In this interview, Barry Lam, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Vassar College and the creator and host of Hi-Phi Nation, talks about the Cultural Revolution, growing up with a single mom, a Cantonese immigrant in South LA, gangs, the Los Angeles Unified School District, tagging, grunge, Dodger games, The Chronic, knives, Loveline, witnessing a shooting, dreams of becoming a house DJ, finding his academic footing when he went to college, the attraction of rigor, Gary Watson and Jeff Barrett, rockabilly, college radio, swing dancing, meeting his wife, voting for Nader, the Gourmet Report, working with Skyrms on signaling, tough times at Princeton, Friendster and Homestar Runner, job market advice, landing the job at Vassar, how he has grown as a teacher, West Point and the origin of Hi-Phi Nation, how to start a podcast, why the seemingly negative aspects of the philosophical community on the internet might actually be a good sign, public philosophy, narratives, an exciting new project, woke philosophy, and his last meal…
Hey Barry! Thanks for doing this. So, where did you grow up?
I grew up in LA, the east side in two different neighborhoods, one called El Sereno, and the other Highland Park. Both were gang-infested places at the time. Two of the biggest gangs in LA during my childhood were MS-13 and 18th Street. Locally there were the Avenues and Frogtown, which was the gang closer to Echo Park. Basically when I was in college and graduate school, after I left, the Feds came in and raided all of these neighborhoods and deported the gang problem to Honduras and El Salvador. That's related to a lot of things going on today: The same gangs are responsible for the violence that’s leading to people flocking to the borders. Not a lot of people outside of LA are aware of the origins of MS-13 and 18th Street, but every LA kid of my generation does, we went to school with them. Now, all the hipsters have moved to Highland Park.
What was your family like?
I had a single mother who raised me and my sister as a bank teller. She was a Cantonese immigrant who fled the mainland to Hong Kong in her 20s during the Cultural Revolution. As my childhood went on, members of her family started immigrating to Southern California, so it ended up being quite a large extended Chinese family; sort of the story of Southern California in the 80s and 90s. Every UC professor has probably taught thousands and thousands of kids like me.
My dad was a line cook at a variety of Chinese restaurants when I was a kid. Last I checked that's still what he's doing. He's been out of the picture since I was 8 or 9 or so. The last time I saw him was maybe 20 years ago, I don't know where he is today.
How are you different from the rest of your family? Similar?
The biggest difference and similarity between me and my family is that, because of Mao, my family has people who have had 3rd grade to 8th grade educations, depending on their ages when they were sent to the fields. A lot of my uncles are barely literate. I have a PhD from Princeton. On the other hand, I speak and understand Cantonese, but at a 5th grade level, and am illiterate in any written Chinese. So weirdly I have the experience of speaking and talking and thinking at a PhD level in one language, and an illiterate 10 year old in another; its a frustrating thing in public and probably why I haven't gone to Hong Kong on Guanghzhou yet.
What does your sister do?
She’s a molecular biologist in industry, not academia.
Did you enjoy high school?
I hated school. I didn't do particularly well in it either. For various complicated reasons having to do with the dysfunction of the LAUSD during that time, the schools in and around that area weren't safe and happy places to be.
I had a great elementary school experience in El Sereno; my second grade teacher taught me all these life skills like balancing a checkbook, making a budget, growing plants, and cooking. The really bad years I was actually bused away from Highland Park into schools that were up in the valley (Sunland-Tujunga), where there were more white middle class families, and those were the schools that fucked me up royally. I was pretty much a loser who in my early years tried and failed miserably at being a "street kid" doing things like tagging, petty crime, ditching school, and drugs and alcohol. I never got into a fight because I was too big a puss. I was always too afraid of getting stabbed or beat up or arrested.
So you were a bit of a hooligan when you were a kid…any close calls?
A friend and I walked around for a couple weekends with spray paint putting our names up, that and little tags with markers here and there was all I could manage, but I was a scholar of all the big-named taggers and crews that were around Southern California at the time. Three guys tried to jump me because I was talking to one of their girlfriends or something like that, two guys tried to jack me after school and some local resident saw what was happening and intervened on my behalf.
The closest thing I got into real trouble was when a bunch of friends and I used to hop this 12-foot high fence during lunch to leave the school. We were hanging out at some street corner when the police were about to stop us and everyone took off running so I followed them. The cops chased us down and put us all against the wall and frisked us, got our names and IDs and some paraphernalia and sent us back to school, it wasn't serious.
That doesn’t sound too bad.
One incident was serious in hindsight. I didn't get in trouble but it was morally reprehensible. I remember when I was 14 helping a friend run away from home. His parents had caught him doing something and he freaked out, asked me to help him hide for a couple days. I lived maybe 15 miles from the high school on the other side of LA so I took him home and told my mom some kind of lie, like his parents went to Vegas and he was locked out of his house. So he stayed with me for a night, and the next day we cut school and got on a bus. We spent the day walking around east LA breaking into abandoned houses that he could squat in. But I think he got a little scared, so we ended up in Hollywood on Melrose blvd. It was getting late and I had to get home, but he insisted that I leave him behind and that he would feel safer on the street. I didn't know this at the time but he had stolen something like $60 from my bedroom drawer (lai see, or lucky money in Chinese) and maybe a weapon or something I had. I used to keep knives and a 9mm semi-automatic in my bedroom. There were some shotguns too. My mom kept them in my closet during her gun-phase. He didn’t take the gun, but he did take a knife or two.
