Philosophy Time with James Franco (guest post by Eliot Michaelson)

The following is a guest post* by Eliot Michaelson, Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at King’s College London, about Philosophy Time, a series of philosophy videos he created with actor James Franco.

The series comprises four short films in which Franco, Michaelson, and several other philosophers discuss questions regarding the nature of beauty, metaphor, imagination, and moral worth. The project is an attempt to make philosophy, which can sometimes be intimidating to newcomers, accessible.

In a press release, Franco says of the project, “This is easily the most important project I’ve been involved with in years.  It is definitely not an elaborate joke.” Michaelson says, “Oh God, how did I let James talk me into this?”

The videos are below Dr. Michaelson’s post.

The Making of Philosophy Time
by Eliot Michaelson

When James Franco asks you to do a project with him, it’s hard to say no. And so I found myself, a little more than a year shy of finishing grad school, sitting with James and Liz Camp in a backyard in Williamsburg, running James through the basic outline of what we were going to talk to Liz about once the cameras started rolling—and trying desperately to figure out how to stop shaking. “Why am I doing this?” I kept asking myself. Giving lectures is bad enough to my mind. The thought of being on camera: terrifying. Where do you put your eyes? How often can you sip your coffee without looking like a complete weirdo? “Fuck,” I thought to myself, “fuck fuck fuck fuck.”

So why was I doing this? Well, I’ve already given the short answer: it really is hard to say no to James. Particularly when he tells you that you’re part of his new meta-project to spend more time with his friends by turning friend-time into work-time. Since all he does is work. For someone with their own not-so-insignificant work-life balance issues, that’s just charming. Like some sort of bizarrely dysfunctional call to solidarity.

Here’s the longer version. I’ve known James since my second year of grad school, when I was his TA for Introduction to Philosophy of Science at UCLA. To be honest, I had no idea who he was until about halfway through the term—he looked oddly familiar, but not in any sense I could ever quite place. Then he asked me if he could reschedule taking the mid-term exam because of a work conflict. When he said that the conflict was a script reading, my response was something to the effect of “This had better not be for a student film.” James laughed and seemed unsure whether I was messing with him. Later, I’d learn that all of his other TAs and professors seem to have known who he was—as did most of my fellow grad students and, I’m pretty sure, every last one of the students in James’ section (suddenly it made sense why so many of them seemed far more interested in him than in Hempel’s raven paradox!). Anyway, this proved to be one of those philosophically vexing circumstances where ignorance sets you on a much more interesting path than knowledge would have. And in case you’re wondering, the script reading was for Milk.

How exactly that bit of ignorance led to James and my becoming friends is something I’m not sure I’ll ever completely understand. In any case, James started coming to my office hours and picking my brain about how to choose a graduate program (he was applying for MFAs at the time), and whether it was totally insane to try doing two MFAs simultaneously (my answer was “yes”, but James, to his credit, decided to ignore that). For my own part, I found the whole thing rather amusing. James was then, as now, intensely intellectually interested. He was also taking some ungodly number of courses—and often looked more or less on the verge of collapse. A few times we walked over to the nearest cafe to grab a sorely-needed coffee and a steady stream of passers-by stopped him to get a photo. It was certainly a bit different from my life as a philosophy graduate student.

The next year James went off to pursue his dual MFAs in New York, and we stayed in touch. I was curious how in the world he was going to pull that off—on top of making movies on the side, which he never really stopped doing. And writing poetry, and short stories, and making art projects, etc. You get the idea. But pull it off he did. In fact, he’s moved on to so many degrees since then that I eventually lost track of them all.

As one might imagine given James’ busy schedule, it can prove rather hard to track him down. Eventually, I learned that it’s best to just go visit him on set or at a gallery opening or to help him do a read-through of Don Juan or whatever. But at first, I was inclined to treat him as much like a normal friend as I could figure out how to. So we tried a few times when I was in New York or he was in LA to meet for a coffee or a meal. It didn’t quite happen, though I do recall getting such choice excuses as: “Sorry man, I have to go have breakfast with Francis Ford Coppola.” Hard to argue there. Time passed, and I was seeing less and less of James. Enter the meta-project.

I don’t recall exactly when James first broached the idea of working on a project together. I do remember that it took us quite a while to settle on something. I think his original suggestion was that we teach something together. I was never quite sure how that was going to work, given that we lived on opposite sides of the country. Next there was the suggestion that I be an extra in something he was directing. See the above comments on my feelings towards being on camera and you should be able to imagine my response. It may be hard to say no to James, but it’s not impossible. So the whole thing lay dormant for a while.

