Duke's Paul Henne gives philosophy to the masses in bite-sized animated videos | Arts Feature | Indy Week

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Duke's Paul Henne gives philosophy to the masses in bite-sized animated videos

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The young philosopher's hair is sticking up in the back. His desk is laden with a laptop, a high-quality microphone, three empty beer bottles and at least five coffee mugs, all presided over by a lamp with a crash cymbal for a shade. As he drops a photo into a program called VideoScribe and clicks a few buttons, the picture dissolves, only to be redrawn by an animated hand.

Paul Henne, a Ph.D candidate at Duke, is editing a video for Wireless Philosophy (www.wi-phi.com), of which he is associate director and a chief animator. Though he hopes to eventually hire professional animators, it's currently handled by "students in philosophy who can make mildly entertaining jokes about it with cat pictures," as Henne puts it. "We wanted to do something along the lines of MinutePhysics, where the person speaking is doing the drawing. But it's impossible to get top philosophers to sit there and draw."

Instead, Wi-Phi used grant money from the Squire Foundation to buy microphones and software, and started posting videos last year. Henne solicits brief recorded lectures—seriously informative but also brisk and entertaining—from students and professors around the world, including many at Duke. Then, at his rented house in Durham's West End, the 25-year-old makes them into videos where the animated hand writes bullet points and draws clip-art-like cartoons.

Of the 52 videos now online, the most popular have close to 40,000 views. A new one is posted most Fridays. They cover areas of inquiry from epistemology and ethics to experimental philosophy. In one, CUNY Assistant Professor Kate Ritchie gives a primer on the philosophy of language. In another, Saint Mary's Assistant Professor Scott Edgar talks Kant. Henne narrates one on validity. The goal is to make analytical tools accessible to everyone, sneaking them out of the academy in the Trojan Horse of viral-video conventions. The pedagogues are refreshingly young and diverse, and their drive to broaden access to philosophy is sincere. After all, Henne knows from personal experience that critical thinking can change lives.

He grew up in Waterbury, Connecticut with a single mother who was addicted to heroin. (She died of an overdose last September.) He was poor, drawing welfare and working multiple jobs from a young age. "I was getting into trouble, as you'd expect," he says. "I was with friends who were going to keep me in that place. I thought I was just going to play in bands and get fucked up all the time."

But an uncle intervened and paid for prep school, which changed Henne's course. "That was the first time I really read a book, the middle of high school," he says. "I had teachers who had my full attention for a moment and showed me that learning was kind of cool. That saved my life." As former friends dropped out of school and went to rehab, Henne graduated and discovered a natural passion for inquiry in college, becoming "that idiot talking about philosophy at parties."

"[Prep school] was a necessary condition," he explains. "But I got into philosophy because that's just who I was. Some people are natural born engineers, or they like exploring. I'm the kind of person who asks questions, and philosophy gave me tools to do that." With Wireless Philosophy, Henne wanted to pass those tools on to others who might need them, especially those without access to higher learning.

After earning a master's degree in philosophy at Arizona State University, Henne came to Duke last year to work on his Ph.D, driving through the desert in a failing car to an apartment with little more than a mattress. He had an idea to make short video lectures on philosophy, and a friend happened to send him a link to Wi-Phi, which then had just a few videos by Executive Director Gaurav Vazirani, a Ph.D candidate at Yale.

Henne contacted Vazirani and was immediately enlisted to help with the burgeoning project. The pair became its driving force, with Vazirani leading the business side, Henne the content. The project reflects his conviction that the philosophy is about opening inquiries, not closing them.

Though Wi-Phi offers lectures in higher-level areas like metaphysics and ethics, always by post-docs or professors, its focus is on ground-level critical thinking, in videos made by Ph.D students at top-ranked universities. Wi-Phi has liaisons at several, armed with recording equipment and ready to pester their departments for lectures.

Henne says that what makes some videos take off more than others is a bit of a mystery, with esoteric topics like "sizes of infinity" becoming surprisingly popular. But generally, the questions everyone ponders—the nature of free will, the responsibilities of being human—attract more interest than exegeses of Hume. "People think studying philosophy is just studying the history of it," Henne says. Wi-Phi wants to set philosophy in present-tense real life.

This aim was abetted in May by a new partnership with the Khan Academy, a online educational resource that is popular in high schools. Khan wanted to add a philosophy component to its website, and Vazirani arranged for Wi-Phi to fill that gap. It allowed them to add online quizzes to their videos and promote interaction. "If you look [at the comments], you'll see a ninth grader in Venezuela coming up with really interesting, brilliant thought experiments on their own," Henne says. "That's what we want to see from students."

As Vazirani prepares to finish his Ph.D and enter the job market, Henne is preparing to take on the executive director title. For next semester, he's planning a large series on bioethics and another on neuro-philosophy, and is excited about pumping out more basic critical thinking videos with help from new Fellow and housemate Alex Chituc.

Above all, Henne wants to keep broadening the definition of philosophy and the range of people who can access it. "The vision is to stop hiding philosophy from the world," he says. "People do philosophy without even realizing it when they talk about existence and identity and the meaning of life. There are people working on getting internet access to impoverished groups. We're trying to make the internet worthwhile for them."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Open inquiry."

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