Gun phase…was that a reaction to the LA riots?
No my mom's gun phase wasn't a response to the riots actually. She just went through a gun-phase, went hunting, took me shooting, bought a bunch of handguns, rifles, and shotguns, left them unlocked, with boxes of ammo, in my bedroom. Let's just say those were different times.
Got it. So what happened to your friend?
I didn't know what to do so I just left him there. I got on a bus and went home. I didn't hear from him again, he didn't show up at school and I left that school shortly thereafter. The memory came back to me last year and I googled his name, found out that he was recently arrested and serving a life sentence for murder. I did some investigating and he has a long rap sheet. I tried contacting him in jail but he never responded. He was a good kid, smart even, really good looking guy, I knew him in middle school and a year of high school. In any other life he would've done a lot. I just left this kid on the streets of Hollywood when I was 14 because I thought I was being helpful. It made me think about how I ended up where I did and he ended where he did. A lot of people write about this kind of thing and there are no easy answers.
Moral bad luck’s brutal. Surely you disn’t spend your entire youth engaged in hooliganism?
The mid and late 90s while I was coming of age was also this strange time for a young person, especially if you're poor because the internet was just emerging. You don't have any money to do anything, and so either you did stuff that got you in trouble, as I did in my early teenage years, or you had to find something to occupy your time, and looking back, for a lot of my youth it was radio. I had a clock radio in my room where I would listen to Dodger games all day long, and then whatever talk show came on, and then it was hip hop on Power 106 or alternative rock on KROQ, which is this big famous radio station in Southern California. Later, I had an AOL account early, by senior year, because my uncle had a desktop computer and he lived with us. So I started doing the whole fanzine, chatroom, IM, email thing earlier than other high school classmates. I remember sending emails and faxes and stuff like that from that computer to people at radio stations, and to Loveline, which I listened to religiously as a teenager, and since there were so few emails and faxes back then, I got stuff that I had written on the air. That in turn got me into college radio, and then I abandoned all of that only to come back to it in the last two years, so looking back that all had an influence.
Describe what Loveline is, for people who don’t know. I was also a huge fan.
Loveline was a call-in radio show where, mostly teenagers, would get advice about sex, relationships, drugs, piercings, and so forth. Before the internet it wasn't easy to get access to honest and real information about these things and Loveline was very funny, sometimes raunchy, but also incredibly honest and refreshing for a young person to hear about the details of love, sex and so forth from adults who weren't trying to preach anything. It had been on in Southern California for a decade before Adam Carolla and Dr. Drew took it to national radio, then to MTV. I started listening well before that era. After a couple of years with Adam, the show changed a lot and turned into a lot of armchair psychology and sociology. In the later years it just outlived its usefulness, plus it wasn't that funny anymore, and its core listenership just outgrew it.
Yeah. Did you listen to Stern?
I didn't listen to Stern all that regularly, but I did listen enough to know the show well. KROQ had a great morning show, Kevin and Bean (it’s still on), which is where Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla got their start. I used to listen to Jimmy when he was still a morning radio sidekick.
Hobbies in high school?
In my later high schools years pretending I was some kind of grunge rock kid playing Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins songs on my acoustic guitar. I didn't do anything extracurricular, no sports, no other hobbies (which is funny because I have too many now), just sat around feeling sorry for myself a lot. I was a pretty pathetic teenager.
And normal, I think! Favorite five albums from high school?
But overall, it was smooth sailing when you transferred back to an El Sereno school?
When I transferred back to an El Sereno school (Woodrow Wilson High School), which on paper wasn’t as integrated, it was like 95% Latinx 5% Asian, and had a 50% graduate rate, things were surprisingly much better for me. A lot better teachers and social support. That said, I witnessed a couple of murders. One was just four cars ahead of me on a busy avenue in broad daylight after school. Someone put a hit out on a gangbanger who was just picking up some family from high school. They executed the guy after his family escaped from the car, two shots through the front windshield. We just drove around the car like it was a normal accident. The other was next door to my house. I remember I had this splitting headache, and I was listening to Loveline and heard a car brake hard. I looked out my window and saw a guy running down the driveway next door, knocked on a side door and put two bullets in the guy who answered.
Jesus Christ man! How did that impact you?
To be honest, when its happening you’re just numb to it, especially when you’re young. It’s not a big deal, just part of the scenery. When I left all of that behind for college I didn’t realize just how much uneasiness I felt all of the time in that environment until it was lifted, and then I thought “wow, so it was all that violence, that’s what stressed you out all of the time.” I didn’t want to go back to it again.
What was your academic life like?
It’s interesting that when you ask me about my schooling in high school, I just discuss the social life and crime, not the academics; there were some good teachers for sure, but I was such a bad student that none of it registered. I liked my English courses.
Where’d you apply to college?
Were you still apathetic about academics?
