosophers as critics of culture. At the same time, philosophers won’t change beliefs, the language we use, nor our institutions, if we only talk to each other, if we fail to make our arguments and insights accessible – both stylistically and in terms of being within reach of the public. So, if philosophers wish not only to enjoy the sun outside of Plato’s cave, but also to reach and help those still inside of it, we must engage in philosophical dialogue in everyday life, and with people beyond the academy.

Philosophy Bakes Bread is a production of the Society of Philosophers in America (SOPHIA), and SOPHIA believes that learning is a two-way street in conversation with the public. Just as Socrates spoke with citizens in Athens, teaching and learning from them, so too should philosophers learn from the public while we bring philosophical thinking to bear on public matters. So, on our show, we have a segment we call “You Tell Me!” We invite our listeners to send us their thoughts. We got a wonderful example of rich feedback from a taxi driver in Lexington named Phil. We have devoted a “Breadcrumb,” a mini-episode, to Phil’s feedback, to which one of our returning guests responded. In the big picture, our efforts aim to contribute, however large or small, to shifting our culture towards the appreciation of wisdom and love of it. We want to emphasize the difference that philosophical thinking can make.

Podcasting is very popular, and there seem to be quite a few philosophical podcasts around.  How is yours unique?

First of all, we’re thrilled that there are many philosophy podcasts, and they’re great for different reasons. One of the common types of philosophy podcast is the sort that offers an introduction to philosophy, like a good course on philosophy, showcasing the range of ideas and thinkers through time, who have responded to traditional questions. Another common type of podcast just focuses on ethical concerns. A smaller set considers the practical value of philosophy for everyday life. Philosophy Bakes Bread falls in that last category. Our show is one of the few or is unique in terms of our audience and delivery, perhaps. We target the show for general listeners, and the value of philosophy we hope to demonstrate is not only for individuals’ lives, but also for leadership and policy. In addition, given that we air on the radio first, and intend to be accessible to a general listenership, we try to be as plain spoken as possible, avoiding or quickly and clearly defining any jargon.

Words like “orality,” “sublimation,” or “normativity” are met with a request for simple definition, to ensure that our listeners can all understand. Those aren’t the only ways to try to bring philosophy down to Earth, however. We also open each show with a segment we call “Know Thyself!” The reason is that we want to make sure our listeners know where our guests are coming from, literally and metaphorically. It can help others to understand you if they know a little more about you.

Editing Philosophy Bakes Bread
Editing Philosophy Bakes Bread

I understand your show’s name comes from the saying that “philosophy bakes no bread.”  How can philosophy bake bread?  Why don’t people need leisure time to think philosophically?

A person certainly can’t eat ideas. That said, the metaphor suggests that philosophy isn’t practical, that it doesn’t address the needs of real life. How many Americans bake their own bread, after all? I do on occasion, but I nearly always buy my bread. The metaphor suggests that ideas in philosophy can’t even buy you the bread that you want and need. The funny thing is that the saying “Philosophy may bake no bread,” featured in a poem illustrating how enormously valuable philosophy is. The poet Novalis wrote:

Philosophy can bake no bread; but she can procure for us God, Freedom, Immortality. Which, then, is more practical, Philosophy or Economy?

So, even in the old saying, it is suggested that philosophy is profoundly more valuable than bread baking or economics.

Even that outlook ignores deeply important truths about philosophy, however. In the U.S. economy, health is one of the greatest expenses that people incur. Every day, hospitals encounter the need for practices informed by, or that should be informed by, philosophical thinking about doctors’ obligations and the consent of patients. Just in one sample context, the hospital ethics committee, we can see the profound practical importance of philosophical concepts and moral considerations.

Who are your listeners?  Who do you hope your listeners will be?

