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Fancy taking a pop?

William Irwin defends the growth of books on pop culture and philosophy

irwin200Ten years have passed since the publication of Seinfeld and Philosophy. That book led to the Simpsons and Philosophy, which led to The Matrix and Philosophy, which has led to an ever-expanding list of books that take philosophy to the general public by discussing the subject in terms of pop culture. Despite the success of this mission, misperceptions and misdirected criticisms of the “and Philosophy” books persist. While I’ve dealt with nearly all of the criticisms before, they seem to warrant address again. (I can only speak for the books that I edited during my time with Open Court and the books in my current series with Blackwell.)

Some philosophers are concerned that the “and Philosophy” books will hurt the public perception of philosophy, that the books misrepresent philosophy as trivial and frivolous. This fear is misplaced. Philosophy has had a public relations problem for a few centuries now, but it has nothing to do with philosophy being trivial or frivolous. Rather, people mistakenly think philosophy is some dry, dusty, irrelevant academic subject taught by bearded professors in tweed jackets with suede patches on the elbows. Books in my series aim to correct that misperception by showing people how philosophy is relevant. Philosophy can and should guide our lives. And there is no reason to think that the public perception of philosophy is changing to regard it as a frivolous discipline as a result of these books. Sometimes people think that philosophy is just plain bullshit, but that has nothing to do with “and Philosophy” books. In fact these books have convinced lots of people that philosophy is not bullshit by educating them about what philosophy actually is.

The audience for these books is the general public. Sadly, most students go through four years of college without taking a single philosophy course, and the result is a philosophically illiterate society. The aim of these books, then, is to take philosophy to people who might not otherwise be exposed to philosophy. People think better and more critically about things they like and are interested in, whether it be sports, movies, rap music, whatever. The hope is that if we can get them to think philosophically about these things they will come to see the value of philosophy in itself. To paraphrase a British philosopher, we use a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.

Philosophy needs to be popularised, as science needs to be popularised, and philosophy professors should be involved in the popularisation of philosophy, rather than leaving the task to well-meaning amateurs. Popular science is not necessarily pseudo-science; in fact, it rarely is. Most popular science simply explains scientific theories and discoveries sans mathematics. Of course popular science risks oversimplifying and misrepresenting the science, but that is a much lesser risk than depriving the public of a comprehensible account. Likewise, popular philosophy does not have to be pseudo-philosophy. To democratise philosophy is not necessarily to “dumb it down” but to make it available in at least some form for all. The “and Philosophy” books are, of course, just one such way to democratise and spread philosophy.

The recent call for submissions for Avatar and Philosophy resulted in several philosophers criticising the topic as unworthy and criticising my series for choosing topics badly. Some may have the mistaken impression that my series has the mentality of “any idea will do”. But that’s not the case. My series rejects over ninety percent of the ideas that are proposed. Not just anything will work. For example, American Idol, though massively popular, wouldn’t work as the basis of an “and Philosophy” book because it isn’t the kind of thing the general public thinks seriously about. Chapters in these books aim to introduce a philosophical question, problem, issue, or historical figure to a general audience by making connections with pop culture. The goal is often to correct mistaken, incomplete, or shallow philosophical notions in the popular culture. The idea is not, for example, that Star Wars can tell you everything about Heidegger’s view of technology. Rather, Star Wars supplies examples and can be the basis for thought experiments to illustrate Heidegger’s view of technology. In this way, these books continue a tradition in philosophy, dating back to Plato, of using vivid examples and though experiments.

There is, in fact, no single litmus test for determining what topic will work well for a volume. And sometimes we get it wrong; witness The Atkins Diet and Philosophy. In general, though, literate, witty, insightful popular culture that inspires people to discuss it with one another seriously makes for the best “and Philosophy” topics. There is a natural tendency to think that a topic is bad if one doesn’t like it. For example, there is nothing particularly deep about Twilight and lots of people don’t like the books or the movies. But more to the point, Twilight is wildly popular, especially among teenage girls, and it can be used quite nicely to raise a host of philosophical issues, from immortality to the meaning of life to personal identity to gender roles.

Some people complain that we should write books on more serious popular culture topics, such as The Tudors, but this misses the point as well. The goal is not to highlight or educate people about what is best in popular culture. We take the public’s taste as a given, from their love of The Simpsons to their fascination with The Matrix, and start from there. Certainly we could write very good books on obscure art-house films like Pi or Precious, or TV series like The Wire or Deadwood, but the audiences were quite small in television and cinema terms and we would not reach the intended audience. We would be preaching to the converted. So publishing those books would not be in line with the mission of reaching as many varied people as possible with philosophy.