I went UC Irvine and things turned around really quickly, I would say within a couple of weeks there. I was in the Humanities Core Course which kind of turned my life around. For the first time I was in an environment where I didn't feel physically unsafe anymore, which was very important. I took courses where for the first time I got to think about things deeply and more critically, and more importantly, I got some early feedback that I was actually good at reading, analysis, writing papers, and so forth. It all sort of came together almost right away after I got to college, and I decided by the end of the first quarter that I would probably try to get a 4.0 GPA and try to excel at everything. Its weird because I had come in not wanting to go to college and just quit and be a DJ or some stupid shit like that. Once I became more interested in philosophy and the left-wing politics of the day, I sort of set that stuff aside.
Did you consider doing anything other than philosophy?
I think by the end of my second year of college I had decided that the only path for me was to become an academic; I was choosing between English and Philosophy and decided on Philosophy because I liked the rigor and standards, and because a lot of the graduate students in English that were teaching me at the time seemed to be doing a kind of scholarship and thinking that I couldn't really relate to.
I had a lot of inspirational teachers in college. Almost everyone in Humanities Core inspired me. It was the first time I ever saw people like professors, knowledgeable, intelligent, analytical, erudite, and proud of it, flaunting it, I didn't know people like that existed, or made a living at being that way. Think about it from my perspective; the smartest guy I ever encountered up until then was Dr. Drew!
haha! Does anybody in particular stand out?
The first philosophy lecturer I ever had was Ermanno Bencivenga, who was a very good lecturer. Gary Watson also taught a unit in that course, also great. The great thing about my initial exposure to philosophy was that it was done in a Core "great books" type course which integrated philosophy with literature and history over an entire year. Even after years of specializing, it made me appreciate the role of philosophy in the humanities as much as in the sciences. The biggest influence I had in college was without a doubt Jeff Barrett. I took a lot of courses with him, Early Modern, Epistemology, Critical Thinking, Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics. I hear myself teaching like him all of the time to this day, and my own career has now gone 12 years (!), so its been a long time. I also established a good relationship with Kyle Stanford, and Robert May. I took Syntax and Philosophy of Language with May, and it gave me a lifelong love of linguistics and the philosophy of language. I decided pretty early on that I was particularly interested in epistemology, mostly the theoretical issues around inquiry. As early as Freshman year I was pretty interested in the methodology of particular disciplines. I was influenced a lot early on by Barrett, and really all of Irvine LPS' broadly naturalistic orientation toward philosophy.
Did you grow out of grunge? Were you still interested in radio?
Stylistically in college I was a rockabilly guy, with pompadour and everything, not exactly prototypical of the Asian-american experience. In hindsight it was very immature and stereotypically American, but it was part of the whole punk rock, anti-establishment adolescent thing. In college I was a college radio nerd, and hung out with a lot of those types. I was on-the-air, then I was Program Director and General Manager and Training Director and all of that stuff.
How did you meet your wife?
I met a girlfriend freshman year in a swing dance class. We've been together since, married with a child now. We got pretty good at swing dancing and started teaching that around campus. There was a nice healthy scene in Orange County in those days, and I got into all of the clubs for free because I worked for the radio station and promoted them, and I even DJd at a couple of them.
What does your wife do? You have kids? Do y'all chat about philosophy?
Shanna is a high school history/economics/government teacher. We have a 6-year old daughter named Darcy. My wife and I didn't really talk philosophy much for the first 19 years of our relationship. Then I started the podcast and don't really have an editor, so she listens to drafts and gives me comments, and I bounce ideas off of her for episodes. Being a non-expert, it really helps, so we've talked more about philosophy in the last two years than the previous 18. I do run philosophical questions past Darcy, its a lot of fun.
Earlier you mentioned developing an interest in left-wing politics…
I became politically aware during the NATO bombing of Kosovo, and was a senior during Bush v. Gore. I voted for Nader. When I was in college, I did a lot of typical college stuff, eschewing consumerism, Rage Against the Machine, Noam Chomsky-reading, WTO-protesting, I'm going to be the philosopher activist guy lifestyle-type stuff. I lived in a trailer park, wore worn clothes, rode a beat up old bike used bike, subscribed to all these magazines like In These Times, the Nation, New York Review of Books, stuff like that. Its was very different from who I was in high school because I actually valued something.
Did you party?
I did not party, was never interested in any of that. In fact after all that early teenaged experimentation with that lifestyle, I've been pretty straight-edge, I don't even drink much caffeine.
What did your mom make of your decision to major in philosophy?
My mom, like a pretty stereotypical Asian parent, tried to push me toward more practical majors, like Computer Science. But that wasn't ever going to happen. My relationship with my mother and family, and being Asian-american in general during my teenaged and early adult years was one of rebellion; there was no way anyone could control me and much of what I did was to spite stereotypes and expectations. I was convinced that I was going to be the humanities guy, something no one knew anything about and which had no clear career prospects.
Did going back home during breaks start to get weird as you got more enmeshed in academia?
