Ever since I saw that little cartoon man and read the title Partially Examined Life, I knew I wanted to interview the hosts. I have always been interested in philosophy but had always felt like there was just way too much history in the field to know where or how to start. I wanted to find out how podcasters had made philosophy and philosophical discussion accessible to the public and built such a large audience around those conversations in the process. I recently got my chance to ask all those questions and more when I spoke to Mark Linsenmayer, the founder of Partially Examined Life and, more recently, of Nakedly Examined Music.
When I asked Mark why he studied philosophy in college he said that “there was really nothing else [he] was interested enough in the details of.” He liked looking into the “big picture” of sciences, which exposed him to philosophy. Mark told me he wanted to study “something at the intersection of science and philosophy, but you have to go to grad school to do that.” “The more I was in grad school,” Mark said, “the more I became interested in different parts of philosophy that I didn’t know I was interested in.” He became fascinated by the historical side of philosophy and found the individual philosophers more and more interesting.
Even as Mark was falling in love with the field, he was seeing that the job market was less than promising. He told me that “professors would say ‘if you can see yourself doing anything else, do something else.’” Mark went as far as having his PhD prospectus approved before he “decided [he] didn’t want to do that” and entered the job market. Now, he lives in Wisconsin and writes about transportation research and said that in “having a real job here, [he] rediscovered fiction and rediscovered regular, non-academic life.” But it didn’t take long for Mark to start “missing the experience.”
So, he began teaching a few ethics classes at the local college, which only made him want to get back into philosophy more. As a podcast fan, Mark started to think about the ways a philosophy podcast could synthesize the academic experience he had been so fond of. He told me there were three main things he wanted the show to encapsulate: “the seminars themselves… cooperatively teaching each other the text… And after the seminars, we would go out for beers and discuss things in a much less rigorous manner.” Mark wanted to bring all of these pieces of the graduate school experience together because he felt that they combined to form the best method for really thinking through and learning philosophy, but it’s hard to have these kinds of conversations on your own. He needed a team.
Wes Alwin and Seth Paskin went to grad school with Mark and, when he reached out to former classmates, “jumped at the opportunity.” After around fifty episodes, Mark “discovered that [his] brother-in-law Dylan Casey who is a PhD physics graduate… really enjoyed the format and so [he] brought him on.” Dylan is now a staple on the show and the four men host Partially Examined Life together. Mark explained that around every two or three episodes they have on a guest, usually to fill in the gaps in the knowledge of the hosts. Guests also sometimes include the “big time voices” in philosophy, usually meaning the people that write a lot of the books used in philosophy classes. But because the show really runs on the conversation between the hosts about the reading, guests are usually invited on to be a “fellow reader” of the text, similar to how the hosts tell listeners what the reading will be and suggest they read the text before listening to the discussion.
Despite a pretty clear vision for the show, Mark told me he had “no real conception that people would want to listen to [it].” When the podcast began, few shows existed on philosophy and those that did were mostly “professors, spreading their wisdom.” Mark noticed that these had no “ongoing story.” Partially Examined Life, he said, “is us as personalities rediscovering, and newly discovering, texts and our own evolving points of view as we talk to each other.” While the narrative portion is unique and engaging, Mark said he “knew the selling point would be the philosophers [they] were talking about.” People who had taken a single philosophy class would want more information on people like Kant and Nietzsche, and giving them more information would draw them into the show.
As Partially Examined Life has grown, its hosts have continued to develop their personal interests in different fields and the podcast has lent itself to spin off shows. For Mark, interviewing musicians about different topics inside philosophy sparked something in him. He told me that “from then on the seed was in my head that a music interview podcast was something [he] could do.” And so, Nakedly Examined Music was born as a solo-act for Mark and his passion for music.
And he really is passionate. Mark has been putting out his own albums since 1992 (under the name Mark Lint or various band names, most recently New People) and loves to study obscure and well-known musicians alike. His understanding of the music-making process and his experience on Partially Examined Life fed into Nakedly Examined Music’s unique take on a music interview show. Mark told me that most music interviews don’t involve caring too much about what the interviewer says, even going so far as cutting out the questions to give the musician the most space possible. But “Partially Examined Life has set [him] up with this idea of cooperatively understanding a text. So, when having a celebrity artist, it’s cooperatively understanding their text.”
Each episode of Nakedly Examined Music invites on an artist and discusses their work. Mark explained that “three of the songs get played in full from the artist. They’re recordings so we insert them, and then we treat them like a text.” Mark spends a few weeks before the interview listening to the artist’s entire catalogue, choosing songs that map the artist’s growth and progression, and taking detailed notes as he listens to those songs several times over to be prepared to discuss every aspect of them. Mark told me that the show “tries to get into aspects of music theory, music business, arrangement, recording techniques, stories behind the songs.” Basically, if it matters to the artist or to the listener, Nakedly Examined Music is going to cover it.
Mark told me that “the Partially Examined Life seemed to scream at [the hosts] to have spin off shows from the very beginning.” From shows that follow the host’s individual interests to shows that were born from ideas on Partially Examined Life’s chat rooms, the team of hosts has decided to make a network that encourages great ideas to become podcasts. Of course, starting a network is no easy task, and the team has had to learn a lot about building audiences, episode length, networking, leveraging interviews into more interviews, and the balance between academic or specialized discussion and lightheartedness. But all of the learning has added up to a network full of great content and a team looking forward to the future.
The Partially Examined Life’s 10-year anniversary show is coming up on April 6th and will discuss A Brave New World live from New York City. The show is also excited for their annual audio play, incorporating great actors with philosophy and classic plays; past plays have included figures from TV, Broadway, and comedy, most consistently Lucy Lawless (Xena the Warrior Princess). So, if you love philosophy or music, check out Partially Examined Life and Nakedly Examined Music, or even their entire network, and be sure to leave a rating and review on Podchaser to let them know what you think!
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