Our listeners are curious people, who like to learn about a lot of different things. The audiences for podcasts in general are more on the tech-savvy side, knowing what a podcast is, or at least knowing enough about social media to listen via our website. Our listeners are also general listeners in Lexington, KY and the surrounding area. They include people like Phil, who drives a taxi in town, as well as Kris and friends in federal prison in Lexington. The radio station, WRFL Lexington, already has a listener base, so we’re lucky to be able to start with that group. As a college station, many listeners are college students, but plenty aren’t in school.  This fall, the show airs at 2pm on Mondays.

Beyond the radio audience, we have podcast listeners from 88 countries, according to our statics on Libsyn.com. The vast majority of listeners are in the United States, followed by the U.K., Australia, Canada, Saudi Arabia, and China. As I write this (early October), we’ve so far had 20,216 downloads, having started the show in its current form in January of this year. The good news is that the growth rate of listenership seems to be speeding up.

I understand that you incorporate a type of conversation with listeners by having presenters back on the show to respond to listeners’ comments – can you tell me more about why that sort of format?

Sure. At first, we had the intention of including listener comments in each episode, in a short “You Tell Me!” segment, but we’ve shifted to the idea of making short episodes for responses to listener feedback, one version of our “breadcrumb” episodes. To have a talk show on WRFL, one has to be a D.J., taking on a time slot, in our case, of two hours. So, while the show aims to run at around an hour in length, we can sometimes let a show run long or record and air an additional mini-episode or two. Remaining time is for station music, but we’ve aired ten “breadcrumb” episodes to date. A breadcrumb episode either is a piece that was “cut off the loaf” of a longer episode, or it is a time and space for replying to listener feedback.

In response to our episode on “Ethics in Dentistry,” one listener asked why we separate dental insurance from traditional insurance, and whether that’s how we ought to operate. Some of our listeners ask questions, but others respond to our “You Tell Me!” prompts. We ask each guest to propose a big question to ask our listeners. The idea is that philosophers have something to offer, but also have plenty to learn from others.

Can you tell me more about the “You Tell Me!”, “Breadcrumbs”, and “Philosophunnies” segments?

The “You Tell Me!” segment is in part a device for the radio show, to solicit listeners’ thoughts and questions. It serves another role, however. As I’ve mentioned, Philosophy Bakes Bread is a production of the Society of Philosophers in America (SOPHIA), which is a chapter and member organization. We’ve only just transitioned into our chapter-based model, but our idea is to create programming that can be used for such group meetings to offer food for thought and conversation. As such, our radio and podcast episodes will each time include questions that groups may choose to ponder together after listening to an episode. So, there are several purposes for the “You Tell Me!” segment.

Breadcrumbs are a kind of format for the show, anywhere between five and 20 minutes long, in contrast with a full hour episode. The idea is that episodes shouldn’t be too long, yet we end up with additional material sometimes that could be great to share in a shorter format. That can sometimes be material that was part of a longer episode, or that was recorded after an official episode ended, when we couldn’t stop the conversation just yet. Or, a breadcrumb could be a special short episode recorded in response to a listener’s feedback.

The “Philosophunnies” segment is thoroughly necessary, Anthony and I thought. Philosophy can be so intimidating to newcomers. Philosophers can seem so serious, to the point of grumpiness. At the same time, we know that philosophy can be fun and funny. It also is engaged in by real people, who know how to take themselves more lightly at times. Most of us do, anyway. So the idea is that it’s important for people to see that philosophers know how to laugh. We can laugh at ourselves, and we can laugh about the things we write and talk about. Even difficult subjects have been useful for us to laugh about. Plus, it’s a reason to tell bad jokes that we enjoy anyway. A returning guest, Dr. Daniel Brunson, pointed out to us a great line about fun from Charles Peirce, that we love. Peirce wrote:

I seriously believe that a bit of fun helps thought and tends to keep it pragmatical.

(CP 5.71)

Where do your ideas for topics come from?

The main source of our topical ideas comes from our relationships. We want to have on the air people who are great philosophers and who are also a lot of fun to talk to. We know so many great philosophers that it makes it very easy to find topics to talk about. In so many cases, a scholar has a recent book or article out. That makes it particularly easy. In other cases, it’s just the general work that the person does that was the inspiration. We then connect with that person and propose a topic he or she could talk about that helps us to illustrate how and why philosophy bakes bread. Of course, current events often prompt us to approach this person or that.

