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SpongeBob 101

The philosophical approach to high and low culture.

Nov 14, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 09 • By DAVID GUASPARI
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Superheroes: The Best of Philosophy and Pop Culture expounds Immanuel Kant’s defense of retribution as a duty intimately related to “respect, honor, and what it means to be a valuable person living a worthwhile life in a community of other moral persons. When,” on the other hand, “Rorschach administers punishment, say by drowning Big Figure in the toilet,” that seems barbaric. “Indeed, drowning a midget in a toilet isn’t aesthetically pleasing; it doesn’t look ‘right.’ ”

Photo of Sponge Bob

The weirdly comic juxtaposition of pop culture with the philosophically sublime—Rorschach appears in the (absurdly overpraised) graphic novel Watchmen—is the MO of a decade-old, commercially successful genre known as “and Philosophy” books, e.g.: The Simpsons and Philosophy; SpongeBob SquarePants and Philosophy; Metallica and Philosophy; The Atkins Diet and Philosophy: Chewing the Fat with Kant and Nietzsche. Open Court has published 63 such titles in its Popular Culture and Philosophy series and has announced a dozen more; Wiley-Blackwell’s Philosophy and Pop Culture offers 34.

A typical “and Philosophy” book consists of short essays from different hands, each providing an outline of some philosophical topic (justice vs. mercy, personal identity, forgiveness and redemption.  .  .), historical name checks (Aristotle, Locke, Bishop Butler.  .  .), and examples familiar to fans of the titular TV show, movie, pop group, or comic book. Most of the authors belong to academic philosophy departments, which may explain why the outlines are generally reliable and why the prose often lacks, shall we say, the light touch—sometimes pedantic, sometimes the verbal equivalent of your dad trying to get funky.

William Irwin, who teaches philosophy at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, inaugurated the genre with Seinfeld and Philosophy. (He is not to be confused with the great clown Bill Irwin, the one sound argument against making “performance art” a capital crime.) S&P comes with a blurb from the distinguished octogenarian philosopher Nicholas Rescher of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Society of Canada, and Academia Europaea. The blurbs for Irwin’s Metallica and Philosophy have less heft but, in some circles, better name recognition: “The most elucidative dissertation on Metallica ever written. And a kick-ass read to boot!!!—Scott Ian, guitarist
for Anthrax

Irwin is the reigning impresario of “and Philosophy” books, series editor for the first 25 Open Court titles and now general editor of the Blackwell series. In response to emailed queries, he says that the books for which he has been editor or series editor have, altogether, sold more than a million copies. Who buys them? Mostly, it seems clear, fans wanting tchotchkes. The Open Court web page solicits suggestions for new titles and emphasizes that they should “focus on specific television programs, hit movies, books, video games or trends. Proposals for titles such as ‘Video Games and Philosophy’ or ‘Action Movies and Philosophy,’ are much less appealing than (for example) ‘Grand Theft Auto .  .  . ’ or ‘Kill Bill and Philosophy.’ ”

Do books like this do any good? Any harm? Do they say anything about The Way We Live Now? I chose a convenient sample: Seinfeld and Philosophy (in which I have subject matter expertise); Superheroes: The Best of Philosophy and Pop Culture (a free ebook); The Simpsons and Philosophy (available at the public library); The Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy (seen the movies). I intended to hate them. They would be, I assumed, the dreary academic blahblah that disdains all distinctions between low culture and high—as epitomized by the much-quoted dictum that choosing between Pearl Buck and Virginia Woolf is “no different from choosing between a hoagie and a pizza.”

In our email exchange, however, Irwin said that his intellectual hero is E. D. Hirsch—best known to the general public for his book Cultural Literacy—and that his own aim is “to communicate with people in terms of what they know, pop culture, to teach them what they don’t know, philosophy.” His editorial introductions take pains to assert that the books use pop culture as a source of examples, not of philosophical wisdom or depth.

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