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Wi-Phi website presents 'philosophy's greatest hits'

Open access philosophy site aims to build better minds
IMAGE: MIT SHASS Communications
Damien Rochford PhD '13
Damien Rochford PhD '13

A little philosophy could go a long way toward making the world a better place, according to Damien Rochford PhD ’13, who has launched a philosophy website, Wi-Phi, with a colleague from Yale University.

“I don’t expect Wi-Phi to change the culture at large, but the more experience people get thinking slowly and clearly about things, the better off we’ll be,” says Rochford, a postdoc associate in MIT’s Office of Digital Learning.

Wi-Phi introduces the practices of philosophy through videos that are entertaining and accessible to people with no background in the subject. Rochford and Wi-Phi co-founder Gaurav Vazirani explain that the goal of the site is to teach people to “do philosophy,” rather than simply teach them what philosophers have thought, so the site focuses on helping users develop critical thinking skills.

Videos on timeless questions

Rochford and Vazirani, a doctoral candidate at Yale, have put together more than a dozen short video animations to accompany talks by top scholars on such timeless questions as whether humans have free will, whether God exists, and what it means for a sentence to be true. 

Are such questions important in our modern lives? Yes, Rochford says: Philosophical thinking is more important than ever in an era in which we are all bombarded by propaganda designed to persuade us to act on non-rational grounds — for example, to vote for a political candidate because his name is familiar, or to buy a product because a celebrity likes it.

What do you think?

Philosophy teaches skills for discerning when someone is not arguing in good faith, Rochford says. “I see academic philosophers as guardians of a kind of culture that allows rational dialogue to happen. That kind of activity doesn’t happen by itself," he says.

Wi-Phi’s content is designed to help fill the skills gap for those who never had the chance to study philosophy. “It’s the standard stuff of introductory philosophy — like the greatest hits,” Rochford says.

Each video examines an argument logically, step by step, to help viewers think through the reasoning themselves. Links are provided to additional readings, and a comments section enables viewers to continue the debate — both with the Wi-Phi producers and with one another.

“That’s been very exciting, seeing people talking about the ideas,” Rochford says. “Gaurav and I both feel strongly that philosophy has a role in public life.”

24.00x, the first online introductory philosophy course

In addition to producing Wi-Phi, Rochford also worked for several months with Associate Professor of Philosophy Caspar Hare to produce the first massive open online course in introductory philosophy offered by an American university.

24.00x, Introduction to Philosophy: God, Knowledge, and Consciousness, which launched on Oct. 1, focuses on how to ask and answer philosophical questions and on developing critical reasoning and argumentative skills.

“The Internet is a great tool, and through online education, humanities subjects such as philosophy can be helpful to people all over the world," Rochford says.

Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Senior Writer: Kathryn O'Neill
Communications Assistant: Kierstin Wesolowski

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