Inception and Philosophy: Ideas to Die For
US: Dec 2011
Over the past decade, the literary market has become saturated with hip philosophy books based on some trendy aspect of popular culture. These books collect essays from a variety of academics, who crank out short chapters tying together seemingly disparate subjects like The Matrix and determinism, or Harry Potter and liberation theology.
With its wide appeal, complex narrative, and heavy themes, Inception was perhaps destined to be the next book vying for space at your local bookseller’s philosophy shelf. Hence, we have Inception and Philosophy: Ideas to Die For.
The genre of pop culture philosophy is not a bad idea in and of itself. At its best, it’s a great way to expose philosophy to a wide audience, and give fans a chance to delve deeper into some of their favorite franchises. The problem is that these books have to walk a fine line—not being too academically obtuse while still avoiding dumbing things down too much. Too far in one direction and you’ve basically published an academic journal; too far in the other direction you’ve done nothing but confirm the stereotype of philosophers as nerdy eggheads with ultimately vacuous ideas.
Inception and Philosophy is the 62nd volume in “Popular Culture and Philosophy” by Open Court, a series that includes works as varied as South Park and Philosophy, Led Zeppelin and Philosophy, and World of Warcraft and Philosophy. At the risk of offending die-hard Zepp fans, I’d argue that Inception is better suited to be the subject of a philosophy book than any of the above. At the risk of offending the other half of those on the Internet, I’d also argue that Inception isn’t quite weighty enough to sustain a full 21 metaphysical essays, and this is where the book goes wrong, ultimately proving to be a repetitive slog with a few interesting grains buried deep within.
It doesn’t help that the book spends a lot of time patting fans of Inception on the back for daring to love such a deep film. Don’t get me wrong; I thought Inception was a great movie, and extremely smart for a summer blockbuster. But Inception and Philosophy piles on the hyerbole so high (It’s even “more than one of the greatest movies of all time…” reads the back cover, before promising the book will change your life) that one starts to question whether the book intends to be an objective assessment of philosophical themes, or a book for film majors to carry around, hoping it make them look smart.
Nearly every essay begins with a laudatory introduction reminding the reader how awesome Inception was—the phrase “existential heist movie” is glowingly thrown around by multiple authors. Reading Inception and Philosophy is less like attending an academic conference and more like stumbling into a science-fiction message board populated by freshman philosophy major wannabes with one semester and 50 pages of Nietzsche under their belts. Look how smart the movie is!, the book exclaims. Look how deep its themes are! Instead of letting the film stand on its own, the authors constantly remind you how smart you are for enjoying Inception.
Neither does it help that the book is awkwardly edited. In addition to the increasingly tiresome kudos, nearly every essay includes a synopsis of the film. This might have been nice to have as an introduction to the entire volume, but it feels strange reading a summary of the film for the twelfth time. Pages and pages are wasted explaining the movie’s four dream layers ad nauseam, when a simple reminder at the beginning of the book might have sufficed.
For essays like these to work, they either have to be of high enough academic caliber to provoke interesting thoughts, or have entertaining enough writing that one can ignore what the work lacks in erudition. Unfortunately, most of the essays in Inception and Philosophy are neither sufficiently intellectual nor particularly well-written. The majority of them read like the worst kind of pop philosophy, punctuated by meaningless aphorisms taken out of context without a sustained argument or idea to tie everything together. Consider this: “In Inception, we see philosophy and film intertwined to the point of inseparability; therefore, no understanding of the film can be complete without examining it both as a movie and as philosophy.” It sounds smart, but really says nothing about movies or philosophy, and the ensuing essay does little to explain these pompous statements.
Even worse reads: “The playwright Tom Stoppard wrote that every exit is an entrance somewhere else. When I awaken, the dream ends. But am I just entering another dream in another place? If life is but a dream (as the “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” song says it is), maybe death is waking up elsewhere. Which is more real, the here or the elsewhere? Maybe then we wake up from the elsewhere too.”
Meaningless reference to an intellecutal quotation, presented without context? Check. Trite philosophical clichés that sound like they’re coming from your old college roommate on drugs? Check. Meandering sentences that continuously make bizarre metaphysical assertions without any corresponding arguments to back them up? Check. It’s like freshman-year philosophy all over again!
Even though the bulk of the essayists in the book are professors or doctoral candidates, the book rarely achieves more than a surface level look at any real philosophy. A few standards are recalled again and again: Plato’s cave, Descartes’ ruminations on his own existence, Zhuangzi and the butterfly. These are all philosophical ideas that have been explored for millennia, and are worth continuing to explore. But Inception and Philosophy is content to phrase its arguments as something sadly juvenile: (Descartes questioned his own existence? Just like the characters in Inception! How cool and deep is Inception?). It’s a way for fans of the film to smugly assert the depth of their own taste without needing to validate their arguments.
The tragic thing is that there are a few articles in this book that are pretty good, arguing that a better version of Inception and Philosophy could have been a success. In particular, an essay by Michael Rennett compares the philosophies of choice of George Berkeley and Robert Nozick before throwing Inception into the mix, and asking whether humans would want to live in reality or a fantasy world of their own making. It’s nothing ground-breaking, but it’s smart and well-written, and manages to connect these major thinkers with the film in an unpretentious way. I finished the article invigorated to read more about Berkeley and Nozick, and watch Inception again, which is everything a book like this should do.
Unfortunately, the bulk of essays in Inception and Philosophy aren’t at this level. Perhaps it’s the subject matter; as interesting as Inception is, one could argue that, unlike, say Tree of LIfe or even 2001: A Space Odyssey, there’s not necessarily enough meat to sustain a whole book on the subject. That makes the book feel, unfortunately, like a cash grab pumped out quickly to take advantage of the film’s popularity. Neither for fans of Inception nor fans of philosophy, the book is a disappointment on nearly every level.