Thursday, August 04, 2005

Those "Philosophy and" books you see in bookstores

There is a series of books out in bookstores across the country which feature articles by various contemporary academic philosophers who take on pop culture--the "Philosophy and..." series. You've probably seen them. Topics include Star Wars, the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Superheroes, the Matrix, Seinfeld, and a half dozen more. I do not like these books.

They anger me NOT because of their attempt to make philosophy accessible, NOR because they bring philosophy and pop culture together. I applaud both of those attempts--more reading is always good for everyone, and I think pop culture is a field that should be studied just like any other. I think these books could have been good--thus, what I dislike is A) how fluffy the specific essays are, and B) how reversible the essays are. I'll explain what I mean after one caveat to the other side.

I do not expect contemporary academic philosophers (hereafter referred to as CAPs) to do philosophy the same way that previous philosophers have. There is so much information available today, and there are so many fields of study in which one can become an expert, that few people approach "knowledge" the way that, say, Aristotle or Kant did: as something that one can approach holistically and have the final say on. Kant says in multiple places that everyone must either accept or refute his arguments; but this is not an exhaustive dilemma, as they are safely ignored by most people. I think this is a good thing. CAPs can focus on the history of philosophy; on feminism; on ethics; on one specific person; on logic; on science; or on anything they wish. For example, at the conferences I have been to, CAPs will present papers on Some Famous Philosopher's Argument Against Subjectivism in Ethics instead of their own exhaustive treatise on the subject.

Most of the essays in these books are explorations of philosophical concepts alongside critiques of pop culture. A philosopher whom I met at a conference once and with whom I have corresponded, Dr. Harald Thorsrud, has contributed multiple essays to the series: his are the exception to the rule. In the Harry Potter book he brings in Aristotelian concepts of friendship (which was considered a virtue by The Master of Those Who Know) to analyze Rowling's characters in an insightful and enjoyable way. Most of the essays, though, consist simply of some thoughts about philosophy mixed around with some thoughts about pop culture. "Here's a summary of existentialism. Homer Simpson sure is amusing!" I wish the essays had been more aggressive, and I've seen the few that actually do make bold cases for things get their subjects totally backwards (like the essay in the LOTR book arguing that the elves, quintessential essentialists [HA!] in my view, are existentialists). That's what I meant by reversibility, as I said above: I could take most of the essays in the books, make the exact opposite case in the same flimsy form that the author did, and still have a paper.

The philosophy that stretches all of us and makes us better people is found in the books that (as I explained above) no one writes anymore, and if the "Philosophy and" books succeed in getting people to read Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, and the rest then I'll be happy. But this was a real opportunity to do some hard-hitting writing, and most of the writers took a pass.

Let me know what you think.


At 8:48 PM, Blogger StandingOutInTheCold said...

Perhaps the problem isn't that most of these CAPs "took a pass" but rather that most of these CAPs don't know deep, agressive philosophy themselves. Or perhaps they know all the philosophy, but they haven't bought into any point wholeheartedly enough to make a compelling argument. In short, perhaps no one writes philosophy like the greats is simply because there are not many (any?) great minds in philosophy writing today.

At 8:50 PM, Blogger Jackscolon said...

I think that a lot of the philosophical "fluff" that is found in these is a by-product of trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator in an attempt to move product. "Philosophy and.." books are not written under the same motives possessed by Aristotle and Kant, anymore than the latest Clive Cussler novel is written to the standards of Tolkien or Tolstoy.

Granted, as a philosophy major, your standards when it comes to philosophy are a little higher and you expect more out a book dealing with philosophy. In the same way, being a golf professional leaves me dissatisfied with movies like "Tin Cup". However, if it takes saying "Kramer sure is wacky" in order for someone to pick up a book explaining existentialism and possibly work their way up to Voltaire, then I'm all for it.

Besides, I consider myself slightly more intelligent than average, and curling up with a treatise by Kant before I go to sleep seems a little intimidating to me...

At 9:55 PM, Blogger roger said...

Those books are totally servile. I wonder how many people move from reading existentialism and Homer Simpson to reading Sartre. I'd guess zero.

The real audience for those books is the same audience that buys seven habits of highly effective people. They are looking for cliches to explain cliches, and those who exploit that desire aren't in philosophy at all -- the love of wisdom being a bit different than the pimping of sentiment. Like the stomach, the brain is a hungry organ, and if you starve it with ersatz thought, it will eventually ulcerate -- with religious faith, or paranoia, or a progressive paralysis of joy and generosity, or simply a life less interesting -- rather than more abundant. So it goes.

At 9:01 AM, Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

Good points, everyone. Thanks for the input.

standingout: lack of great minds, eh? That's certainly possible. There are definitely some great minds in academia today who are actually doing their own work--Richard Rorty, Christine Korsgaard, Hilary Putman, Daniel Dennett, Alvin Plantinga. I guess they're just not contributing to books like these! The question is, why not?

jackscolon: you're right that these authors aren't writing with the same motives as Aristotle or Kant--I just think there's a difference between Clive Cussler and Danielle Steele, and Tom Clancy and John Grisham. I was hoping for Rainbow Six, which would lead people to LOTR or War and Peace; instead I got The Da Vinci Code.

roger: do you think the books actually have a net negative effect on people?

At 2:00 PM, Blogger Mair said...

The reasons the great minds of academia aren't contributing to books like these is that a) they don't have time to; b) they've already fulfilled their publication requirements and have tenure, so they don't care to publish anymore; and c) they don't want to be lumped into publications with fledglings who write about Homer Simpson as an attempt to publish and get tenure.

Not everything is intended to be mind-blowingly-rock your face off-academic writing. That's ok. If you want mind-blowing, earth-shattering works that shake you to the core of your existence, read Kant, Sartre, etc. If you don't want that, read the "Philosophy and..." series.

At 3:26 PM, Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

There's no third way between Kant and fluff?


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