2021 to 2022
Average episode: 63 minutes
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Podcaster's summary: “What Is X?” has been described as “a cross between a Platonic dialogue and ‘The Price Is Right.’” It combines dialectical inquiry of the sort perfected by Socrates and his interlocutors with a distinctly ludic spirit. Here’s how it works: For each episode, host Justin E. H. Smith invites on a guest distinguished in their field (or occasionally a “regular” person who really likes to talk). Smith asks the guest to answer a question of the form “What is X?” (for example, “What is beauty?” “What is nature?” “What are dreams?”), after which the two partners in dialogue undertake a Socratic inquiry into the nature of X, in search of a definition that satisfies both of them. There are three possible outcomes: agreement, disagreement, and aporia (Greek for “dead end”), each with its own sound effect: if we arrive at agreement, a church bell will chime; disagreement is signaled by a bleating goat; if aporia is the best we can do, we will hear naught but a gust of wind. Rigorous but freewheeling, fun and serious at once, accessibly highbrow, these conversations model rational inquiry in a new way, providing answers for truth-seekers... or perhaps just more questions. /// Host: Justin E.H. Smith (justinehsmith.substack.com) /// Presented by The Point Magazine (thepointmag.com)
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|2022-Dec-14 • 55 minutes|
What Is Being? | Kris McDaniel
This month’s episode of “What Is X?” asks a suitably grand question for the end of the year and for the end of Season 2: What is being? To help him figure it out once and for all (or to at least lessen our state of aporia), Justin brings on as his guest Kris McDaniel, a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame and the author of “The Fragmentation of Being.” Though we might find this question intimidating, Kris notes that this is no longer the case today: though fundamental throughout the history of philosophy,...
|2022-Nov-15 • 60 minutes|
What Is Money? | Joseph Tinguely
This month on “What Is X?”—timed perfectly after the latest crypto crash—Justin asks, What is money? To begin the conversation, his guest—Joseph Tinguely, a philosophy professor at the University of South Dakota and the editor of the forthcoming Palgrave Handbook of Philosophy and Money—announces he isn’t sure himself. Together, Justin and Joseph attempt to figure it out—or to at least explain why it’s so difficult to grasp what money is. First, there’s the foundational problem of trying to understand money...
|2022-Oct-14 • 64 minutes|
What Is Breakfast? | Seb Emina
On this episode of “What Is X,” Justin brings back a seasoned veteran for one last job: he invites on his friend Seb Emina, former editor of the London Review of Breakfasts blog and author of The Breakfast Bible, to ask: What is breakfast? Now the editor-in-chief of The Happy Reader, Seb is no longer in the breakfast game—but when this podcast comes calling, one must answer. Together, Justin and Seb plumb their past and present as breakfasters, as post-Kelloggian subjects, as staunch opponents to the tyrann...
|2022-Sep-15 • 63 minutes|
What Are Numbers? | Michael Harris
What does it mean for a number to exist? In the philosophy of mathematics, there are two general camps when it comes to numbers: there are the Platonists—or the “realists”—who think numbers somehow really exist, and there are the constructivists, who think they’re the products of mathematical activity. In this episode of “What Is X?” Justin invites on the Columbia University mathematician Michael Harris to try to figure out what the ontological status of numbers is. Are they the ultimate abstractions, or is...
|2022-Aug-15 • 85 minutes|
What Is Punk? | Joseph M. Keegin
The dog days of late summer call for a break from discussions of concepts like Time, War, and Virtue and a turn to a subject that, though significant, probably lacks its own Platonic form: Punk. Joining Justin for this episode of “What Is X?” is our own Joey Keegin—a contributing editor at The Point and a veteran of punk scenes of the 1990s and 2000s. Once a hitchhiker and freight train hopper and DIY participant, Joey is estranged from punk now yet still inspired by it. Why? To ask what punk is, Joey point...
|2022-Jul-15 • 63 minutes|
What Is War? | Vladislav Davidzon
On February 25th, Vladislav Davidzon burned his Russian passport on live TV to protest Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. War makes us do extreme things, Davidzon says, in this episode of “What Is X?” It sharpens national identities, intensifies feelings and social relations, and upends daily life. It makes civilization-upholding taboos fall away. Davidzon is a Russian-Ukrainian writer, editor and policy expert who has spent the past fourteen years writing on Eastern Europe and reporting from numerous conflict zo...
|2022-Jun-14 • 70 minutes|
What Is Authorship? | Jonathan Egid
What counts as authorship? Why does it matter? Should we stop putting our names on what we write and sign off instead, as early scribes preferred to do, as nothing more than humble servants of God? In this episode, Justin E.H. Smith thinks through these questions with Jonathan Egid, writer and doctoral student in comparative literature at King’s College London. The two consider the Hatäta Walda Heywat—which, depending on who you ask, is either a seventeenth-century philosophical treatise by little-known Eth...
