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Can TV Drag Us Out of Our Cave of Ignorance?

Greg Kitsock takes a look at the philosophical television show No Dogs or Philosophers Allowed and its founder Ken Knisely.

If Socrates were among us, would he live in a giant milk bottle, host his own TV talk show, and periodically check out the hits on his website?

Ken Knisely has done all three.

As a TV philosopher, Knisely feels more at home on a sound stage with a microphone attached to his lapel, than he would hunched over a podium in a stuffy lecture hall. For the last 15 years he's hosted a show called No Dogs or Philosophers Allowed. During that span he's logged over 200 hours of airtime, tackling topics ranging from St Augustine's theory of a just war to the joy of logic to philosophy of sports. No Dogs has evolved from a cheaply-done public access program to a polished presentation broadcast regularly on the University-House channel on the DishTV system, and north of the border on Canadian Learning Television and Book Television.

“We've sold the show to over 250 universities in 27 countries, including Malta, Taiwan and New Zealand,” estimates Knisely. “We reach over ten million homes in the U.S. and three million in Canada.”

“Doing philosophy with images is going to be the big thing of this century,” he predicts. “We've been so word-oriented since Plato.”

The No Dogs archives include:

• a 1994 show on the nature of time, which shows Knisely moderating a live TV show, conversing with an earlier, prerecorded image of himself;

• a program on the ‘many worlds thesis’ of quantum mechanics with a split screen representing different realities;

• ‘The Cave,’ an examination of Plato's famous image, which depicts Knisely spelunking in a West Virginia cavern 100 feet below ground, roasting marshmallows over a flickering campfire and making shadow pictures on the wall. This is the first in a series of ‘Road Trip’ films dramatizing basic ideas in philosophy.

Many of the shows begin with Knisely cruising the city streets in a yellow taxi, chatting with a fare. “One of my favorite metaphors for philosophy is the cab,” he explains. “It's something real. You can make money along the way, and hopefully as a philosopher you grow in wisdom. It takes you on a different path every night. You can miss your turn-off and wind up in a completely different country.”

Knisely's journey began in the late 1970s while studying at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. The obligatory Philosophy 101 course introduced him to the tumultuous give-and-take of the Greek marketplace circa 400 BC. “It was unlike anything I'd ever read,” he recalls. “There are no answers, but Socrates asks such good questions. He had great style and a sense of humor.”

Even then Knisely was developing a reputation as a gadfly. While serving on a campus budgetary committee, he called for the university to drop scholarship athletics, a move that would have meant the end of its nationally-ranked basketball program. He was nearly handed the hemlock for that.

After graduating, Knisely took a job in the public school system in Richmond, Virginia, teaching philosophy to junior high schoolers. With a few of his more gifted students, he established the Richmond Philosophical Institute in an abandoned dairy that had been renovated into a colony for craftsmen and artists. Knisely set up his living quarters inside a 45-ft tall, 15-ft wide milk bottle that had been left behind by the former tenants.

Knisely began videotaping his dialogues with the students after he noticed what an impact television – MTV was just hitting its stride then – had on the fashion, conversation and worldview of the younger generation. He credits one of his students, Summer Schultz, with originating the show's name. A country girl who liked to doff her footwear during the warm weather, Schultz was about to enter a 7-11 to buy a slurpee when she was stopped dead by a sign reading “No Dogs or Bare Feet Allowed.” That made her reflect on how the great thinkers throughout history had similarly been treated as pariahs. It was, apparently, one of those lightbulb-over-the-head moments. (Schultz has served as producer on recent shows.)

There is a second ‘dog’ connection: the philosopher Diogenes of Sinope, who flourished in the fourth century BC. He was the most famous of the Cynics, a school whose name comes from the same root as ‘canine.’ Diogenes was known as the ‘dog man’ because of his complete disdain for creature comforts and social conventions. He lived on handouts and took shelter beneath an earthenware tub he borrowed from the public baths. While Socrates was deferentially polite in demolishing his opponents' arguments, Diogenes was a smartass. When Alexander the Great offered to grant Diogenes any boon he wished, the dog philosopher reportedly answered, “Get out of the way, you're blocking the sun!” When Plato defined man as a ‘featherless biped,’ Diogenes held a plucked chicken aloft in the marketplace, proclaiming, “Behold Plato's man!”

Knisely has occasionally used this same sort of street theatre to get his point across. When the American Philosophical Association held its annual meeting in Washington in 1989, Knisely donned a robe and sandals and imitated Diogenes' famous shtick of strolling around in broad daylight with a lit lantern.

“Looking for an honest man, Diogenes?” one of the academics asked him.

“No, just for a philosophy professor who isn't interested in tenure,” Knisely replied.

After producing 45 half-hour shows in Richmond, Knisely moved back to Washington in 1990 and took his show to Arlington Community Television (ACT), a local public access station. It was during his stint here that he traded his suit and tie for a military-style jumpsuit with the title “PHILOSOPHER” embroidered across the left shirt pocket. He continues to wear this uniform today. Knisely also formed a non-profit organization called Milk Bottle Productions to produce and distribute the show. No Dogs would become the most-honored public access show in America, winning eight Hometown Video awards and being nominated for a CableAce in 1993.