We mainly think about who’s baking some great bread with philosophy. Then we try to get those people on the show. Our good friend, Dr. Tommy Curry, was on the show for Episode 9, to talk about his recent book, The Man-Not, and he’s just been on again, after his public philosophical work was met with 80 death threats and a lot of press. He’s doing vitally important work. Despite the tough subject matter he studies, such as about the frequent death of black men, he is nevertheless a joy to talk to, warm, engaging, and passionate. He and others have been provocative. That’s another important value, which is inherent, we find, in picking people who are fun to talk to and who make great examples of philosophers whose work bakes bread.

Eric Thomas Weber
Eric Thomas Weber

What are the main challenges you face – with podcasting in particular, as well as with public philosophy in general?

The main challenge with podcasting is definitely the time commitment involved. There’s no doubt about that. It’s a lot of work. A key to our success so far has been the commitment to WRFL, the radio station, to be on the air once a week. In my initial work on the pilot for the show, I had created four episodes in a year and half. It was very difficult to keep up with a schedule of an episode every 2-3 months, even. Given the commitment to be on the radio, which started in January, we have since recorded and aired 49 episodes, 44 of which are out as podcast releases so far. We also have transcripts for at least 23 of them too, which is another big step. The commitment is a huge element of getting anywhere with a podcast.

Challenges with public philosophy in general are mostly of two kinds. The first is that philosophers have many needs that other scholars experience, but with far fewer funding sources to support our work than the sciences, for one comparison. The second challenge is internal to the field. While many, like SOPHIA, the APA’s Committee on Public Philosophy, and the Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization (PLATO), are making good efforts to support public philosophy, there remain serious challenges to having one’s publicly engaged work appreciated. There are still people out there who will say that public philosophy isn’t serious philosophy. At least those people are fewer than they used to be.

What’s surprised you the most since starting your podcast?

The biggest surprise for us came from the radio airing of the show. Some of our most responsive listeners are in prison. They love the show, they tell us, and listen each week, getting together with others to talk about the episodes. That’s been very rewarding to hear.

The other thing that is amazing is what your audience can look like. The radio show, when it airs, reaches a very local audience, in a certain number of miles around Lexington, Kentucky. The station offers livestreaming too, however, and some listeners tune in from the U.K. and Ireland. We were pretty astonished to find that people from 88 countries have downloaded podcast episodes too, including from places like Tanzania, Croatia, Indonesia, and Zambia. Listeners have downloaded the show from all 50 states in the U.S.  The point is that you can reach an amazing variety and number of people when you try. We didn’t expect the breadth of international interest, especially in countries in which English is not the major language spoken. It’s fantastic. We don’t want to be isolated to the U.S. We want people everywhere to learn about philosophy, to appreciate its value, and to enjoy it.

What makes for a good show?

That’ll always depend on what you’re trying to achieve. When it comes to Philosophy Bakes Bread, we want people to understand how valuable philosophy can be for their lives and for leadership. That means we want people to connect with personalities, to get to know something about the persons speaking and how their experiences illustrate the richness of philosophy for them and for others. It’s vital for us, therefore, that we start with the “Know Thyself” maxim. Rather than thinking of philosophy as “the book” or “the text,” or even “the argument,” as Dr. Mariana Alessandri put it in episode 22, people need to see that there’s a person there, or several, and that they have histories not too unlike ours, or sometimes very unique and special. That helps us either to identify with them or at least to understand them better. It helps us to connect with why someone may think and feel very differently from how we do. The best show is revealing. It shows us something personal and practical. It also is unafraid to try and fail sometimes, and to show our vulnerabilities, like in our humor bit, “Philosophunnies.” We want to make sure people see not only the serious side of philosophy, but that they remember the lighter side, the humanity of our guests and our own, as hosts.

What are your plans for the future?

