06 Nov 2001
The Simpsons and Philosophy:
The D’oh of Homer
"Don't you ever, EVER talk that way about television." - Homer
Is it ONLY a cartoon?
Only in our culture of today would you find such a question. And only
in our 21st century way of thinking could you find such an answer.
As many people around the world
take in, view, breathe the pop culture that is created and thrown at us
on a daily basis by technology, by television, by magazines at a frightening
pace, it is hard to take any of it for something more than what we see
- what we can suck in from it’s material presence in front of us.
But with an animated show called The Simpsons, that has proven otherwise.
From the show, a book has evolved. Many college students around the country
now own this book, The Simpsons and Philosophy. However, it isn’t
for recreational reading as you may think. It is a required compilation
that accompanies other more ancient books in philosophy classes at various
universities. In fact, the very man that edited the series the book appears
in, Popular Culture and Philosophy, is an assistant philosophy professor
at Kings College in Pennsylvania.
Why would an assistant philosophy professor, as well as other professors
of different disciplines, dare to let their essays, time, and thought-processes
go into a book of this magnitude? And why is it not ONLY a cartoon?
This is why:
History: The Simpsons
"Simpson- Homer Simpson, he's the greatest guy in his-tor-y. From
the town of Springfield, he's about to hit a chesnut tree... D'oh!"
The Simpsons, now just one of
many animated shows on television weekly, got its start in creator Matt
Groening’s imagination at the time when he simply needed filler
for his Emmy Award-winning FOX series, The Tracey Ullman Show. That was
in 1987, and before then he was best known for his comic strip "Life
in Hell" which currently appears in over 250 newspapers worldwide.
Joining him on The Simpsons team were James L. Brooks, and Mike Scully,
both executive producers (The Official Simpsons Web Site).
James L. Brooks is a 12-time Emmy Award-winner and three-time Academy
Award-winner as well as the producer (after writing for television for
a few years) for such shows as Taxi, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda,
Lou Grant, Room 222, and The Tracey Ullman Show (The Official Simpsons
Mike Scully joined The Simpsons blueprint as a producer in April of 1993
and before that, was also an Emmy Award-winning writer. Scully grew up
in West Springfield, Massachusetts, and moved to Los Angeles in 1982,
where he did stand-up comedy and audience warm-ups for various shows.
In 1986, he quit performing to dive exclusively into writing for television
(The Official Simpsons Web Site).
This cartoon family, a Honeymooners-with-children type of cast, is composed
of five yellow-colored two-dimensional members that are named after someone
in Matt Groening’s immediate clan (although the personalities may
not match). Homer, the father and blue-collar worker, is the head of the
household. Marge, his lovely blue-haired wife, is the strong feminine
role in the family and represents the type of person with blind faith
in religion and unconditional love for her chaotic children and husband.
The oldest child, Bart, is constantly testing his limits and yet, has
a sort of live-by-the-seat-of-your-pants-style that many viewing children
love and mimic. Lisa, the intellect, stands for the troubled middle child-
always thinking too much and too morally for her age. And then there is
Maggie, who doesn’t say much and gets left out of her own father’s
memory from time to time, and teaches us, perhaps as the book refers to
as well, that silence truly IS golden ("Bart Simpson in TIME magazine.").
Throughout their history of being on television, this seemingly simple
living family, located in Springfield (state unknown), has been through
A LOT. Enough, in fact, that not watching for weeks, unlike other pop
culture movements like "the soaps," can leave you confused and
lost in your own non-animated world.
Within those episodes, each character
has given us, the viewers, more and more of an insight into who they are,
what they stand for, and, as The Simpsons and Philosophy connects to,
where they seem to be coming from on a much deeper level than the television
screen can allow. Unlike other shows, The Simpsons somehow sheds light
on humanity and the deeper issues of our culture that are normally bypassed.
Other shows, like Friends perhaps, dwell in the comedy of the punchline
and don’t leave much to the imagination as to who the characters
truly are. That show tells us what to be laughing at. The Simpsons is
one of those examples teachers ramble about- how to show the reader instead
of telling (Maurstad 2).
We are given situations, sometimes hazy ones that don’t work out
well in the end, in each 30 minute piece and parts of the characters are
revealed. For instance, Homer’s vices of overeating (donuts, etc)
and drinking (Duff beer) as well as his soft spot for his daughter, Lisa,
in specific instances are shown from time to time- glimpses of reality
and humanity. Bart continues to be the rebellious little bad boy, but
once, in one particular airing, everyone else in Springfield began to
behave like him; he lost his own identity. In that same airing, Lisa helps
him out with words of wisdom as she seems to do in MANY episodes with
her father, brother, and mother. The Simpsons is one of few pop cultural
diversions we have that actually means more than what it's simple colors
and animations represent.
