How do you get ordinary people interested in philosophy? If we are to believe the accounts of Plato, this wasn’t so difficult in ancient Athens. One simply lounged around the Acropolis harassing passersby, a tactic sure to fail in most city centers, town squares, and strip malls today. Podcasts and YouTube videos grab their share of eyes and ears, though many in their audiences also sing in the choir. Former Python John Cleese has done his part to popularize philosophical thinking. As someone who has moved between the worlds of academia and popular culture, Cleese has both credibility and visibility on his side. Some younger audiences (I write with apologies to Cleese) may be inclined to tune him out.
How about another actor with both fame and higher ed cred? Someone “very appealing to a younger demographic”? Someone like… James Franco—currently a doctoral student at Yale, and formerly a lecturer and/or student/graduate of UCLA, Columbia, NYU, Brooklyn College, Warren Wilson College, and the Rhode Island School of Design? This might seem like the resume either of an academic dilettante, or of a lifelong student and lover of knowledge.
Given Franco’s commitment to teaching, writing, and developing and starring in literary films like As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, The Broken Tower, and Howl, we might give him the benefit of the doubt. Not everyone’s a fan, but he does bring a good deal of academic enthusiasm to the role of philosophy popularizer.
Franco also brings along an actual philosopher, Eliot Michaelson, of King’s College, a former teacher of his. He proposed the idea of their project, “Philosophy Time,” while the two were at UCLA together, Michaelson as a grad student and Franco as an undergrad finishing his English degree after taking a hiatus from college to become a star. “We had somehow ended up becoming friends,” writes Michaelson, “In part, probably because I had no idea who he was.” Their long-gestating idea—an attempt to widen philosophy’s audience—has finally come to fruition. In the short episodes here, you can see the two in conversation with Rutgers University’s Andy Egan, at the top (on beauty), Princeton’s Liz Harmon, further up (on the fraught topic of abortion), and Rutgers’ Liz Camp, above and below (on imagination and metaphor).
Michaelson is a moderating influence. Franco’s laid back presentation will remind you of his performances in stoner comedy Pineapple Express, the 83rd Academy Awards ceremony, and the 2008 High Times Stoner of the Year event (though he swears he doesn’t touch the stuff anymore). Squiggly, animated word and thought bubbles add another comic touch. But whether or not viewers are charmed by his persona, they’ll find that he lets his guests do most of the talking, and they each make it plain that philosophy can be fascinating and imminently relevant to our ordinary modern lives. The kinds of questions Socrates needled hapless Athenians with—about beauty, ethics, and language—are just as pressing now as they were 2400 years ago.
You can find the emerging trove of “Philosophy Time” videos on YouTube here.
via Leiter Reports