Philosophy and Popular Culture…

Categories and tags:
popular culture

Since 2000 Open Court publishers (and Blackwells in the UK republishing them) have been putting out a series entitled Philosophy and Popular Culture. The first one I saw (as I unwrapped it one Christmas) was The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’Oh of Homer – which I found, in the quality of its essays, rather mixed.

Since then this phenomena has really taken off (Click here for UK list, or here for USA one) – including volumes on South Park, The Office, Family Guy, Baseball, Running, Woody Allen, Bob Dylan and many more: with more coming all the time.

Is this a good thing? You might think this a stupid question – surely applying to philosophy that things people are actually interested in is a positive move – and exposing the fans of these cultural phenomena is a good way to interest people in philosophy and demonstrate that it is not a pointless waste of everyone’s time…

Yes – and Stephen T. Asma argues this in a piece entitled: Looking up from the Gutter: Philosophy & Popular Culture. Why would anyone disagree?

You can also read more, from the Pop Matters website, where there is a piece entitled: Pop Goes Philosophy talking both about the Philosophy and South Park book, the Asma article, and the phenomena in general. The authors, I thin, make a good point when they say (after commenting on Asma’s piece:

So Asma is missing the big picture when he concludes that philosophy and popular culture are and will remain worlds apart. He is right, however, to be amused by the missionary (and presumptive, I would add) zeal of those who suppose that merely by sugar coating their lectures with references to pop culture, they make philosophy appealing or rewarding to the masses. The fact that most people know little about the history of the mind-body problem and other workhorse topics of professional philosophy does not mean, however, they yearn to know more.

Well – I have read a few (currently reading ‘Running and Philosophy: A Marathon for the Mind’) – and although I have enjoyed some essays I have an odd sense of dis-ease with the series at times: but am not sure why – is it snobbery on my part – I don’t think so… also, some essays in them are rather good – so why this sense of concern with the phenomena as a whole?

Will ponder and get back to you: responses welcome – do you think this is – overall a ‘good thing’?



modustollens says:

Philosophy and popular culture does 2 things:1) it sells books for publishers;2) adds apparent legitimacy to otherwise inane content in much the same way as the attempt to make comic books serious and academic by calling them ‘graphic novels’.

R H says:

I suppose we would fist have to try to figure out what ‘good for philosophy’ means. (Sorry, but my analytic prejudice is showing.) Perhaps one thing that the phrases means is good for philosophers. I have heard ugly rumours (perhaps only urban legends) that philosophers who have contributed to such books as Philosophy and Steely Dan, Philosophy and the Matrix and so forth have met with severe disapproval from their colleagues. (I have no idea whether books with those titles actually exist, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they did.) The limiting case of disapproval, of course, would be the loss of employment. It could be argued that being unemployed is very good for a philosopher, since it get him or her out of the prostitution business and dissolves at least some ties to that form of big corporate business known as the education industry.Being unemployed puts a person one step closer to being a monk, which is surely good for one’s well-being. Moreover, if one takes being a monk very seriously, then one will stop writing books altogether, and that would be VERY good for philosophy.Are all the popular books on Buddhism doing Buddhism any good? If we use the same reasoning I have just used for popular books on philosophy, I think the answer is obvious. So let us all pray for more popular books on Buddhism.–Richard HayesDepartment of PhilosophyUniversity of New Mexico

David W... says:

Modus: which, in a Phil & Pop Culture book, is the inane bit that is being spiced up: the popular culture artefact or the philosophy?D.

Peter Raabe says:

Don’t we all popularize philosophy when we teach entry-level or first year courses to students who have little if any idea what philosophy is? I do. I see no point in teaching it hard-core to beginners, using esoteric jargon only grad students would understand, or discussing hypothetical scenarios never seen in the real world. We here in Vancouver, Canada also popularize philosophy in the cafes we hold for the general public. Same deep-fried issues offered in a light format, with none of the fat pomposity of language relished by the academic gourmets of philosophy. These philosophy cafes are extremely popular, with more than a dozen of them in this area alone. Is it bad for philosophy? Just the opposite. When it comes to the question of whether popularizing philosophy is a good thing or not, I wonder what there is to fear? Will making philosophy understandable, interesting, even fun, ruin its reputation as bleak, obscure and difficult? I certainly hope so! Peter RaabeUniversity College of the Fraser ValleyBritish Columbia, Canada

Kindly read my article “Philosophy/as/and/of Popular Culture” in PHILOSOPHY AND THE INTERPRETATION OF POP CULTURE, edited by Irwin and Gracia (Rowman & Littlefield 2006). In that article (an abridged version of which is forthcoming in PHILOSOPHY NOW) I address common criticisms of my book series. William IrwinGeneral EditorThe Blackwell Philosophy and PopCulture Series

Anonymous says:

I can’t see any problem. Won’t it make it easier for people to understand philosophy if it is applied to something we know about? But then I haven’t read the books…

jasonrpe says:

I have ‘suggested’ that these books might make excelletn christmas presents for me, in place of the usual bibles, Qu’rans and self-help books (what else could one possibly buy a student of RPE??) and I look forward to reading some of them

Shelley says:

No, it is certainly not a good thing. It is a strategy by money-makers who exploit the hungry minds of Generation X, or more generically called, middle-agers, at Christmas-time. While there may be a craving to know more philosophy – as we have discussed in the past here on the blog, it is an enigmatic topic making ‘philosophers’ into posers and posturers, attractive and smart, as this is a phenomena with inherent worth in our culture – pop philosophy is not ‘philosophy’ and should not be used for refined table talk during the holidays. Philosophy is not cute, although it can be deeply humourous and ironic, over-ruling the pale comedy of Homer Simpson. Philosophy is dangerous, it corrodes old out-moded ideas. It is and should be loathed by the status quo, not made merry with at Christmas-time. Philosophy is an activity of struggle, not a post-modern past-time to be read in waiting rooms. Pop philosophy is to philosophy what elevator music is to a concert, a stale interlude. Philosophy isn’t for everybody anyway. It is not for mass consumption. It is not meant to be accessible. If you don’t want to pick up Plato, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Sartre, don’t. But don’t pick up Homer Simpson and think you’re a philosopher. Shame on you, you philosphy lecturers who don’t teach philosophy from primary sources, with or without cafes in Vancouver. Just teach the primary sources BETTER to your young philosophers. They want to know and they will feel good about penetrating deep philosophical concerns. Anyhow, Plato’s Symposium is hardly inaccessible. My final thought is that pop philosophy should be boycotted. If you do receive such a book from Santa, then I would suggest just politely saying ‘thank you’ because somebody’s heart was in the right place, but don’t on your life buy one for somebody else, don’t support this level of mediocrity.

Anonymous says:

If I understand the dissenters correctly, then philosophy amounts to mental masturbation.

anna says:

Hello, Well, popular culture might mean something quite different, and just for your information, we are organising, in France (and in French, sorry for that) a conference on philosophy and popular culture, but by philosophy we mean philosophy of language and by popular culture not only popular art, but rather a general notion of specific speech acts we would like to analyse. For those who feel concerned, there is a call for papers:

Shelley says:

Yes, anonymous, I know. I just found a quote from 423BCE where Aristophanes charges Socrates with sophistry: philosophy, also known as, masturbation. You may enjoy ‘Clouds’. See what merry is made from ridiculous philosophers

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.