And unlike other CARTOONS, the series is not about fake pain. The cartoons
of the past, like Bugs and Daffy, "involved many shotgun blasts and
rearranged duck bills, but the humor and humiliation, the understanding
of failure and resilience were instantly translatable to kids and adults
alike. The pain was fake." "Suffering and failure are at the
core of The Simpsons" ("Bart Simpson in TIME magazine.").
The viewers don't see a lot of suicidal coyotes that get up the instant
they fall off cliffs; they, instead, take in Homer with a hangover, going
to the hospital, or Bart with an eye patch. Situations that are much more
true to life. Perhaps this is what allows us to take a real philosophical
stick to it. Because it is reality.
All this also allows a wider range
of viewers, a vast audience of youngsters and mature adults, to enjoy
The Simpsons. Whether you "get" the allusions the show, it's
characters, or the situations they partake in, or don't, the viewer can
still enjoy in it's overall top layer of comedy. It is what's at its core
that produced more thought, ideas, and .... a book.
The Process: The Series Popular Culture and Philosophy
"I can't believe it! Reading and writing actually paid off!"
- Homer Simpson
Into our animated paper now jumps William Irwin, the creator/general editor
of the series Popular Culture and Philosophy, and also, as mentioned,
the assistant professor of philosophy at Kings College in Pennsylvania.
He, after having intriguing discussions about the show Seinfeld with colleagues,
edited the first book of the series, Seinfeld and Philosophy: A Book About
Everything and Nothing. This first collection of essays "kills two
postmodern problems with one stone: It bridges that irksome gap between
sitcoms and existentialist Soren Kierkegaard and masticates 2,000 years
of bearded philosophers into contemporary dudes who spout digestible sound
bites for today's student" (Nestor 1).
So philosophy is going "pop"
then (Maurstad 1)?
The one main reason for him, Irwin, and his colleagues put these books
together (the third one in the series, The Matrix and Philosophy is due
out in 2002) is because they, particularly Irwin, wanted to be able to
connect with their/his students better. "One of the challenges of
teaching is to find ways of discussing the material that are meaningful
to your students," says Irwin. "Pop culture is the common language
today, and using it is a way of making connections" (Maurstad 1).
He also comments that "Philosophy has a terrible public relations
image.. Most people think very little of it has to do with living life
on a daily basis" (LaCoe 2). To counteract any problems that Irwin
thought could arise, he does note in many discussions of the book that
"this (book) is not an attempt to explore meanings intended by Groening
and the show's artists and writers" (Publishers Weekly- Amazon.com).
Nor is this book "about making The Simpsons into the new Shakespeare,"
he adds in the Chronicle of Higher Education article by Dana Mulhauser
titled "Homeric Epic", "It's about bridging the gap between
academics and non-academics."
It's important to understand that
Irwin and his colleagues are not saying that every television-watching
session is a philosophical goldmine, but who knew that this wasteland
called television could now be considered an intellectual platform- "deep
thoughts on a shallow field"? Using the options of TV sitcoms and
other pop culture trivia as valuable tools to tie the pursuit of classical
knowledge with what students, adults in general, already know about life
on the daily plate they see in front of them seems to be the newest trend
among universities toward pop culture and media studies (Maurstad 1).
The Book: The Simpsons and Philosophy
"If you really want something in this life, you have to work for
it- Now quiet, they're about to announce the lottery numbers!" -
Take a big ol' highlighter with you before beginning to dive into this
book. Each part has well-written essays by professors from around the
North American continent. From William Irwin himself writing, with J.R.
Lombardo (member of the City University of New York), the essay "The
Simpsons and Allusion: Worst Essay Ever" to Aeon J. Skoble as a visiting
assistant professor of philosophy at the United States Military Academy
at West Point writing about Lisa Simpson and her anti-intellectualism,
any reader is sure to enjoy all, if not most, of what this book has to
The Simpsons and Philosophy is organized into four parts: the characters,
the themes, ethics, and the philosophers themselves (and how they actually
relate to the show/characters/situations). Within each part and within
each essay, the writers make sure to draw the reader in, interest them,
and accompany what they intend to focus on with excellent examples from
the show. In fact, the index area of the book contains the philosophers
spoken of (arranged by birthdate and connected to a famous quote of theirs),
an episode list by season, number, and title, as well as the writers (of
the essays) and their biographies.