|2022-Jun-01 • 59 minutes|
What Is Time? | Emily Thomas
In this episode of “What Is X?” Justin E.H. Smith and Emily Thomas tackle the timely yet timeless question: "What is time?" Is time an external, objective fact, or is the flow and tempo of the world internal to us—in some sense, all in our head? Could a robot have consciousness even if it didn't understand time? To help concretize these potent questions, Justin and Emily look back at the thought of a now mostly-obscure metaphysician by the name of J.M.E. McTaggart, who argued that time was un...
|2022-May-01 • 88 minutes|
What Are Conspiracy Theories? | Sam Kriss
In this live-recorded episode of What Is X?, Justin meets up with the writer Sam Kriss at a (sometimes noisy) pub in London to chat about conspiracy theories. What makes a conspiracy theory conspiratorial? What is the relationship between conspiracy theories and philosophical skepticism? Do we have a responsibility to correct misinformation, or should we try to embrace the right to be wrong? Over the course of this ninety-minute conversation, Justin and Sam amble through some conspiracy-theory greatest hit...
|2022-Apr-16 • 67 minutes|
What Is Humor? | Luvell Anderson
Longtime Point readers may remember that Justin E.H. Smith contributed to our issue 14 “What is comedy for?” symposium back in 2017. He now returns to the subject for us with this episode of “What Is X?” on humor. Joining him is Luvell Anderson, a philosophy professor at Syracuse currently at work on a book on the ethics of racial humor, from its dangers and transgressions to its progressive potential. Humor, Luvell tells Justin, is “a kind of dialogue with its culture, the cultural milieu in which it’s set...
|2022-Apr-01 • 57 minutes|
What Is Friendship? | S. Abbas Raza
On this episode of “What Is X?” Justin E.H. Smith asks: What is friendship? His guest, S. Abbas Raza, is the founding editor of 3 Quarks Daily and has a graduate degree in philosophy from Columbia, but what qualifies him as an expert on this topic is quite simple: he is one of Justin’s oldest friends. Together, the two settle into a relaxed conversation on the nature of friendship—once a high priority for the ancient philosophers, and yet strangely neglected today—and take their own as something of a case s...
|2022-Mar-15 • 69 minutes|
What Is Consciousness? | Eric Schwitzgebel
In this episode of “What Is X?” Justin E.H. Smith comes ready to be persuaded, as he tries to get a handle on one of the most difficult Xes of all: consciousness. What are the inner states we experience? Is figuring it out just a matter of neural activity, or might there be something to consciousness that science can’t fully apprehend? What is the nature of introspection, the stream of thoughts and experiences we have in the privacy of our own intellects? What are the boundaries of consciousness? Is it diff...
|2022-Mar-02 • 73 minutes|
What Is Virtue? | Jennifer Frey
The ancient conception of virtue is quite far removed from our own. Nowadays, we tend to think of virtue as a kind of moral righteousness, as opposed to sin. The Greeks, however, had a very different idea about virtue, or arete, as they called it. For Aristotle, virtue was a unique form of excellence, something that each person or animal or thing could aspire to. On this episode of “What Is X?” Justin E.H. Smith invites on philosophy professor Jennifer Frey to try to recover this idea of virtue and to ask w...
|2022-Feb-14 • 65 minutes|
What Is Love? | Dominic Pettman
For Valentine’s Day, there was only one question “What Is X” could ask, one that thinkers through the ages, from Plato to Howard Jones, have not managed to answer: What is love? In this episode, Justin E. H. Smith is joined by New School media studies professor Dominic Pettman, the author of books such as Peak Libido and Creaturely Love, for a wide-ranging discussion of desire, romance and what it means to be completed by someone (or something) else. Starting with Plato’s Symposium, they move on to Agamben ...
|2022-Feb-01 • 58 minutes|
What Is Gender? | Robin Dembroff
When it comes to gender, there are many big questions that people often get stuck on. On this episode of “What X?," Justin E. H. Smith asks Robin Dembroff, a professor of feminist and LGBTQ philosophy at Yale, to help untangle them. Justin and Robin start off by disambiguating sex and gender, with some help from the philosophical vocabulary of essence and telos. Gender, Robin argues, is the entire process of defining, classifying, and regulating people according not only to their body parts but on the ...
|2022-Jan-15 • 60 minutes|
What Are Slurs? | Jason Stanley
On this episode of “What Is X,” Justin invites his “old friend and sometimes adversary” Jason Stanley, the Yale philosopher and author of How Fascism Works, to investigate what might seem to be a relatively narrow question: What are slurs? You might think a slur is just a word that hurts. But to study slurs is, Jason contests, to attempt to understand why words have the communicative force they do—and why the very logic of philosophy of language falls short. In the traditional account, slurs seem to have sp...
