Mark Linsenmayer Brings Philosophy Back to the Mainstream
By Mark Linsenmayer
So why study philosophy? Studying philosophy sharpens critical thinking skills and enables you to cope with difficult texts and strange viewpoints. If you can read a difficult work of philosophy, you can read anything. For the full experience, you need to then go on and communicate what you’re thinking in reaction to what you’ve read or heard, which will both help you get your thoughts in order and improve your writing and speaking skills.
The Value of Philosophy
So those are reasons why philosophy is not at all the “useless” activity that many practically minded folks think that it is, but really, the biggest value of philosophy is that it should lead you to seriously question your life decisions, large and small: What should I be doing for a living? Should I get married, have kids, go to church, eat meat, give to charity, etc.? How should I vote, and should I vote at all?
In many of these areas, I’m pretty conventional: I have a family, own a house, watch TV (just not commercials), do eat meat (occasionally), vote democratic, and don’t give nearly as much to charity as I think I should. I have drawn a line in the sand regarding the traditional job thing: I think that your time is the most precious thing you have, and that it’s worth some financial sacrifice to avoid any kind of job that sucks up so much of your energy that you
can’t pursue anything you’re really passionate about. So I started with a plan to become an academic, became disillusioned with that prospect during graduate school due to the state of the academic job market, did work for several years in an office doing technical writing. I’m now a consultant in the area of transportation research and largely have the ability to set my own hours and work far less than full time at my discretion, which has enabled me to help build The Partially Examined Life LLC (PEL) slowly over the last several years into a healthy business that I hope to devote all of my energies to eventually.
I’ve also consistently been musical, running bands and releasing albums since the early ‘90s, and make time for that without expecting or needing it to be profitable, though it’s of course great if I can use money from shows to pay for studio time and so not lose much money on it. I’ve also been increasingly integrating my musical life and my podcasting life. I included one of my songs at the end of every Partially Examined Life episode for the first 150 episodes or so, and now I’ve expanded my podcast output to produce not only The Partially Examined Life
philosophy podcast, but also as of early 2016 The Nakedly Examined Music podcast, which gives me a chance to network with and interview musicians.
Fundamentally, I find philosophy valuable not for the added perspective it gives me on my life choices or the skills it’s enabled me to apply and develop, but just because it’s interesting in and of itself. I don’t find religion with its ready answers and predictable approaches to problems very rewarding, but I started being interested in philosophy at an early age out of a religious impulse: to understand myself, the world, and my place in it. I tried studying the hard sciences, but find I have limited tolerance for the types of details that I would be investigating in psychology, for instance; what’s intellectually satisfying to me is moving back for a broaderview of the issue, and I like, for instance, comparing the approaches to similar phenomena by people coming from very different academic and cultural traditions.
The Partially Examined Life (PEL)
PEL started as a way for me to reconnect with the texts I’d studied and the types of people I’d studied them with in graduate school. Our conception in 2009 when we started was not so much to recreate the graduate seminar as the going-out-for-a-drink with fellow students after the seminar to reveal in an unvarnished way what we really thought. Part of this involved a critique of academia, but that’s softened over the years. As with playing music for me, the fundamental urge is to explore and create something. Presenting it to the public is a secondary benefit, though one that becomes increasingly important as more people play attention to what we’re doing.
The Art of Planning a Show
We’ve always felt like the best way to make sure you understand something is to teach it, so even from our first episodes, which have always involved reading a text, we’ve been very concerned with spelling out exactly what in the text we’re commenting on, explaining it in such a way that even though the listener hasn’t read the text, the listener can still hopefully follow what’s going on at every step in our conversation. I think if you don’t proceed this way, then even if you’re not talking for an audience, then you and your conversation partners will inevitably talk past each other. Because we’re engaged in this shared effort to make sense of a text, we find that even if we come at it with different expectations and preferences, we’re able to reach a consensus on most of what we discuss: We do not see what we’re doing as a debate, and I find most instances of debate to be very unrewarding for all involved, with a lot of people who have already made up their minds before they start talking fail to convince each other of much. So we’d like to help demonstrate to a much larger audience this very rewarding way of having a conversation, of being able to put ideas out confidently even if they’re very half-baked, of thinking out loud in the presence of others as a way of gradually improving your own thought, both by learning from texts and conversation partners, but also by gradually, through repeated attempts, figuring out what you really want to say.
