Has TV Rotted Our Minds? On Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (A Pretty Much Pop Culture Podcast/Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast Crossover)

Marshall McLuhan famously said “The medium is the message,” by which he meant that when we receive information, its effect on us is determined as much by the form of that information as by the actual content.

Neil Postman, in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, ran with this idea, arguing that TV has conditioned us to expect that everything must be entertaining, and that this has had a disastrous effect on news, politics, education, and thinking in general.

In this discussion, your Pretty Much Pop hosts Mark Linsenmayer and Brian Hirt join with the rest of the Partially Examined Life crew: Seth Paskin, Dylan Casey and Wes Alwan.

The result is much more philosophical context than you’d get in a typical Pretty Much Pop discussion. Plato, for example, argued (through the character of Socrates) in the Phaedrus against writing, which he said amounts to off-loading thought to this inert thing, when it should be lively in our minds and our direct conversations. Postman’s book describes the Age of Print as highly congenial toward lengthy, abstract reasoning. High literacy rates, particularly in America, conditioned people to expect that this is how information is to be received, and as such they were, for instance, prepared to listen raptly to the Lincoln-Douglas debates in which the speakers provided lawyerly speeches that might span multiple hours.

Postman, an educational theorist, described television as not just providing a no-context experience whose high level of visual and auditory stimulation beats its spectators into thoughtless passivity, but that its popularity positively infects all the other communication channels available. Of course there is still in-person teaching, but television shortens attention spans such that teachers now feel the need to constantly entertain instead of forcing students to make the effort required to attend carefully to what they have to teach. Of course there are still books, but they are less read, and the competition of television for our time has changed the presentation within books so that they must be as immediately and consistently appealing as television.

McLuhan described television as a “hot” medium due to its high level of stimulation, where a “cool” one like a textbook requires more active participation of the recipient. We discuss how Postman’s critique fares in the Age of the Internet, which interestingly mixes things up, with more interactivity (in that sense cooler) yet even more possibility for sensory distraction (in that perhaps more important sense hotter). To supplement Postman, we also consulted a widely read article from The Atlantic written by Nicholas Carr in 2008 called “Is Google Making Us Stupid.”

For more philosophical touchpoints, see the post for this discussion at partiallyexaminedlife.com.

Hear more Pretty Much Pop at prettymuchpop.com. This episode includes an equally long second part that you can access by supporting Pretty Much Pop at patreon.com/prettymuchpop or by supporting The Partially Examined Life at partiallyexaminedlife.com/support. Listen to a preview of part two.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts.

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 partiallyexaminedlife.com.

Part 1:

Part 2:

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

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Actress Lucy Lawless Performs the Proto-Feminist Comedy “Lysistrata” for The Partially Examined Life Podcast

Remember Lucy, aka Xena the Warrior Princess, perhaps better known to younger folks as Ron Swanson’s (eventual) wife on Parks and Recreation? Before her career re-launched via major roles on Spartacus, Salem, and Ash vs. Evil Dead, she took some time off to study philosophy and so got involved with The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast, which is coming up on its 10th birthday and has now been downloaded more than 25 million times.

She has now joined the gang for cold-read on-air performances with discussions of Sartre’s No Exit, Sophocles’s Antigone, and most recently Aristophanes’s still-funny proto-feminist comedy Lysistrata. For the discussion of this last, she was joined by fellow cast member Emily Perkins (she played the little girl on the 1990 TV version of Stephen King’s “IT”) to hash through whether this story of stopping war through a sex-strike is actually feminist or not, and how it relates to modern politics. (For another take on this, see Spike Lee’s 2015 adaptation of the story for the film Chi-Raq.)

And as a present to bring you into the New Year, she provided lead vocals on a new song by PEL host Mark Linsenmayer about the funky ways women can be put on a pedestal, projected upon, unloaded upon, and otherwise not treated as quite human despite the intention to provide affection. Stream it right below. And read the lyrics and get more information on bandcamp.com.

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Michael Sandel on the Partially Examined Life Podcast Talks About the Limits of a Free Market Society


Harvard professor Michael J. Sandel is one of our most famous living philosophers. His course, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (available via YouTube, iTunes, or Harvard’s web page) has been enjoyed by more than 14,000 students over 30 years, and was recently offered as a Massive Open Online Course.

In July, the Partially Examined Life philosophy podcast discussed Sandel’s first (and most academically influential) book, 1982’s Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, in which he argued that society can’t be neutral with regard to claims about what the good life amounts to. Modern liberalism (by which he means the tradition coming from John Locke focusing on rights; this includes both America’s current liberals and conservatives) acknowledges that people want different things and tries to keep government in a merely mediating role, giving people as much freedom as possible.

So what’s the alternative? Sandel thinks that public discourse shouldn’t just be about people pushing for what they want, but a dialogue about what is really good for us. He gives the famous example of the Nazis marching in Skokie. A liberal would defend free speech, even if the speech is repellent. Sandel thinks that we can acknowledge that some speech is actually pernicious, that the interests of that community’s Holocaust survivors are simply more important than the interests of those who want to spread a message of hate.

You can listen to the discussion of Sandel’s views below or at the Partially Examined Life website:

A week later, a follow-up episode brought Sandel himself onto the podcast, primarily to speak about his most recent book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. A more popular work, this book considers numerous examples of the market society gone amok, where everything from sex to body parts to advertising space on the side of one’s house is potentially for sale.

