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The Pop Culture Manifesto
William Irwin on philosophy as/and/of popular culture.
We can loosely define popular culture as artifacts and subjects of mass interest and appreciation. Popular culture does not exclude people from appreciating it on the basis of class or formal education. This is perhaps a necessary, though not a sufficient condition for popular culture. ‘Mass interest and appreciation’ is admittedly indeterminate, though hopefully not troublesome. How popular does popular have to be? No fixed answer can be given. One size does not fit all. The British sense of ‘pop’ sheds light on the issue. In this sense Ozzy Osbourne and the Grateful Dead, for example, can be considered pop stars, even though they have cult followings. Cult followings may be large or small, but they are still part of popular culture as I conceive it. As long as we have a general idea of the coverage of ‘popular culture’, this definition will be enough to begin.
Philosophy As Popular Culture?
Philosophy is not popular culture – not an artifact or subject of mass interest and appreciation: but it could be. At various times in the past indeed it was. Arguably rocketry and the space program were also elements of popular culture for a time in America, as dinosaurs and the internet are now. Astronomy and computer programming clearly could become popular culture. So could philosophy. Freud and Einstein were among the People/VH-1 top two hundred popular culture icons. Why not Russell and Sartre?
Consider books such as The Tao of Pooh, The Consolations of Philosophy, Wittgenstein’s Poker, Sophie’s World, Socrates Café, Plato not Prozac, If Aristotle Ran General Motors, and The Metaphysical Club. Arguably, none of these is either philosophy or popular culture, but their very existence shows some popular interest in philosophy. So how can we get people further interested in philosophy? The answer, to paraphrase a popular British philosopher, is we need “a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.” We need to start with popular culture and use it to bring people to philosophy. This is what I have attempted to do in editing Seinfeld and Philosophy and related books. Even if these books are, in some loose sense of the word, philosophy, they are surely not in themselves popular culture. They simply make use of popular culture.
There is now no instance of philosophy that is also popular culture in America and the Anglophone West. Is there any reason to want philosophy as popular culture? One obvious objection is that it would cheapen great treasures. “Books for all the world are always foul-smelling books,” Nietzsche said in Beyond Good and Evil. Though it may often be true, only the most cowardly snob could believe Nietzsche’s statement is necessarily true. Actually, there is a long tradition in philosophy of making exoteric the esoteric, carried on by the likes of Socrates, Aristotle, Boethius, and Descartes.
Is there any harm in people knowing a lot about popular culture and relatively little about philosophy? Yes. People hungry for knowledge and wisdom have turned to sources such as astrology, motivational speakers and self-help books. While these sources are of varying value, none matches what philosophy has to offer. Philosophy needs to replace pseudo-philosophy (crystals, astrology, Tarot Cards) as science must replace pseudo-science (often surrounding things such as Big Foot, Loch Ness, UFOs, and other paranormal phenomena). Pseudo-philosophy, like pseudo-science, is attractively packaged and readily available. So philosophy needs similar packaging and availability if it is to compete.
Part of the difficulty in interesting people in philosophy is that it deals in abstractions. Of course, so do physics and mathematics; but people more readily see the payoff for studying math or physics, with their clear applications to technology that makes life easier and supposedly better. The value of living the examined life through the pursuit of philosophy is much more difficult to demonstrate than the technological and pecuniary payoff of studying science. Still, for the benefit of the individual, although not everyone needs to be a scientist, ideally everyone should be scientifically literate. Similarly, though not everyone needs to make a vocation of formal philosophical study, ideally everyone should be philosophically literate, having a sense of the history and questions of philosophy. Citizens of a democracy would be better citizens for having a knowledge of philosophy, as it teaches them to think critically and encourages them to dissent responsibly. Unenlightened elected officials will never see it as in their best interest to encourage the popular study of philosophy, so philosophers must take the message to the people. To sample Chuck D of Public Enemy, we have to rock the bourgeoisie and the boulevard. Philosophy as popular culture would be of tremendous service in this regard, and such a democratization of philosophy need not be dumbing down. Popular science is not necessarily pseudo-science. In fact, it rarely is, as magazines such as Popular Science demonstrate. Most popular science simply explains scientific theories and discoveries sans mathematics. Of course popular science risks oversimplifying and misrepresenting the science; but that is a much lesser risk than depriving the public of a comprehensible account. Similarly, popular philosophy does not have to be pseudo-philosophy, as Philosophy Now attests, for instance. To democratize philosophy is not necessarily to dumb it down, but to make it available in some form for all. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the lives of Socrates and Buddha, or the thoughts of Aristotle and Descartes, were better known as a result of being related in pop cultural forms? Though not a panacea, such sources would not only inspire philosophical musing but would foster skeptical, critical thinking. And by starting with children we have a greater chance of interesting future generations of adults in philosophy. The increased interest in Philosophy Cafés is a good sign.
The fact is that currently neither popular science nor popular philosophy is popular culture – not a subject of interest to the masses – and we may not realistically hope for this. But we may not need philosophy as popular culture. We might be satisfied with increased and increasing popular awareness of and interest in philosophy. And all that may be necessary for that is the successful combination of popular culture and philosophy.
