EconTalk: A Philosopher and an Economist walk into a podcast...

Here’s all I really have to say about the June 22nd episode of EconTalk: go listen to it.

Seriously: Russ Roberts, the show’s creator and host, is a gem — and I hardly agree with him about anything. A libertarian ex-professor, he’s a person with a very strong worldview and yet he has the gift of somehow using that worldview to make himself more open. Roberts uses his bias as a springboard to dig into issues with people.

He doesn’t do it by creating dumb arguments with his guests. Instead he’s more likely to, for example, point to some social phenomenon they both agree is a problem, offer his explanation and then ask his guest to do the same. More often than not he says something like, “That’s a very interesting argument and here’s what I like about it… " Etc.

He’s a rare find among podcasters.¹ 

I am not a libertarian. Like, very no. And yet: I stan for Russ Roberts and I always always will.

This recent episode is a little bit of a departure for him though. He brings on Agnes Callard, a philosopher at the University of Chicago who studies the ancient authorities. Her Twitter bio says, “Occasionally use (& interpret your) ‘likes’ to indicate dislike” (respect).

Roberts usually sticks to fellow economists, though that’s not the only folks he talks to. Philosophy is rare on the show, though, and he admits to being relatively under-read in the topic.

But Roberts is such a good interviewer and so curious that it almost makes it better. They have a heavy conversation that anyone who cares about the topic of philosophy online should read.

In particular, I appreciate Callard’s two arguments:

First: Philosophy is meant not to answer questions but to make people better able to ask questions and find their own answer (I’d argue that this makes her existentialist adjacent but I’m sure she has a more intelligent rejoinder to this comment than my off the cuff assessment.)

Callard said:

“You have to answer those questions. That’s what philosophy has been trying to tell you. And, so I think one really deep difference between progress in philosophy and progress in science is that in some sense progress in science is all about having less science to do. It’s like we’re trying to finish science, right?

“And, so the progress means we’ve tied those loose ends. It may turn out we didn’t tie them as well as we thought; we’ve got to go back, right? But, progress in philosophy is not about making there be less philosophy that has to be done. It’s about making it the case that the people who are philosophizing in the future can do it better. In some way, there’s more philosophy to be done, the more philosophical progress we make.”

Second: Philosophy actually has made a lot of progress for it it’s just difficult for contemporary people to see it, because when philosophy really progresses everyone accepts its insights so deeply that they just assume that everyone has always seen the world.

Callard said:

“One way philosophy creates progress: it doesn’t itself make progress but it sort of creates it—is that there’s like a mush of how people think about the world and philosophers divide it up and articulate it and create like a structure. Right? And, then that structure sort of trickles down and just becomes how people think about things, unreflectively, right? So, you could think of it as like your conceptual architecture.”

For example, she argues that before Aristotle people weren’t really sure how to think about how one thing could be two things. For example, a construct of wood could be both “a chair” and it could be “yellow.” You could both say: “That is a chair” and “That is yellow.”

We just have to take our word for it here because this is super weird to imagine, but she contends that this was hard for ancients to really wrap their heads around, until Aristotle articulated the notion of “properties.”

Hegel argued that prior to Roman times Western people didn’t really have the notion of individuality and self-interest. This is similarly hard to imagine because it’s so in the water in America, but then again when you think about it: individuality is a pretty abstract notion. It would be more natural to see oneself as an extension of the family and the village that collectively keeps them alive. It takes several layers of abstraction to construct an individualistic life strategy.

Callard points to the notion of human rights as a more recent win for philosophers. People sort of assume that human rights are table stakes now, though this is an interesting point.

A point the Red Scare girls (both immigrants from former Soviet republics) often make is that the notion of “human rights” is not something that people really get in the Slavic world. They talk about this a lot on their most recent episode.

But this supports Callard’s argument. This is an example of a philosophical notion that we can see winning people over in real time. Like we can see parts of the world where human rights is in the water and parts where it isn’t. It shows it’s one of those ideas that people aren’t just born with. Philosophers articulate something that’s right and eventually people act like it’s obviously true.

What’s more powerful than that? You still have to teach science in schools. The greatest philosophical wins feel like ideas people were born knowing.

¹ One other tiny reason he’s great for people who happen to blog a lot about podcasts: he publishes great transcripts of his episodes, which makes quoting so much easier for people like me who listen while doing stuff, like running.