The state of our aesthetic and consumer-based economy has brought philosophy to a transitional stage at many levels. Many wonder what will be its future or where philosophy should go from here. It is pertinent that we question the relevance and applicability of philosophy in a world of sound-bites and pop culture, when education of the classical humanities continues to be threatened by the technologically savvy, where all but specialists tend to value or recognize its significance.

Philosophers have engaged the public square more than ever though on a variety of topics by offering insights about movies, sports, music, imaginative literature, video games, and other forms of entertainment through projects like Open Court Press or The Blackwell Philosophy and Popular Culture Series. It seems that the popular culture has attempted to give philosophers a virtual adventure in which to engage non-philosophers. In Carlin Romano’s provocative book America the Philosophical (Vintage Books, 2012) he argues that Americans embody and symbolize independent attitudes within a culture of entertainment. So much is this the case that American culture has the potential to produce the most philosophical people ever. Romano claims that “the openness of its dialogue, the quantity of its arguments, the diversity of its viewpoints, the cockiness with which its citizens express their opinions, the vastness of its First Amendment freedoms, the intensity of its hunt for evidence and information, the widespread rejection of truths imposed by authority or tradition alone, the resistance to false claims of justification and legitimacy, the embrace of Net communication with an alacrity that intimidates the world: all corroborate that fact” (5). But from the standpoint of the educator these interpretations can be quite annoying and watered-down. It can feel as if you or others are short-changing your craft while also not doing the difficult work of understanding a philosopher on their level as a matter of respect. Still, there can be some very valuable and hilarious philosophy in a book like Inception and Philosophy or Monty Python and Philosophy, for example.

Are the efforts to use philosophy as a conduit for pop culture a positive or negative development and what does this mean for philosophy as an enterprise? Does this expand or deflate the capability and quality of our philosophizing?

  • Philosophy has always been transmitted through stories. In that sense such treatments of philosophy can shed light on the topic. On the other hand it can also degenerate into dime store philosophy (a bit like popular Psychology). Jan 25 '14 at 23:26
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    True that. You can see that it's a tough balancing act. Where should we draw the line between play and seriousness or can they be synthesized? I'm definitely interested to hear different perspectives on the subject. Jan 26 '14 at 6:42
  • There is NOTHING popular and professional. Every idea through what you called POP CULT will get worse but also will get PRESERVED. And somebody later will take it and make it better. Plus every living thing(humans) has to be exposed to light from UPPER(lower) level to have an OPPORTUNITY to grow(FALL).
    – Asphir Dom
    Jan 27 '14 at 15:45

The issue of popular culture and philosophy books, as well as philosophers addressing the public in general, is the subject of "Essays in Philosophy", Volume 15, Issue 1 (January 2014). You can find it free here


My take is that it is a very positive development. Philosophy is for everyone but academics generally make little effort to bring philosophy to the public. In fact, it is such a good development that it might even save the discipline by convincing people that philosophy is of value.

  • Thanks for sharing, Joe! I will definitely read this as it looks helpful for some of my current research. I like your response because it is the opposite of Romano's who tries to argue that in all the facets of American life the formal development of philosophy (i.e. academy) is present making America unique and the "truly first" philosophical nation. I'm almost finished reading it and I don't think he has made the convincing case. But let me know what you think. Mar 16 '14 at 1:49

One needs to distinguish between popular philosophy and philosophy proper which serves different needs. This division I think is evident in almost, if not all the arts & sciences.

But one must also distinguish between popularising, which is making a complex topic intelligible to the people, and an art in itself, from banalisation, which loses the essential thought or impetus. In its most slimmed down form one thinks of here the proverb & the aphorism, the latter being a respectable literary form - Rouchefaucauld & Nietszche used the form, for example.

Popularisation, to paraphrase Einsteins aphorism on Occams Razor, is to make everything simple but not simpler. And noticing the form of the aphorism, to make things art-full and not art-less. (Physics is full of art & aphorisms, though this point is missed by many, there, they're thought of a kind of folk-lore rule-of-thumb).

Alice in Wonderland plays tricks with logic, language and reality, but with such disarming simplicity that it has become a childrens classic. One could argue that myths & fairytales encode such thoughts too. Prometheus and the fire encoding the drama of self-consciousness, Saturn devouring his children - generational conflict, and inverted in Kings Lear, where the children devour Saturn, and sleeping beauty - does one need Freud to decode its meaning, or was its meaning there already all along?

A thought then presents itself: what distinguishes between the sound-bite, the jingle & the aphorism? One might suppose the sound-bite sells an obviously local phenomena, a party political message or a new brand of saucepan. Whereas the the aphorism is thought-provoking on issues of wider import. Wildes apohrism on 'knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing', can be usefully interpreted for example, as an attack on utilitarianism, or mercantilism. They encode, despite appearances, profound thought. Nagarjunas, Verses from the Centre, are essentially aphorisms strung together, and take an entire secondary literature to decode.

