Philosophy videos

Part of my job involves making videos of people talking about philosophy. These largely fall into two types: videos of live talks and MOOC videos.

Live talks in front of an audience

Filming the live talks is fairly straightforward. We turn up with a camera and a mic, set everything up and hit record. For the editing, we top-and-tail the recording, add a title slide, and it’s done. Sometimes we take a screen recording of the slides and edit them into the finished product, like this:

These videos don’t call for creative film-making; they’re just supposed to be a faithful document of the talk. The main things that people care about here are good sound and legible slides.

MOOC videos

In addition to the live talks, we’ve also been making two sets of videos as part of some upcoming MOOCs: one in Intellectual Humility (part 1 live now!) and another in Philosophy, Science and Religion. These courses feature lectures from visiting speakers, but we’ve got the time to do more interesting things with the editing.

This focus on video raises a challenge: video is visual, but philosophy isn’t generally a visual subject. It trades in abstract concepts; concepts that get chopped up, put back together again, and argued about. This entire process takes place in words, logical notation, and occasionally, diagrams.

Sometimes a lecturer describes something that’s easily visualised: a famous philosopher, a metaphor, a thought experiment, or maybe the application of a philosophical idea to a concrete event. In these cases, it can be useful to add images and animations. The images might make the audio easier to follow, and maybe even more memorable.

In a philosophy video, these images can also act like anchors for the viewer. So the first time a speaker mentions something abstract, like “courage”, we could cut in a picture of a fire engine. Whenever the speaker mentions courage again, we can show the fire engine again. That way, we help steer the viewer through the video, emphasising that the speaker is making a reference to something that we’ve covered before.

These images help a viewer navigate the talk. But they also aid people’s memory of the talk. In E-Learning and the Science of Instruction (p.79-80), Clark and Mayer sing the praises of what they call the multimedia effect:

There is consistent evidence that people learn more deeply from words and pictures than from words alone, at least for some simple instructional situations. In eleven different studies, researchers compared the test performance of students who learned from animation and narration versus narration alone or from text and illustrations versus text alone […] In all eleven comparisons, students who received a multimedia lesson consisting of words and pictures performed better on a subsequent transfer test than students who received the same information in words alone.

What happens when we apply this to philosophy videos

One problem with adding images to philosophy videos is that philosophers are often aiming to elucidate ideas in their purest, most abstract form. Love, wisdom, knowledge, and so on. Part of this process might involve applying the ideas to concrete examples and test cases. But if we immediately associate an abstract concept with an image, that image brings baggage with it. In the case of a fire engine, that picture might have a reductive effect on how we think of an expansive idea like courage. Instead of thinking to ourselves “What is courage?”, we jump the gun, and think “Oh yeah, courage – like rescuing someone from a burning building”.

How would Socrates have taught someone about courage? He probably would have picked on some smug lawyer in the market square, and asked him to explain what courage is. Then, through careful questioning, he would have challenged the lawyer on that definition. Subjected to a process of cross examination, the lawyer would emerge a more learned person, intellectually strengthened through the practice of philosophy.

If Socrates says “Courage (that thing we associate with firefighters) is a noble virtue”, something of the magic gets lost. But this is exactly what a video editor communicates to a viewer by flashing that fire engine on the screen.

Maybe philosophy is better suited to the radio

It’s interesting at this point to note that philosophy has never really been a big thing on TV. But it has been on the radio. BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time handles philosophical topics in a lively and captivating way, bringing philosophy to life without cheapening it. More recently, the podcast Philosophy Bites has been a hugely successful project that makes serious philosophical questions accessible to the educated layperson. No images whatsoever.

Philosophy on YouTube

Radio and philosophy work well together, and podcasts might seem to be the way forward. But a variety of YouTube channels have demonstrated that there’s a public appetite for philosophy videos. The website TrueSciPhi collates a chart of the most popular, and the subreddit r/philosophy also contains frequent video posts.

These videos are often lectures or interviews, produced by universities, using the conventions set by TV. But there’s also a new(ish) breed of videos which follow the more jagged editing style associated with video made for the internet. The massively popular YouTube channel Wisecrack, for example, marries philosophical questions with pop culture, presenting this in a fast-paced and image-laden way. “The Philosophy of Deadpool / South Park / Rick and Morty” are videos by Wisecrack getting upwards of 1 million views apiece. As I write, The Philosophy of Darth Vader has had about 600,000 views in the space of a week. PBS Digital’s Crash Course is also very popular, and although it sometimes feels like a trendy schoolteacher getting down with the kids, the videos work really well. The Crash Course philosophy videos are fast-paced and lively, and unlike Wisecrack, cover topics you’re more likely to find on a school curriculum.

Wireless Philosophy takes short talks by academic philosophers, adding animation in the “RSA Animate” drawing hand style. My previous points notwithstanding, this suits philosophy to a tee; see also The History of Ideas, a brilliant series produced in this style by the BBC and the Open University.

One other honourable mention has to be this video of a short talk by Stephen Law, animated by Steph Hope. Beautifully drawn, and interesting to boot.

Conclusions

As someone working to create media that communicates philosophical topics to the world, I want to try it all: podcasts, videos, animations. We’ll no doubt get feedback on our MOOC videos once the courses go live, and I’m looking forward to hearing what people have to say.

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