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Please Expand

Please Expand

Author: Ahilleas Rokni

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Please Expand is a podcast where I discuss non-fiction books with their authors. But Please Expand is not just about summaries; it's about conversations. I go into every episode having read each book in great detail and having reflected on the fundamental assumptions, foundations and questions with which the book grapples.
If you, like me, have finished a book with burning questions that only the author could answer, then Please Expand is the podcast for you.
Pick up one of the books I'm discussing and settle in for what I hope will be an illuminating conversation.
13 Episodes
I talk with Michael Strevens about the scientific enterprise. Does science get at objective truth or is it limited by subjective world-views? We begin by discussing the roles of Kuhn and Popper in the "Great Method Debate", before going on to discuss developments in the sociology of science, by figures such as Bruno Latour, who showed that there is actually quite a bit of subjectivity in everyday scientific activities. We then go on to discuss Michael's contribution to this debate and we examine the "Iron Rule of Explanation". We look at the constellation of ideas that buttress the Iron Rule of Explanation and examine their suitability to the scientific enterprise. Finally, we consider the role that beauty can play in science.
In this episode we talk about meritocracy and whether it is still a viable system for social organisation. We begin by dissecting the concept of merit by analysing the role that talent or IQ play in assessing whether someone deserves something or not. We discuss the historical relationship between the fight for equality and the growth of the meritocratic ideal. We talk about the importance of education in the construction of a meritocracy; we wonder whether tests are sufficiently fine-grained to tell us whether somebody is deserving of something or not, and we think about the applicability of exam results to job roles that involve value-judgments. Finally, we interrogate the relationship between meritocracy and capitalism and wonder whether meritocracy is made worse by capitalism, or whether capitalism is made worse by meritocracy.
In this episode, Giulia Luvisotto and I interview Michael Hunter on The Decline of Magic. Taking its cue from Keith Thomas's Religion and the Decline of Magic, Hunter goes into the details of why magic declined in the late 17th century. Hunter introduces us to the world of the orthodox thinkers and the free-thinkers (or the Wits!) and the intellectual battlefield on which they exchanged withering treatises about the existence of supernatural phenomena and natural causation. We talk about the rise of the New Science, the struggle of Baconianism against the rising star of Newtonianism, and how the ultimate triumph of Newtonianism played a role in the decline of magic. We also look at the role played by doctors and the way that Cartesianism paved the way for the claim that superstitious beliefs were merely an ailment of the mind that could be cured. Finally, we take stock of what we have discussed and look back to Religion and Decline of Magic and consider Michael Hunter's contribution to the discussion on the decline of magic. Ultimately, it was neither the cold scepticism of the Wits or the dogmatic method of the New Science that rung the death knell for magic, rather it was a growing feeling of optimism about our problem-solving capacities that gave people the confidence with which to object to magic that dealt the fatal blow.
In this episode, I interview Mary Hollingsworth on her new book, Princes of the Renaissance. We begin by talking about just what exactly the Renaissance was and how it developed differently across the Italian peninsula. Then, we discuss the ideal character of an Italian Prince, of their engagement in war but, more importantly, their role as patron of the arts and how they were the focal point for the development of the Renaissance within their particular city-state.We go from talking about the not-so-salacious Borgias, to the mysterious Venetians in their all black robes, to the humbly virtuous dynasty of the Este's of Ferrara. We look at how they garnered prestige and reputation through the arts, and how the fierce rivalry between Francis I and Philip V.At the end of the episode, Giulia and I talk about the creation of identity through art, similarities between the role of art in the Renaissance and the present, and an obscure Vietnamese emperor who could have been a Renaissance man.
In this episode I interview Fernando Cervantes, author of "Conquistadores", where we discuss his new interpretation of the conquest of the Americas. By placing figures like Columbus and Cortes in their proper historical context, Fernando paints a picture of the conquest of the Americas that is no less violent than traditional narratives, but much less wicked.We talk about the Christian, medieval, crusading spirit that is fundamental to understanding the motivations and actions of the conquistadors; we look at the methods used by missionaries to spread Christianity and how their flexibility to blending native religions with Christianity led to the establishment of a distinctly Latin American Christian religion; and, finally, we look at the kinds of political lessons that can be learnt from the earliest forms of government in Latin America, particularly in the context of contemporary debates between the sovereignty of states over and against transnational political entities.
