Philosophy and Pop Culture

Sunday, August 3, 2008

What Is It

From Star Trek and the Grateful Dead to South Park and Stephen Colbert, philosophical questions are everywhere in popular culture: Is time travel possible?  Can a person survive being disintegrated and reassembled?  Does humor enable the expression of deep truths, political or otherwise?  John and Ken look at the Big Questions in pop culture with Richard Hanley from the University of Delaware, author of South Park and Philosophy.  This program was recorded live at the University of Delaware in Newark, DE.

Listening Notes

To start off the show, John wonders whether the concept of philosophy and pop culture is an oxymoron. Isn’t philosophy the epitome of high culture? Ken points to a growing trend of philosophical thoughts making their way into books, movies, and TV shows; philosophy is apparently the “new cool.” John wonders whether philosophy will benefit from its interaction with pop culture or whether the discipline of philosophy and pop culture is just a clever marketing scheme.

Next, Richard Hanley joins the conversation. He begins by discussing his motivations for writing about the subject. He explains that people are already interested in pop culture, so it can be used to make underlying philosophical ideas more engaging to the general public in a kind of sneak attack. Ken asks Richard whether philosophical ideas are self-consciously present in pop culture, or whether works of popular culture are being leveraged as excuses to philosophize. Richard recognizes that there is truth in both of these scenarios. He, however, is more interested in writing about pop culture that is clearly philosophical already. 

When prompted to provide an example of a philosophically interesting piece of popular culture, Richard brings up Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige and the problems of personal identity it raises. The discussion then moves on to focus on South Park as a politically philosophical show. Other works like The Prestige, Memento, and The Matrix are interesting for traditional, metaphysical reasons. South Park, on the other hand, does the best job of taking an honest look at issues in applied ethics. By the end of shows, both left and right-wing beliefs are skewered to uncover sensical middle ground opinions.  

Ken, John, and Richard conclude by taking a look at popular culture that deals specifically with time travel. Movies like The Butterfly Effect and A Sound of Thunder, Richard says, do not handle the topic well because they make the common mistake of using time travel as a means of changing the past. Richard thinks that movies that do handle time travel well are Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

At the conclusion of the show, John admits to having been won over to the project of philosophy and pop culture despite his previous skepticism.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 4:45) : Zoe Corneli speaks with Professor Steven Gimbel, editor of The Grateful Dead: and Philosophy, and Professor Gary Hardcastle, co-editor of Monty Python and Philosophy.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 48:55) : Ian Shoales notices that pop culture is starting to be taken more seriously; what were comic books are now “graphic novels,” for example. He also suggests that in order to become more popular, philosophy shouldn’t just observe pop culture, but inject itself into it. Why hasn’t there been a crime fighting philosophy professor superhero, he wonders?