A quick look at the possible topics listed in one of the calls for submissions in my series might lead one to think that we are taking pop culture too seriously. But that is to miss the point of the suggested topics. The lists of possible topics in the calls for submissions are brainstorming cues and prompts, not final products. Consider these for example from the call for submissions to Avatar and Philosophy: Neytiri, Grace, Mo’at, and the Feminine Care Ethic; Merleau-Ponty, Avatars, and the Phenomenology of the Body; The Na’vi Way of Life: Hobbes Versus Rousseau on the State of Nature; “I See You”: Levinas, the Face, and Responsibility to the Other; Is Jake a Traitor?: Avatar and Royce’s Philosophy of Loyalty. Some of the suggestions may seem inane to someone who can’t imagine credible essays written on those topics. But, again, the topics are merely suggested possibilities, some of which will ultimately work, and some of which will not, depending on which ones manage to spark imagination.

Of course, the suggested topics readily lend themselves to parody, and in the spirit of good fun I’ve participated in these kinds of parodies myself, contributing to the “Mini-Golf and Philosophy” parody in the pop culture issue of The Philosophers’ Magazine, for example. But let’s remember that it’s easy to critique something one isn’t thoroughly familiar with by simply saying it has become a parody of itself. Just think how ridiculous the interests of most philosophers sound to the average person. And certainly lots of analytic philosophers think much continental philosophy is a parody of itself, and vice versa.

The aim of interpretation in these books is to teach philosophy without being teachy. Essays work best when they are not just a peg on which to hang a lecture, though sometimes that’s what we get. Ideally an essay should find something worthwhile in the pop culture icon and say or teach something worthwhile about it. It is a difficult balancing act to produce an essay that will appeal to, and be of interest to, fans, yet be worthwhile philosophically. Noting a single philosophical connection is easy. Carrying through on a connection or a series of connections for a whole essay is difficult. It’s not the kind of writing and interpretation that most philosophers are trained to do.

Obviously, quality varies across chapters, books, and book series. But just because something is sometimes done badly does not mean it is always done badly. Critics can always cherry pick examples of “and Philosophy” done poorly, but we could just as easily cherry-pick bad articles in leading journals and bad papers presented at conferences. Given the nature of the volumes in my series, quality inevitably varies within a volume, but we do exercise quality control. Typically, calls for submission result in twice as many submissions as can be accepted.

The rationale for having multi-authored collections rather than single-author volumes is that it’s unlikely that any one person would have enough interesting things to say about, for example, Mad Men and philosophy to fill a book. Of course, the more people we have involved the greater the variations in quality. So volume editors work intensely with authors to make sure papers fit the genre and are of good quality. Some papers, however, cannot be published despite editorial assistance and are rejected.

No one, least of all myself, wants or advocates that the “and Philosophy” books be a substitute for the study of canonical texts any more than we want watching television to be a substitute for reading books. Nor is there serious danger of this becoming an unintended consequence. The “and Philosophy” books are like training wheels for philosophy, intended for general readers who are open to learning about philosophy through discussion of their favorite slice of pop culture.

Does interpretation of popular culture abuse philosophy? No. Studying popular culture as philosophy rather than using it for examples and communication would be abuse, at least abuse of philosophy. This is the kind of abuse that some mistakenly fear is taking place in the “and Philosophy” books; an understandable mistake, given that other academics, notably literary theorists, often study popular culture for its own sake, or, more correctly, for the sake of interpretation. Such theorists take themselves and their subject matter too seriously. The tendency to value a creative reading of a text more highly than the text itself leads to accepting that the text itself need not even be aesthetically valuable as long as the interpretation is aesthetically pleasing, or interesting, or ideologically correct.

Such interpretation for the sake of interpretation has become the bane of literary studies, though thankfully it has made no inroads into philosophy. In philosophy we can justify examining a piece of popular culture, even inferior popular culture, to illustrate a philosophical point or issue, but we cannot justify studying an inferior piece of popular culture for the sake of philosophical interpretation.

Despite what some have said, the interpretation involved in the “and Philosophy” books has nothing to do with postmodernism or deconstruction. My own interpretive principles honor authorial intention (see my Intentionalist Interpretation). In most cases the writers behind the pop culture under consideration did not intend to illustrate a philosophical idea. So what we are presenting is not the hidden meaning of the pop culture, but rather the philosophical significance. It is worth noting, though, that philosophy is already in the culture just the way Shakespeare, Darwin, and Freud are. Indeed philosophy has shaped Western culture. So even when the writers behind movies and TV don’t consciously intend to work in philosophy, their products often have philosophical significance.

Commercial publishers, unlike endowed university presses, need books to be profitable. But despite some misperceptions, no one makes enough money off these books for the money to be a major motivation in doing the work. No one has gotten rich: not the authors, not the editors, not the publishers, and not me. Authors in my series get paid an honorarium, editors get modest royalties, and the publisher sells the books at deep trade discounts, actually losing money on some titles. To be sure, some volumes have sold very well and made nice money for some editors and publishers. But, alas, we are still waiting for the day when someone gets rich off selling a book with “Philosophy” in the title. This leads me to correct another misconception: these books do not sell well because of the word “Philosophy” in the title. Amazingly, some have said that putting “and Philosophy” in a title is just a way of selling books. In fact, putting the word “Philosophy” in the title is one of the best ways to scare people off and discourage sales. Many pop culture topics that can find a large enough readership to support Unofficial or Unauthorised Guides cannot support “and Philosophy” books.

