Philosophy vs. Improv: A New Podcast from The Partially Examined Life and Chicago Improv Studio

The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life Phi­los­o­phy Pod­cast has been shar­ing read­ing-group dis­cus­sions on clas­sic phi­los­o­phy texts for well over a decade, with over 40 mil­lion down­loads to date.

How­ev­er, inter­ac­tive con­ver­sa­tions about texts you prob­a­bly haven’t read can be dif­fi­cult to fol­low no mat­ter how much we try to make them acces­si­ble, and a decade of his­to­ry means that many names that might be dropped that those new­ly check­ing in may or may not be famil­iar with.

I’m one of the hosts of that pod­cast, and while I’m very hap­py with the for­mat and thrilled to have reached so many peo­ple with it, I also appre­ci­ate the dynam­ic of a one-on-one tutor­ing inter­change, and I stand firm­ly behind one of the orig­i­nal rules of The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life: No name-drop­ping.

As we read more com­pli­cat­ed texts, our inter­est becomes fig­ur­ing out what the philoso­pher meant, and only sec­on­dar­i­ly whether that mean­ing actu­al­ly relates to some­thing in peo­ple’s actu­al lives. Yes, we are crit­i­cal (some say too crit­i­cal) of the sub­ject-mat­ter, but we’re also big fans; we could bask in the lit­er­ary glow of Hegel or Pla­to or Simone de Beau­voir or Han­nah Arendt all day, and have often done so.

My newest pod­cast, Phi­los­o­phy vs. Improv, is rec­i­p­ro­cal tutor­ing real­ized as com­e­dy (or at least per­for­mance art?). As some­one who stud­ied phi­los­o­phy for many years in school and has then been host­ing The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life for so long, I’m in a good posi­tion to come up with par­tic­u­lar philo­soph­i­cal points worth teach­ing to a new learn­er.

My Phi­los­o­phy vs. Improv co-host is Bill Arnett, founder of the Chica­go Improv Stu­dio, author of The Com­plete Impro­vis­er, and the for­mer train­ing direc­tor at Chicago’s famed iO The­ater. He has appeared repeat­ed­ly on the Hel­lo From the Mag­ic Tav­ern improv com­e­dy pod­cast as a char­ac­ter named Meta­more who leads the show’s hosts (who are all fan­ta­sy char­ac­ters a la Tolkein or Nar­nia) in a table-top role-play­ing game called Offices and Boss­es. This and oth­er shows ignit­ed in me an urge to learn the fun­da­men­tals of improv com­e­dy, and so each Phi­los­o­phy vs. Improv episode, Bill comes up with some trick of the trade to try to teach me.

There are two rules of engage­ment: First, we can’t just state up front what the les­son is. We can ask each oth­er ques­tions, go through exer­cis­es, and oth­er­wise dis­cuss the mate­r­i­al, but the les­son should emerge nat­u­ral­ly. Sec­ond, we don’t take turns in try­ing to teach each oth­er. As he’s mak­ing me act out scenes, I’m try­ing to set up those scenes or have my char­ac­ter react in such a way to exem­pli­fy my philo­soph­i­cal point. As we’re dis­cussing phi­los­o­phy, Bill is relat­ing it to com­pa­ra­ble points about improv. Of course, we’re both inter­est­ed in learn­ing as well as teach­ing, so the “vs.” in the show’s title is not so much com­pe­ti­tion between us as between which les­son ends up more near­ly pro­duc­ing its intend­ed effect in the oth­er per­son.

It is sur­pris­ing how smooth­ly these duel­ing lessons often fit togeth­er, as lessens about ethics in par­tic­u­lar, about the art of liv­ing, are very much rel­e­vant to the impro­vi­sa­tion­al skills of being present, pre­sent­ing your­self, dis­cov­er­ing the real­i­ty of a sit­u­a­tion, and explor­ing truths of char­ac­ter. Fic­tion is often a very effec­tive vehi­cle for address­ing phi­los­o­phy, whether the char­ac­ters them­selves are talk­ing philo­soph­i­cal­ly (even if they’re ani­mals, cave men, or oth­er­wise in a non-typ­i­cal sit­u­a­tion for dis­cus­sion), or per­haps we’re embody­ing some polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion or thought exper­i­ment that we’re sub­ject­ing to philo­soph­i­cal analy­sis.

Like­wise, back to the days of Pla­to, a dose of irony in dis­cussing phi­los­o­phy can be use­ful, and this for­mat allows us to not just be our­selves on a pod­cast dis­cussing phi­los­o­phy, but at any point to launch into some com­e­dy bit, and in this way show the absur­di­ty of views we’re argu­ing against or just play with the ideas in a man­ner that I think enhances men­tal flex­i­bil­i­ty, which is essen­tial both for impro­vi­sa­tion and for philo­soph­i­cal cre­ativ­i­ty.

