Monday, February 02, 2009

And philosophy

I was at the bookstore the other night and wandered over to the philosophy section. Or should I say, the "and philosophy" section. You see, it was dominated by books with titles like The Simpsons and Philosophy, Metallica and Philosophy, Monty Python and Philosophy, The Legend of Zelda and Philosophy (subtitle: "I Link Therefore I Am")—the list goes on and on, as do the witty subtitles.

These are all part of the Popular Culture and Philosophy series. Editor George Reisch writes:
Since its inception in 2000, Open Court's Popular Culture and Philosophy® series has brought high-quality philosophy to general readers. The volumes present essays by academic philosophers exploring the meanings, concepts, and puzzles within television shows, movies, music and other icons of popular culture.
The first in the series was Seinfeld and Philosophy, edited by William Irwin:
How is Jerry like Socrates? Is it rational for George to "do the opposite?" Would Simone de Beauvoir say that Elaine is a feminist? Is Kramer stuck in Kierkegaard's aesthetic stage?
How about Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy?
Who counts as human? Is killing an intelligent non-human murder or garbage disposal? Can we really know who we are until we know what we are?
Or James Bond and Philosophy?
Is Bond a Nietzschean hero who graduates "beyond good and evil"? Does Bond paradoxically break the law in order, ultimately, to uphold it like any "stupid policeman"? What can Bond’s razor-sharp reasoning powers tell us about the scientific pursuit of truth? Does 007’s license to kill help us understand the ethics of counterterrorism? What motivates all those despicable Bond villains—could it be a Hegelian quest for recognition?
Maybe Star Wars and Philosophy?
If the Force must have a Dark Side, how can the Dark Side be evil? Why and how did the tyrannical Empire emerge from the free Republic? Are droids persons, entitled to civil rights? Is Yoda a Stoic or a Zen master?
And yet ...

My first reaction upon seeing this plethora of pop-culture on the philosophy shelves was disapproval. Try to find a book by C. S. Peirce and you're out of luck. But no problem if you're looking for The Undead and Philosophy: Chicken Soup for the Soulless!

But the truth is I haven't read any of these books, so I can't comment on their quality. Still the reader reviews on are generally quite positive. For example, here's some of what reader Angela Allen has to say about Harry Potter and Philosophy:
As one who reads the Potter books mostly for the escapism, it was interesting to have professional philosophers help me delve into the deeper meanings contained in the books. [...] My favorite essays were "Feminism and Equal Opportunity: Herminone and the Women of Hogwarts", "Heaven, Hell and Harry Potter" "Magic, Muggles and Moral Imagination" and "The Prophecy-Driven Life: Foreknowledge and Freedom at Hogwarts". [...] This book is probably not for the expert philosopher as these concepts will be basics but for someone of my experience (almost none) studying philosophy, it was a great read.
If anyone has read one of these books, I'd be interested in your evaluation. Are they well written? Do they trivialize philosophy or simply introduce it to ordinary people in terms they can relate to?

The truth is, I'm looking forward to reading one of these books! But which to choose? Perhaps Star Trek and Philosophy: The Wrath of Kant!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting observation. I must admit even I haven't read any of these. But I think it is pretty sad that such subtle topics are also muddled with such material for the following reason: First of all there are very very few people in this world whose mind can perceive thoughts/ have desire to look for something as subtle as philosophy. It is very hard to look out of day-today materialistic stuff and even when those very few do, they are presented with such mundane text/ material by diluting or ridiculing what Socrates or Kant or Emerson actually wanted to convey....

8:19 PM, February 15, 2009  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

A more optimistic view might be that books like these provide a stepping stone for someone who is asking "subtle" questions. But it seems to me it would be unfortunate if a person's quest for understanding went no further.

9:39 AM, February 16, 2009  
Blogger Master Luke said...

Hi Nick,

I applaud you for reserving judgment, despite your initial disapproval of this series. I think the idea that these books provide a stepping stone into more serious philosophy is a legitimate view. I am the editor of a recent edition to this series and my thoughts are as follows. Each of these books is compiled by (for the most part) different editors and written by different contributors. This means that, like so many other aspects of human creation, some are good and some are not so good. To condemn the series outright is ridiculous (you haven't done this, but others have).

Furthermore, since the publication of my volume, I've had people tell me that they are more interested in philosophy as a result and had never really looked at the world "that way" before. To me, if there is even one person with such a response, the existence of these books is a good thing.

7:27 PM, February 26, 2009  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

C-3PO: Master Luke, sir. Pardon me for asking, but what should R2 and I do if we're discovered here?
Luke: Lock the door.
Han Solo: And hope they aren't philosophers.
C-3PO: That isn't very reassuring.

(Apologies to George Lucas.)

9:59 PM, February 26, 2009  
Blogger Sujoy Bhattacharjee said...

Books have become a mass produced commodity. More like a Model-T. I presume they have a deadline, the writers I mean....imagine a handful of people working away at writing a book hoping to meet the end-of-week deadline. Whatever happened to muse and creativity and inspiration.....
But with such outlandish titles, the publishers do manage to attract the casual reader.

As an aside have chicklit books disappeared after the "How Opal Mehta Got....." embarrassment.

3:47 PM, March 16, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As an editor of these books and a philosophy professor I will just say I see these as another pedagogical tool. We use thought experiments in philosophy, which are just uninventive and lame hypotheticals, and we often use pop culture as illustrative examples in the classroom so why not use pop culture outside of the classroom to bring philosophy to a general reading public. I don't see why one could write on the chinese room and have it count as genuine philosophy but as soon as someone talks about a cylon it is low brow or dumbed down. There seems to be an uncritical, knee jerk elitist reaction against these volumes. Wisdom is not the exclusive property of intellectuals, we can all partake and these books are helpful to those that otherwise might not delve into the philosophical tradition.

10:02 AM, November 11, 2009  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

Thanks very much for your comment. I think you have said it well. With the holidays approaching, maybe I'll drop a few hints with family members about one of these books!

8:29 AM, November 12, 2009  

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