Saturday, July 21, 2007

Teaching Philosophy with Homer Simpson

In this post, I'd like to raise the issue of using popular culture as a vehicle for teaching philosophy.

There is a current trend in philosophy publishing of connecting philosophy with some aspect of popular culture. There are three different publishers with a series of this type (Open Court, Blackwell, and the University Press of Kentucky), as the books have been relatively popular.The Matrix and Philosophy was a (rare for philosophy) bestseller.

As a graduate student, I used a book from Open Court’s Popular Culture and Philosophy Series—The Simpsons and Philosophy—as a supplementary text for an introductory course in ethics. I have never had more student enthusiasm at the beginning of a course than I did for this one. Almost to a person, students were excited because the class connected with something they knew about and enjoyed (I met with many students in the class one-on-one at the start of the semester). At the end of the semester, many students were still positive, though some thought that there was too much focus on the Simpsons, and that sometimes the connections between the Simpsons and philosophy were a bit tenuous. This fall, I’m teaching a course dealing with existentialism and postmodernism, and among the 5-6 books required for the course is U2 and Philosophy. Several of the chapters deal with both of the topics of the course. At the end of the semester, I’ll report how it went.

As you likely know, some philosophers are opposed in principle to the X and Philosophy books, where X stands for some element of popular culture. From a brief survey of stuff on the Internet, the reasons seem to be as follows: it waters down philosophy, those who do such books are merely seeking to make some “easy money,” and junior philosophers are using these books as a way to pad their cv’s. Another argument against these books is the following:

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.

For a presentation and evaluation of this argument, click here.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve contributed to Lost and Philosophy and edited Running and Philosophy (both with Blackwell) and am currently editing a volume on football and philosophy (with the University Press of Kentucky). My view is that using these types of books in an appropriate way can be conducive to learning, because it shows the relevance of philosophy as well as its often unrecognized presence in the everyday lives of students. It is also much more interesting to use Homer and Bart Simpson in an illustration vs. philosophical characters such as Smith and Brown. Of course, not all of the books that have come out are worth using, nor is every chapter of every book worthwhile. However, the same can be said of more traditional philosophy textbooks, as well as scholarly work in philosophy.

Has anyone else used these books, or chapters from them? What are some of the possible pros and cons of using popular culture to teach philosophy? Do you have arguments for or against such use?


  1. Hi Mike

    I haven't formally used these as a teaching source although I do own and enjoy reading several of them including The Simpsons and Philosophy

    I have for fun run a couple of informal weekly discussion series using philosophy for children style methodology but with grad students and advanced undergrads using the British cult scifi/comedy series Red Dwarf as starting material. (This btw would make an excellent one of those types of books)

    It was good fun and you got some really good discussions at times. Although it was felt that sometimes we got caught up in the interactions between the characters and or what was asserted by the series rather than the philosophical issues.

    We did discuss running a Matrix and Philosophy course based around the book at Massey University, but given the work required to introduce a new course (considerable) and the time it took (2 years usually) we felt that unfortunately the Matrix would be a rather distant memory by the time the course was actually available and that there would be a limited lifespan for the course.

    Nonetheless, I'm broadly supportive of the notion even if I get slightly annoyed when introducing Nozick's experience machine and some student pipes up... "Oh that's just like in the Matrix" (With the tone of voice that suggests Nozick is just ripping off the matrix...)

  2. Mike
    Like David , I have not formally used any of the 'popular culture' texts in my intro course although I do own a number of them. I am thinking of using Bullshit and Philosophy in my ethics in professional life course. I get a lot of advertising, public relations, and marketing majors in this class.

    I do use some movies in conjunction with traditional works in philosophy. Trying to get studens to read is sometimes like doing (I imagine) root canal, but if I show a movie like Matrix and then have them read Descartes Meditations or Plato's Allegory of the Cave, they are more likely to see the arguments that these philosophers are trying to make instead of simply writing them off as silly or unimportant.

    A couple of interesting books on philosophy and film are Philosophy Goes To The Movies by Christopher Falzon and Philosophy Through Film by Mary M. Litch. I am considering using one of these in my Winter semester intro course (along with traditional works).

  3. I do have one reservation about the use of popular culture in class. When I was a high-school student, there was a popular soap opera, Neighbours, which I never watched. I was too busy, I felt, to waste my time on fluff. I was taking a class on essay-writing that was supposed to be preparation for university-entry. One day, we began by reading an article for discussion, a newspaper article about Neighbours. My immediate response was that if I'd wanted to spend my time discussing Neighbours, I could just have hung out in the Common Room. I suppose I was being a bit of an intellectual snob.

    The class, by the way, was a discussion of the article about Neighbours, not a discussion of the show itself, and I soon settled into a worthwhile discussion about optimism in drama and Aristophanes.

    Now I'm an Assistant Prof, my attitude to popular culture has changed. After a hard day's work, I relax with cheap television. My classes are loaded with references to Smallville and Star Wars. I spent last Saturday reading the new Harry Potter for relaxation, and I am ready to defend the value of the best popular drama: The Sopranos, Cracker (British show) etc. However, I do still feel for students who, like me, come to class expecting something more than a discussion of whatever happens to be cool. I use films in class, but always try to find films that my students might not know already. I've used Billy Wilder's The Apartment to teach sexual ethics, High Noon when teaching Aristotle and The Emperor and the Assassin to teach about ancient China - either scenes, or the whole movie. I also sometimes use the pilot episode of a Japanese t.v. show called Monkey, an adaptation of Journey to the West, which was very cool when I was eight or nine years old - because Journey to the West is itself an interesting and important example of popular culture from another time and place, and a good way of introducing Buddhism. But I try not to show the kind of film or television show that they can watch any afternoon in the common room - life's too short.

    Another point I found when teaching is that my popular culture may not be their's. My first teaching job was in Nicaragua, and my whole range of references was simply different. I realized that half the class hadn't watched the original Star Wars films - what could I do? Well, they were going through college, I knew what books they were reading in other classes that I had studied: The Odyssey, for example. In a global context, classics are the most popular culture.

  4. David and John, thanks for your comments and for your ideas.
    Ben, I think you raise a good point about the value of finding films that students are unfamiliar with. As a graduate student, I was exposed to some great films (e.g. Wings of Desire) and am planning on providing the same opportunity to students in my existentialism class this fall. This will hopefully open up new avenues for them to explore popular culture that is not so popular, but quite worthwhile. By the way, I'm in the middle of the latest Harry Potter book myself, and enjoying it, and it will give me a common book to discuss with my 11 year old daughter, as she's not into moral philosophy just yet!

  5. Just to pick up on Ben's comments, I should add that I have occasionally used movies as examples in class and/or suggested them as viewing. In particular when I teaching about Chinese philosophy I recommend that the students watch the Once Upon a Time in China series. Jet Li's character Wong Fei Hong is an excellent example of what the Chinese philosophers refer to as a sage, and is a good example of wu wei (acting through non-action)

    I think this helps contextualise things for the students, otherwise Chinese philosophy (like ancient Greek philosophy) can sound rather daft because there is such a different set of background assumptions about the nature of the world.


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