Saturday, 15 May 2010

Philosophy and Popular Culture

As you all probably already know, we have recently seen an explosion of publications on themes like 'Philosophy and Batman', 'Philosophy and Twilight', 'Philosophy and South Park' and so on.

I was wondering what everyone thought about this 'development'. Does it represent a new kind of sophistry where philosophy tries to bend itself out of shape by attempting to tap into lifestyle agendas? Or might it represent the only way of making philosophy interesting/accessible to a mass audience?

In the light of this, do we need to return - again - the Plato's attack on the Sophists? Or celebrate the postmodern celebration of the Sophist?

This is definitely my last post for a while now - honest! Thought it was for the best if I exited on a somewhat lighter note!


Neil Turnbull


  1. The development has seen philosophical themes generally watered down for mass comsumption, but i believe this is a blessing, providing an sort of philsophical reflection can ignite consciousness from which curiosity may blossom into full philosophical investigations. From acorn to mighty tree.

    I think its light entertainment and it represent a way of making philosophy accessible.

  2. if philosophy is ultimately to tell us how to live, as the greeks thought it was, then it is no good if your average layman can't understand it. I think this new craze of 'philosophy ofs...' is a great way to introduce otherwise obtuse themes to where they are supposed to be, that is, the common mentality. they also make philosophy a little more interesting to those who otherwise find it boring or overly academic. I know some people who spent about 3 hours discussing the 'what if its true' about the matrix; when i started talking about cartesian scepticism they might as well have told me to **** off.
    some philosophy is best done in this way anyway. ruth may agree that philosophy of westerns is another way of looking at existentialism perhaps.

  3. There is a new sociology course at York on the TV series 'the Wire'....

    The Independent has reported on this today..

    Here's the link

    I don't watch much TV, so I don't know much about this series. Does it have 'philosophical content'?

    PS. I think that overall I am with Michelangelo on this one. 'Philosophy by any means necessary'!



  4. It's interesting that here the show is obviously being used as the basis for a course (and I'm sure there's plenty of material to work with, it's an interesting show) but towards the end of the article the lecturer running the course seems to change his mind in his reasoning for using the show and starts excusing it as a means of engaging with students. Shouldn't it be the students job to maintain their interest in the subject?

    What starts out as a bold step and change in direction in teaching turns in to a symbol of the change in the university from denizen of knowledge for its own sake to the market place of education.

    I've nothing against people learning about TV shows, a lot of work goes in to them and they are interesting in many ways but to justify it in the name of higher admissions is very telling.

  5. Well, I have only read one of these books and that was the 'Simpsons and Philosophy' and I read it quite a while ago. It wasn't bad, it was quite scholarly in its approach and used The Simpsons cartoon to explicate many different philosophical themes. If I recall, the contributors were definitely fans of the show. So in principle I would not be too adverse to this type of things. Anything, which promotes philosophy in a serious, fun and accessible way has got to be a good thing.

    Neil, I think the Wire is probably more sociological than philosophical. Although, it is firmly placed in the tradition of Greek tragedy. So there is certainly a lot of philosophical issues at play such as freedom vs. state, moral choice and comprimise, and the corrpution of the human soul.Hmm maybe I should do a post on The Wire and Philosophy!

  6. I have to wade in here as a proponent of the film, media and philosophy approach! I can't see what is wrong with bringing philosophy to the masses, making it accessible and basically getting people engaged in the subject. If this doesn't happen, then philosophy may as well not exist. There seems to be little point in imprisoning it in the ivory tower, and certainly that is not what we are about at NTU.
    However, we don't want to simplify complex philosophical issues and make it a dumbing down exercise either. I see such books as basically a populist launch pad or an introductory medium to getting people into philosophy and not being intimidated by it. There is nothing wrong with treating film, tv, whatever, as a text which has just as much philosophically to say as print media (books). After all, in the broadest philosophical sense, all of these texts contain ideas, value systems, world views, whatever. So we don't want to be elitists and say that tv is worthless because it is popular. After all, people might once have wanted to say that about Shakespeare plays! However, treat with caution. As people who have done my third year course will know, one can pick out philosophical content as a way of exploring and illuminating philosophical issues, ie as a teaching tool, but the most philosophically productive approach is to identify the philosophical issues raised by the medium itself ie time, space etc. No-one who has tried to read Deleuze on the time/movement image could be in any doubt that such work is very sophisticated (or obscure depending on one's viewpoint) and a million miles away from Homer Simpson as philosopher..

  7. I think that also this has been going on in a less explicit way for years. I mean to say that themes from more complicated, academic or simply just more highly thought of works are often reused in popular culture.

    I recently read Brave New World, and was thoroughly disheartened and a little bored to discover that I new it almost word for word without ever having picked up the book before. The referential way that we tell stories in popular culture is such that the story of the world where 'everyone is free but at what expense?' and there has to be some sort of noble savage to save us all has been absolutely done to death and explored well beyond Huxley's original work.

    Surely the same thing is happening with the works of Philosophers.

  8. on the topic of the wire... those drug dealers must have been reading hayek or friedman. indeed i think the writer described the hoodlums as 'the perfect capitalists'. they don't pay tax of course and certainly dont repect the law of the state and its enforcers. as far as they are concerned the state can mind its own business. they supply a product that consumers want at a price that competes with their competitors. Its all about maintaining a balance between quality, production cost, retail price, prime shop floor locations and risk investment. i don't want to indulge in well trodden cliche but the wire holds a mirror up to capitalism, especially retail and marketing. we might ask the question whether the drug dealers are any worse then 'legal' business men. after all many large companies have blood on their hands, ok the company execs haven't 'murdered' anyone but the death toll is probably higher. And people want drugs just as people want primark clothes and unethical coffee. big business tax evasion is probably a bigger loss to the exchequer then drug dealer tax evasion etc. this is corny i know but i think the wire is very useful for this kind of 'mirror to society critique'