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Philosophy for the masses

January 23, 2015

A photo of "The Thinker"With the help of a substantial donation from the John Templeton Foundation, NIU’s philosophy department is teaming up with Wi-Phi, an open access philosophy web site that aims to increase the role of philosophy in the public sphere.

Launched in 2013 by Gaurav Vazirani, a graduate student at Yale, Wi-Phi publishes videos on philosophical topics and critical thinking at a level accessible to viewers without any prior training.

The site is now run by Vazirani and a team of 15 collaborators across North America, including NIU philosophy professor Geoff Pynn. Video contributions so far have come from 35 faculty members at 22 leading philosophy departments, including NIU, Cambridge, Columbia, Duke, MIT, Yale and others.

The videos, now averaging more than 45,000 views per month, consist of audio recordings by professional philosophers with animations created by Wi-Phi’s team.

The site is quickly winning wide recognition: Wi-Phi is partnered with Khan Academy, a leading free online education provider, to distribute its content worldwide, and has nearly 5,000 YouTube subscribers.

In addition to the Templeton Foundation donation stewarded by NIU, the organization has recently received an Innovators Grant from the American Philosophical Association and a seed grant from the Squire Family Foundation. Meanwhile, Grammy-winning rap star Lupe Fiasco, who has cultivated a large and successful “#PhilosophySunday” discussion on Twitter, recently handed management of that weekly forum to Wi-Phi’s social media team.

“Philosophy addresses questions that nearly everybody asks about the world and our place in it,” says Pynn, a Wi-Phi associate director and author of two videos on topics in critical thinking.

Do we have free will? Is there a God? How should we live? What can we know? What is meaning? Professional philosophers spend their careers thinking about these issues, but they don’t always present their ideas in ways that the broader public can easily understand. Wi-Phi aims to bridge the gap between academic philosophy and the wider world, and make the tools and insights developed by philosophers accessible to the general public.”

Geoffrey Pynn

Geoffrey Pynn

Wi-Phi has big plans.

A series on philosophy of law, created by faculty at the Yale Law School, is also in development, as well as an interdisciplinary collection exploring the idea of the true self.

Pynn is collaborating with Jennifer Nagel, an epistemologist at the University of Toronto, on a mini-course of videos on the theory of knowledge. Series on feminist philosophy, free will, philosophy of race, philosophy of religion, philosophy of science and value theory are all in the works. At the same time, graduate students working with Wi-Phi are developing assessment tools and written summaries to supplement its growing library of critical thinking videos.

“I’m very excited and grateful for the Templeton Foundation grant to support Wi-Phi’s work,” Pynn says. “The reception we’ve received from our viewers has been amazing, and so enthusiastic – there is a real hunger out there for the kind of content we are providing. I’m eager to work with Wi-Phi as we take the next steps in developing a truly comprehensive resource for accessible philosophy on the web.”