Since leaving ACT in 1994, Knisely has moved from one location to another, most recently producing shows at NVC Studios, a state-owned educational facility in Fairfax, Virginia. He's jettisoned the original format of a live, call-in TV show. “ No Dogs does not replay well as a call-in show,” he elaborates. “Live shows are a blast, but the concept falls flat in terms of selling it to other stations.”

By being able to edit what he's taped, Knisely can delete long spells of monotonous conversation and cut to the chase. He can also freeze-frame the dialogue at key moments, popping up in the corner of the screen to comment on the conversation, recommend additional reading material, and refer viewers to his website, www.nodogs.org.

How do you prepare for a philosophy talk show? “Before each show I try to read enough so I know the issues and so I can really ask some authentic questions,” answers Knisely. And if he's caught off guard? “I think it's good for somebody who's smart to admit his ignorance.”

As for his guests, “we've had almost a hundred PhDs on the show,” boasts Knisely. But scheduling guests isn't merely a matter of seeking out professionals with impressive academic credentials. “It's hard to find three philosophers who don't think the same thing and who are going to be on good on TV.” Diversity is also a consideration. “We don't just want three white guys with beards sitting around talking. We've tried hard to have a woman on every show.”

One of No Dogs’ more recent efforts, filmed last year, deals with the cutting-edge subject of artificial intelligence. The three panelists are Jim Moor, professor of philosophy at Dartmouth; Valerie Hardcastle, professor at Virginia Tech; and Drew Arrowood, teacher at Queens College and software designer. The three are seated around No Dogs’ modern agora, a semi-circle of bleachers painted to resemble a marble amphitheatre. The set is strewn with such bric-a-brac as a bust of Descartes, a stack of books, a statue of a cow. Behind Knisely is a TV monitor that allows us to see the expressions on the faces of his guests as he peppers them with questions.

“On this show we have some extremely learned people, and often we see them just listening,” observes Knisely. “To show them listening is good. Philosophy is about listening passionately, too.”

The opening salvo centers around the question why? Why should we develop seemingly intelligent machines like the chess-playing Deep Blue or the search engine Google (whose output, notes Knisely, “seems strangely intelligent and is something we can't do”)?

Hardcastle responds that “we want to build machines that make our lives easier.” At the same time, she adds, there is a more theoretical pursuit here: “We want to build something that's more or less like a human being so it can tell us what it is to be a human being.”

And yet a machine that completely mimics the human brain – of course, Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey is invoked – remains out of reach, asserts Hardcastle. “There are ten to the eleventh power neurons in the brain and each has at least a thousand connections to other neurons … we don't even know where computation is taking place in the brain.”

Moors suggests another possibility: “create an intelligence that's somewhat alien, but still intelligent.” In other words, a machine that can think as well as – or better than – a man, but not like a man?

During the course of the show, Knisely and his guests field arguments advanced by various philosophers that so-called artificial intelligence is incoherent, impossible or immoral. As key names and terms crop up in the conversation – Alan Turing, Turing test, John Searle, Chinese room – a message appears at the bottom of the screen directing viewers to the No Dogs website for a more detailed discussion.

Knisely hasn't abandoned the philosopher's age-old pursuit of corrupting the youth. He still teaches an introduction to philosophy course, at H-B Woodlawn High School in Arlington. Last year, he invited about a dozen local high schoolers to join him for a show on democracy and security, taped during the early weeks of the United States' latest incursion into Iraq.

Early questions, on the philosophy of Locke and Jefferson and the concept of natural rights, draw timid and hesitant responses from the students. But then Knisely delves into the concrete. “Do you want to give away some of our democracy and freedom as protection against the big bomb or anthrax? Is that a bargain you like?”

He floats the idea of the government establishing a database of library users and the books they've checked out, so Uncle Sam can keep close tabs on the users of subversive works like The Anarchists’ Cookbook or radical Islamic literature or Doonesbury comics.

The high schoolers are, not surprisingly, very cool on the idea.

“But suppose you find yourself sitting next to a guy with a maniacal expression on his face who's checked out several blueprints on the Richmond water system and a book on how to poison water supplies. Would you drop a dime on him?”

“I don't know. I've never been in a situation like that,” answers one young man. He seems uneasy, as though he wants to say, yes, of course, I'd intervene to halt a mass murder … but he can't quite explain why it's OK for him to rat out a fellow citizen but it's not OK for John Ashcroft to do the same.

The show ends without the panel reaching a conclusion on where to draw the limits. But that's alright. Unlike Jeopardy!, you don't get penalized for not knowing the answer here. Knisely himself prefaces each show with an admonition to the effect, “I know I know nothing but I'm trying to do something about it. The purpose of the show is to make me less ignorant.”

Having long ago deserted the giant milk bottle, Knisely lives in a suburban Arlington home with his wife Leslie and two children, Eric, 6, and Kirsten, 4. But domesticity hasn't dimmed his dreams. In the short run, he'd like to increase his output of new episodes from 2-6 a year to 52 a year. In the longer run, he'd like to start a philosophy network, offering 168 hours of speculative programming a week.