To be honest, I avoided home. I never really went back, even though it was only 40 miles away. My mom never saw me. I feel guilty about it now because I've been so far away for so long that I wish I were back there for the family as they get into their senior years. I was so different from everyone at home and wanted so bad to establish my own life that I found excuses never to go back. Its funny, now at middle age I realize I'm exactly like everyone back at home. We're all just trying to raise our kids to be decent human beings, concerned about other people and their well-being and hoping the American dream doesn't die. But they still don't know what being an academic means, or quite what I do for a living or talk about, nor do I really care that much anymore. I still wish I could communicate more effectively with my family, there are a lot of thoughts I just can't express because I'm not sophisticated enough in Cantonese.
I get it. Where did you apply to grad school and why?
I applied to graduate school sort of at the beginning of the Philosophical Gourmet Report days, when it was just starting to be a peer-surveyed ranking. So that, together with advice from advisors, made it so that all I did was apply to the top 12 programs, something like that. I didn't get into all of them, but I did get into most of them, so it was a pretty exhilarating time. I was really driven toward that goal though, it was all I worked for since sophomore year. I think I ultimately chose between Princeton, NYU, and Rutgers. I also visited Berkeley and was really impressed with John MacFarlane (still am), but I had wanted to get out of California at the time. I was lucky as an undergrad, I got to write a paper with Brian Skyrms about some of the work he did in the late 90s on the evolution of norms and signaling (it never appeared). That was new and exciting at the time and I think that got the attention of a lot of graduate programs. Also, I think at the time UC Irvine wasn't sending a lot of philosophy undergraduates to PhD programs, so a lot of people spent a lot of energy helping me.
Guidance or advice?
Advice I would give students is to try and get a really honest assessment of your odds with advisors. You need to signal to your teachers that you want them to give you some straight talk about whether they think you'll get into a program worth 5-6 years of your life, and that you want to hear them tell you that you probably won't get in if that's their opinion. The advice I give to students now at Vassar is to think about themselves and their paper (writing sample), then think about every other elite liberal arts college where there is one or two of you, and then think about every Ivy-league, Research 1 school, where there are 3-4 of you, and then think about all the other schools where there may be 1 of you at every other school, and then think that there are 10 spots for a graduate program. What do you think your paper does that stands out in that pack? On the other hand, I also tell them that there is going to be a future with philosophers in it, so why shouldn't it be them rather than someone else?
So where and when did you end up going to grad school?
I went to graduate school at Princeton, started in '01 and finished in '06. On 9/11, I was at the orientation for first-year graduate students at Princeton. They went through the orientation and then we all went to a public space to watch the news coverage.
Wow! So, did you feel prepared for grad school?
I was most certainly not prepared for graduate school. A lot about Princeton was foreign to me, the undergraduate student body, the social class of most people who went there, the town, the kind of philosophy being done, the kind of people around in general, the way faculty interacted (or didn't interact) with graduate students, it was just different and I had a hard time getting used to what constituted normal practice there. "Friendly" and "cooperative" are not accurate descriptions of the environment, but neither are "unfriendly" and "competitive." Princeton simply had a set of values. It was something Penelope Maddy, who taught me at Irvine, had told me about but I wasn't prepared for what it meant and how accurate it was. The department, and really the University as a whole, valued excellence, geniuses, leaders and agenda-setters in their field. It is a place that goes out of its way to emphasize that we want the best, we are the best, excellence trumps all. For many this manifested in a lot of different practices, some positive, some negative, but all stemming from the pressure I think of being in an environment like that. It took me a long time to adjust. I'm not sure I'm all the way there yet!
Sounds like a tough place to learn!
There wasn't a lot of teaching, mentoring, and educating, there was a lot of seeing how you would perform, and then letting the best performers come out on top. I don't really fault anyone or the program. The University as an institution essentially tells their faculty when they're hired that what is important is being the best researchers in their field; all the other stuff is incidental, maybe even distractions. That's going to have an effect, even, perhaps especially, at the graduate level.
Who’d you hang out with?
I made a lot of good friends at Princeton, like everyone does in grad school. The people I'm closest to today are Sarah-Jane Leslie, who is now Dean of the Graduate School at Princeton, Mark Schroeder at USC, and Mike McGlone, who taught a U Buffalo for a few years and left the field, he's now a software developer. I'd say those three people are more like family to me than friends. We've had holidays together, were in each other's weddings, etc. etc. I'm also close with Brett Sherman who is at U South Carolina, and I reconnected with Colin Klein at ANU recently when I was down there for visiting season. We were in the same class.
Who was your advisor?
My advisor was Jim Pryor, who basically came into Princeton for a brief time, took a bunch of dissertation students, then left to NYU. I had a good relationship with Jim, though I haven't really seen him since then. No good reason, just haven't really connected. My dissertation was in epistemology, about whether synchronic and diachronic norms for rationality were reducible to each other. I just remember trying hard just to stay afloat and survive there.