Finally, some might suggest that “and Philosophy” hurts the reputation of philosophy within the academy even if it helps with the public relations problem outside the academy. But that claim does not withstand scrutiny. Philosophy suffers from a similar public relations problem inside the academy, with too many other disciplines regarding philosophy as an antiquated and irrelevant discipline. And in any event I’m not proposing that “and Philosophy” articles replace journal articles for tenure evaluations and the like. These books are sometimes criticised for not containing anything that would be publishable in a journal. But that is a misguided criticism. The goal of the essays in these books is not to make a novel contribution to scholarship. They are not peer-reviewed journal articles, and should not be treated as such in hiring and tenure decisions. However, they should not count against a candidate either. Ideally, they should be counted in a candidate’s favour in the areas of service or teaching.

Work on popular culture and philosophy should at the very least be tolerated by departments as a hobby or avocation like any other, as long as its pursuit doesn’t get in the way of producing and publishing mainstream scholarship. Of course, I would like to see the work appreciated, but tolerated would be enough. Indeed, there have been hundreds of contributors to the “and Philosophy” books, including some of the most prominent members of the profession. We’re not asking everyone to like the genre; we’re just asking for respect in the spirit of tolerance and pluralism.

The most neglected part of Plato’s celebrated allegory of the cave is the escaped prisoner’s return. Once he has come to true knowledge in and of the higher world, he is not to remain there but to return from whence he came to share the knowledge. This is the duty of the philosophically educated Guardian in the Republic; it is the way of Socrates; and it is the duty of philosophers generally. Plato tells us that the returning prisoner must be prepared to be mocked and persecuted, for he will be talking of a strange and unlikely world. What’s worse, he will appear to be damaged goods, as he will no longer be able to see clearly the shadows on the wall as he once did. How then is he to succeed in conveying his message? Plato offers little hope that he will. For the answer we must turn to Socrates who, despite losing his life to the cave-dwellers, was able to communicate with some. What did Socrates do, start off talking about a higher level of reality? Of course not. He met his interlocutors where they were, often using agricultural analogies and references to Greek culture commonly known at the time. He then gradually led them from what they knew or thought they knew to higher knowledge. The example of Socrates makes clear that one must not only return to the cave but learn to see the shadows again in order to tell the prisoners about the world outside in terms of the shadows. They are unlikely to understand or listen if the message is delivered any other way.

William Irwin is series editor of The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series. Parts of this article draw on his contribution to Philosophy and the Interpretation of Popular Culture, eds. Irwin and Gracia (Rowman & Littlefield)


36 comments for “Fancy taking a pop?”

  1. Clearly and forcefully articulated, Professor Irwin. I recall in the early 1960s when critics insisted that philosophers should not act like “parish priests” and presume to write about current moral issues. A few years later, applied ethics established itself and has flourished thereafter.The philosophy and popular culture movement will inspire at least some readers to delve into the topics addressed more thoroughly and systemically. Moreover, it stresses the practical applications of philosophical analysis. All this is good news!

    Posted by Ray Belliotti | March 22, 2010, 6:04 pm
  2. This statement, “Rather, people mistakenly think philosophy is some dry, dusty, irrelevant academic subject taught by bearded professors in tweed jackets with suede patches on the elbows.” It could use some substantiation, a few credible or prominent quotations, to make it stick. Actually, there is a lot of awe about philosophy, too. As to the books, well they tend to be subject to something I welcome in my efforts to discredit egalitarianism: very clear cut selectivity in the spirit of star gazing. Why not books on The Rockford Files or Lavern and Shirley? Or Burn Notice? Or MI5? Or Magnum PI? Is there some objective criterion by which the selections are made or is it all about which shows are most popular and which books will be easier to market? (Fine with me but not the philosopher snobs!)

    Posted by Tibor R. Machan | March 22, 2010, 6:21 pm
  3. I don’t doubt that you’ve heard these criticisms many times. But they are mistaken, for exactly the reasons you give.

    My only complaint about the series is that (especially early on) very few actual philosophers (you know, with Ph.D.s and everything) wrote essays for them. While some of the authors did a good job, still, overall, the philosophical content suffered because of it.

    I’d be interested to know the extent to which this was due to our (philosophy professors’) unwillingness to take the plunge and try to write for a general audience. Unfortunately, there is little reward, from within the profession, for doing such a thing; so we leave it to others.

    Posted by Dean Zimmerman | March 22, 2010, 6:26 pm
  4. I’ve written for this (and similar) series, and I’ve used articles from such books in class. I haven’t found that the sugar dilutes the medicine–on the contrary, I’ve found the philosophic insights to be rich and the applications creative. By and large, there is good philosophy going on in the pop-culture series.

