Philosophy and Popular Culture

Philosophy and Popular Culture

Hey there, people!

So I’m not, strictly speaking, a “normal” 19 year old guy. I spend inordinate amounts of time sitting in front of my computer, one of my favourite pass times is reading, I detest physical activity and one of my all-time heroes is Stephen Fry. But I’m not that unusual, and while I do have a great love for knowledge, I’m quite picky about where I get that knowledge from. I prefer to get my information from sources that I find both entertaining and intellectually engaging. Often, I find myself favouring the entertainment aspect just a little. Unfortunately, one of the topics I’m interested in is philosophy, and studying philosophy involves spending considerable amounts of time reading books with daunting titles like “The Genealogy of Morals” and “Meditations on First Philosophy”. Now don’t get me wrong, those books are both fantastically rewarding reads (they’re definitely intellectually stimulating) and I think the world might just be a better place if more people read them (carefully), but they’re just not… that… fun.

Philosophy has a bit of a PR problem, and has had for a few years. A lot of people think it’s just a load of pseudo-intellectual bull crap that isn’t of any real value to society, or that it’s just an incredibly dry and stuffy subject, or both. Of course, none of these ideas are true! I could – and might – write a whole post just on that one subject, but this post is about a series of books that have been and are being written in an attempt to adress the underlying issue; the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series. These books have been around for a while now, but I only just discovered them the other day, and I just finished reading “The Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy: Hogwarts for Muggles”. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a real gem, and if the other books in the series live up to it, I think these people might just be on the right track. One thing they show beyond any doubt is that popular culture is completely saturated with philosophy, whether we realize it or not.

The thing about books like these is that they manage to make learning fun, and while that learning might not be as broad and deep as that which might be had from a more formal source, that aspect of fun is vitally important. I’m more likely to remember a philosophical theory if it’s presented to me in an interesting and funny manner, and I’m more likely to take an interest in a philosophical movement if my introduction to it is one that I find to be entertaining. I think there’s often a resistance amongst certain intellectuals to the whole idea of popularization, because it’s seen as something that threatens the integrity of a subject. But the whole point of academic research and thinking – at least as I see it – is to enrich human life through reflection and the accumulation and spreading of knowledge, and that enrichment can’t happen in a vacuum.

Obviously, popularization cames with a few problems. It’s practically impossible to take a complicated topic, like the mind/body debate, and discuss it in a short, funny essay without a certain degree of simplification. Context and other vitally important bits of information have to be left out in favour of keeping things concise and interesting. Some people might be persuaded to think of this as a “fatal flaw” of this kind of popularization, but personally I disagree. Any form of information communication is going to have some problems, because communication is difficult. A “popularized” account of Kant’s Categorical Imperative might be a little over-simplified, but a more traditional, academic approach (favouring information and preciseness over entertainment value) may well be too dry. When reading a dense, academic essay on a complicated topic, it’s easy to start to lose focus and drift off, thus missing important information even though it’s present in the text. That’s why these latter kinds of essay’s need to be read over and over again, just as the former kind need to be taken as more of an introduction/summary than an infallible source of knowledge.

Anyway, the main thing I wanted to say is that the book was great, and I encourage people with an interest in fun philosophy to go check the series out. The writers have already covered a lot of ground, with books centred on subjects as diverse as X-men and The Big Lebowski. Now I’m going to go read about the philosophy of el Duderino.


Link to the series’ website:


5 responses »

  1. Reading a philosophical text can be pretty hard. Trying to understand what the author is saying about the topic, decoding his sentences, trying to get an image about the ideas and how they are incorporated in the text, and just keep on thinking. Yeah, it’s hard. While I was reading Descartes and his Meditations, I really needed time to get through only one paragraph. His sentences were so long and at some points you could really get lost and not understand what he is actually trying to say with one particular sentence. Trying to understand these long sentences was like trying to put together a puzzle. Like cutting to pieces the entire sentence and than put the pieces back together in a different manner, so you could actually understand. But it’s not only Descartes that can make a great confusion up in your head, by how he expresses his ideas, there are many many others. Maybe this can be one of the problems why people find philosophical texts to be boring, incomprehensible etc. It’s, in my opinion, the way they are written, besides the topic that can sometimes request a great deal of your imagination and capability to understand. It takes time to understand such texts and nowadays people are not willing to spend time on thinking or these sorts of things, especially when it comes to philosophy. As you said, most people think philosophy is a loud of pseudo-intellectual bull crap. It deals with questions that can not be answerd, so if there is no answer there is also no result, no reward of sorts. At times it just makes you wander more. As I see it, in these times it is all about results and doing things that bring results. Philosophy might not bring answers, but it’s the thinking that counts, our way of perceiving the world around us, thinking about the world around us. Sometimes I just lie on my bed and think, dream or something, about the things that happend, about the books I read ect.
    I agree, philosophy should sometimes be presented in a slightly funnier way, in a way that gives people hope, that philosophy can be understood. I don’t know if you ever heared of a book called Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder. It’s like a novel about the history of philosophy and it explains some philosophical theories in a way that everyone can understand. It kind of makes philosophy funny and intreresting for everyone.
    I really do not know how a ‘popularized’ Kant would look like, but I hope it would make you want even more, to go deeper.
    One more thing, did you ever hear about Slavoj ลฝiลพek? He is like a Borat of Philosophy or something, but some of his texts are really good. He mostly deals with todays society. It’s a good read. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Totally agree, Skyla. It’s true that at least some philosophical topics are as complicated and hard to understand as they are simply due to the fact that they deal with such complex subject matter, but they’re often made more complicated by how philosophers communicate them. Most philosophers write philosophical texts specifically for other philosophers, so “ordinary people”, who haven’t had any training in philosophy, have to really struggle to work out what they’re trying to say (which is a shame). And then, as you say, our modern culture isn’t exactly one that encourages people to sit down and really think about stuff ๐Ÿ˜›
      I love Sophie’s World! It’s a great book ๐Ÿ™‚ And I do like Slavoj – I haven’t read any of his texts but I’ve seen some great videos of him!

      • I wonder how would it be like if someone attempted to kind of ‘translate’ some philosophical texts into ordinary people language. Just rewrite them in a different way. The idea actually scares me a bit, because a text might lose his ‘power’ by being rewritten. Platos dialogues, for instance. I can’t imagine them being rewritten in an average people language. Platos language is pretty sophisticated, he writes like an artist. In my opinion, his dialogues shouldn’t be denied the exquisite language. They would lose their charm. But some other philosopher might need some rewritting.
        Slavoj is actually from the same town I currently live in and he sometimes gives lectures at my university. Haven’t seen him yet, he rarely comes, but when he comes I’ll make sure to be there. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • I’ve wondered about that myself! It could be a great way to preserve interest in philosophy, which could become even less wide-spread as the language used in philosophical classics becomes more archaic.

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