My most memorable graduate school moment was this epic end-of-year party. Brett Sherman was the graduate representative, who was responsible for organizing the party. The party took place at the department, in the Tower Room which is this very fancy room that was Woodrow Wilson's old office [editor’s note: this is also where Jenny Saul got married]. Every year there'd be a party with a keg of beer, a talent show, music, and dancing, and there would be a theme. I think the theme that year was "Pirates", so lots of the graduate students dressed as pirates, Paul Audi may have even built a ship, although I might be confusing that with other years. In any case, you had to secure a permit for on-campus parties involving alcohol, so Brett did that. But somehow halfway through the night, security came to break up the party, claiming we didn't have a permit. I think Brett showed them the paperwork, they said it checked out, but decided to break it up anyway. I remember Nick Stang, Mike McGlone, Colin Klein, maybe some other people getting really belligerent with them. Meanwhile I think tons of the grad students in their pirate costumes were running around the whole building with fake swords or something. Then at one point, the cops came and ordered everyone to vacate, at which point Nick barricaded himself in his office in defiance, which was in the Tower Room. Colin decided to pick up the keg of beer and take off with it. The cops chased him down, at which point I remember Nick and Matt Strohl or someone else getting in the cops face and berating him (everyone was pretty drunk, but I was sober then so I have the clearest memory of this stuff). The cops didn't like any of that so I think they took the keg from us and emptied it down a storm drain. Eventually Colin took the whole party to Bas van Fraassen's house. Bas was away that year and used to rent out the house to grad students. Sometime around 3 or 4am we all decided to go to Denny's but there wasn't enough room in the cars, so I ended up in the trunk on the drive there and back. Crazy night.
Awesome. So, what was the job market like when you finished?
The job market in philosophy was surprisingly good during the era in which I was in grad school. There were upwards of 300 jobs per year in the mid 2000s. I didn't do great by the standards of Princeton back then, I think I got 4 interviews, but I got 2 fly-outs and 2 offers from them. Vassar was where I started and still am. I had friends who had 10-12 interviews, some even more. I would imagine that's unheard of today. I basically had a reputation coming out of grad school as being an excellent teacher, and Vassar played to my strengths, it was a good fit at the time.
So you got a chance to teach at Princeton? That’s cool! What was your first class like? How have you grown as a teacher?
I did teach at Princeton, I TAed for Karen Bennett, Jim Pryor, Dan Garber, and I led the Senior Thesis study group, which had a lot of future star philosophers in it. I believe that group included Mark Alfano, Brian Hedden, and Daniel Greco. There were other people in that group with stellar theses that didn’t end up in philosophy. Scary-good undergrads in that class that I advised! I was comfortable with teaching very early, mostly interacting casually but also with humor with people. If anything, I’ve become WORSE at teaching over time because I’ve grown into a real hardass about deadlines and seriousness….in my early days I was very laid back about those things.
Job market advice?
I actually wrote a guide a few years ago about how to prepare yourself on the job market if you're interested in liberal arts colleges. The most important piece of advice: Be prepared to talk about pedagogy and your choices on a sample syllabi, and the more specific the better. For the job market as a whole, I wouldn't add anything that other people haven't already said; people who are hiring are looking at hundreds of applications at the early stages, and at any stage, they are not looking for reasons to hire you, they are looking for any reason to cut that stack to a manageable size. As a result, don't take rejections as indications of your worthiness or merit. Other than that, take the earliest interview on the calendar you can get, and the earliest time in the day you can get. People are nicer when they're fresher.
How’d the world change when you were in grad school?
The biggest technological change in graduate school was that it was the birth of social media. Everyone started on Friendster early in graduate school, and then graduated to Facebook by the end of it. Everyone was watching Homestar Runner during graduate school, and by the end of it, YouTube was beginning. Oh, and blogs started in graduate school, so really my generation went through the beginnings of all this digital communications as young adults.
Speaking of the internet and social media, what do you make of the philosophy blogosphere, or philosophy on the internet, in general? Pros? Cons?
It’s funny, I've never thought about whether I had an opinion about this stuff. As I'm thinking about it, it occurs to me that if philosophy didn't have the blogosphere that it did, with all of its idiosyncrasies and toxic elements, it would make me think that the field was really old fashioned. In fact, there may be certain aspects of philosophy on the internet that is behind other fields; for instance, there's no Andrew Gelman or Tyler Cowen for philosophy, at least as those blogs relate to a lot of people outside of their respective fields. I know there is a lot of gossip and squabbling and piling on happens very quickly, all the cyber mobbing is terrible, it shouldn't happen. But if a lot of the internet were doing that and philosophy wasn't, I would think there's something wrong with our field, like we're not part of any meaningful conversation worth having nasty disputes about. Gelman and Cowen are very popular not just because of the value of their contributions, but because statistics and economics are very prominent in the way people think about a lot of things in the world. Its good for philosophy if we're in the mix there. I mean, is there a Classics blogosphere/internet culture, and if so, are there any controversies there we've heard about? Doesn't speak all that well about Classics. All the toxic social elements to it are just part of the world figuring out how to be on the internet, I don't think its a problem with philosophy per se.
Interesting take. I'm from upstate NY and I visited Vassar when I was in high school. Beautiful campus! Very different from Princeton and LA. Biggest adjustments? How would you describe the area to somebody who has never been?
The mid-Hudson valley is a mix of idyllic villages, farmland, forests, and post-industrial decay with slummy towns like in Poughkeepsie and Newburgh, and a smaller extent farther north like Kingston and Hudson (which are really nice now). The area is like a lot of the Northeast, very segregated by race and class, with towns full of ultra-rich NYC millionaires in their weekend farmhouses 5 miles away from former meth-lab towns that are populated by opioid addicts. In Poughkeepsie, the city center is black, the outside towns are white, and we have a growing Oaxacan population. But the population isn't really dense around here, so everything is dispersed.