    Posted by Heather Keith | March 22, 2010, 6:47 pm
  5. A measured and reasonable defense (without being defensive) of “and Philosophy” books, illustrating their benefits.

    Regarding my own contributions to “and Philosophy” books, I wouldn’t expect that my essays should count toward my tenure vis-a-vis publications. I often merely hope that they aren’t held against me as “goofing off.”

    My students do perk up when I connect some abstract philosophical issue in which we’re engaged to a well-known pop culture referent, so I do concur that it should count toward service/teaching, as well as professional development. I believe it actually motivates the essay-writer to become more intimately familiar w/ the philosophical concepts they’re employing).

    Thanks to Bill for all of his work not only on the series, but in defending it to those entrenched in the ivory tower.

    Posted by Matthew Brophy | March 22, 2010, 6:49 pm
  6. The idea that a contribution to “…and philosophy books” might count against an academic job candidate apalls me. I sincerely hope it isn’t true. Why is it that academics have got such an terrible reputation for sneering at popularisers? I was talking to an ordinary member of the populace the other day about philosophy (I find the populace tend to be very interested in philosophy) and she stammered and blushed when she mentioned that she had been inspired by a book by Alan De Buton. She obviously thought that I, as an academic, would scorn and scoff and laugh her out of the room for reading a popular philosopher. If there are misconceptions about philosophy that need to be corrected, this must surely be the first on the list, and I think the “…and philosophy” might go some way to correcting it. On the other hand, reading the Phil L lists responses to the Avatar and Philosophy CFP, I wonder whether my interlocuter was perhaps right to expect me to scorn readers of popular philosophy.

    Posted by Jonny Blamey | March 22, 2010, 9:53 pm
  7. Well done, Bill! Of course, I’m biased as someone who’s edited three of these books and written chapters for several other. These books should indeed be viewed as “pedagogical” in nature and not used either for or against a job or tenure candidate in evaluating their “research” qualifications. As to Dean’s comment, I would love to see more senior scholars lend their time and talent in writing for these types of books (and discover in the process how much FUN it can be!) Finally, I’d like to emphasize Bill’s point about these books not standing in place of the philosophical canon. I co-teach a course each summer, “Philosophy through Popular Culture,” in which various essays from these books, along with relevant film and music clips, are used to supplement core readings from Plato, Aquinas, Descartes, Nietzsche, Nagel, Rawls, etc. The feedback I’ve received from students and the quality of their papers attests to the value of utilizing this method to teach philosophy.

    Posted by Jason T. Eberl | March 22, 2010, 10:57 pm
  8. i am all for such books myself; they are not what got me onto philosophy (blame for that goes to an anime from the mid 90’s, which acquainted me with sartre in a rather painful fashion before i had the tools to understand it) but i believe these books could be wonderful tools; ive often come across “normal” people talking what i understand to be philosophy, admittedly not with the finesse some would like, but they are talking real philosophy and this shows they are interested, even if they dont know the name of what the are talking about. anything that gets people to want to think philosophically, even if said people cant have an indepth argument on kantian aesthetics or aristotelian metaphysics, can only be good to my mind.

    Posted by andrew (a different one) | March 22, 2010, 11:46 pm
  9. In these turbulent economic times, I have begun using “pop” texts such as John de Graaf’s _Affluenza_, for example, as one of the readers in my Logic classes. It makes Logic relevant, meaningful and interesting. Logic has ceased being “something you do in school” and started being “something you do in life”. What a concept: practical, lived philosophy! If we are to take seriously the concept of a new paradigm, we who serve as Philosopher Kings (and Queens!) need to find ways to deliver the material with social relevance.

    Posted by Sherry L. Ackerman, Ph.D. | March 23, 2010, 12:04 am
  10. Terrific article - a firm and just defense of the practice. I hope this clears up many misconceptions.

    @Dean-I’m not sure what books you’re referring to. All the contributors to the volumes on Seinfeld, The Simpsons, The Matrix, Woody Allen, and LOTR are professional philosphers.

    Posted by Aeon J. Skoble | March 23, 2010, 12:55 am
  11. Thanks for this, Bill. It is always a bit surprising to me how many of the criticisms of these books by philosophers fail to take into account their aims and scope. This clarifies this in a nice way. We like to complain about the lack of philosophical awareness in the general public, but how many of us do anything about it? This is one way to bring the great ideas of philosophy to the people, and I am all for it.

    Posted by Mike Austin | March 23, 2010, 12:11 pm
  12. I am in full support of William here and find the series very apt and exciting.

