You might think that philosophy podcasts are all about big ideas, but it turns out that many of the most popular shows are merely vehicles for the views of their hosts. We’re not saying that philosophy hasn’t been dominated by personalities in the past — even Kierkegaard had an ego (sorry, Søren) — but the best podcasts about philosophy don’t shy away from examining multiple sides of an argument.
When falling down this particular rabbit hole, you’re never far from content spouting neo-Nazi ideology in the guise of “asking the important questions.” Needless to say, you won’t find those shows on this list. What you’ll find instead are philosophy podcasts that dedicate a considerable amount of time researching topics on all points of the ethical and aesthetic spectrum. They use thought experiments as a discursive framework, rather than as a tactic to provoke certain groups. And while all these shows utilize theory in their episodes, the scale ranges from hardcore to highly accessible. After all, philosophical debate shouldn’t be esoteric. Or should it?
Most episodes of Brain in a Vat start with a thought experiment, a hypothetical situation that helps to illustrate an ethical problem. (Philosophers love such experiments; cats are less partial.) These experiments offer an introduction to difficult topics that would otherwise be too abstract for most to engage with. And trust us, this show is packed with topics you’ll want to warm up for. From “Dystopian Technology” to whether we should be required to get a license to become a parent, this South African podcast is unafraid of tackling intimidating issues. With guests such as Lionel Shriver making regular appearances, you could say that this show has a contrarian bent. But although the hosts sometimes neglect to interrogate certain assumptions made by their guests, they are even-handed on most topics. The name “Brain in a Vat” comes from a Descartian thought experiment by way of Gilbert Harman, which tells you all you need to know about this show’s dedication to hypotheticals. And yet, despite long episodes, this show successfully keeps one engaged with few frills.
Listening to Moral Maze is an exercise in British masochism. That said, it remains a unique format in this genre: the roundtable discussion. Here’s a bit of background. Moral Maze started on BBC Radio 4 in 1990 and quickly became a staple in many listeners’ weekly migraine. Although the producers ensure that both sides of the argument receive equal weighting, they rarely account for the profound nihilism that many experience by the end of each episode. The regular panelists exhibit different degrees of pomposity, ranging from “I wouldn’t want to get stuck in an elevator with them” to “I would break up with my partner if this were their dad.”
To the show’s credit, each panelist is only allowed a short window to speak, usually on topics that other program won’t touch. From ‘Is growth a false god?’ to everyone’s favorite, ‘How free should speech be?’, this philosophy podcast only shoots three-pointers.
Stephen West has been making Philosophize! This, a podcast about different philosophers and philosophical movements throughout history, for over a decade. If you go back to the podcast’s earliest episodes, you’ll hear just how far the show’s production quality has come in that time. But I highly suggest you do go back through the archive because one thing has been consistently good: West’s narrative style. His writing is not just funny but inviting, giving old schools of thought new life through quips and contemporary metaphors. His writing rewards repeat listening, particularly his excellent work on French Existentialism. I’m also not afraid to tell you that I’ve used this show as a sleep aid — not because the episodes are boring, but because West’s voice evokes the sort of calm most podcasters can only dream of.
Philosophize This! began with a linear exploration of the history of philosophy, from Ionian Pre-Socratic thinking through the Enlightenment, and finally landed on post-structuralism in hits most recent episodes. The podcast’s lens is undoubtedly Western, so if you’re looking for a show that pays more than a glancing look at Eastern philosophy, you may want to look elsewhere. But for a general overview of the most important movements, as well as some fun bonus episodes on ethics, this is fantastic starting point.
It’s nearly impossible to divorce philosophy from politics. Wait — isn’t that statement also highly contested? You bet. But we, like Good in Theory, don’t shy away from debate. If you’re interested in tackling big topics in political philosophy but don’t have the time to read Aristotle’s entire oeuvre, you’re not alone. The time commitment and technical terminology involved can be a buzzkill. Who can blame people for being put off by terms like “phenomenology,” and “structural bias”? But Good in Theory engages with these texts without the complicated jargon, making political philosophy accessible to a new audience that doesn’t have hours of free time to read each week. The show is detailed and comprehensive yet doesn’t take itself too seriously. So, no more excuses.