When did you start thinking about doing public philosophy? What's the origin story of Hi-Phi nation. First episode idea? Was getting the project off the ground difficult? How do you finance it? Do you have help? How has the mission of the show evolved?
As early as 2011 or so I started thinking that there really should be a "This American Life" for philosophy. I came back from a day-long invited conference at West Point some time in 2012 with the idea for what eventually became Soldier Philosophers from season 1. But then I came up for tenure, had a baby, and life got in the way and I set it all aside. When I was up for my first post-tenure sabbatical in Fall 2015, I decided to set all of my academic writing aside, which was something like 5 papers, and picked up the idea I had in 2012. I bought a case full of recording equipment, drove down to West Point, and went from there. 1 year later I had a full-year paid fellowship at Duke University to produce the first season of the show. I moved the whole family down to Durham and mapped out most of the season in the fall. I had my salary and benefits paid for by the fellowship plus $5000 from Duke, and $6000 from the NEH, so I used it to pay for all the hosting and any other fees that go with setting up a website, podcast, etc. etc. But all of that is minimal. The real costly thing is my time. After I finished making the first season, I decided that I wanted to keep doing it, and then the show sort of took off that summer. I took unpaid course releases at Vassar this past year so I could spend some time producing the show. I ended up with 10 episodes over 10 months, but that didn't really work out too well for listenership growth so this year I'm going back to producing a stack of episodes and releasing in a closer schedule.
Nice. How much time does it take to produce an episode, on average?
It takes 2-3 month per episode from start to finish. Some episodes I’ve worked on for up to 6 months, but none have come together in less than 2.
How has the show evolved?
The mission of the show hasn't changed, it is still a story-driven show about philosophy to show how contemporary philosophy intersects with stories from everyday life, law, history, science, and the arts. I'm hoping to develop the show in such a way that I can expand the idea beyond what is strictly called philosophy in the academy. There is a lot of theoretical work in other fields that I think is just as interesting.
Cool. Top 3 episodes, in your mind?
It seems like there is a schism between public and academic philosophy. Why is that? How do we bridge the gap? Negative unintended consequences?
Some public philosophy isn't that different from academic philosophy. Some of it is just academic philosophy written for op-ed pages. This is true of some books as well. Some public philosophy is academic philosophers taking their ideas and training and communicating it using more accessible language, which is great. In fact, probably if you ask the public about philosophers they've heard of, they'll mention some superstar academic philosopher who has turned into a public philosopher.
Where there is a schism, I'm just going to go with the boring Marxist analysis and say that academic philosophy is produced under very distinctive material circumstances, and the culture that has arisen around those material circumstances very much drive its development in predictable ways. People are going to produce the kind of work that gets them jobs, publications in certain journals, promotions, invitations to conferences, talks, editorial boards, collaborations, and so forth. That work looks a certain way, reads a certain way, and develops in a certain way. There's just no way, statistically, that most professional philosophers are going to be some groundbreaking agenda-setter who bucks the materially incentivized trends and produces work that looks nothing like the rest of the field. This is probably a good thing. But if you look at public-facing philosophy, the material circumstances are just so different. For the longest time, and I think this is still true for a lot of people and places, people who do public-facing work are ridiculed within their fields in academia. They face charges of charlatanism. It's very much still the case that the work doesn't count within academia for hiring, tenure, or promotion.
Truth. Why don’t philosophers tell stories?
As far as the gap between philosophy and narrative-storytelling, I have a lot of opinions about that, not least of which is that I honestly believe that narrative storytelling isn't necessary for good philosophy, and in fact good philosophical thinking is highly skeptical, rightly so, about the power storytelling has on the human mind. Storytelling is the default way people like to engage with and understand the world, and that has very pernicious effects, well documented ones in history and cognitive science. It takes a lot of training to overcome the power of vivid anecdotes in one's reasoning, and we still don't know how to use reason and argumentation to get people to disregard well-entrenched grand-narratives about who controls what in the world, what is the driving force behind history, the causes of war, etc. etc. A lot of philosophers very rightly would find highly stylized and riveting stories used for philosophical purposes to be epistemically manipulative. That's the charitable take on that gap.
Here's the uncharitable one. There's a kind of intellectual purity test to real philosophy, the most abstract and removed from the contingencies of particular human experiences, the better it is as a topic, or the more meritorious it is as philosophy. Narrative storytelling just is about human experiences and its contingencies, so trying to do philosophy with it is just less good philosophy. As evidence for this, have you ever heard a philosopher think that Russell only did his best work later in life, after he abandoned the kind of work we see in the Principia and logical atomism and started engaging with moral and political issues?
Yes! But I know what you mean. On a related note, on your Vassar page you say "Instead of publishing in peer-reviewed journals, my primary aim is to disseminate my thinking about these issues in narrative audio form." Now, I imagine an old timer saying admitting something like this is 'career suicide'. How would you respond?