    I have written my full response at the link below


    Posted by Elspeth Rushbrook | March 23, 2010, 12:39 pm
  13. Correct web link

    Posted by Elspeth Rushbrook | March 23, 2010, 12:41 pm
  14. Regarding Tibor Machan’s comment:

    I think the key word in Bill’s account here is ‘irrelevant’. I would that add ‘obtuse’ (which I suppose the more fortunate among us may experience as philosophical awe) often goes with it as a common prejudice among new students and non-philosophers both inside and outside of academic circles. Because of these things, and because there is no homonymous career track in the corporate world, philosophy is often seen as a bad value for students’ and institutions’ time and money. If it’s support for this perception that you need then I submit what’s going on in the higher ed system in Pennsylvania right now. Philosophy is on the chopping block for these very reasons. http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10052/1037530-454.stm?cmpid=MOSTEMAILEDBOX

    Philosophy does seems overly difficult and generally pointless to many people before they get to know it, and indeed it always has. This is why there was in the ancient world a whole genre of “popular” writing dedicated to the defense of philosophy (which then comprised the majority of one’s education) called protreptics. David Hutchison and Monte Johnson have done some work recently that suggests that Aristotle may even have written such a work.

    I see the “and Philosophy” books very much in this spirit. They are one part of a defense of philosophy that is absolutely necessary if we want to keep our discipline from eventually going the way of Classical Studies.

    Posted by Steven Patterson | March 23, 2010, 1:21 pm
  15. I currently teach a course on philosophy of literature where I have the students read some comic books, and I use “Watchmen and Philosophy” for that course. To my surprise, that course ends up working as a great recruiting tool to encourage more students to take more philosophy courses. I have actually garnered a more majors and minors from that course than I did from my Introduction to Philosophy course.

    Posted by Christopher Bartel | March 23, 2010, 1:53 pm
  16. Well said, Bill. I enjoyed this as well as “Philosophy and the Interpretation of Pop-Culture.” The two books I’ve done for Open Court’s series are on video gaming. One could wonder whether doing these books on gaming is similar to Bill’s mention of doing a book on American Idol.

    Let me just take one example suggesting that doing books on gaming is worthwhile. My chapter in World of Warcraft(WoW) and Philosophy deals with nihilism. Players of Wow are familiar with selective nihilism: many believe that the game itself is meaningless, even as they play it. However, many players have also never made the inference to the idea that life as a whole might be meaningless too, which is exactly what my chapter does. My sources are, naturally, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, but also some popular science writers.

    If a non-philosophical gamer reads my chapter, then ends up buying, say, Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil,” how is that a bad thing for philosophy? I would suggest that it’s a good thing.

    Posted by Luke Cuddy | March 23, 2010, 9:54 pm
  17. Thank you, Bill, for your efforts to make the pop culture and philosophy series successful.
    I will be a contributor to “Avatar and Philosophy.” It will be my fourth contribution to the series. I wish that I had started earlier… but at least I am now.

    I want to be in Christopher Bartel’s philosophy of literature course — I loved “The Watchmen.” Have you read “Superman: Red Son” in the Otherworld series?

    I am lucky to teach at a community college. They judge me by my teaching, which frees me to write whatever I want.

    Posted by Dennis Knepp | March 23, 2010, 11:17 pm
  18. I find William Irwin’s article considerably persuasive (despite my being an admirer of Adorno). Note also that I am editing a philosophy book - for a press with which Dr Irwin is unconnected - on the HITCHHIKER series by Douglas Adams. But I do worry about one thing, namely, the weight put on the distinction between using some popular culture phenomenon and studying that phenomenon. On the assumption that it is undesirable for philosophers qua philosophers to study a bad popular phenonomenon (and we should try to expand on why that would be bad), how do we know when we have slipped from using the phenomenon to studying it?

    Moreover: the more we feel that some phenomenon warrants philosophical use but *not* philosophical study, then, surely, the more distant that phenomenon will be from philosophy - which is to say, the less merit it will have even as an example?

    I am unsure to what conclusions these thoughts lead us.

    Posted by Nicholas Joll | April 2, 2010, 11:56 pm
  19. I would also like to express my support for William Irwin’s quest in bringing classical philosophical ideas to a broader audience through examples they are familiar and comfortable with. I cannot see how this could in any way be harmful to our discipline or defer from its direct study.
    I do however second Nicholas Joll’s afterthought on the analysis of a “philosophical” world-view inherent in a piece of pop (”philosophy of” rather than “and”) as not necessarily a bad thing. Of course, taking any piece of pop, no matter how low, in order to build a fanciful philosophy around it, does probably qualify as abuse of both philosophy and the said piece of pop. But if some really good pieces of pop seem hold a sort of philosophy of its own, I can’t see the harm in analysing it, provided one stays true to the material. Moreover, such an analysis could serve to determine the quality of a certain piece of pop and show why, to stick to the provided example, Douglas Adams’ books are better pop than a less thoughtful piece of sci-fi, or, for example, why Tex Avery’s cartoons are better than classic Tom and Jerries (which, as you might have guessed by now, I personally have tried to show on occasion).
    Absolutely, it’s a different type of approach but, I would think, definitely just as legitimate. Any thoughts?

    Posted by Izar Lunacek | April 5, 2010, 11:46 pm
  20. I’d like to respond to Izar Lunacek (who was kind enough to respond to me).

