by Daniel A. Kaufman
My relationship with Robert Wright’s “BloggingHeads.TV” goes back some ten years or so, when I was nothing more than a regular contributer to the comments section. So involved was I that when Bob first recorded a conversation with regular commenters in 2013, I was one of them. [Though the link is still up, the video no longer seems to play.]
Becoming a content creator came not long after. Massimo Pigliucci and I did a number of dialogues together, beginning in 2014, and I also appeared several times with Aryeh Cohen-Wade prior to the creation of his show, Culturally Determined, on which I also often appeared quite a few times as a guest.
The first episode of Sophia, as an official show dedicated to philosophy and its intersection with other subjects, aired in 2015 and inaugurated BloggingHeads’ sister channel, MeaningofLife.TV. First devoted exclusively to dialogues with Massimo, it eventually went on to include dialogues with many different guests and over the last year or so, with additional hosts: The Electric Agora’s own Robert Gressis and David Ottlinger and more recently, Kevin Currie-Knight.
As most of you know by now, MeaningofLife.TV will no longer host Sophia. The rest of this essay is devoted to why.
I was dismissed by way of an email that Bob sent to me in January, in which he said that he thought Sophia should leave the platform. As it was written, it wasn’t entirely clear to me whether this was a suggestion or a declaration of intent, so I emailed him back to clarify [and I’m paraphrasing]: Are you throwing Sophia off of MOLTV? Bob’s answer was a categorical “Yes.”
This was not the first time that Bob and I had discussed the possibility of Sophia leaving BloggingHeads. Due to the pandemic and content creators having a lot more time on their hands, the queues had become long, and weeks, even months would pass before a recorded dialogue was posted. Given that the amount of Sophia content was increasing [in part because of the addition of new hosts], this seemed a problem. Also, several EA writers had expressed interest in creating their own podcasts, so EA was going to expand to include a podcast “wing.”
Bob had also informed me that BHTV/MOLTV was no longer being funded by the grants that had financed them before, so the platform would cease offering the post-production that it used to provide. Content creators would have to do it themselves, pay someone to do it or have their dialogues post with no timestamps. As I do not have the relevant skills and want the timestamps, I decided to pay for it, and have been doing so to the tune of $100.00 per episode.
All of these might have been reasons to leave the platform, but I had decided against it. I had too much history with and investment in MOLTV; I had made too many friends amongst the commentariat over the years; and there was no reason why I couldn’t keep Sophia on MOLTV, while also creating new podcasts over at the Electric Agora.
I won’t go into the details of Bob’s communication, but aside from the dismissal itself, there were two items that made up the bulk of it: Dismay that I had publicly, on several occasions, criticized BloggingHeads’ move in the direction of crowdfunding its individual shows; and the contention that Sophia had drifted from its original conception and become both overly academic and too often devoted to expressing my political opinions.
The first is what it is, and I don’t really have anything to say about it. I think my criticisms were measured and fair. The second I find puzzling, because Sophia, at least in its substance, has not changed in the slightest. [Its format, of course, has changed in that we have added additional regular hosts.] The philosophy was technical and challenging from the beginning – as my discussion with Massimo on reductive materialism, the strong AI thesis, and Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment, back in 2015 demonstrates – and I never failed to voice my political opinions when relevant, as I did back in 2017, when David Ottlinger and I discussed the illiberalism of the Social Justice movement. Also puzzling is the fact that in the six years that I have been running the program, Bob has never once expressed dissatisfaction to me about it.
If I am being honest with myself, though, I should have realized that the proverbial writing has been on the wall for some time. If you look back at Sophia’s archives, as well as the archives for the Wright Show, you’ll see that Bob and I used to create a lot of content together. Besides regularly appearing on one another’s shows, Bob would use mine to make channel announcements [as he did when announcing the short-lived “sermons” modality], and we had even discussed my taking on a bigger role in the BHTV/MOLTV operation over dinner in Manhattan. But, all of this stopped around 2017 or so.
What happened? Anyone’s guess is as good as mine, but if you asked me to speculate, I would observe that around the same time, I had begun to comment in a sometimes-critical vein on Bob’s and others’ content on MOLTV that seemed to me “woo” and with which I did not think a serious operation like ours should be associated. At one point, I even requested that Sophia be moved to BHTV, which was refused. After that, Bob and I never did a dialogue together again. Even after the publication of my book, How to Live a Good Life last year, though Bob interviewed the other two editors – Massimo Pigliucci and Skye Cleary – as well as contributor Robin Wang, he never interviewed me. [In the email dismissing me, Bob offered to do one last dialogue together, but I hope readers can understand why I refused.]
So, I had developed the strong impression that Bob had soured on me, but he never said a word to me about it, and I felt that I could live with it. We’re all grown-ups after all, and we don’t have to love each other in order to work together productively. So despite the fact that I’ve not been on Bob’s proverbial menu for some time, it did come as a surprise to me when I was dismissed.
I am very grateful for my time as part of the BloggingHeads family, and I am proud of Sophia, which I think has been a consistently high-quality show, largely because of the excellent guests we’ve had, including Russell Blackford, Meghan Daum, Oliver Burkeman, Brian Leiter, and of course, the one and only, Massimo Pigliucci. And while I am sad to have to go, I am looking forward to Sophia’s coming home to the Electric Agora and to producing several new podcasts that will be going up alongside it and which I am sure will draw their own loyal audiences.