It is career-suicide. Meant descriptively, it’s absolutely true. At the same time, the entire field is in the process of committing suicide while everyone else is pursuing career incentives. Is there a word for what it is that's happening to many fields in the humanities that makes them shrink to the point of disappearing in all but the most elite places? I bet you all the people in those fields were playing by all the rules of career advancement; they probably got promoted to tenure, then full, got their distinguished chairs, and got a lot of graduate students working with them that had to leave the field for lack of jobs. And those fields still do very well at the most elite places. Meanwhile, the field as a whole is marching off a cliff. So yeah, it's pretty much career suicide for any individual to skirt the norms of career advancement (by definition). But without people doing what I'm doing, the field is still dying. So call me a martyr.
I'm being flippant here, I still do think about academic philosophical issues, the same set of arcane and technical questions we all publish about, its just a low priority for me right now. I happen to think my priorities are correct. I think a lot of people would have the same priorities if professional norms of career advancements changed to meet different needs. I don't think most, maybe any, "old-timers" normatively believe that the career incentives in academic philosophy are the ideal ones, the ones reflecting the right values, when applied across the field as a whole. I see too many journal editors and super-distinguished senior people worried about over-submission, overpublishing, over-professionalization, and then the outcome of that still being one where plenty of young people end up leaving the field anyway. Not to mention the many mid-career people I've met who recognize the diminishing returns of yet another good paper at a good journal, for what? Its sad that playing by all the rules could still mean career suicide for, what, half, 3/4 of the graduate students in the field? So anyway, I accepted when I started Hi-Phi Nation that it was career-suicide descriptively speaking and normatively by the judgments of a good many in the field. On the other hand, I don't think everyone should sit idly by and wait for career incentives to change for the better to start doing better things. Instead, I'd rather do the harder thing; take leadership and create something that is so different, but has so much value to it that it will contribute to changing the incentives of the field. What is Obama’s cliché, be the change that you want to see? Maybe I'll fail. Maybe Hi-Phi Nation just isn't that good, or won't ever be recognized as such internal to the field. But I gave it a shot. I'm putting everything into this fucking show.
Advice for people trying to make something like this the centerpiece of a stable career? How should this stuff be figured in hiring and promotion decisions? There really isn't a precedent in philosophy (especially if you don't have a ton of traditional publications)?
I wish I could give advice for this but there is no model for this. There are the beginnings of it in the UK and Australia, because of reforms in REF and ERA, public engagement and public outreach are a part of funding. So there might be career incentives for people to moonlight in such work. But it isn't a stable career for me yet. I’ve succeeded on the merits of the show through grants, fellowships, and industry-recognition, but there isn’t yet a stable, long-term funding source for sustainability. I'm in the process of trying to invent a job for what I'm doing. Departments and universities need to think about the best way to keep projects like this in-house. Maybe some departments need a person specialized and motivated to do public-engagement stuff, where its in the job description and tenure review and treated like a specialization just like you have someone doing Ancient philosophy. Maybe there needs to be a few places in academia doing all of it, like a center that employs these people and the rest of the field rides its coattails (There are people starting this, like Jonathan Ellis at the Center for Public Philosophy at Santa Cruz.) Maybe there has to be particular established, distinguished venues where any given individual can get a publication credit, for instance for producing an episode of Hi-Phi Nation, which counts as much as your run-of-the-mill publication. I honestly believe that on average, philosophers are the smartest people in the academy, they can figure all of this out if they start taking leadership roles. I think many Deans, Presidents, Provosts, Development offices, etc. etc. would welcome these kinds of changes, particularly in the humanities. Public facing work is a lot more attractive at that level than cutting edge work on transfinite coin flips or fundamentality. Its really at the department-level, the philosophers themselves, that need to be more visionary.
Favorite philosophy stuff in the same ballpark as Hi-Phi nation? Favorite non-philosophy podcasts?
This is a golden age of audio storytelling. More than half the world doesn't know it, or doesn't care, maybe they don't process the spoken word the same way. The other half can't keep up because there's so much good stuff out there, and can't go to the toilet without having a podcast to listen to. The shows that are in the same ballpark as mine aren't philosophy shows, but shows in other fields, like Invisibilia (psychology), Freakonomics Radio (economics), Uncivil, and Backstory (History). The other good philosophy shows are a very different format, either lectures, discussion, or interview shows, like History of Philosophy without any Gaps, Elucidations, Philosophy Bites, Very Bad Wizards, Partially Examined Life. Outside of academic-oriented shows, my favorite shows are Love + Radio, I loved both seasons of Slow Burn, Rough Translation, and Heavyweight. There are the usual suspects, This American Life, Radiolab, Reply All.
Love Freakonomics. Peter Adamson does a really great job with History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps. Advice for people starting a podcast?
If you want to start a podcast, the first thing to do is to start a podcast. Record something and see what its like to interview, listen, and edit. From there, buy some nicer microphones, learn about sound-treatment to reduce reverb, and get a good digital audio workstation to edit with. I've helped a lot of people start podcasts and the biggest barrier is just starting.
I've entertained the idea of making this into a podcast!
You would work more efficiently in podcast form to be honest. This exchange we've had, back and forth over email over several weeks, it would've been done in under an hour in audio. But there is a role for print. Print-readers and podcast listeners are not heavily overlapping groups. I would recommend that you start with audio and turn it into print, I actually think it would save you a lot of time. People communicate differently in voice than in writing.