    I do not see how the attempt at a comparative philosophical appraisal of two popular-cultural phenomena could be illegitimate, except insofar as one could forget that other standards matter too. For instance, aesthetic value is not the same as philosophical value! Still, showing that X is relatively (or very) thoughtless while Y is not - that would be worthwhile. That said, many people would respond, I suspect, thus: I watch/read X merely for entertainment. Yet that itself could generate debate. Adorno thought (I think) that: (1) some forms of fairly mindless entertainment are, or could be, harmless; (2) it is cruel to castigate or take away things that help people get through the day; (3) some of the entertainments that help people get through the day are very harmful (to them and society). I’d defend 1-3; but combining them into a coherent outlook is, perhaps, hard.

    PS: What I will be doing with HITCHHIKER’s is more using it as an occasion for philosophy than extracting philosophy from it. I shall, indeed, be using it more than studying it. But it is worth doing that because the material is, nonetheless, somewhat philosophical.

    Posted by Nicholas Joll | April 6, 2010, 1:41 pm
  21. I don’t mean to hog up the forum, but just a quick word of response to Nicholas Joll. You are absolutely right: showing that one piece of art is more thoughtful or immanently philosophical than another doesn’t necessarily mean it has a higher aesthetic value. A philosophical text, for example, is by definition more philosophical than any piece of art but definitely has a lower aesthetic value and a work that pushes to clear a thesis or moral points effectively lowers its artistic merit.

    However, common usage would suggest that being thought-provoking nevertheless is one of the components making up the quality of a piece of art. And this includes funny, popular art: I have often heard the expression »good, intelligent humour« but never »excellent, truly stupid humour«. Even extremely offbeat, absurdist or primitivist tendencies in art seem to serve mental rather then merely sensual stimulation.

    In any case, I definitely support pop as a practical tool for teaching preexistent philosophical concepts and understand the concern about the self-serving entanglement of obvious banalities in complex conceptual constructions, but I still beg professor Irwin to leave a space open for the task of careful interpretation and evaluation (using philosophy as a tool this time) of those selected pieces of popular culture that happen to possess the artistic quality of being thought-provoking.

    Posted by Izar Lunacek | April 7, 2010, 11:16 am
  22. Last year, I wrote a piece on my blog about the “and Philosophy” books. When visiting a fairly large bookstore, I was struck by how much of the philosophy section was taken up with these books. Author Luke Cuddy asks above “If a non-philosophical gamer reads my chapter, then ends up buying, say, Nietzsche’s ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ how is that a bad thing for philosophy?” The trouble is, the bookstore doesn’t stock ‘Beyond Good and Evil’.

    I agree with bringing philosophy to a broader audience. But I do worry that these books may fill up a finite niche in bookstores and displace other works of philosophy.

    Posted by Nick Barrowman | April 13, 2010, 1:17 pm
  23. I have taught many a course using Irwin’s books. It’s a wonderful series, and Irwin is exctly right in what he says.

    Posted by Kyle Johnson | July 31, 2010, 4:39 am
  24. There should, indeed, be no complaint against the very idea of the ‘& Philosophy’ series; after all, people might enjoy the books and editors and publishers need to make a living. What is objectionable is the idea that the series somehow constitutes a contribution to philosophy or, at any rate, its dissemination. Let us consider the comparison with popular science. Some of the greatest scientists have written popular books, including Einstein. I do not see any great philosophers contributing to this series; indeed, most of the contributors appear to be scarcely competent in the subject. Furthermore, good popularizations of physics or biology do not index the respective disciplines to already heavily marketed media product. In other words, the disciplines are not brought into disrepute by their popularizations. Also, much cutting-edge work in the philosophy of maths or language, say, doesn’t get a look in, but string theory, say, is very popular.

    None of this is to say that all of the writing in the series is worthless; it might also be that the series does encourage the odd person to take up the discipline. I see, however, little cause for optimism. If the series is to be justified or excused on the basis of it serving to bring people into philosophy (perhaps as The Only Opera Album You Will Ever Need, Vol. II drew people to the work of Alban Berg), then we have to consider other options, too. Is it necessary to make philosophy merchandise? Might not people be interested in philosophy for its own sake, much as people are interested in physics? The recent God debate is an example of how philosophy can have a high public profile without it being rebranded.

    What all of this misses, though, is the general idea abroad here that philosophy needs to be relevant or better marketed. Philosophy is not a product, and it need not be relevant or life-guiding in any way, shape or form (I would recommend sectioning for someone who genuinely thought otherwise). At its broadest, it is a kind of inquiry that has persisted for as long as people have had thoughts; more narrowly, in its post-scientific revolution guise, it is sewn into every serious discipline. If it ceases to exist in its current institutional form, then so be it. It will certainly deserve not to exist in its current arrangement if it requires marketing on the back of essentially media trash.