In this episode I interview John Ghazvinian, author of "American and Iran", where we talk about the surprising history of American-Iranian relations by beginning in 1720, and continue all the way through the circuitous and, sometimes tortuous, path that is the history of these two remarkable nations.We look at the foundations for American interest in Iran; the growth of Iranian fascination with American democracy; the fascinating dual character of Iran as both the inheritor of Ancient Persia and Cyrus the Great, on the one hand, and as a Muslim nation, on the other hand; the role that religion played as a motor for progress in both the Constitutional Revolution of 1905 and the Iranian Revolution of 1979; and, finally, we consider the future of American-Iranian relations.
In this episodes we talk about an obscure group of professionals called "Antiquaries" ,whose intellectual activities became increasingly relevant in the period from 1789 -1851. We discuss the changing self-image of the English; the antiquaries made the Gothic central to English identity; and it is to the antiquaries that we owe the canonisation of Shakespeare. We grapple with questions concerning historical authenticity, the role of creativity in historical narratives, and ultimately wonder whether the histories we get are simply the ones that we need.
I interview John Barton on “The History of the Bible: The Book and its Faiths”, with my guest J. A. Velasco. We grapple with some challenging issues surround the Bible. We discuss problems surrounding the authorship of the various books of the bible; we talk about the role that divine inspiration can play in our comprehension of the Bible; and we try to unpack the kinds of moral truths that one can reasonably take away from the Bible.
I interview Greg Woolf on "The Life and Death of Ancient Cities", with my guest J. A. Velasco. We talk about three main themes of Greg's book. First, we discuss the innovative evolutionary framework through which Greg has chosen to discuss the phenomenon of urbanisation. Second, we talk about the claim that inequality between people grew as urban centres expanded. We investigate whether there was less inequality in rural settings or whether the appearance of no inequality is simply due to the difficulties in inferring inequality from the archaeological record. Third, we reflect on the nature of urban centres and grapple with the possibility that urban centres necessarily require poorer centres around them from which they can draw cheap resources that can sustain that kind of life in urban centres.After the interview I chat with J about the first two issues. We question the cogency of investigating urbanisation through an evolutionary framework and ask about the role of free will; we talk about the kinds of inequality that might be inferred from the archaeological record and why inequality might grow within urban centres. Make sure to check out my website,, for more information about upcoming episodes, and follow me on twitter @pleasexpand for updates.
I interview David Wootton on "The Invention of Science". We talk about what science is and how science came about in the 16th century. We look at the rise of perspective painting; Columbus's discovery of America; and the invention of the printing press. We discuss the significance of Galileo's discovery of the phases of Venus and David's notion of "killer facts"; and we discuss the impact of David's arguments for contemporary academic history of science as well as the Kuhnian legacy. After the interview I focus on two concepts that we look at in the interview: the issue of incommensurability in Kuhn and David's notion of path dependency. For more discussion of "The Invention of Science", check out the Forum page on the website: I look forward to hearing what you have to say about it!
I interview Seb Falk on "The Light Ages", with my guest J. A. Velasco. We get right to the core of Seb's book and discuss whether people in the middle ages were doing science; we talk about whether people in the middle ages saw themselves as collaborating and competing with each other; and, finally, we look at some fascinating individuals and how they thought about the world, from Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, Petrus Alphonsi, and Ibn al-Haytham.After the interview I spend some time with J unpacking the concept of medieval science and think further about what it means for an activity to be "scientific". For more discussion on "The Light Ages", check out the Forum page on my website: I look forward to hearing what you have to say about it!
I interview David Abulafia on "The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Ocean", winner of the Wolfson History Prize. We discuss topics such as why some island nations are better than navigating than others; how important trade was to motivating maritime travel; how seriously we should take the intentions of Christian missionaries in the New World; the concept of discovery and its role in the history of the oceans; and just how much our relation to the Oceans has changed in recent years.After the interview I spend some time unpacking the concept of discovery and thinking further about what it means for something to be discovered. For more discussion on "The Boundless Sea", check out the Forum page on my website: I look forward to hearing what you have to say about it!
Welcome to Please Expand! In this introductory episode I talk about what Please Expand is, how you can get involved with it, and how you can support it.
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