Lis­ten to the lat­est episode (#7), enti­tled “Mer­i­toc­ra­cy Now!”

Start lis­ten­ing with Phi­los­o­phy vs. Improv episode 1.

For more infor­ma­tion, see

Mark Lin­sen­may­er is the host of four pod­casts: Pret­ty Much Pop: A Cul­ture Pod­cast, Naked­ly Exam­ined Music, The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life, and Phi­los­o­phy vs. Improv.

Is Modern Society Stealing What Makes Us Human?: A Glimpse Into Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra by The Partially Examined Life

Image by Genevieve Arnold

The pro­logue of Friedrich Niet­zsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathus­tra (1883) intro­duced his notion of the “last man,” who is no longer cre­ative, no longer explor­ing, no longer risk tak­ing. He took this to be the implic­it aim of efforts to “dis­cov­er hap­pi­ness” by fig­ur­ing out human nature and engi­neer­ing soci­ety to ful­fill human needs. If needs are met, no suf­fer­ing occurs, no effort is need­ed to counter the suf­fer­ing, and we all stag­nate. Is our tech­nol­o­gy-enhanced con­sumer cul­ture well on its way to deliv­er­ing us up to such a fate?

In the clip below, Mark Lin­sen­may­er from the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life phi­los­o­phy pod­cast con­sid­ers this pos­si­bil­i­ty, explores Niet­zsche’s pic­ture of ethics, and con­cludes that the poten­tial mis­take by poten­tial social engi­neers lies in under­es­ti­mat­ing the com­plex­i­ty of human needs. As Niet­zsche argued, we’re all idio­syn­crat­ic, and our needs are not just for peace, warmth, food, exer­cise and enter­tain­ment, but (once these are sat­is­fied, per Maslow’s hier­ar­chy of needs) self-actu­al­iza­tion, which is an indi­vid­ual pur­suit, and so is impos­si­ble to mass engi­neer. Hav­ing our more basic needs ful­filled with­out life-fill­ing effort (i.e. full time jobs) would not leave us com­pla­cent but actu­al­ly free to enter­tain these “high­er needs,” and so to pur­sue the cre­ative pur­suits that Niet­zsche thought were the pin­na­cle of human achieve­ment.

Niet­zsche’s tar­get is util­i­tar­i­an­ism, which urges indi­vid­u­als and pol­i­cy-mak­ers to max­i­mize hap­pi­ness, and the more this is pur­sued sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly, the more that “hap­pi­ness” needs to be reduced to some­thing poten­tial­ly mea­sur­able, like plea­sure, but clear­ly plea­sure does not add up to a mean­ing­ful life. While we may not be able to quan­ti­fy mean­ing­ful­ness and aim pub­lic pol­i­cy in that direc­tion, it should be eas­i­er to iden­ti­fy clear obsta­cles to pur­su­ing mean­ing­ful activ­i­ty, such as ill­ness, pover­ty, drudgery and servi­tude. We should be glad that choos­ing the most eth­i­cal path is not a mat­ter of mere cal­cu­la­tion, because on Niet­zsche’s view, we thrive as “cre­ators of val­ues,” and fig­ur­ing out for our­selves what makes each us tru­ly hap­py (what we find valu­able) is itself a mean­ing­ful activ­i­ty.

The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life episodes 213 and 214 (forth­com­ing) pro­vide a 4‑man walk­through of Thus Spoke Zarathus­tra, explor­ing the Last Man, the Over­man, Will to Pow­er, the dec­la­ra­tion that “God Is Dead,” and oth­er noto­ri­ous ideas.

Episode 213 Part One:

Episode 213 Part Two: 

Mark Lin­sen­may­er is the host of The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life and Naked­ly Exam­ined Music pod­casts. 

Should Literature Be Political? A Glimpse into Sartre by The Partially Examined Life

Image by Solomon Gundry

Jean-Paul Sartre pro­duced plays and nov­els like The Respect­ful Pros­ti­tute (1946), which explored racism in the Amer­i­can South. These works were crit­i­cized as too polem­i­cal to count as good lit­er­a­ture. What might in the present day cul­mi­nate only in a Twit­ter fight led Sartre to pub­lish a whole book defend­ing his prac­tices, called What Is Lit­er­a­ture? (1946).

