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Philosophy has gone pop, but some philosophers are confused about what that means—or should mean. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education takes a look at Open Court’s Popular Culture and Philosophy series and gives us a somewhat schizophrenic (or maybe bi-polar) verdict: a thumbs up for the philosophy, but a thumbs down for the very idea that philosophy can have much to do with pop culture.


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South Park and Philosophy

Hanley, Richard

Bigger, Longer, and More Penetrating

(Open Court)

These essays are “excellent”, writes Steven T. Asma.  Unlike the easy relativism rampant in cultural studies and postmodernism, these are writings that “generate premises, draw conclusions, check inductions against evidence, venture deductions, consider counter-instances, and so on.”  (Asma should know, because he himself contributed an excellent chapter to Monty Python and Philosophy.)  But what are these conclusions, deliberations and arguments really about?  Not pop culture, Asma observes. Philosophical attempts to leave the ivory tower rarely get past the smorgasbord of issues, problems, concepts, and theories you can sample in Philosophy 101.  Professors who’ve seen a few episodes of South Park, for instance, adapt one or two of their existing lectures to something Cartman once said and—voilà!—philosophy for the masses.


Essays like this are usually snoozers.  Worse, they are a bait-and-switch: a few engaging paragraphs about a well-known episode or a quirky character turns into a deadly serious survey of, say, four basic concepts of epistemology and metaphysics underpinning the development of the mind-body problem from Descartes to mid-period Merleau-Ponty. Reader reviews (on amazon.com, for example) are brutal when this happens, and they should be. Brainy, curious fans of South Park didn’t pay $17.95 to read Professor X talk (mostly) about the philosophical problem that he or she has been lecturing about every Fall quarter since 1987. Instead, they purchased the book to learn something about South Park from someone who is really smart, well-read, and articulate about philosophy and, most importantly, a fan of the show.  Just like they are.


But that is just about impossible, Asma says, because philosophy’s focus must ultimately be upon itself.  Philosophy “is in an extremely self-reflexive relationship with its own history” with the result that any movie, TV show, or rock band being discussed “is not an intellectual end in itself.”  That is why Asma predicts that “philosophy will remain intractable and estranged from popular culture”. (“Looking up from the Gutter: Philosophy and Popular Culture” Chronicle of Higher Education, 12 October 2007)


But why can’t the TV show or rock band in question be the focus of philosophical analysis?  The best essays in this genre (like Randall Auxier’s essay about Mr. Hat and education theory, below) don’t even try to use pop culture as a springboard to talk about topics in academic philosophy.  Instead, they help themselves to whatever concepts or arguments they need from philosophy to examine pop culture with a philosopher’s eye and sensibility.


Asma thinks this is impossible.  But he confuses two very different things: philosophy as a profession whose membership is required to master a range of texts, ideas, positions and debates that philosophers have always taken up, and philosophy as an ongoing activity that is supported by all this professionalism (and its paychecks).  This activity takes those historical texts and ideas as tools for interpreting, clarifying, criticizing and (hopefully) improving our ideas about the real intellectual end in itself: the world and our place in it.


If that is the goal, consider philosophy as a community of thinkers who ideally never stop learning.  Think of philosophers, that is, as students.  Then we can ask, as philosophers long have, how exactly their education works.  One school of thought insists that education unlocks students’ inner potentialities and talents, while another takes students to be impressionable and shaped mainly from without.


The first would follow Asma and say that, if philosophy is making progress, it’s because it’s cultivating and developing this inner, self-reflexive relationship to its own history and tradition.  The second would say that philosophy is mainly formed by the great trends and currents going on in society and the world at large.  Even one of the greatest philosophers of education, John Dewey, urged that “the distinctive office, problems and subject matter of philosophy grow out of stresses and strains in the community life in which a given form of philosophy arises, and that, accordingly, its specific problems vary with the changes in human life that are always going on” (from Reconstruction in Philosophy).


It was a tragic mistake, Dewey believed, to frame this debate so rigidly in terms of exclusive opposites. Plagued as it is “by opposition between the idea that education is development from within and that it is formation from without,” our ideas about how education actually works (almost certainly by some combination and interaction of both external influences and internal developments) remain vague.  And that’s OK, as long as education theorists admit it and (as Auxier warns, below) refrain from peddling overly simple theories that pretend these matters are overly simple.


