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Popularizing philosophy: Special event marks 10th anniversary of 'Why?' radio podcast

Jack Weinstein, UND Chester Fritz Distinguished professor of philosophy, is celebrating the tenth anniversary of his podcast , “Why? Philosophical Discussions About Everyday Life. ” photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

The way Jack Weinstein sees it, philosophy is all around us—in the lofty as well as the mundane aspects of living—and, contrary to popular belief, it's definitely not the sole domain of the highly educated.

That may be part of the reason he launched a podcast, "Why? Philosophical Discussions About Everyday Life," to engage listeners of all walks of life in thoughtful discussion, translating philosophy into language everyone can understand.

In creating the podcast, Weinstein "knew there was an opportunity to engage listeners—that just about everyone would love philosophy if they were only asked the right questions," he said.

As host and creator of the monthly podcast, Weinstein is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a free event beginning at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Empire Arts Center.

At that event, he will record a podcast episode, interview a guest on the topic "the logic of jazz," and take questions and feedback from the audience.

The guest will be his father, Mark Weinstein, professor of education at Montclair (N.J.) State University and jazz flutist who's written and produced about 20 albums.

Both Weinsteins hold Ph.D. degrees in philosophy. Jack Weinstein is a UND Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Philosophy.

The evening also includes food as well as live music by the elder Weinstein, who'll be accompanied by a group of UND musicians, the Balkansi Klezmer Band, playing traditional Jewish and Eastern European music.

During the podcast recording, the Weinsteins will discuss the creative process, which many think of as "completely free, but it's actually not like that at all," Weinstein said. "Creativity is a very logical process."

"All music is mathematics," he said.

Discussion will focus on questions such as, "how do you create newness and spontaneity," he said, and explore how improvisation works in the midst of rules.

The Why? podcast, which is broadcast and distributed by Prairie Public Radio, the North Dakota public radio network, demonstrates the relevance of philosophy to daily life and "shows that everybody does philosophy every day; they just don't know it," Weinstein said.

"What makes the show unique is our ability to take anything in the world and show how it's philosophical, and that anybody in the world can do philosophy. Most people think that in order to do philosophy you have to be highly educated; you have to have a degree; you have to have a class.

"Philosophy is really a translation exercise—finding the right words and the right way to communicate these ideas. Over the past 10 years, what we've seen is that audience members, commentators, even several of the guests who have had absolutely no philosophy background, can have incredibly deep insights and really tremendous, thoughtful contributions to any discussion."

'Out of my element'

Weinstein created the podcast after his family's relocation to North Dakota 18 years ago when he and his wife accepted teaching positions at UND.

"I'm a Jewish New Yorker and was out of my element," he said. "(R)ural life became a diversity experience. Instead of resenting cultural differences, I chose to make my own fun and opened myself to this newness."

When he first approached Prairie Public Radio about airing the podcast, Bill Thomas, a station executive, said, "All right. Let's do three episodes and see what happens," Weinstein recalled. "He never told me to stop."

For that first podcast episode, which aired Feb. 8, 2009, his first guest was North Dakota native and Jeffersonian scholar Clay Jenkinson.

"He was putting Thomas Jefferson's stamp on the new show, which was very exciting," Weinstein said.

Since then, in 123 episodes, the show has explored diverse topics such as the philosophy of hunting and why we need more jokes in our lives, he said.

The podcast has attracted thought-leaders such as award-winning playwright Tony Kushner, to feminist, journalist and social activist Gloria Steinem to bestselling authors.

The broadcast that airs on Prairie Public Radio runs 54 minutes, he said, but the podcast may run longer, Weinstein said. "Extended conversations have run 70 minutes, and we've had some episodes that have run as long as two hours."

An archive of the podcast episodes are available online at: https://philosophyinpubliclife.org/previous-episodes.

International conversation

For most of its 10 years, the podcast has been self-sustaining, supported by listener donations and Prairie Public Broadcasting. Free will donations will be taken at Tuesday's event; those who donate $25 or more will receive a CD featuring the music of Mark Weinstein.

Weinstein intends to "keep pushing the boundaries forward on what counts as philosophical," he said.

He's already spent a decade pushing the boundaries of the podcast listenership.

"We're in 116 countries," he said. "We're in every county in North Dakota and in every state in the U.S."

Through his podcast, Weinstein has taken North Dakota—which seldom pierces the national consciousness—to the rest of the country and beyond.

"To be able to create this international conversation, based in North Dakota, is incredibly special," he said.

"I take tremendous pride in facilitating conversations between North Dakotans and everyone else."

If you go

What: "The Logic of Jazz"

When: 7 p.m., Tuesday. Doors open 6:30 p.m.

Where: Empire Arts Center, 415 DeMers Ave.

Admission: Free

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