Then I took a long drive with a friend. At some point, we ended up spit-balling ideas about the sorts of projects that James and I could do together. One stuck: interviewing philosophers and putting the results online. Didn’t I regularly kvetch about how little philosophers did, collectively, to engage with the world beyond the academy? Even though many of us go into this field because, at some level, we hope that learning to think more clearly will help us to figure out better answers to the very basic questions that we, collectively, face? Like: how should we live? Or, maybe even more pressingly: how should we live together? Here was a chance to do public philosophy in a way that hadn’t really been tried before: in the age of social media and with a well-known actor who, if I’m remembering correctly, had something like six million Instagram followers before signing off.

This is basically the train of thought that led, maybe a year later when I finally managed to book some of James’ time, to the two of us sitting down with Liz Camp, Andy Egan, Liz Harman, and Shamik Dasgupta to talk with them about their work. We talked to Liz Camp about metaphor and imagination, to Andy about taste and beauty, to Liz Harman about the ethics of abortion, and to Shamik about fundamental metaphysics. Each interview ran about forty-five minutes. I had prepared some suggested questions beforehand, but we ended up departing from those pretty quickly in each of the interviews. The goal was to take this raw footage and to pull one or two short, accessible segments out of each interview.

How well we’ve managed to pull any of this off remains an open question; success here is a response-dependent property if I’ve ever seen one. Making these videos has taken a huge amount of time and energy (more than I really thought possible) over the last few years. Of course, nothing ran smoothly—no surprise given that we were pretty much making up how to do it all on the spot. And also given that our attention was often elsewhere: James’ on the dozens of other projects he’s been up to in the meantime and mine on finishing my PhD and trying to publish and get a job. Not to mention moving from LA to Montreal, and then to London. Things also stalled as we tried to figure out how to make the videos more watchable. My favorite idea was to reshoot all of the visuals with puppet versions of ourselves, overlaying the original audio. Eventually we settled on adding animations, but I have to admit that I’m still a bit disappointed the puppets never happened.

I know it’s hopelessly naïve to think that this bit of public philosophy might actually help to get people to think more clearly about the world. But I’m glad that others have been so hopelessly naïve as well. I’m glad that WiPhi and Philosophy Bites are thriving. I’m grateful for Philosophy Talk and The Stone and The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps. I deeply admire the people at places like Yale and Northwestern who’ve put so much time and effort into developing projects to teach philosophy in prisons. Still, we need to do more. We need to figure out how to do more that reaches out beyond the NPR-set, to people interested in learning to think better but who didn’t have the luxury of taking a philosophy course or two in college, or even going to college at all.

That is likely to involve a degree of risk though, particularly for those of us who are relatively young in the profession. I remember agonizing for weeks over whether to actually pitch this project to James for fear of its actually getting finished before I was on the job market (hah!) and coming to be seen as someone who wasn’t really serious, someone who wasn’t willing to exclude everything else to focus on finishing that groundbreaking paper on linguistic meaning (still not done). I don’t think those fears were entirely misplaced—not to mention my more general fears of putting much of anything about myself on the internet. Still, I hope that in the wake of Trump and Brexit and with the need for clear, reasoned public debate perhaps more perspicuous now than it has ever been, we philosophers will deem it worthwhile to work on adjusting our collective attitudes, both conscious and unconscious, towards these sorts of projects. I suspect that as a profession we could stand to be a bit more naïve and a bit less jaded, at least if we are to have any real chance of living up to what I take to be our shared ideals.

None of this is to imply that James and I have actually managed to make something that will live up to these hopes. That’s a hard task. We philosophers may be clear thinkers on our good days, but we’re also esoteric ones trained to think about esoteric topics. None of that is easy to turn off—even with editing software and animation. I hope that others will try too though. I simply don’t see an alternative for us: if we as a profession are going to have more of an impact on the world, we need to figure out how to reach more people, to offer them the tools for thinking hard and clearly about things that our discipline can offer. Not only in MOOCS, or in the pages of high-brow newspapers and magazines, but via whatever avenues are going to help us reach the most people in the most effective manner we can find. And you never know, maybe I can convince James to reprise his role for a second season.

Let me end this by thanking my four philosophical Guinea pigs, who for some odd reason were credulous enough to trust a graduate student spinning them tales about meeting a movie star. Thanks to you all; you are all awesome.  And sorry Shamik that we never could figure out a way to cut your musings on fundamental metaphysics (it’s all relational, all the way down!) to a five-minute segment. If anyone else can figure out how to pull off that trick, I’ll be duly impressed.


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