Pop Art as High Art was done by Andy Warhol. His art was perverse in that it seemingly celebrated the banalisation of art. Its mechanisation. Its automation and flat & high affect. These attack the primary attibutes of art as written and described in Benjamins The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

Warhol used Primary colours. Bold outlines and bold themes. By decontextualisating Marilyn Munroe & Chairman Mao one could say he was commenting on the Commodification of Spectacle - by the cinema and the news broadcast - moving on from Debords Society of the Spectacle. His prophetic fifteen minutes of fame has found its fulfillment in the age of facebook, youtube & celebrity. His silent film Blowjob, reflects on the banalisation and repetition of a sex-act, which looks ever-more prophetic in modern western cultures fetishisation of the body to the purely physical locus of the performed sex-act.

Romanos rationale for America as a Philosophical People is very reminescent of enlightment values, and possibly only those dressed up in fashionably modern garb. In which case one should ask, taking the French Revolution as a nominal index for that point of departure in thought, one should ask has the Western World become a more Philosophical World since 1789? By what means and measure can one begin to answer this question? Has the new philosophy of the few only become the new dogma of the many? One rather has the impression rather that the philosophy as an end-in-itself is looked on as an eccentric habit, cultivated by a few, and whilst respectable, of no serious import.

An answer to Romano, might be with Toquevilles Democracy in America

Tocqueville warned that modern democracy may be adept at inventing new forms of tyranny, because radical equality could lead to the materialism of an expanding bourgeoisie and to the selfishness of individualism. In such conditions we lose interest in the future of our descendents...and meekly allow ourselves to be led in ignorance by a despotic force all the more powerful because it does not resemble one.

One thinks here in America, also of Chomskys Manufacture of Consent, Edwards Bernays spinning of Propaganda into Public Relations and Ayn Rands appropriation of Aristotelian virtue ethics into a heady mix of individualism & homo economicus. The predominance of American think-tanks in Climate Change Denial, and the current revelations of mass-surveillance.

Interestingly, one might suppose, that cultural products like the X-files are popular expressions of being led 'in ignorance' by inscrutable forces.

Tocqueville worried that if despotism were to take root in a modern democracy, it would be a much more dangerous version than the oppression under the Roman emperors or tyrants of the past who could only exert a pernicious influence on a small group of people at a time

Of course history has borne out Toquevilles worry, as Germanys nascent Democratic traditions were subverted by Nazism, in Italys by Facism and in Russia and China by State Communism.

But to come back to your headline question, popularising philosophy isn't philosophy proper but is in itself an art-form; its degenerate & decadent forms are generally pop-cultural fodder or kitsch philosophy - on the level of Yoda in Star Wars.

  • I really appreciated reading this and it is a great way of framing/tackling the problem. Good distinctions. Feb 1 '14 at 2:57

If you believe that there is value in the Philosophy SE, then you must accept the premise that philosophy and Popular Culture are intwined and that it is an additive relationship. While I agree that "from the standpoint of the educator these interpretations can be quite annoying and watered-down". It is important to acknowledge that the watered-down presentation of philosophy isn't a new occurrence, nor is it solely related to the onset of contemporary Pop Culture.

Rather, the fact that philosophy permeates beyond the strictly scholastic offers an opportunity for more people to engage with these ideas. In that way, it is partially thanks to our culture that these ideas are being discussed generally, and the ideas are being interacted with (to varying degrees of depth). The best thing we can do - and the only thing any philosopher has ever been able to do - is further the discussion, and there in lies the authenticity of philosophy in Pop Culture.

  • I'd like to know if Romano's proposal states that Philosophy is involved in all aspects of "American Life"? Or is it that a large number of "American" attributes work in concert to promote a way of thinking that lends itself well to Philosophy?
    – PV22
    May 24 '16 at 6:03

I'm likely going to sound like an idiot, but IME analytic philosophy is ripe for popularisation. Done well, philosophy of this sort does "exactly what it says on the tin". It doesn't need the historicity of Hegel, or the self conviction that Marx works with. Most of the books I've looked at in this style are pretty straightforward and rely on the reader being meticulous and little else.

Whether or not it actually works also seems to depend on, IME, little besides an interest in philosophy which has unlearnt its own demands.

Take the example of scientific realism: I studied it an undergrad and was quite perplexed by the term "independent", what exactly this term meant, if it had any sense, etc.. But of course, I know intuitively what independent means, if only because I know what it means for other people to exist independent of me (they'll keep living etc.). Perhaps I have oversimplified this through analogical thinking; and the tradition of phenomenology and structuralism complicates things. When I read Derrida there are often things I google, and so naturally some things I should and don't.

Academic articles in the former style can get a bit convoluted, but seem broadly speaking accessible on the same principles. But it's not like an understanding of something can substitute for intelligent conversation or writing on it.


I'm not sure if philosophy is often used as a conduit for pop culture, but I can think of multiple examples where pop culture is used as a conduit for philosophy. While most pop culture is obviously pulp, you can find ample philosophical gems among the piles of pulp, if only you look hard enough.

A good example would be Waking Life, which - in my opinion - is more profound than any book on philosophy I've ever read. The movie's cast includes Louis Mackey, Robert Solomon, David Sosa and several other philosophers.

To illustrate this, I provided a quote from Waking Life along with a quote from several other movies (Mr Nobody, Revolver, Fight Club, Hogfather). Unfortunately, virmaior decided this had no added value to my answer. Even though I strongly disagree with that position, I see no other option besides leaving this answer without examples...

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