Wednesday, April 16, 2014

TBBT—the Great Books Postulate

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 32
Dean A. Kowalski, editor, The Big Bang Theory and Philosophy: Rock, Paper, Scissors, Aristotle, Locke

If you’re like me, college philosophy felt long, abstruse, and tiresome. It had no apparent connection to lived experience. No wonder Stanley Fish famously declared that “Philosophy doesn’t travel.” But Gerald Graff counters that all subjects, including philosophy, need a tangible debate to make them comprehensible. Connecting philosophy to something audiences share, like America’s top-rated television comedy, makes concepts suddenly human-scale and coherent. Eternal verities that seemed distant in classroom discussions become suddenly very immediate.

This collection of seventeen brief essays by recognized thinkers uses examples and themes from The Big Bang Theory to unpack concepts in classical and modern philosophy. Rather than holding forth on some topic we feel we ought to understand because some author speaks volubly, these authors start with some interest their audience shares, building into philosophical conversation. Difficult concepts have shared, comprehensible foundations. High-minded discussions reflect our real lives.Suddenly, we’re in on philosophy’s joke.

Many articles focus on Sheldon Cooper, which should surprise nobody who watches this show. Sheldon’s failure to comprehend basic societal conventions, or appreciate anybody as his equal, permits sweeping philosophical investigations. Janelle Pötzsch uses Sheldon’s slapdash speech patterns to examine Ludwig Wittgenstein’s evolving theories of language. Donna Marie Smith uses Sheldon’s grudge against Wil Wheaton to question the nature of evil. W. Scott Clifton asks: are we bad people to laugh at Sheldon’s obvious disability?

Other characters don’t get ignored. Constantly evolving debates between the principal characters let Andrew Zimmerman Jones question what makes real science. The male characters’ romantic relationships let Mark White and Maryanne Fisher discuss gender roles in modern society. (I wish they went further: why does the show evidently consider men normative, and women disruptive?) Others use TBBT’s common dynamics to question technophilia, tolerance, family, and the show’s most pervasive theme, the true nature of friendship.

Yes, there's even an essay on superhero worship.
Like the show itself, these critics rely upon the tension between high-minded principles and mundane life to propel their thoughts. The ethics of human experimentation (for instance) can seem abstruse to non-scientists. But when Massimo Pigliucci compares these ethical conundrums to the episode where Sheldon uses operant conditioning to manipulate Penny, we understand the forces at play. Topics which formerly seemed distant, trivial, or pedantic become intimate when filtered through an experience diverse audiences share.

Latitudes range from sweeping introductory philosophy to very specialized subdisciplines. Great minds like Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, and Thomas Kuhn are already well-known, and these essays link their principles to real-life debates. Alvin Plantinga and Richard Rorty remain obscure outside academia, yet their ongoing inquiries have opened paths which other philosophers now follow. These authors don’t treat philosophy as a series of closed questions; they demonstrate important debates that remain contested, pushing new boundaries even today.

These philosophers come from diverse backgrounds. Some have broad “philosophy” training, while others follow subdisciplines like Gender Studies or Political Science. Some have science backgrounds, including one physicist and one information systems specialist, while others have more general scientific training. This diversity means these authors don’t necessarily agree; just as TBBT’s characters periodically turn on Sheldon, these authors dispute one another, explicitly or implicitly. These unspoken debates are as interesting as the authors’ stated theses.

The finished product is admittedly imperfect. Though most contributors admirably translate esoteric philosophical concepts into laypersons’ English some have difficulty; they’re apparently so accustomed to writing for peer-reviewed journals that they inordinately rely on jargon. And there’s significant repetition. Several authors cite the dialog where Sheldon diagrams silicon-based DNA, and his mother mentions “But intelligently designed by a creator, right?” Editor Dean Kowalski could’ve taken a firmer hand regularizing his contributors to avoid such redundancy.

But even these weaknesses spotlight subtle philosophical strengths. If multiple philosophers consider one moment worth examining, and see multiple harmonious interpretations, perhaps that signifies how that joke transcends its moment and addresses questions plaguing the audience more generally. Kowalski compiled this book following TBBT’s fourth season; I’d eagerly read an updated volume, considering how the characters have evolved, the women have emerged, and science has changed. Because TV never sits still, and neither does science.

Kowalski edited this for Blackwell’s Philosophy and Pop Culture Series, which applies similar theoretical approaches to many pop-culture icons. Science fiction and fantasy, with their high-flown themes and metaphorical language, dominate, but non-sci-fi properties are common, too. From South Park and True Blood to The Office and Harry Potter, pop culture proves an effective learning tool for translating difficult concepts into English. TBBT’s diverse popularity, though, makes this volume a good introduction to the series.

See Also:
Remember, the Enemy's Gate is Down

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