Philosophy Helps Us Reflect
I’d like to help people not take our intellectual heritage for granted. I’d like them to realize that not every important question is one that science is best to answer and so must be left largely to experts to decide. I’m not going to say that a lot of the stuff we read isn’t just plain weird: It is! But that’s what’s fun about it, and I claim it’s still fun to think about, for instance, coherent ways to conceive the nature of God even though I do not in any way believe in God myself, or what would make an ideal society even though Utopian thinking is pretty remote from the decisions actually available to us at the ballot box, or look into ways that people have tried to systematically describe experience (this is called “phenomenology”) even though I think the “scientific” ambitions of the people who tried to do this are pretty silly. There are all sorts of benefits to trying on a different way of thinking about things, and making connections yourself between different thinkers or topics is as gratifying as any creative activity I can think of.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the popularity of PEL (over 19 million downloads!) and the warm reception we’ve received. Of course, it is the Internet, and there are always folks looking for a fight, or treating anything that someone puts out there as a personal challenge that they would love nothing more than to dismiss entirely, but we’ve had many people write to us about how virtually sitting in on our discussions has changed their lives: determined their major, helped them through a difficult time, helped them stay sane at their crappy job, or ultimately switch to a different line of work. Podcasting has helped us reach so many more people for so many more hours than we would have reached by teaching, or publishing books (something which we’d still like to do and have long been in talks to do so), or as far as my music goes, I’d much rather have an audience of self-selected smart people who know me as a podcaster already than to be merely trying to distribute my albums and play at local drinking establishments (though I still do that too).
Nakedly Examined Music
With Nakedly Examined Music (nakedlyexaminedmusic.com), I’d like to really change how people listen to music. For most people, it’s like tastes in food: they think they just like what they like, and there’s nothing more to say about it. But we’ve probably all had that experience too where we, for instance, see a film like Amadeus or Bird (the show Treme about New Orleans music is another great, recent example) where you end up being introduced to a new kind of music in a very intimate way, with its context explained or rather demonstrated. I think music journalism and entertainer interviews are too often only of interest to someone who is already a fan of someone’s work. My format involves playing a few recordings in full and then talking with the artist about the motivation and techniques involved in them. I think this is not only interesting to people who engage in songwriting and want to see how others approach their craft, but serves to introduce music in this personal way, and shows I think that most music—at least the kind that anyone is really in love with—is something that you can love too, or at least appreciate, if you understand where it’s coming from and put the time into really engaging with it.
A Lasting Legacy
I’ve got two teenage kids and am doing my best to help them navigate this scary new world where jobs are increasingly being automated away, and I think what we’ve called The American Dream will need to be substantially rethought. I’d like to think I’m helping them to not just think about their future in terms of preparing themselves to be employable but to help them find their own passions and their own ways of balancing their lives.
I don’t generally think in terms of legacy and have no idea how well our discussions of philosophical texts will hold up over time, but I would like to get my recorded musical output more in order, nicely and consistently released on little electronic packages. Though I’ve released many albums over the years, only four have actually made the trip to iTunes/Spotify, some albums badly need remastering, and a few of them have remained not-quite-complete, though mostly released on my website in some form, for several years.
I have little hope that the particular LLC I’ve created will outlast me, but have been told that PEL is now seen as a pioneer in a growing movement toward popularizing philosophy. When I was in graduate school, that referred to a not-quite-respectable choice of publication strategy, but as someone now safely outside academia, I think it an extremely worthy goal.
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Mark Linsenmayer has lived in Madison, WI since 2000, has two kids, and works from home writing about transportation research. He’s a musician who’s been cranking out albums since 1992 under the name Mark Lint (Listen to many tracks at marklint.com). When in grad school for philosophy, he mostly studied continental philosophy and philosophy of mind, with interests in phenomenology and explanations of consciousness. Learn more at partiallyexaminedlife.com.