Philosophy and Popular Culture

Over the past several years, I’ve edited several books in Blackwell’s Philosophy and Pop Culture series. Reactions to this from fellow philosophers have ranged from enthusiastic support to utter and total disdain. I think that very often people who dislike this kind of thing misunderstand its aim. In any case, publishing such material remains controversial enough that I feel compelled to say something about it here.

There’s an interesting relationship between philosophy and popular culture. Historically, the two have often been at odds. There has been a tendency on the part of philosophers to disdain things in direct proportion to the extent to which those same things are liked by the masses. Indeed, on occasion, philosophers even give arguments like this:

1. PC (some piece of pop culture) is very popular
2. What is very popular must appeal to the masses
3. The masses have no real aesthetic sense
————————————————————————
4. PC can’t be that good.

Whatever you think of this kind of argument, its form is interesting: the very popularity of an item is taken as evidence against the worth of the item. Interestingly, some use “I’ve never heard of it” as evidence that a thing isn’t worth hearing about. (I had a very disturbing conversation about phenomenology several years ago that involved just this kind of reasoning…I have barely recovered).

I’m not willing to say that the masses get things right–but I am willing to defend myself (as someone who writes occasional pieces on popular philosophy and culture). I think it’s probably true that a lot of mass culture isn’t very good. What mass culture has going for it is popularity. Philosophy that engages popular artifacts is trying to use this popularity to its advantage. It is not trying to contribute to rigorous scholarship. It is trying to elevate the ordinary discussion to the level of the philosophical (and maybe tell a few jokes along the way). It is not trying to diminish original philosophical research.

To put the point with even more hubris: philosophy that engages popular culture descends back into Plato’s cave, and tries to use the objects of our cultural landscape as tools for getting people to see more than what they currently see. If pop philosophy were to outright replace the more rigorous academic variety, we would suffer a terrible loss–but no one that I know of advocates anything like this. We do popular philosophy to introduce people to philosophy, with the hope that they’ll see its value and pursue it. That’s it. In this respect, relating philosophy to pop culture is very much like teaching: we try to provide access to the unfamiliar through the familiar.

As is perhaps obvious from my own involvement in pop culture, I think the attempt to get ordinary, intelligent folks to engage in philosophy is a laudable goal, and we (as philosophers and students of philosophy) should not lament the marriage of (some) philosophy to items in the popular imagination.

Now buy my books!

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2 thoughts on “Philosophy and Popular Culture

  1. Hello Mr. Wisnewski,
    Let me please commend you on your Blackwell series. So far I have “The Office” and “Arrested Development”, with some additional titles from the other series, Pop Culture and Philosophy. I was a logic and philosophy major, and I love introducing my friends and family to these treasures because it seems to present philosophy on a light and entertaining level by comparing against the various pop culture themes. I think it just allows them to understand philosophy in a more relatable way since they are already familiar with the characters and certain life lessons that can be learned through TV, movies, and music lyrics.

    Two questions

    – I love “The Office” edition but wish it had been published further into the series, as after nine years, there is so much more material to cover. Would there by any chance be an upcoming edited version ?

    – Where is a book on the “Friends” series ? There are tons of issues that could be covered. I am reminded of one episode in particular: Joey and Phoebe debate whether or not there is such a thing as a selfless good deed. Don’t know if you’re a fan of that show but hope to see that title in the upcoming future.

    Thanks again for your enlightening collection !
    Barbara

    • Hi Barbara,
      Thanks for your message. Always great to hear from someone who enjoys one of the books I’ve worked on.

      Unfortunately, I don’t think there will be an updated Office book, but I would love to do one. It’s a shame that we couldn’t explore all the later developments–Andy Bernard deserves a chapter, at least!

      I haven’t heard anything about a Friends book, so my guess is we won’t see one anytime soon (given that it’s off the air). But you never know. It could happen.

      Great to hear from you!

      Best,
      Jeremy

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