|2022-Jan-01 • 62 minutes|
What Is Criticism | Ryan Ruby
What is the relation between criticism and crisis—is criticism in crisis? On this episode of "What is X?," taped in July 2021, Justin invites the critic and poet Ryan Ruby on to attest to the state of criticism today. Is it even possible to play a social role as a critic today, Justin asks, given the economic structures that disadvantage serious long-form criticism? There’s more good criticism than one might expect, Ryan offers—an embarrassment of riches amid the top-ten listicles. Criticism, Rya...
|2021-Dec-14 • 62 minutes|
What Is History? | D. Graham Burnett
This week’s episode of “What Is X?” begins with a provocation: Does this conversation really need to be an hour long? Can’t Justin and this week’s interlocutor, D. Graham Burnett, just agree that history is what happens in the past, and let the bells of agreement ring? Naturally, they can’t, as Graham, a historian of science at Princeton and a longtime friend of Justin’s, well knows. Instead, Justin and Graham plunge into the history of defining history: if it’s not just all the events that happened in the ...
|2021-Nov-30 • 42 minutes|
What Is Art? | Becca Rothfeld
How is the aesthetic experience of art different from how we appreciate wonders of nature—a pretty flower, or a mountain vista, or a peacock's beautiful feather? In this brisk and bracing 40-minute discussion, Justin E.H. Smith is joined by critic and self-declared lover-of-art Becca Rothfeld to spar over what makes art art. They ask: Does it have to be something made by humans and for humans, or could one consider an animal or a machine an artist? Is there a stable, transhistorical definition of the t...
|2021-Nov-15 • 59 minutes|
What Is Memory? | Julian Lucas
Say you’re researching your ancestry, and you hit a dead end: the genealogical trail goes cold. Is it really a dead end? Or might this open up new ways of understanding who we are and how we came to be? In other words: What do we mean when we say something exists in our historical memory? Can we actually remember historical events that you were not alive to see? On this week’s episode of “What Is X?,” Justin E. H. Smith talks to writer and critic Julian Lucas about memory, and historical memory in particula...
|2021-Nov-01 • 61 minutes|
What Is Matter? | Sean Carroll
Is matter “an idea in the mind of God,” as the early modern philosopher and noted immaterialist George Berkeley would have it? On this week's episode of “What Is X?” Justin invites on Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at Caltech and host of the podcast “Mindscape” to try to improve on Berkeley’s original definition. But this is not so simple a task. After all, asking “What is matter?,” as Carroll notes, raises a bigger and more salient question—namely, is there matter at all? Over the course of the...
|2021-Oct-21 • 65 minutes|
What Is Mental Health? | Danielle Carr
Since the mid-twentieth century, there has been an ongoing quarrel over the definition of mental health: Are disorders like depression, OCD, or schizophrenia biologically determined or are they socially constructed?In this episode of “What Is X?,” Justin E. H. Smith talks to Danielle Carr about the history of psychiatry and the politics of madness, from 1930s asylums and the DSM to the antipsychiatry movement and Elon Musk’s newest hobby: neural implants. They discuss the big business of mental health in ou...
|2021-Oct-01 • 54 minutes|
What Is Poetry? | Jeff Dolven
Jeff Dolven and Justin E.H. Smith assay the hoard of poetry’s riches in this month’s episode: Is poetry a way of grasping at the treasures of language, past and present? Or might there be something that is particular to poetry, something unlike the pleasures and possibilities of other forms of literature? Countering Justin’s more extensive notion, Jeff offers that poetry is language that wants to happen “all at once.” Will Jeff and Justin be able to reach an agreement? Or will the goat bleat at the buzzer, ...
|2021-Sep-01 • 62 minutes|
What Are Dreams? | Matthew Spellberg
What kind of thinking do we do when we sleep? Is that what dreaming is? And how is it different from the thinking we do in waking life? In this episode of “What Is X?,” Justin E.H. Smith talks to Matthew Spellberg, a scholar working on a comparative history of dreaming, about one of the mysteries that has fascinated humankind from the ancients to Descartes and Freud and beyond: What are dreams, really? Why do we have them? Why do we share them? And what can they tell us?
|2021-Jul-31 • 63 minutes|
What Is Philosophy? | Agnes Callard
What does it mean to be a philosopher? After all, it's an odd job title. In this episode, Justin E.H. Smith asks philosopher and Point columnist Agnes Callard, What even is philosophy? What does philosophy do, and what does it take to do it? Along the way, they consider whether philosophy is meant to reveal actual truths about the world, answering abstract questions like "What is reality?" or more everyday ones like "How should I be happy?" Or could philosophy actually be a form of ...