Inspired by: Fergus McCullough.
Conversations with Tyler is one of my favourite podcasts. In it, the economist Tyler Cowen asks detailed (and often rapid-fire) questions of guests, which often include authors, philosophers, scientists and economists.
Conversations with Tyler is very information dense, and has a lot of replay value compared to most podcasts. It can also be difficult to get into, because Tyler does extremely deep research and you won’t understand every detail on the first listening. Some of the best episodes are with guests who have been interviewed many times: the questions asked are very different from what you get on other podcasts.
Despite our many shared interests, my girlfriend has never listened to Conversations with Tyler, and so this is really one extended exercise in trying to get her to listen to it. Some people may say that writing a whole blog post just to get someone to listen to a podcast is excessive, but those people would be wrong.
5. Emily Wilson
This conversation is with Emily Wilson, a professor of classics at the University of Pennsylvania and the first woman to translate The Odyssey into English. What I love about podcasts like this one is how object-level they are: there are no shortage of podcasts about how people are reacting to X, or how outrageous X is, or how X fits in with some social trend or celebrity drama, but it’s remarkable how little anyone actually talks about X! This really is a conversation about translation and the Greek myths. Wilson and Cowen discuss the history of translations of The Odyssey: why did Thomas Hobbes translate it? How did that fit in with his general political philosophy? They also discuss the Homeric question, aka who Homer was, if he/she/they even were a single person. Odysseus returns home halfway through the poem – is the rest of it just Homer showing off? Can something from 2,500 years ago still be funny today? Lots to digest in this conversation.
4. Nathan Nunn & Melissa Dell
I’m giving this joint spot to the episodes with Nathan Nunn and Melissa Dell, because of their similar subject matter. These episodes were a large part of my inspiration in writing my post about the persistence literature. Nunn and Dell are both economists at Harvard, who have both hugely contributed to the research on cultural persistence – effects that persist for hundreds of years, e.g. countries in Africa that had more slaves taken from them are more mistrustful today. Most of this research is very narrow and esoteric, but Cowen asks a lot of big picture questions, about things like why exactly it is that places far away from the equator are so much richer (in the Dell conversation). He also discusses with Nunn the differences between US and Canadian academia, and the clustering of the academy into a few elite institutions. Other topics include: why there aren’t more well-known Canadian companies, the effects of the Vietnam war, why Ethiopia has seen successes in nation-building, how Cape Verdean democracy works, how plough-based agriculture lowers female labour-force participation, why there’s so much grain storage in Enid, Oklahoma, and more.
3. Karl Ove Knausgård
Karl Ove Knausgård is the Norwegian author of My Struggle, a six-volume novelised memoir which made a significant splash in the literary world. The books are brutally honest and either use his family members’ real names or gives so much detail that their identities are easy to figure out, which was one of the reasons for the press surrounding the book (the books sold 500,000 copies just in Norway, a country of 5 million people). I’m currently reading vol. 2, and the first volume was one of the best books I’ve ever read. Once I finish the second volume of the series (entitled A Man in Love) I’ll probably post something about it on this blog. If you have any interest in reading these books, I highly recommend this episode.
At the start of this podcast, Cowen draws parallels between Knausgård and Edvard Munch, the Norwegian painter whom Knausgård wrote a book about (So Much Longing in So Little Space). There is an obvious comparison in being leading artistic figures in Norway, but Munch and Knausgård are also very confessional in their orientation. They also share a craving to get at that which is artistically interesting – Knausgård is no perfectionist and simply moves on if something does not work. This is mirrored in Munch, who (along with his masterpieces) has a trove of abandoned works that aren’t even good. Other topics include: the influence of Proust, Norwegian artistic and intellectual culture, Norway’s co-operation with the Nazis, the intellectual depth of the Cain and Abel story, and the philosophy of literary freedom.
Another thing that is so fascinating about Knausgård is his sheer productivity. He wrote a 3,000 (!) page memoir in only two years while taking care of three kids. He said that he didn’t edit the books much, and yet the prose is still beautiful. Tyler usually calls this his guests’ ‘production function’, and Knausgård has a particularly impressive one.
2. Kwame Anthony Appiah
Kwame Anthony Appiah is a fascinating man. He’s a philosopher at NYU, he basically invented the field of African studies, his grandfather was Chancellor of the Exchequer, his great-grandfather was leader of the House of Lords, and his great-uncle and uncle were both King of Ghana!
The topics in this discussion include: religion and culture in Ghana, why West Africa isn’t secularising, why former British colonies are more successful than French ones, what you can learn by owning a sheep farm in New Jersey, whether Nigeria or Ghana has better jollof rice, what it’s like to be related to royalty, and what it’s like to chair the Man Booker Prize. This is one of the most compelling discussions about Africa that I’ve heard and Appiah has a marvellous voice.
P.S. Appiah is also the ethicist for The New York Times, and in this episode he discusses what that’s like and – obliquely – touches upon the role of public philosophy in general.
1. David Deutsch
David Deutsch is a physicist at Oxford, a pioneer of quantum computing, and author of the book The Beginning of Infinity. This podcast really made parts of The Beginning of Infinity click for me. The book is about, among other things, universality: the claim that there are no limits on what humans can understand. A dog will never understand trigonometry. So why is Deutsch sure I could one day understand the theory of everything? Well, he’s not. The point is not that specific individuals will ever fully understand anything, but just that there’s no limit to what we can understand. A key quote: “We can understand things better; We can never understand things fully”.
Tyler views Deutsch as being the ultimate philosopher of freedom; despite being a physicist, Deutsch also writes and talks about epistemology, aesthetics and political philosophy, all with the general theme of progress being unbounded. In this conversation, Deutsch points out that libertarians (usually thought to be the people embracing freedom to the maximum extent) have a revolutionary idea, and even if they want to implement it gradually over 100 years, they still know where they want to get to. By and large, they aren’t realising that knowing how to error correct is more important than where you want to go in the first place. This error-correction is the flip side of universality, because if you can’t adequately correct errors, they will compound until your conjectures and no better than chance. I have a (very long) upcoming post about the philosophy of David Deutsch, and this conversation was one of the best sources I drew from.
Bonus: Rob Wiblin interviews Tyler
As a bonus, Rob Wiblin (host of the excellent 80,000 Hours podcast) interviewed Tyler for the Conversations with Tyler feed. They talk about Tyler’s book Stubborn Attachments, which argues for long-term sustainable economic growth as a moral imperative. Rob Wiblin and Tyler Cowen are two of my favourite interviewers, and they represent two very different styles. Wiblin’s style is a bit more discursive, and he has very long conversations in which he gives many objections to his guest’s view and allows them to fully develop an argument. Tyler jumps around a lot more and doesn’t often bring attention to his disagreements with the guest (this podcast follows more of the Wiblin approach). Topics include: the importance of mitigating existential risk, the ethics of eating meat, the trade-off between redistribution and long-run growth, the argument for low discount rates, what Derek Parfit got most wrong and right, the difficulty of defining culture, why we should start a social norm of not drinking alcohol, pluralist conceptions of ethics, the underrated threat of air pollution, the health of the economics discipline, and much more.
Cowen also talks about his (new at the time) Emergent Ventures. This blog is currently funded by Emergent Ventures, so please check out his thinking and justification behind it!
Thanks to Sydney for reading a draft of this post.