    Posted by John Collins | August 12, 2010, 10:57 am
  25. To correct the impression John collins gives, a quick perusal of books in the genre on my shelf reveals the contributors include such leading members of the profession as:

    Martha Nussbaum, Hubert Dreyfus, Dale Jaquette, Charles Taliaferro, Jorge Gracia, Gareth Matthews, Trenton Merricks, Paul Moser, Mark Wrathall, Graham Priest, Noel Carroll, Thomas Wartenberg, Bernard Rollin, Tommie Shelby, Lewis Gordon, Richard Shutermman, and J. Angelo Corlett.

    As Dean Zimmerman, a supporter of these books, points out in a previous post, leading members of the profession should get more involved.

    In the mean-time, “no-names” will continue to do a completely competent job, making the lion’s share of contributions to these books.

    Posted by Kyle Johnson | August 13, 2010, 12:19 am
  26. I too support the mission of the …and philosophy movement. I used Simpsons and Philosophy and Seinfeld and Philosophy in my intro and critical thinking classes when I was a graduate student. As some one who is interested in analytic philosophy of language and mind I had always hoped to see more papers on these topics. As Bill says the duty of a philosopher is to bring our topics out from the Ivory Tower and down into the Street.

    These beliefs led me to contribute an essay to Final Fantasy and Philosophy and to co-edit Terminator and Philosophy. Having had the privilege of studying with Saul Kripke and Michael Devitt I was excited to try to bring some of that to the series. What I found was that these topics were not considered interesting enough in their own right. My contributed chapter to Final Fantasy and philosophy was gutted from 15 pages to 6 (even though it was produced exactly as the abstract advertised…I pulled it subsequently though it is still available on my website: http://faculty.lagcc.cuny.edu/rbrown/Final%20Fantasy%20and%20Philosophy%20Richard%20Brown.htm ) and I was forced to add content to the Terminator chapter that I contributed which was technically false but provided a ‘hook’ for the reader. What this signals to me is that the series is not interested in bringing this kind of philosophy to the people, as it is either deemed too challenging or irrelevant, or both.

    It is true that the material is challenging but if the series really has the goals and aims stated by Bill in the article above it should strive to include this material for its own sake. Debates about the ambiguity of definite articles or the meaning of proper names may not impact our day to day lives in the way that the ethics of suicide or AI do but they are interesting in their own right and in any case have preoccupied some of the most gifted minds of the last 200 years…

    Posted by Richard Brown | August 13, 2010, 1:11 pm
  27. I am grateful for all the comments here, positive and negative. I usually don’t feel inclined to jump into these discussions. But I have to address Richard Brown’s comments. I certainly do welcome contributions in philosophy of language and other areas of contemporary analytic philosophy. In the case of Richard’s own essays that he mentions, there was not sufficient linkage to the popular culture icon under consideration or clear enough motivation to intrigue the average reader. Richard did a fine job of explaining the concepts involved, but what he produced was not quite a fit for the series.

    Posted by William Irwin | August 13, 2010, 1:37 pm
  28. In response to Johnson: My point was not about ‘names’; I didn’t mention ‘big names’ or anything of that kind. My point explicitly drew a contrast between the best of popular science, where the likes of Weinberg and Feynman state things simply, and the ‘& Philosophy’ series. The issue is not the ‘name’ someone has, but the quality of what they write and the inherent interest of the idea. As it is, I leave others to have opinions on the list provided.

    Again, the assumption is made, via Zimmerman, that the kind of merchandising under consideration is inherently good, and that some of the flaws it might possess are due to more people not joining in, perhaps out of disciplinary pressure or the like. I still see no reason to hold such a view, and sincerely hope that there are better ways of attracting people to philosophy than via media trash.

    Posted by John Collins | August 13, 2010, 2:03 pm
  29. Thanks for the response Bill. I can’t help but think that your appeal to lack of ’sufficient’ linkage and ‘clear enough motivation to intrigue the average reader’ mask a bias towards purely theoretical work but what are you gonna do? I’ll leave it to posterity to decide that, if anyone cares…in the meantime I’ll keep hoping that more contemporary analytic philosophy is represented in your series, but I won’t be holding my breath!

    Posted by Richard Brown | August 13, 2010, 2:46 pm
  30. Thanks Richard. The recent call for Inception and Philosophy suggests several topics in philosophy of mind, epistemology, and metaphysics, of interest in contemporary analytic philosophy. I would welcome a contribution form you personally Richard (as there are no hard feelings on my part) or anyone else interested in the the topics.

    Posted by William Irwin | August 13, 2010, 3:37 pm
  31. lol, I am sure that anything that I would produce would continue the trend of not quite fitting with the series…but I do encourage others to try. Perhaps more fitting minds will succeed where I have failed!

    Posted by Richard Brown | August 13, 2010, 4:46 pm
  32. So “and Philosophy” books are a good thing because it encourages philosophical thought. And there is nothing to moan about insofar as non-devotees to philosophy are buying philosophical inspired books.
    The argument then leads to questioning the reasons why a student not so interested in philosophy would attempt to read “The Simpsons and philosophy” in the first place.