Likewise, philosophers need to accept some vagueness about the surely complex relationship between the ivory tower and the larger world outside. However much time they spend self-reflexively focused in their professional world, that is, philosophers remain people who live and think within a much larger social and cultural world¬—complete with movies, TV shows, and rock bands—in which these “stresses and strains” move life along its intellectual and historical path.  Even if they choose to ignore pop culture, or fail to see how mid-period Merleau-Ponty and post-Waters Pink Floyd are possibly connected, it does not follow that philosophy is necessarily insulated from pop culture. Think about someone or something that years ago helped make you who you are now.  Did you understand clearly at the time how that influence was working and what it’s result would be?

So Asma is missing the big picture when he concludes that philosophy and popular culture are and will remain worlds apart.  He is right, however, to be amused by the missionary (and presumptive, I would add) zeal of those who suppose that merely by sugar coating their lectures with references to pop culture, they make philosophy appealing or rewarding to the masses. The fact that most people know little about the history of the mind-body problem and other workhorse topics of professional philosophy does not mean, however, they yearn to know more.


When philosophy went pop and the doors of the ivory tower were thrown open, in other words, the point was not to lure the public inside.  Some may wander in, of course, and find they like that “extremely self-reflexive relationship” Asma describes.  But the vast majority hope that philosophers will take the chance to get outside, to look up from their intense focus on their own tradition and take seriously what’s going on in popular culture.  For those who appreciate that something very bizarre and significant is going on with, say, Mr. Hat, the chance to hear what a professor like Auxier thinks about it is better than a tray of Chef’s salty balls.


Below is adapted from “Why Timmy Can’t Read: Mr. Hat’s Philosophy of Progressive Education,” by Randall Auxier in South Park and Philosophy: Bigger, Longer, and More Penetrating Open Court Publishing Company, 2007.


Timmy can’t read and education in the U.S. of A. is swirling in the toilet bowl.  We’re getting our asses kicked in all the math and science measures, and frankly, the Dutch and the Danes top a long list of non-native speakers who can correct our English (not to mention any other language we make a pathetic stab at learning).  We know little of our own history, nothing of anyone else’s, we have poor manners, bad breath, and plantar warts in our brains where our memories ought to be.


How things got this way is not a simple story, perhaps not even a comprehensible story, but there is one much maligned philosopher at whose doorstep the blame is often placed, an unprepossessing Vermonter named John Dewey (1859–1952).  It isn’t his fault any more than, say, Saddam Hussein is to blame for Satan being so gay.  Some things are just too complicated to blame on Saddam Hussein (not that we haven’t tried), or even Dewey.  But let’s call the present bureaucratic cesspool of American education “Dewey’s nightmare,” for convenience, and leave open for now whether the bad dream is his or ours or both.


The Backstory
Dewey was about the last philosopher of education who was taken seriously as a philosopher.  That is why we now have “educational theory” instead of “philosophy of education.”  I don’t know how to put this delicately.  Colleges of Education, housed within universities, are generally where the weakest students and the weakest professors go to be left alone by everyone else in higher education.  Almost no respectable theorist in any other discipline will have anything to do with Colleges of Education, and professional philosophers avoid them like the plague—and punish or shun any among their own number who even so much as discuss education.  I once heard John Silber, the Chancellor of Boston University (and a professional philosopher with a well-known penchant for shooting off his mouth), say in a public speech that if we were to close every College of Education in the United States tomorrow, there would be an immediate net improvement in American education.  I don’t often agree with John Silber, but in this case I’m pretty sure he is correct.  He only said out loud what nearly everyone in higher education already knows.  The alleged “science” of education is the institutional equivalent of a waste water treatment plant for students and professors who can’t handle difficult ideas.  Respectable theorists in other disciplines are not necessarily happy when they discover that some excrescence of their own has found its way into the Colleges of Education for treatment.


Inside Out or Outside In?
And here we come to the unsolvable problem faced by Mr. Hat.  How the hell do kids learn anything?  Mr. Garrison and/or Mr. Hat are reputed to know this secret.  If you start compiling in your mind the sum of the three dirty secrets above, it may begin to dawn on you that the teachers who taught you, and who are teaching your children, are not the theorists who over-complicated education in a moment of boredom, they are not the less smart believers-in-the-theory who populate the Colleges of Education who have been exposed to the over-simplification of the over-complication of the simple thing no one really understands (except maybe Mr. Hat).


