Superheroes and Philosophy: Truth, Justice, and the American Way/Comics as Philosophy

By Lawrence, John Shelton | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), December 2006 | Go to article overview

Superheroes and Philosophy: Truth, Justice, and the American Way/Comics as Philosophy


Lawrence, John Shelton, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Superheroes and Philosophy: Truth, Justice, and the American Way Tom Morris and Matt Morris, Editors. Chicago, IL: Open Court Publishing Company, 2005.

Comics as Philosophy Jeff McLaughlin, Editor. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.

Speaking strictly-according to philosophy's own canons-we cannot know what philosophy is. To rank as knowledge, a belief must survive the doubts of competent inquirers. But no single understanding of philosophy prevailed during its Greek beginnings nor has there been any accord in recent centuries. This apparent paradox about the discipline is resolved when we recognize that philosophy's tradition permits the questioning of everything-whether it be philosophy's aims, its domains for inquiry, or its norms for methods. As a result of this unbounded contentiousness, it is common to hear college graduates say of philosophy, "I took it, but I never knew what was happening."

However painful to neophytes, the academy's curricular authority permitted philosophy courses to survive many decades within the prescribed liberal arts. Then came student demands in the 1960s for choice and content relevance to burning social concerns such as war and civil rights. Requirements often crumbled, and liberal arts programs nervously began to repackage for the age of academic marketing. A harbinger of hope was Robert L. Short's The Gospel According to Peanuts (1965), which rendered a daily comic strip as a set of contemporary parables about love, sin, hope, shame, responsibility, guilt, and salvation. Ten million copies and thousands of collegesponsored lectures later, Short's book received a thirty-fifth anniversary edition with a foreword by the eminent historian Martin E. Marty. Westminster Press, which had the good fortune to publish Short, went on to mimic the franchising style of popular culture with The Gospel According to ... series, filling in the blanks with Oprah, the Simpsons, Disney, Tolkien, Harry Potter, etc. Demonstrating that the popular as window on the serious has certainly taken hold, these books aim both at college classes and fans.

More than any other publisher, Open Court has applied a similar formula to the field of philosophy, with twenty-one titles currently listed in its Philosophy and ... series, which began with Seinfeld (1999), moving through The Sopranos and Philosophy: I Kill Therefore I Am (2004), Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle Ran Hogwarts (2004), The Atkins Diet: Chewing the Fat with Kant and Nietzsche (2005), HarleyDavidson and Philosophy: Full Throttle Aristotle (2006), etc. Like Philosophy and Superheroes, these books strive to combat student alienation from abstract thought with the enticing thought that philosophy sits as close to them as their favorite entertainments. Rather than chastising students for undeveloped tastes, the authors assure them that they share their enthusiasms. And by the way-the subtitles often make explicit-here is your dose of Aristotle, Kant, Mill, or Nietzsche!

These entertainment-centric supplements to the old-fashioned anthologies of selections from philosophical classics raise rather obvious boundary issues. If American divertissements provide the source texts, can the resulting discourse be seriously academic? And to the extent that philosophy as professionally understood is foregrounded, does the popular get the nuanced respect it deserves? The two books under review allow us to see several approaches to such questions.

Tom Morris, a leading philosophical entrepreneur, has previously written If Aristotle Ran General Motors: The New Soul of Business, If Harry Potter Ran General Electric: Leadership Wisdom from the World of Wizards, and Philosophy for Dummies in addition to selling laminated wallet cards with sage reminders from the classics. He conveys his own popular taste by lamenting the decline of adult readership for superhero comics: "[T]he demands of formal education, work, and family life . …

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