Sandel helped us understand the connection between this and his earlier work: In remaining neutral among competing conceptions of what’s really good for us, liberalism has made an all-too-quick peace with unfettered exchange. If two people want to make a deal, who are the rest of us to step in and stop it? Liberal thinking does justify preventing supposedly free exchanges on the grounds that they might not actually be free, e.g. one side is under undue economic pressure, not mature or fully informed, in some way coerced or incompetent. But Sandel wants to argue that some practices can be merely degrading, even if performed willingly, and that a morally neutral society doesn’t have the conceptual apparatus to formulate such a claim. Instead, as exemplified by his course on justice, Sandel thinks that moral issues need to be a part of public debate. By extension, we can’t pretend that economics is a morally neutral science that merely measures human behavior. Our emphasis on economics in public policy crowds out other positive goods like citizenship and integrity.

For additional background, listen to the Partially Examined Life’s earlier discussion of John Rawls, the father of modern liberalism who is Sandel’s main target in his discussion of liberalism. You could also watch Sandel’s lecture on Rawls from his Justice course.

Mark Linsenmayer runs the Partially Examined Life philosophy podcast and blog, which has just hit episode 100 with a special live-in-front-of-an-audience discussion of Plato’s Symposium, now available on audio or video. You can access the Partially Examined Life podcast via iTunes or the PEL web site.

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Actresses Lucy Lawless & Jaime Murray Perform Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit” for The Partially Examined Life Podcast

Actresses Lucy Lawless & Jaime Murray Perform Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit” for The Partially Examined Life Podcast

Spartacus sartre

Lucy Lawless (Star of Xena the Warrior Princess and notable contributor to such shows as Spartica, Battlestar Galactica, and Parks & Recreation) previously appeared on the Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast in Fall 2012. And, in Spring 2013, she sang with me (under my musician moniker Mark Lint) on an original song called “Things We Should Do Before We Die.” Now she’s joined fellow PEL host Wes Alwan (“The Valet”) and me to create an audioplay of Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 play “No Exit,” where she plays the working class, hostile lesbian Inès Serrano with a pretty hilarious off-the-cuff generically European accent against my relatively deadpan Joseph Garcin.

The third damned soul in our one-room hell was played by a delightfully shrieky Jaime Murray, friend and Spartacus co-star of Lucy’s. You likely know Jaime for her role as Lila, the psychotic main guest star in Season 2 of Dexter, and right now she appears in the sci-fi shows Defiance and Warehouse 13.

The play is about three dead people stuck in a room together, any two of which would probably reach some equilibrium. But, as a threesome, they enter into a toxic dynamic where none can get what he or she needs out of the others.

To hear Lucy, Jamie and me perform “No Exit,” click below or listen at Partiallyexaminedlife.com.


The recording was made in support of the Partially Examined Life episode discussing Sartre, covering this play as well as his essays “Existentialism is a Humanism” (1946), and “Bad Faith,” (which constitutes part 1, chapter 2 of Being & Nothingness, 1943). These convey the essence of Sartre’s existentialism and give a picture of his view of man’s radical freedom (we’re condemned to be free!) and what for him serves as some semblance of an ethics.

For the Sartre episode, click below or listen at Partiallyexaminedlife.com.


The audioplay is the second in a series, with the first being the PEL Players’ performance of Plato’s dialogue, The Gorgias.

For those with who want more, PEL offers access to an outtakes reel. The picture above features both actresses in Spartacus.

Mark Linsenmayer is the head honcho at The Partially Examined Life, the #1 downloaded philosophy podcast on the planet, which provides amusing, in-depth discussions of philosophers old and new. Mark is also a musician who wrote a song just for this audioplay.

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The Partially Examined Life: A Philosophy Podcast

A year-and-a-half ago, an old friend found me on Facebook and offered me a writing job and participation in a podcast. I took him up on both.

Mark Linsenmayer and I had been graduate students in philosophy at the University of Texas in Austin, but we both left before getting the PhD to try our hands at something more practical. Mark suggested we make that experience the theme of an ongoing philosophical discussion: we loved philosophy but preferred it as an avocation. There was something about the professionalization of philosophy that seemed to go against the spirit of it. We preferred the “partially examined life” to the examined life.

And so we decided to create a philosophy podcast with discussions that were informed but not overly academic, less like a classroom lecture and more like a conversation over drinks after class, and unified by the question of what makes philosophy worthwhile. We found another likeminded former colleague from the University of Texas, Seth Paskin, and began recording and publishing our discussions as The Partially Examined Life. (Find the podcast on iTunes here.)

May 12 was the one year anniversary of our first episode. During that time we’ve covered topics ranging from Plato’s conception of the examined life to Nietzsche’s immoralism, God and faith, to the philosophy of mind. Frankly I’m always amazed that there are people who want to listen to three guys talk about these things, but we seem to have a chemistry that works. One review—for better or for worse—pegs Mark as “the Jack Black-like musician,” Seth as the “sad one with calm voice who usually guides the rudder of the conversation back into the topic,” and me as “avuncular and wry.” We’ve also received a lot of great reviews on iTunes, and a thrilling compliment from philosopher Arthur C. Danto, who was gracious enough to listen to our discussion of two of his essays in The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art. We’ve been gratified to see our listenership rise, but most importantly we’re happy that the podcast has kept us connected to philosophy and allowed us to pursue it—partially—in a way that seems more compatible with the spirit of the discipline.

This post comes to us via Wes Alwan, an occasional contributor to Open Culture.

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.