In short, the people teaching your children don’t know anything and have been deprived of the opportunity to find out that they don’t know anything, both by nature and by nurture.  The best teachers ignore all the theoretical crap that was dumped on them in college and use their own common sense (and if you exercise your memory about which teachers really helped you, I think you may agree that they were guided more by common sense and intuitive understanding than by any theory), but it is hard not to be of (at least) two minds about all of it.  Hence, the naturalness of the multiple personality disorder of Mr. Hat, who does not know what to do with the confused Herbert Garrison—more on them shortly.


In every single field of theory and philosophy, the very same schizophrenic divide is manifest.  Some smart people are convinced that knowledge comes from the outside in, and others just as smart are convinced it develops from the inside out. 


So, for example, in epistemology you have your “externalists” and your “internalists,” in metaphysics you have realists and idealists, in aesthetics you have imitation versus expression, in psychology you have behaviorists against psychoanalysts and humanists, even in mathematics there were two kinds of Pythagoreans, akousmatikoi who learned from the outside in, and mathematikoi who learned the mysteries from the inside out.  In religion, mystics listen to the voice within, while Pharisees of all kinds think that holiness comes from outward practice.  No field of human knowing is untouched by this crazy argument. Here’s what John Dewey says about it:



Mankind likes to think in terms of extreme opposites. It is given to formulating its beliefs in terms of Either-Ors, between which it recognizes no intermediate possibilities.  When forced to recognize that the extremes cannot be acted upon, it is still inclined to hold that they are all right in theory but that when it comes to practical matters circumstances compel us to compromise. Educational philosophy is no exception.  The history of educational theory is marked by opposition between the idea that education is development from within and that it is formation from without; that it is based on broad natural endowments and that education is a process of overcoming natural inclination and substituting in its place habits acquired under external pressure. (from Dewey’s Experience and Education)


Dewey says, in so many words, that this opposition of inner and outer is bullshit, and he could have saved himself many pages of dry prose if “bullshit” had been acceptable English in 1938, as it is now.  So there has been some progress in the language, in terms of concision at least.  The reason Dewey is saying this is that by 1938 it’s becoming apparent to him that a bunch of people, slightly less smart than he, have taken some of his theoretical excrescences and have become a wild-eyed horde bent on changing the world—they are sending their little theoretical turds into the open stream of American education and stinking up the place.  The horde is saying that learning really is about bringing out the inner creativity of the naturally curious child, leaving the child free to stampede about the classroom and express whatever he or she feels inside, and to hell with history, math, grammar and other languages.  Dewey doesn’t care for the smell and is a bit worried that someone is going to call attention to the fact that he was the one who first broke wind.  And they did.


Dewey could not for all his later efforts reel in the wild-eyed horde.  By 1956 Dewey’s disciples had taken over the schools and in the name of God’s own truth, they tossed out anyone who disagreed with them (devastating to those whom it affected, if not quite as bad as Bruno’s bar-b-que).  And the inner-outer debate raged among not-so-smart people.  Most of us today emerged from the minimal practical compromises these Deweyan disciples made with reality.  We weren’t quite allowed the free rein that Eric Cartman would want, and we weren’t exactly spoon-fed the facts from the honest authorities as Kyle might have preferred, but were rather thrown upon our own variable resources to get what we could from without and from within.


No Child is the latest in a series of backlashes against ever new permutations of progressive education, and I think this is the backlash that found its mark.  No Child is the over-simplification of learning from the outside in (as measured by test scores) that is just as stupid as the over-simplification by Dewey’s not-so-smart horde about expression from the inside out.  I want to reiterate that Dewey was horrified by what his disciples were doing, but if there’s one thing a philosopher should learn from the case of Socrates it’s this: your followers are far more dangerous than your critics. 