In the clip below, Mark Lin­sen­may­er from the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life Phi­los­o­phy Pod­cast explains Sartre’s view, out­lin­ing both how strange it is and why you might want to take it seri­ous­ly any­way. In short, Sartre sees the act of writ­ing fic­tion as an eth­i­cal appeal to his read­er’s free­dom. The read­er is chal­lenged to hear the truths the work express­es, to under­stand and take action on them. More direct­ly, the read­er is chal­lenged to read the work, which involves a demand on the read­er’s atten­tion and imag­i­na­tion to “flesh out” the sit­u­a­tions the book describes. The read­er takes an active role in com­plet­ing the work, and this role can be aban­doned freely at any time. If a writer cre­ates an escapist fan­ta­sy, the read­er is invit­ed to escape. If the writer pro­duces a piece of lying pro­pa­gan­da, then the read­er is being invit­ed to col­lab­o­rate in that fun­da­men­tal­ly cor­rupt work.

So if writ­ing is always an eth­i­cal, polit­i­cal act, then Sartre should­n’t be blamed for pro­duc­ing overt­ly polit­i­cal work. In fact, writ­ers who deny that their work is polit­i­cal are dodg­ing their own respon­si­bil­i­ty for play­ing hap­haz­ard­ly with this poten­tial­ly dan­ger­ous tool. Their work will pro­duce polit­i­cal effects whether they like it or not.

The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life episode 212 (Sartre on Lit­er­a­ture) is a two-part treat­ment of the first two chap­ters of this text, weigh­ing Sartre’s words to try to under­stand them and deter­mine whether they ulti­mate­ly make sense. Lis­ten to the full episode below or go sub­scribe to The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life Phi­los­o­phy Pod­cast at

Part 1:

Part 2:

Mark Lin­sen­may­er is the host of The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life and Naked­ly Exam­ined Music pod­casts. 

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the Exis­ten­tial­ist Phi­los­o­phy of Jean-Paul Sartre… and How It Can Open Our Eyes to Life’s Pos­si­bil­i­ties

A Crash Course in Exis­ten­tial­ism: A Short Intro­duc­tion to Jean-Paul Sartre & Find­ing Mean­ing in a Mean­ing­less World

Jean-Paul Sartre’s Con­cepts of Free­dom & “Exis­ten­tial Choice” Explained in an Ani­mat­ed Video Nar­rat­ed by Stephen Fry

Jean-Paul Sartre on How Amer­i­can Jazz Lets You Expe­ri­ence Exis­ten­tial­ist Free­dom & Tran­scen­dence

Jean-Paul Sartre Breaks Down the Bad Faith of Intel­lec­tu­als

How Political Commitment Led Lucy Lawless (AKA Xena, the Warrior Princess) to Study Philosophy

It’s cer­tain­ly not uncom­mon for celebri­ties to take up polit­i­cal caus­es, though this does not usu­al­ly lead to them get­ting arrest­ed for hol­ing up in a high tow­er oil-drilling ship for four days. What’s less com­mon is for this inter­est to bur­geon into a full-on obses­sion with all things philo­soph­i­cal, but that’s exact­ly what hap­pened to Lucy Law­less (best known as Xena, the War­rior Princess).

“I went to the UN sum­mit on sus­tain­able devel­op­ment after get­ting involved in the whole… big oil protest… and I saw all of these peo­ple work­ing very hard but seem­ing­ly at cross-pur­pos­es about how do we cre­ate a just soci­ety.” On a full two-hour episode of The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life Phi­los­o­phy Pod­cast (which she claims was large­ly respon­si­ble for turn­ing her on to phi­los­o­phy), she describes how this polit­i­cal inter­est drove her to look at the foun­da­tions and his­to­ries of the­o­ries of jus­tice, and even­tu­al­ly decide to go back to school to study phi­los­o­phy, which she’s now doing in New Zealand between flights to the states to film TV spots such as her recent appear­ance on NBC’s Parks and Recre­ation.

The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life inter­view with Law­less is a five-per­son, round­table dis­cus­sion of Tom Payne’s 2010 book, Fame: What the Clas­sics Tell Us About Our Cult of Celebri­ty. You can lis­ten here:

The the­sis of the book is that celebri­ties serve as an out­let for soci­ety’s aggres­sive instincts. Draw­ing on canon­i­cal texts about reli­gious anthro­pol­o­gy like James Fraz­er’s The Gold­en Bough, the author com­pares the treat­ment of mod­ern celebri­ties to ancient rites where young maid­ens were lav­ish­ly bestowed with finer­ies and then sac­ri­fied. Lucy thinks this well match­es her own expe­ri­ences, and talks about the exis­ten­tial weird­ness involved with being and deal­ing with the famous.

The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life has also cov­ered relat­ed top­ics of Freud’s Civ­i­liza­tion and its Dis­con­tents and Niet­zsche’s Geneal­o­gy of Morals. You can sub­scribe to the pod­cast on iTunes.

Mark Lin­sen­may­er runs the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life phi­los­o­phy pod­cast and blog

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.