“Within five years, I'd like for our show to be available to every English-speaking home on the planet,” he adds.

But that will require a commodity long held in disdain by the likes of Socrates and Diogenes: money. “We've brought in a grant-writing team to help us get to a new level of funding,” reports Knisely, “and we are talking with some new partners to put the shows out online and in other countries. And we've just sold the show to our 35th university outlet, a whole new income stream for us in the last two years.”

Intellectuals have long dismissed television as the boob tube, a vast wasteland. And Knisely is highly critical himself. “The networks have become shit! There's nothing on today like Murrow or the early Letterman. It's amazing what's happened! But they're just economic animals, you can't blame them morally.”

However, he sees tremendous potential in the medium to unite the earth in one immense agora. “TV can creep out there. You never know where the show ends up, what nooks and crannies it winds up in. I'm sending questions out into the ether and reaching all kinds of minds I'll never meet.”

“You know if you keep throwing the seed out, somewhere it will hit fertile ground.”

© Greg Kitsock 2005

Greg Kitsock has known Ken Knisely since the two studied at Georgetown University in Washington, DC in the late 1970s. Kitsock currently resides in Arlington, Virginia and works as a library aide and freelance writer and editor.

A No Dogs discussion: “Violence, Reason, Justice”

The transcript below is an excerpt from a typical No Dogs show. The panel are discussing Thomas Hobbes and his view of the state. The panelists on this occasion are:

David Garren, United States Naval Academy
Scott Hibbard, Johns Hopkins University
Anthony Ellis, Virginia Commonwealth University

Ken: Now about the sovereign, tell me what this person, what Hobbes was whispering in their ear, “Okay, here’s what you can do” … tell me about playing the Game…

David: I think if you’re in the realist school of thought, as Hobbes certainly is, and you’re the sovereign of a nation-state, what you’re looking to do is to maintain the autonomy and sovereignty of the nation-state, so you’ll do whatever is necessary to do in order to survive, and it’s not a matter of morality and moral constraint, but rather a matter of necessity.

Ken: And I view other nation-states as what? Uh… “nations have no friends, only interests”; is that a Hobbesian statement?

Scott: “States have no values, they only have interests.” That’s Morgenthau, actually, but he’s from that Hobbesian tradition…

David: ...the realist tradition…

Scott: Of course.

Ken: And Hobbes, did he have comments about the stability of this kind of situation…was he describing, or recommending, or…?

David: Well, certainly on the domestic level, the recommendation, is that, yes, we should make a compact with one another, institute the Leviathan,.. I would think the implication is that without one in the international sphere you’re not going to have the peace and security that is engendered at the domestic level.

Ken: So is it just a jungle, then?

David: It’s still a state of nature at the international level…

Tony: Of course, Hobbes saw the state of nature as a state of war. One thing we’ve learned from people like Hedley Bull is that isn’t so, we know it on the large international scale, we know it on the small scale, with small tribes and so on, that you can very often have a viable legal system without any overarching authority. I mean, I’m in favor of an overarching entity, but the anarchy of international affairs has worked at least tolerably well, at least as well as most nation-states, which have had a very poor history of the past couple of hundred years.

Ken: Explain that. It’s worked well?

Tony: As well as most nation-states have worked. Now when we think of the nation we think of Canada, Britain, the United States; most nation-states are not like that, they’re vile dictatorships, run by thugs and monsters.

[Insert-> The Cabdriver: Nation-states are a bugaboo of mine…I mean, the whole world is split up into nation-states, you gotta be a member of a nation-state to have your name count for something. But they’re just figments of our imagination. Are people made for nation-states or are nation-states made for people? Who serves whom?]

[Back to the studio conversation]

Ken: …and these states don’t have long life spans, not like the US and Canada, we have long-lived nation-states and then we have these others…

Tony: Its one thing Hobbes got right, they tend to be ‘solitary, nasty, brutish and short’! But actually, the international arena, at least since 1945, in my view has run at least as well as most nation-states.

David: You would argue that there has been a move towards a Leviathan in the international sphere?

Tony: Oh, yeah, and I think that’s a good thing as it happens, because so many players in the international arena are very bad players.

Ken: Did Hobbes ever think of the über-Leviathan...

David: That’s exactly right; that’s the implication…

Ken: Did he mention that anywhere?

Scott: There’s a small section in Leviathan where he talks about the distinction between men and states, in that men have to sleep, so that even the strongest man can be snuck up upon in his sleep and murdered, whereas the state, you can always just post the guards, and so he said that while the anarchy within a given territory was not security-functional, outside it was. States could continue to exist in this realm of anarchy. I think that Hedley Bull is a very interesting person to bring in here, because he kind of takes it the next step forward, and says that this anarchy really isn’t really security functional, and it’s not in anyone’s interest because you end up engaging in these collective action problems, and you get pushed into wars you don’t really want to be involved in, and therefore you start setting up international institutions, to start mediating the interactions of states… [END]

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