They’re Coming Right for Us!
So many people have said of South Park “nothing is sacred,” but that isn’t quite true.  I think a number of things are sacred to Parker and Stone, but let’s examine just one.  Is it not perfectly clear that South Park Elementary is primed for a school shooting?  Why haven’t Jimbo and Ned snapped and turned their muzzles toward these children, declaring “they’re coming right for us!”?  Well, maybe because it isn’t funny.  Imagine how the episode would need to go.  Jimbo and Ned shoot up South Park Elementary (which would certainly have been an obvious way to kill Kenny for at least one week).  Then Charlton Heston comes to give a speech defending Jimbo and Ned, except that his Alzheimer’s has reduced him to being able only to wave his rifle above his head and wear a placard saying “from my cold dead hands.” Then Michael Moore shows up to film it, harassing Heston, and then, what?  Let us think like Parker and Stone, if we can manage it.  Moore gets so outraged that he shoots Heston?  No, ironic, but too simple.  The B story-line is that Gerald Broflovski, at Sheila’s insistence, sues the school because they won’t allow Kyle to carry a concealed hand-gun for protection, which Kyle doesn’t want to carry anyway, although Cartman does.  Then, in the climactic sequence, Ike saves Heston’s life by shooting Moore with the gun his father purchased and carelessly left among the toys, loaded and with the safety off. Yes, that’s it, that’s the story.


So, Matt and Trey, my sons, where is our episode?  Don’t you think this would be funny?  I must confess, I don’t really find it funny.  I am frightened not just by school shootings, but by the fact that I have no idea what is going on when children and adults arm themselves to the teeth and head for a school.  The school feels, at a visceral level, like a sacred and vulnerable place that should be protected at all costs—containing not only children, and every instinct in our animal being demands we must protect children, but also the keys to the cultural kingdom, the place where everything the human race has created through its efforts over millennia is to be, somehow, imparted to those precious youngsters.  You want to upset the total human applecart?  I can think of few ways to do that better than to start shooting the kids and teachers in our schools.  It strikes at everything we hold dear, nay sacred.  And no matter how bad the last shooting was, the next one could be worse.


And I want it to stop.  And I hazard to think Parker and Stone want it to stop, and Charlton Heston would want it to stop if he were still cognizant.  And I don’t want to hear anyone’s theory about it, especially not Michael Moore’s.  He is a well-meaning but thoroughly frightened fool, and I don’t buy his bravado.  People who frame theories about such things seem to want to capitalize on my fear of not understanding it—as though understanding it would make it somehow less frightening.  It might be more frightening if I truly grasped it, and I don’t know which does me greater damage, being afraid of the school shootings themselves or being afraid of not understanding them.  The nasty underbelly of theory gets exposed to the sunlight here.


Maybe sometimes we frame theories out of curiosity, or from pure motives of wonder and a hope for a better life, but often, too often, we frame theories because we are afraid of facing how little we know about the things that matter to us the most.  This is a very, very bad reason to frame and then believe a theory—and Parker and Stone show us this in a hundred ways in every episode.  People who are afraid, people looking for something to believe to help them deal with their primal fears, are more than ripe for adopting a ridiculous and mind-distorting ideology.


But here we come to the point.  School shootings don’t begin to scratch the surface of the veritable mountain of things I don’t understand, and to be frank, no matter how smart you are, you don’t understand one bit more than I do.  Why is this god-forsaken world so screwed up?  One advantage of having a philosophy of something as opposed to having a theory is that a theory is an assertion about how we might come to know something we don’t currently know.


But there are some things we will never know, like why that man, himself a father of three beloved children, took the lives of those Amish girls in the schoolhouse on October 2nd, 2006.  We are never going to know that.  But that doesn’t mean there is nothing to be learned from it.  Not, in the end, its causes, reasons, consequences, or what might have prevented it.  Spare me that bullshit. We learn, for one thing, that such actions are well within the scope of human choices. We learn that we are frightened by what we can choose.  We learn that human social life depends upon a level of mutual trust that can be so badly broken as to ruin our profoundest hopes and needs.  We learn that theories about things can’t do very much about these existential conditions.  And if we’re good students of the human condition, we learn that things have always sucked ass just about as much as they do now. It may be wiser not to attempt to hide an existential cry of “why?” beneath a sewer of theoretical verbiage.  Yes, Cartman may never cry “Why?” but that’s because he’s a friggin’ cartoon.



George Reisch is the series editor for Open Court’s Popular Culture and Philosophy series.  He received a Ph.D. in History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Chicago in 1995 and teaches philosophy at the School for Continuing Studies at Northwestern University.  His book, How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2005.


Randall Auxier is a professor philosophy at Southern Illinois University.



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