Thursday, February 14, 2008

X and Philosophy Books and the Presentation of Philosophy to the Public

A proposal for this summer's AAPT meeting

X and Philosophy Books and the Presentation of Philosophy to the Public

James Bond and Philosophy (Held and South 2006): Ok, I can see that.

Poker and Philosophy (Bronson 2006): This is more dubious.

Harley-Davidson and Philosophy (Rollin 2006): A brand name? Isn’t that something we should be more critical of, rather than simply using as a hook?

Bullshit and Philosophy (Hardcastle and Reisch 2006): Looks like someone is cashing in.
New books with titles of the form “X and Philosophy” where X is some piece of popular culture are coming out faster than anyone can absorb. The formula was initiated in 2000 by Bill Irwin at Open Court Press, which now has a trademark on the series name Popular Culture and Philosophy. In 2006 Irwin moved his operation over to Blackwell, and Open Court continued their series under George Reisch. With two publishers now working the formula, the books are coming faster than ever. In 2007 alone, ten “X and Philosophy” books were released by Blackwell and Open Court Press.

Participants in this session will discuss both the usefulness of these titles in the classroom and their broader significance for the presentation of philosophy to the general public. How often and how successfully are these books being used in introductory level courses? Can you give a book based on a single TV show to the random selection of undergraduates who sign up for Introduction to Philosophy and count on them knowing the show or being interested? Are people running special sections advertised as being dedicated to philosophy and this or that aspect of popular culture? If these books aren’t being used in classrooms, who is buying them? Academics who happen to also be interested in this or that bit of pop culture? Are fans of these various bits of pop culture who have little knowledge of philosophy actually buying these books? More importantly, once these books are read, do they succeed in bringing new people into philosophy? If they do, is philosophy presented the way we want it to be?

One problem is the tone of the books and the level of engagement they actually bring to popular culture. Each of these volumes is designed to be light, friendly, and largely uncritical of the aspect of popular culture they cover. Bill Irwin has said specifically that “Studying popular culture as philosophy, rather than using it for examples and communication would be abuse, at least abuse of philosophy” (Irwin and Gracia 2007, 56). His preferred method for writing essays in these volumes is essentially to take a lecture from an introduction to philosophy course and pepper it with examples from the relevant piece of popular culture. A good example of this style is Jason Kawal’s essay from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy volume “Should we do what Buffy would do?” (Kawal 2003) which is an adroit introduction to virtue theory which happens to constantly use Buffy Summers as an example of a virtuous person.

This approach misses two opportunities, both of which would benefit a reader new to philosophy. First, it refuses to acknowledge when a piece of popular culture succeeds in being philosophical. For instance, Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy has spoken candidly about the impact of existentialist ethics, which he first encountered as an undergraduate at Wesleyan University, on his film and TV work. Even if one doesn’t think that Buffy is great art, it would be a shame to ignore this aspect of the show because you feel that treating popular culture as philosophy is an “abuse of philosophy.” A fan of Buffy will know that some of the content of the show is being ignored, and will rightfully feel condescended to. Irwin’s “mining for examples” approach also misses the opposite opportunity: to criticize a piece of popular culture when it falls short in profound ways. John Lawrence, reviewing various “and philosophy” books for Philosophy Now makes observes a swath of missed chances in the Star Wars and Philosophy (2005) volume
The Phantom Index’ does not mention ‘sex’ or ‘gender’, and the book discusses neither the subordination themes related to Leia and Padme, nor the abundant ripening homoerotic relationships among the men. It overlooks the ethnic stereotypes of the intergalactic Tontos – the Wookies, Ewoks and Gungans who labor selflessly for the identifiably American White Heroes. A resurgent, often Star Wars-themed militarism in the 1980s is not alluded to. I admit that that’s cultural history, but it’s an important dimension for a critical assessment of what the saga stands for. Yet the book has room for two exegeses inspired by Hegel, and one by Heidegger. (2007)
Apparently, the editors of Star Wars and Philosophy chose to avoid offending fans of the movies in order to ensure that they get some information about Hegel with their spoonful of Jedi-flavored sugar. But certainly the ability to take a critical attitude is more central to a philosophical education than knowledge of Hegel. And the best way to teach a critical attitude is to demonstrate it. By failing to critically engage popular culture, X and Philosophy books neglect the core of philosophy for the sake of a few of its trappings.

The uncritical attitude of many of the books in these series leads to some odd topic selections. The light tone makes it impossible to address the biggest forces in popular culture. No one has yet tried Pornography and Philosophy, Evangelical Christianity and Philosophy, or Capitalism and Philosophy, despite the enormous popularity of pornography, evangelism, and capitalism. Indeed, a lot of the books released focus on rather unpopular parts of the culture that happen to attract academics. Two Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy books are coming out this year (Eberl 2008 and Steiff and Tamplin 2008), even though the series didn’t have the ratings to be renewed past its fourth season. On the other hand, no one has yet tried Britney Spears and Philosophy, NASCAR and Philosophy, or World Wrestling Entertainment and Philosophy.

This session will consist mostly of open discussion. I will draw on my experiences writing for an X and Philosophy volume and reading a half dozen of them. I hope to hear from people who have used these books in a classroom setting either in general introductory classes or more specialized courses. More generally, I am interested in hearing people’s ideas about how philosophy should interact with the culture at large. How does this work with your vocation as a teacher? What aspects of philosophy do you want to highlight to the culture at large?


Bronson, E. 2006. Poker and philosophy: pocket rockets and philosopher kings. Vol. 20 of Popular culture and philosophy. La Salle, IL: Open Court.

Decker, K.S. and J.T. Eberl. 2005. Star wars and philosophy: more powerful than you can possibly imagine. Vol. 12 of Popular culture and philosophy. Chicago: Open Court.

Eberl, J.T. 2008. Battlestar Galactica and philosophy: knowledge here begins out there. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.

Hardcastle, G.L. and G.A. Reisch. 2006. Bullshit and philosophy: guaranteed to get perfect results every time. Vol. 24 of Popular culture and philosophy. La Salle, IL: Open Court.

Held, J.M. and J.B. South. 2006. James Bond and philosophy: questions are forever. Vol. 23 of Popular culture and philosophy. Chicago, Ill.: Open Court.

Irwin, W. and J.J.E. Gracia. 2007. Philosophy and the interpretation of pop culture. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Kawal, J. 2003. Should We Do What Buffy Would Do? In Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Loathing in Sunnydale. La Salle, IL: Open Court Press.

Lawrence, J.S. 2007. Pop Culture ‘and Philosophy’ Books. Philosophy Now. November/December. 64: 41-43.

Rollin, B.E. 2006. Harley-Davidson and philosophy: full-throttle Aristotle. Vol. 18 of Popular culture and philosophy. Chicago: Open Court.

Steiff, J. and T.D. Tamplin eds. 2008. Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy. La Salle, IL: Open Court.

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