The Portal: Agnes Callard interview helps me sort out Eric Weinstein

So I now think I understand what’s been bugging me about Eric Weinstein’s podcast, The Portal, despite the fact that I keep listening to it.

My problem with Weinstein might not even be a problem. My own unconscious bias about how a podcast should work could be the problem. Weinstein might be disrupting the form in a necessary way, but this thing has been itching at the back of my head.

What has been bothering me crystallized when I listened to his March 2020 ep with philosopher Agnes Callard (partial transcript here). Critically, this was the second podcast I had listened to with Callard, since her appearance on Russ Roberts’ Econtalk.

Agnes Callard is a philosopher at the University of Chicago. She specializes in ancient philosophy and ethics, according to her page on the university’s site. I think she told Roberts that Aristotle is really her guy (Weinstein never asks), but she also made this very funny admission that Aristotle is just so boring to actually read.

Her episode with Roberts left me hungry for more content with Callard, but of course podcast search is so crappy that I couldn’t readily find anything else (I see this morning that she’s got some stuff that looks promising on YouTube. I’ll watch that soon).

It’s been weeks now since I listened to her on Econtalk, but I still remembered her name and I was excited to see it this week when I decided to scroll through the Portal’s past eps to see if any of the guests jumped out of me as someone I would really like to listen to.

Listening to Callard on Roberts’ show was exhilarating and made me excited to think about philosophy and its role in our lives.

Listening to her on Weinstein’s show felt frustrating, stifled and a bit closed down. It made me want to go listen to her on Roberts’ show again so I could actually hear her speak freely. To my ears, she and Weinstein spend a lot more time talking about what Weinstein thinks than about what Callard thinks.

The funny thing about the two conversations is that they both (basically) start in (basically) the same place: Roberts and Weinstein both admit that they are exactly in love with philosophy as a subject area but that they have both heard she’s fantastic. And each goes from there.

Here’s what I realized about Weinstein’s show: The Portal is about Weinstein, not his guests.

Weinstein’s guests are a way for Weinstein to unpack Weinstein. They are a way to remind himself of his past thoughts, to shape his own thinking and also to litigate his own grievances.

This could be a perfectly fine way to do a show. Some people are interesting enough that a show about them is still a good show. Wouldn’t we all like to have hours and hours and hours of tape of Mark Twain talking through what he thought about the world with intelligent interlocutors? Yes.

But it can be frustrating, too. Listening to the Callard ep (and having the memory of the Econtalk ep in mind) made me realize that my frustration was largely driven by an implicit assumption that the role of an interviewer is to open up his interviewee.

And why does that have to be the only way an interview podcast works? Weinstein is a contrary thinker, so it shouldn’t be surprising that his show operates from a fundamentally different assumption than others.

But I confess it has bugged me a bit and I think — rightly or wrongly — it still does.