    Is the student interested in reading philosophy because he has a hidden philosophical taste which “and Philosophy” trademark is helping him to develop? Or is the student reading “The Simpsons and philosophy” because what he really wants to read is any books with “The Simpsons” subject?
    If the same student read “The Simpsons” and Biology would he be interested (cross our fingers!) in biology too?

    Well, I cannot be really sure whether or not the above student would develop a genuine interest in reading philosophy because if we shrouded philosophy by using an element of popular culture, I do not see philosophy in the first place.

    Ah, but who cares? Kids are reading at least. God forbid, we would not try to popularize philosophy and turn into a merchandising product in order to justly increase the level of philosophy literacy in the classroom.

    “And philosophy” books are full of so much good intention ( and very trendy right now) that I should restrict myself from criticizing the good deed. I would say though that this kind of initiative is a popular reversal of philosophy own epistemological values. But again, who cares?

    Posted by Clementina | September 21, 2010, 1:27 am
  33. The only effect, I presume desired and calculated, is to produce publicity for tv series and the like

    Posted by palma | September 21, 2010, 4:03 pm
  34. [...] you have comments or criticisms for the series, please read “Fancy Taking a Pop?” at https://philosophypress.co.uk/?p=1131 and join the discussion in the comments [...]

    Posted by Big Lebowski and Philosophy CFP « Deconstruction, Inc. | December 14, 2010, 5:33 pm
  35. Dr. Williams makes the best point here with the following comments:

    “Does interpretation of popular culture abuse philosophy? No. Studying popular culture as philosophy rather than using it for examples and communication would be abuse, at least abuse of philosophy. This is the kind of abuse that some mistakenly fear is taking place in the “and Philosophy” books; an understandable mistake, given that other academics, notably literary theorists, often study popular culture for its own sake, or, more correctly, for the sake of interpretation. Such theorists take themselves and their subject matter too seriously. The tendency to value a creative reading of a text more highly than the text itself leads to accepting that the text itself need not even be aesthetically valuable as long as the interpretation is aesthetically pleasing, or interesting, or ideologically correct.”

    I think that the value of these books highlights the a notion that Shakespeare explicitly notes in his Midsummer Night’s Dream through Theseus: The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen /
    Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing /
    A local habitation and a name.”

    The fictionalized narratives of pop culture, in some sense, become embodied in our world, a part of our ontological perspectives, and also become, in the same sense, non-fictionalized narratives.

    The values of philosophy and pop culture books highlight this transition or embodiment. And the “literary theorists” and hermeneuticians really unpack the complexities of this relationship.

    In my opinion, these pop culture, philosophy books have an important role in our society, not just for their “introduction to philosophy” value, but for the relationship between imagination and reality, as Theseus states: “The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling, / Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;”

    Posted by David von Walland | January 2, 2011, 6:31 pm
  36. Professor Irwin articulates his case well. However, I would like to challenge the underlying assumptions that philosophy is i. in need of popularization because otherwise its just an irrelevant past-time of bearded academics and ii. such popularization is in some way good for the profession (“the ‘..and Philosophy’ books are like training wheels…” line).

    Philosophy is a professional discipline and it takes professional training to be even half-adequate at it. I went through a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in the subject and still really didn’t have a decent grasp of it (and I got a First in the first, so I was no slouch), but I did have the basis from which to mount further study. It’s taken me the best part of another 15 years of self-study and part-time writing to get a decent handle on some parts of it, but most people think that professional academic philosophers are really “silly fools still twittering on about Kant” when “Yahoo Answers can tell you why Kant’s is wrong.” I’ve met countless “self-taught experts” on philosophy and not a one of them had a clue as to what they were talking about because they never had the proper grounding that university courses provide.

    Trying to convince people that philosophical ideas are both more difficult and more compelling than a discounted paperback would suggest and that philosophers are both professionals and deserve the appropriate respect that experts in other subjects are accorded is an uphill battle. I wouldn’t be making such a case if it was all just about protecting ‘the bearded ones’ feelings (and by the way I’m not professionally engaged in philosophy myself; I run a critical thinking blog and partake in forums as a past-time), but the the wider point is that most of the discussions that I see masquerading as philosophy are in reality nothing but nonsense. I don’t see anything commendable about seeing an increase in the number of people engaging in discussions that are fundamentally wrong-headed.

    Of course, you can’t stop people talking rubbish, but what philosophy’s image really needs is a better recognition of the professional value of the discipline. If the series even unintentionally encourages the idea that “anyone can do philosophy” and that there is no need for - and little to gain from - serious academic study of the subject - as ridiculous an idea as thinking that someone who has read a couple of self-help books is as qualified as a psychotherapist - then I’d suggest it is likely doing more harm than it is good.

    Posted by Phil Stokes | May 12, 2011, 4:38 pm