Philosophy And Popular Culture
The most neglected part of Plato’s celebrated allegory of the cave is the escaped prisoner’s return. Once he has come to true knowledge in and of the higher world outside the cave of illusions, he is not to remain there, but to return from whence he came to “share the knowledge.” This is the duty of the philosophically educated Guardian in Plato’s Republic; it is the way of Socrates; and it is the duty of philosophers generally. Plato tells us that the returning ex-prisoner must be prepared to be mocked and persecuted, for he will be talking of a strange and unlikely world. What’s worse, he will appear to be psychologically damaged, as he will no longer be able to see the shadows on the wall as clearly and significantly as he once did. How then is he to succeed in conveying his message? Plato offers little hope that he will. For a more hopeful answer we must turn to Socrates, who, despite losing his life to the cave-dwellers, was able to communicate with some of them.
Did Socrates start off talking about a higher level of reality? Of course not. He met his interlocutors where they were, often using agricultural analogies, and references to Greek culture – commonly known at the time, the stuff of scholars today. He then gradually led them from what they knew or thought they knew to higher knowledge.
Socrates’ example makes clear that one must not only return to the cave, but learn to see the shadows again, in order to tell the prisoners about the world outside in terms of the shadows the prisoners see. They are unlikely to understand or even listen if the message is delivered any other way. Those who criticize people for being immersed in popular culture but show them no way out and provide no motivation to seek one, are like escaped prisoners who simply sneer at those still stuck in the cave, haranguing and ridiculing them. Why would they listen?
Jeremiads aside, popular culture and philosophy is like a bike with training wheels. The idea is to become comfortable enough to no longer need the support. We kick away the ladder once we have ascended. Popular culture and philosophy is akin to a philharmonic orchestra performing Beatles songs. People will come to the philharmonic who might not otherwise: they’ll enjoy it; and some, who would not have done so otherwise, will come back to hear Beethoven. There is a pragmatic, American spirit in using popular culture to spread philosophy. It works.
It is not just that we can or may, but that we should and must bring philosophy to the public in terms they will know and find attractive and interesting – not for the sake of joining the crowd in the cave, but for the sake of showing them the way out. Willie Sutton was a criminal mastermind, a genius of sorts. Once asked, “Willie, why do you rob banks?” he replied pragmatically, “Because that’s where the money is.” Why should a philosopher write about popular culture? Because that’s where the people are. And as the goal is to bring the prisoners from the shadows to the light, so the goal is to bring the public from popular culture to philosophy. In his controversial book Cultural Literacy, E.D. Hirsch contends that there are certain pieces of cultural information that “every American needs to know” to communicate effectively and comprehend others. I contend that this can be extended to the realm of pop culture. The idea of adding pop cultural literacy to cultural literacy may seem contrary to the intentions of the father of intentionalism, but it is not. Hirsch never intended cultural literacy to be a conservative notion, despite its embrace by political conservatives. Hirsch duly recognizes and accepts that the shared body of knowledge is not stable, but changing.
Like it or not, good or bad, popular culture is the common language of our time, and knowledge of popular culture has become necessary for effective communication.
Assuming that like politicians, philosophers have a vested interest in using popular culture to reach the public, what is the proper use of popular culture for this purpose? It is the same as the proper use of literature, which is to open the imagination and to aid philosophical reflection by providing vivid examples, as Peter Jones argues well in Philosophy and the Novel. Martha Nussbaum has argued for the importance of literature in theorizing ethics. Good literature may be more helpful than bad literature or shallow pop culture in displaying the intricacy of moral problems and moral reasoning, but not always and not necessarily. There is a virtue in appealing to what is commonly known; what is not great literature or fiction can still be a great example. Metaphysics, epistemology, and other areas of philosophy have been generally neglected, but they too benefit from the use of literature – particularly science fiction and other popular culture. Thought experiments have long been valued in philosophy, and popular culture can supply us with thought experiments that are sometimes less contrived than those cooked up by philosophers. Certainly they tend at least to be more entertaining and better known, sparking thought and argument. People are often very knowledgeable in very sophisticated ways about their favorite aspect of popular culture, whether it be comic books or baseball. This can be used to lead them to sophisticated thinking about philosophy.
Philosophy Of Popular Culture
Dictionaries and encyclopedias of philosophy and aesthetics have no entry under ‘philosophy of popular culture’. Although ‘philosophy and popular culture’ may some day be worthy of an entry, the addition of ‘philosophy of popular culture’ will not be necessary. We could for practical purposes have a ‘philosophy of popular culture’, but that would likely have the undesirable consequence of perpetuating the distinction between the high and the popular. There are questions for the study of popular art that might come under the heading of ‘philosophy of popular culture’, such as the nature of fictional worlds, or of expression and interpretation; but these are just the same methodological questions and issues raised by aesthetics generally and by the philosophy of literature, painting, theater, film, music, etc more specifically. Questions raised by pop cultural non-artistic phenomena, such as baseball and fast food, can be studied under the headings of philosophy of sport or philosophy of food.
Let’s close with a note of caution: a ‘philosophy of’ is not for the public but for the academic. The surest way to lose a comedy fan’s attention is to discuss the philosophy of comedy. So too the surest way to lose the general populace’s attention is to talk about philosophy of popular culture, if there even is such a thing. And if there is, I suspect its only unique question is the one we began with: What is popular culture?
© William Irwin 2007
William Irwin is Associate Professor of Philosophy at King’s College, Pennsylvania. He pioneered the recent wave of philosophical interest in popular culture and has himself edited books including Seinfeld and Philosophy ,The Simpsons and Philosophy, Metallica and Philosophy and The Matrix and Philosophy. A version of this article appears in William Irwin and Jorge J.E. Gracia eds. Philosophy and the Interpretation of Pop Culture (Rowman & Littlefield 2006).