There are a number of exciting next steps for us. The first is that we will do more to move beyond interviewing philosophers. We are planning for more episodes that will feature guests from beyond the academy, chosen for the topics that inspire their work. We’ll reach out to politicians, community organizers and foundations, and people in think tanks, for instance. We plan to do more to emphasize the philosophical nature of many kinds of questions and work beyond the academy.

We also plan to develop some initiatives that we have had in mind all along. As an organization, SOPHIA aims to build communities of philosophical conversation. Part of what is needed, however, are tools for making conversations with communities easier to organize and hold. One thing we want to offer our members and to others is a set of resources that should make it easy for groups to talk with one another about pressing matters of public concern. The radio show is meant to serve as one such resource, but we can do more to lay out sets of questions for groups, prompting them to answer the question that our guests raise on the show. Similarly, we hope to make our shows attractive for anyone who may wish to use one or more episodes as a course text. It’s vital that course materials be accessible, hence the transcription step. Some people have begun assigning transcribed episodes for their courses, we’re told. That’s exciting. We’d love to see more of that.

Last but not least, we want to find more resources for putting on the show. It takes a lot of work to do it. Any help we can get would be much appreciated. SOPHIA’s modest resources are presently supporting transcription of our episodes, which is a significant and ongoing cost we wish to have supported. To that end, SOPHIA and the Philosophy Bakes Bread radio show and podcast will be doing some fundraising and grant writing. In addition to SOPHIA memberships and gifts from donors, we’re going to run an online crowdfunding campaign soon. Plus, we have ideas about how we could possibly thank supporters on the show who believe in what we do and sponsor our activities. That could be an ethics institute or foundation, for example.

What are your top tips for philosophers who appear on podcasts?

Top tips! Absolutely. Here are our top 7:

  1. First and foremost think about your audience. Avoid jargon.
  2. Give yourself pauses. Don’t rush. That’ll cut down on “uhs.” (Your producer will thank you).
  3. Borrow (or buy) a quality microphone. Most colleges and universities can loan out USB condenser microphones. They’re great. A good mic makes a lot of difference when audio is all you’ve got.
  4. Reveal who you are. Ideas are wonderful, but people love stories.
  5. When you’re going to be on a show, don’t hesitate to suggest questions that would be good to ask you. The more you enable your interviewers to ask you good questions, the more they’ll want to interview you.
  6. When you’ve been on a show, help promote it. Use your social media contacts. Don’t be shy.
  7. Have or get a few headshots made, some vertical and some horizontal. Photos are vital for the success of social media posts. A post with a photo is 10-20 times more likely to engage people.

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Eric Thomas Weber is a columnist for The Clarion Ledger of Jackson, MS, The Lexington Herald-Leader, and The Prindle Post at the Prindle Institute for Ethics. He also co-hosts the Philosophy Bakes Bread radio show and podcast on WRFL Lexington, 88.1 FM, serves as Executive Director of The Society of Philosophers in America (SOPHIA), and is a visiting associate professor of Philosophy at the University of Kentucky. From 2007-2016, he was an assistant and then associate professor of Public Policy Leadership and affiliated faculty member in the School of Law and Department of Philosophy at the University of Mississippi.  Find out more about Weber here.

Anthony Cashio of the University of Virginia’s College at Wise also co-hosts the Philosophy Bakes Bread radio show and podcast on WRFL Lexington, 88.1 FM. He was recognized with two major awards simultaneously in 2016 at UVA Wise: Student Government Association’s Professor of the Year award as well as the faculty nominated Outstanding Teaching Award. His research interests center on the genesis and perpetuation of value-systems and the effects of value-systems at both the personal and social levels.  His work has focused on issues of social justice, the role of value-systems in problem solving, the relationship between history and value structure, the nature of nonviolence, and the role of the environment as a social institution. Find out more about Cashio here.

And more about Philosophy Bakes Bread can be found here!

Cover image: 2017 Public Philosophy Journal’s Collaborative Writing Workshop | © Christopher P. Long.

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