Uncommon Podcasts

Three outlets for the radically curious

Girl sitting at window reading
Jeffrey Smith/Flickr


Philosophy thrives best when the commonplace is submitted to uncommon scrutiny. Among its many virtues, Elucidations, a philosophy podcast produced by the University of Chicago, complicates concepts we take for granted. It only takes a few episodes to appreciate how awfully stagnant intellectual life would be if that quirky cohort of the radically curious—philosophers—left unquestioned topics such as freedom, ideology, forgiveness, and conversation. Through remarkably lucid interviews, host Matt Teichman, a humanities lecturer at Chicago, does more than just destabilize notions we assume to be unchanging. He personalizes the process of philosophical inquiry, deftly directing conversations to highlight how philosophy can alter our understanding our place in society.

This technique is especially evident in Teichman’s discussion with the philosopher Mariam Thalos on freedom. We toss this word about with only a general understanding of its meaning—something involving the sovereignty to act—but rarely do we consider, as Thalos believes we must, “the deliberation process that leads up to the action.” Doing this requires us to enter a sociocultural sphere where pre-existing stereotypes compete with “self-applied attributes.” The world around us, she suggests, primes our psyches with endless impressions and stereotypes. We can hew our actions to these expectations, or, as Thalos advises, challenge them by creating “elements to add to our self-conception that were not given to us.”

This latter option offers a more fruitful definition of freedom, one that takes us toward a habit of mind that Thalos describes as “the ability to modify the self-conception that is prescribed for you.” Given the empowering implications of this definition, this discussion carries a personal resonance for thoughtful listeners.

The potential intimacy of philosophical inquiry is also evident in Teichman’s interview with Myisha Cherry on the topic of conversation. We might think we already know the recipe for good conversation as an equitable give-and-take of relevant information. While Cherry does not disagree with this commonsense definition, her foray into the virtues of silence suggests that there is more to consider.

It requires “a lot of wisdom to figure out when to speak,” Cherry observes, and counsels patience when breaking the flow of another’s speech (she especially dislikes the phrase “not to cut you off, but …”). With a nudge from Teichman, she concedes that some cultures might tacitly interpret interruption as a sign of engagement—you are so involved in this discussion you cannot resist jumping in. The solution, Cherry says, is to do some research. Assess the social environment and “find out what that person likes and dislikes,” a thoughtful approach to dialogue that encourages cultural sensitivity to modes of conversation.

Elucidations is not averse to politically controversial content. The philosopher and legal scholar Brian Leiter quickly turns his attention to moral philosophers, most of whom he thinks have responded to the global consolidation of wealth by hiding in rabbit holes of philosophical indulgence. He characterizes their “professions of moral commitment” as false, focused as they are on charitable acts that coddle the superrich, allowing them to seem virtuous rather than holding them responsible for structural change. The utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer gets a special drubbing. He is, as Leitner sees him, “the moral philosopher for late capitalism,” because he frames ethical dilemmas against a “backdrop that is taken for granted.”

And where will this chain of events lead? “Revolutions,” Leiter reminds us, “tend not to end well for the ruling classes.”

Writers & Company

The opportunity to hear Niall Ferguson, a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institute and Harvard’s Center for European Studies, mansplain how David Lloyd George should have kept Britain out of World War I might not be that unusual. But hearing him do so while sharing the microphone with that prime minister’s great-granddaughter, the noted historian Margaret MacMillan, elevates the listening experience into more charged territory. In this particular episode of Writers & Company, MacMillan (taking advantage of a rare pause in Ferguson’s monologue) reminds listeners that the man who her great-grandfather confronted in that war, Kaiser Wilhelm II, was a brutal tyrant who would have quashed Europe. The exchange is just a taste of the compelling content this podcast, hosted by the CBC’s Eleanor Wachtel, regularly delivers.

The show’s gripping nature reflects its depth. For an hour or more, Wachtel probes the creative process of the world’s most accomplished writers. Because these authors are generally well known (John Grisham, Seamus Heaney, Doris Lessing, Patti Smith), Wachtel’s challenge is to take us beneath their public personas. At this, she excels. No other podcast will reveal how John le Carré drew inspiration from the criminal fraternity in which his father, whom le Carré calls “this strange wastrel of a man, very brilliant, totally bent,” lived his life. Likewise for Whit Stillman’s recollections of the time he survived New York City debutante season, Annie Proulx’s obsession with the geography of a place, and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s experience as a Vietnamese refugee in San Jose.

And then there are those special revelations, the ones that stay with you beyond the podcast, like Wachtel’s interview with Sally Rooney, the 28-year-old Irish novelist who has skyrocketed to fame due to her beautifully measured prose. To hear a writer of such talent mention with refreshing frankness that, when it comes to writing about human relations, she’s limited by the fact that she’s still young, is to paradoxically witness her wisdom beyond her years.

People Behind the Science Podcast

Some scientists might fear that their obsessive, often elusive pursuits make them appear out of touch. This is the concern driving the People Behind the Science Podcast, hosted by Marie McNeely, a neuroscientist who studies Parkinson’s disease. “I am a scientist on a mission,” she explains, a mission to communicate “the wonders of science in a way that is accessible and meaningful to all audiences.”

Her podcast does this well. McNeely’s easygoing demeanor encourages informal discussions with academic and industry scientists, whose interests range the spectrum of scientific research, from the evolution of shark teeth to fungal disease in frogs. While some level of fluency in, say, genetics or natural selection is required, the science is generally clear and, as Neely promises, accessible.

But the unique ambition of this podcast is to do more than just share scientific research. It also wants to convey what life as a scientist is like. During extensive (usually 45-minute) interviews with her guests, McNeely is as likely to ask questions about personal reading preferences or their interests outside their studies, as she is to probe into the logistics of their research.

While some might wonder what hobbies and favorite books have to do with science, McNeely’s effort to expand our understanding of the social context behind scientific research pays off when it looks at how scientists deal with the one thing they all share: failure. Indeed, this podcast pulls the curtain back on processes such as funding and publishing that are as notable for what we don’t see (like rejection) as what we do.

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James McWilliams is an historian at Texas State University. He's currently at work on a book on the art and literature of the American South. He lives in Austin, Texas.


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