Batavia Professor's Philosophy (Wi-Phi) Goes Viral on YouTube

Batavia Professor’s Philosophy (Wi-Phi) Goes Viral on YouTube

Who knew animated-video lessons in philosophy — with titles such as “Epistemology: The Paradox of the Ravens” and “The Good Life: Nietzsche”—would be an internet sensation?

Northern Illinois University philosophy professor and Batavia resident Geoff Pynn thought the concept had plenty of merit. However, the success of Wireless Philosophy (Wi-Phi), a popular provider of free philosophy education that Pynn helped launch online, has exceeded even his wildest expectations.

Since its startup in 2013, Wi-Phi has seen explosive growth. Its YouTube channel has nearly 200,000 subscribers. Its videos have received 13 million views from across the world. And now the National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded $250,000 to Wi-Phi to support its efforts.

The NEH funding, to be administered by the Squire Family Foundation, will enable Wi-Phi to greatly expand its extensive library of high-quality animated videos.

The library already boasts 160 YouTube videos. Its contributors include more than 70 philosophy professors and graduate students from institution such as NIU, Duke and Yale universities, the University of North Carolina and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

They address cerebral topics that include religion, race, free will and the meaning of life in a way that’s entertaining and accessible.

“Wi-Phi is the most exciting project that I work with,” said Pynn, who serves as the project’s associate director. He has produced and narrated six of his own Wi-Phi videos, exercises editorial oversight for the organization and works to recruit other scholarly contributors.

Geoff Pynn

“The videos I’ve produced have been viewed close to a million times—orders of magnitude greater than the reach of my traditional classes,” Pynn said. “The popularity of Wi-Phi’s videos proves that there is a tremendous hunger out there for rigorous reflection on the big questions that philosophers ask. I’m thrilled to help bridge the gap between academic philosophy and the public.”

NEH’s three-year Digital Projects for the Public grant will support the development of 100 new philosophy videos and associated content in 10 different areas, including the value of democracy, the purpose of punishment, the philosophical contours of American identity and ethical responses to a variety of contemporary challenges, such as artificial intelligence, biomedical engineering and climate change.

“We are extremely grateful to the NEH for recognizing the value of philosophy to the public,” said Gaurav Vazirani, founder of Wi-Phi and program director of the grant. “Our vision has always been to make the important thought and insights of philosophers available to the general public, and this grant will have a huge impact on our ability to do that effectively.”

The award also earned praise from Amy Ferrer, executive director of the American Philosophical Association. “This kind of public outreach is crucial to the future of philosophy and the humanities. It demonstrates the value of philosophy to people of all walks of life.”

Pynn has been involved in Wi-Phi since its inception but said Vazirani was the brainchild behind the site, “the one with big ideas.” The two met while in graduate school at Yale, and Pynn wrote the script and performed the audio for the first Wi-Phi video on critical thinking. It has received more than 500,000 views.

“People are fascinated by philosophy, but they’re also intimidated by it because it’s perceived as complex and esoteric,” Pynn said. “Our whole mission is to demystify it. Our view is that everybody can appreciate philosophy.”

Past and present support for Wi-Phi has come from the American Philosophical Association, the John Templeton Foundation, Khan Academy, the NIU Foundation, Duke University, Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

For more information, check out Wi-Phi’s YouTube channel, website, Facebook page and Twitter feed.

  • Editor’s Note: This article by Tom Parisi is re-posted courtesy of NIU.

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