Not all philosophy podcasts simply consider discourse and then move on. Some use life’s unanswered questions to inspire change in the present moment. The UnMute Podcast, hosted by Myisha Cherry, is a left-leaning philosophy podcast with an intersectional focus that invites a diverse range of philosophers to discuss topics like hope, criminal justice, and Buddhism. Cherry is not only a philosopher, but a professor and writer who has spent much of her career engaging with social and political theory. With a natural delivery and quick mind, her transition to podcaster was inevitable. Cherry started UnMute in 2015 with the clear intention of giving a platform to people and topics that have been previously silenced. Given its emphasis on timely issues, it’s easy to understand why some of the show’s loyal listeners call it “philosophy for the real world.”
Overthink might have a contemporary focus and light tone, but the podcast takes its philosophy seriously. Hosts Dr. Ellie Anderson and Dr. David M. Peña-Guzmán are interested in the zeitgeist, from cultural appropriation to the moral value of “influencers.” Their dynamic as friends and co-hosts is what makes this show succeed. Anderson and Peña-Guzmán provoke each other with thoughtful questions, pushing their discussions forward at an engaging pace. You don’t need to know much about philosophy to enjoy this show; a basic knowledge of popular discourse will do.
Though Overthink covers a range of topics, the program frequently returns to issues of media ethics, particularly in the arts. Anderson and Peña-Guzmán bring a thoughtful lens a controversial topics, examining, for example, whether we should limit our lived experiences to our identity categories. Their conversations bring to mind Garth Greenwell’s recent essay ‘A Moral Education’ in The Yale Review. If these subject piques your interest, Overthink adds a valuable voice to the debate.
Although the hosts of The Partially Examined Life like to joke that their podcast only exists because they had second thoughts about careers in philosophy, the show is anything but a half-baked idea. In each episode, Mark Linsenmayer, Seth Paskin, Wes Alwen, and Dylan Casey come together to analyze a single text, such as the Dao De Jing or Phaedo. If this setup reminds you of a college seminar, that’s because this show is very much like one. The podcasts examines these philosophical texts with a mixture of insight and levity that ensures that, however demanding, the ideas discussed never become overwhelming.
The Partially Examined Life lacks the flashy production value of its peers but succeeds by stripping back discourse to its core ingredients. It also spends time exploring Eastern philosophy, an approach that’s rare across many mainstream philosophy podcasts.
From Slate, Hi-Phi Nation is a story-driven philosophy podcast that tricks you into thinking that it’s not actually about philosophy at all. For one, this is a show that doesn’t discriminate between highbrow and lowbrow topics. Some weeks, host Barry Lam is talking about criminal justice, while in others, vampires are the topic du jour. This range makes the show genuinely entertaining in a genre that can be over-specialized.
Hi-Phi Nation is a labor of love made by a small team. In fact, it’s basically a one-man show. Lam writes, hosts, and produces the show primarily by himself, which is an impressive feat. He has a clear skill for choosing guests with interesting perspectives who, despite having academic backgrounds, won’t be heard name-dropping Lacan for no reason. For anyone who has little interest in “traditional” philosophy but appreciates quality narrative audio, this is your show.
While most of the philosophy podcasts on this list are accessible to philosophy newbies, Elucidations is for the academic-minded. Throwing around terms like “meta-ethics” and “quietism” with delightful abandon, this podcast is the equivalent of kicking a child out of Plato’s cave without sunglasses, but if you have even the slightest interest in philosophy, don’t let the technical terms put you off. Host Matt Teichman asks just enough clarifying questions of his incredibly nerdy guests to keep everyone on the same page.
Produced in association with the University of Chicago, Elucidations is worth a listen not only for the topics discussed, but also because the show lends insight into the views of various professors and writers. Think of it as the perfect philosophy podcast for those missing the lecture hall.
Alice Florence Orr is a staff writer and editor for Podcast Review. She is based in Edinburgh. You can connect with her on Twitter or read her work on aliceflorenceorr.com.