Philosopher and Radio Host

Photo: Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

To make a point about our inevitable fates, Professor Ken Taylor would lie on the floor of his Education as Self-Fashioning classroom. 

“Look upon your mortality and ask what is a good way to live your life,” he would call up to his students. “How ought I live?”

Kenneth Allen Taylor, co-host of the syndicated public radio show Philosophy Talk and former chair of the philosophy department, died on December 3 after suffering a probable heart attack at his home in Los Altos. He was 65. Hours earlier, he had posted on Facebook that he was almost finished with his fourth book, Referring to the World.

“He’s absolutely irreplaceable,” says Ruth Starkman, Taylor’s co-teacher for Education as Self-Fashioning.

Taylor was born in Sandusky, Ohio. The son of a factory worker and a nurse, he grew up “flat broke,” according to an online Q&A from 2018. He played the violin and trombone, competed as a wrestler and sang in the choir. As an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame, he studied electrical engineering, psychology and math before settling into the Program of Liberal Studies, and in 1977 became its first African American graduate. After earning his PhD in philosophy from the University of Chicago, he taught at several universities before joining Stanford in 1995.

Quayshawn Spencer, MS ’08, PhD ’09, one of Taylor’s former teaching assistants, says his mentor was “like a kid in the candy store” every time he taught a class. He was also exacting. When Spencer presented at a Stanford colloquium, “the toughest person in the room was Ken.”

John Perry, an emeritus professor who co-founded the radio show Philosophy Talk, calls Taylor a “great teacher,” noting that he always wore a tie to class “out of respect for his students.”

Perry had trouble finding someone with whom to launch the show until Taylor came along. “He was all in from the start,” he says. Philosophy Talk embodied Taylor’s belief that everyone should have at least some exposure to big ideas.

“He didn’t want to turn everybody into a philosophy major, but he wanted everybody to have a chance to become more philosophically minded,” says Krista Lawlor, current chair of the philosophy department. 

Claire Yoshida, who met Taylor at the University of Chicago and married him in 1982, says her husband had an “amazing mind.” 

“You could get him to think about anything,” she says, “and he would think very well about it.” 

In addition to Yoshida, Taylor is survived by their son, Kiyoshi; his parents; and two siblings. 

Rebecca Beyer is a Boston-based journalist. Email her at