Yeah! Maybe. I might get unguarded answers, but I worry they'd be less detailed, thoughtful, and coherent. And this is cheap, which is important, because I pay for everything! Anyway, any interesting projects on the horizon?
Right now I'm working on pieces for other prominent podcasts out there, some have nothing to do with philosophy. Within philosophy I'm thinking a lot about different things, and I'm starting to collaborate with other people which makes it easier for me to work. I always find issues in the work I present on the show interesting, and would love to find the time to work on them.
Spill the beans, Barry!
I’m working on a piece for Love + Radio. I’m working on a collaboration with the sound-based podcast Twenty Thousand Hertz. And I suppose I’ll make the announcement before this appears, but Hi-Phi Nation has been picked up by Slate for its third season, so I’m working to make this next season twice as good! It’ll be the first ever philosophy narrative show on any major podcast network.
Fabulous news! Ever consider doing a full-fledged TV show or webseries?
I’d love to do documentary-style video. My dream is to work with the people at Zero Point Zero to do a show that has my aesthetic sensibilities, oriented around traveling to places where philosophers live and work, talking about big ideas, connecting them to public policy, stories, or history, all with a Bourdain-style punk-rock edge. I’ve actually been approached to do a TV series by some producers, but no one has accepted the pitch. I think I need to be better looking, or whiter, to be picked up for TV. I’m actually fine with that. I’m probably a better producer than I am a host.
Ever consider dipping back into the academic philosophy game? What are you most passionate about nowadays, philosophically?
Right now me, Daniel Wodak, Andrei Cimpian, and I are setting up empirical studies that try to elicit sincere expressions of opinion about political candidates and issues. The goal is to try to separate the effects of partisan or ideological cheerleading from sincerely held opinions, such as job approval or policy approvals. I'm working on an episode this season about the use of statistical evidence at various stages in the criminal justice system, from the use of statistical evidence in predictive policing, to its use in risk assessment in pre-trial detention, trial, and post-trial conviction. There is simply no coherent story people can tell about why some forms of statistical evidence are permissible while others are prohibited at different stages of the system. This is an issue I'd really like to study in more advanced ways as a researcher/epistemologist. Since Season 1, I have been very interested on why so many people defend the existence of posthumous property rights, the kind that lead to policies that amplify wealth inequality across generations like freedom of testation. I still have a lot of interest in the philosophy of language, I had a 11-year old paper on relative truth that I hope to one day finish.
How do you see the future of philosophy?
There is a trend I see at the moment toward variations of what you might call "woke philosophy". Its metaphysics, epistemology, moral philosophy, philosophy of language, usually highly abstract topics, where people build highly theoretical machinery to codify or justify various public practices that are considered to be morally obligatory. For instance, you might construct a theory of belief and justification that denies the rationality of using statistical evidence in making up one's mind about someone on the basis of race and gender data. I think this is going to be very prominent in the near future. I see a lot of young people doing it and I think we're going to see a lot of it in the next 10 years as younger people publish, get tenure, and become the mid-career people in the field.
Any trends you find troubling?
As for disconcerting trends, I think the future of philosophy is going to be one of wide inequality, mirroring the growing wealth inequality in the country. Institutions that are flooded with money will have vibrant research departments, with well-paid and comfortable philosophers who will be, as they always have been, leaders in their research areas, but who have very little incentive to be leaders in bringing more equity and accessibility to the field as a whole. Meanwhile, the places where 90% of college students get their education will have small or non-existent philosophy departments, with underpaid and overworked adjuncts teaching an uninspiring curriculum with multiple-choice tests, leading to even further declines in enrollment.
I think this is going to show up in research as well. With inequality you are going to get younger people and people trying to move up concentrating their attention on the work of those at the top, leaving very little room and attention for outsiders, innovators, cranks, or those in the bottom 90%. We're going to see large and increasingly pedantic literatures on a small set of topics at a time. This isn't new, it's the way philosophy has always been, but its going to be amplified. I think its great that top departments are getting even more money to make their departments bigger and better. But I'm about as convinced in trickle-down philosophy as I am in trickle-down economics.
Best philosopher you disagree with most?
Peter Unger. I love reading principled hard liners, maybe because I'm not one.
Most underated philosopher?
My friend Brett Sherman. His stuff is always clever and systematic.
Read any good non-philosophy books lately?
I've been going through all of Michael Lewis' books.
There's a 2000s indie-pop band from Norway no one has ever heard of but that I've always liked named "Ephemera", they have really good albums.
I would recommend that people watch Louis Cha Jin Yong martial arts series from Hong Kong or Chinese TV, from the 80s, or 90s, or 2000s, whatever generation. The west has finally caught up with Asia in its love for serials, and you'll find no more joy and knowledge than immersing yourself with the mythology of martial arts soap operas written during the post-war period in East Asia. No better place to start than the Condor Hero trilogy.
What do you do to unwind nowadays?
I sit with my 6-year old daughter and watch pop music videos from my, and her, childhood and we sing along just to annoy her mother.
Blackened calamari tacos from Taco Mesa in Costa Mesa.
If you could ask an omniscient being one question, what would it be?
Does everything turn out well?
[interviewer: Cliff Sosis]