One particular essay to pinpoint and draw from is William Irwin's and
J.R. Lombardo's "The Simpsons and Allusion: Worst Essay Ever".
With previous mention of pop culture and how this book attracts students
to the study of philosophy, rather than disgust and confuse them, this
essay embraces an item that The Simpsons have above all other shows, animated
or not. That item is the use of allusion.
A quote found at the beginning of this essay sums up precisely it's goal:
"We're really writing a show that has some of the most esoteric references
on television. I mean really, really, really, strange, odd, short little
moments that very few people get and understand. We're writing it for
adults and intelligent adults at that." This comes from one of The
Simpsons' writers and Matt Groening himself concludes that: "The
Simpsons is a show that rewards you for paying attention."
An allusion, for simple recollection out of the Oxford American Dictionary,
is a passing or indirect reference to something, and The Simpsons utilizes
allusions on a constant basis. An enormous list of almost ALL (since some
allusions may be too slight) of the television shows, movies, authors,
and works of literature that the show alludes to takes up well over a
page in this essay. Irwin and Lombardo caution, though, that these allusions
are extremely "American" in a somewhat unflattering way, making
American culture appear as a too fast-food, do-not-think-too-much society.
However, if enough people are reading into these allusions, straightforward
or not, the combination of high culture and pop culture we now embrace
daily need not signal "the closing of the American mind (this quote,
found in the essay, is an allusion to the book by Allan Bloom)."
This writing includes the simple fact that many viewers perhaps already
realize these allusions and therefore, these very people prove that American
society could possibly benefit from taking in something as pop cultural
as The Simpsons, but also remain intelligent, thinking beings. So, afterall,
maybe this cartoon meets philosophy was the best thing to happen to a
time period that "seemed" doomed.
The Effects: Book Reviews and Classes
"When will I learn? The answer to life's problems aren't at the bottom
of a bottle, they're on TV!" -Homer Simpson
Who really could, at first, understand why nineteen professors of philosophy
and other disciplines would risk writing about a cartoon? This book and
the latest inductee to the Oxford English Dictionary (the exclamatory
word "D'oh" by Homer Simpson) just prove even further how effective
our pop culture, when mixed with good stuff like knowledge, can truly
And the critics of this book concur.
Kevin French, of YBP Library Services, said, "I, especially, never
planned on reviewing this book for Academia but the more I read the more
the authors impressed me with their philosophical arguments with regard
to the sitcoms place in American culture." "The contributors
to The Simpsons and Philosophy strike the right balance between taking
The Simpsons seriously and not taking themselves too seriously, offering
a collection that is perfect for those interested in philosophy and the
moral world of Springfield," quotes a reviewer for the Seminary Co-op
Bookstores. In the article, "Meditations on Springfield", Jouni
Paakinen is quoted as saying, "The Simpsons and Philosophy also tackles
such issues as irony and the meaning of life, parody as homage, traditional
sexual roles, existential rebellion, American anti-intellectualism and
even Marxism in Springfield." In connection with another book on
The Simpsons, David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never
Do Again (1997), John Green wrote in his review for Booklist," Like
Wallace's book, these pieces make erudite concepts accessible by viewing
things through the lens of a great cartoon series." Our friendly
neighbor country to the north had good things to say as well. Jason Holt's
review in Canadian Dimension said:
"In this way, the show is a useful discussion-point for drawing attention
to important issues often marginalized or ignored in today's cult of the
quick-fix. In addition, it illustrates how, in certain cases, it is ordinary
folk, not philosophers, who have gotten things right."
On another note, only one review found the book to be full of itself.
Timothy Yenter's review for RealMagazine.com of The Simpsons and Philosophy
said, "Each essay takes a unique approach, and each has its own strengths
and weaknesses.... (but) Not all the essays are so successful. Some never
deliver the package they claim to offer, or they suffer from oversimplifying
philosophical ideas or Simpson characters."
Mainly every reviewer and/or critic had nothing but great hoots and hollers
for the book, if not the show as well. It IS a great spring board into
philosophy for those not well equipped or versed in the discipline. William
Irwin currently uses the book as an incredibly helpful addition to the
books required in his class titled: Fundamentals of Philosophy. He, and
other philosophy professors from around the United States, find the book
an essential contemporary text that allows students and their professors
an outlet into a better understanding of how philosophy is interwoven
in our American pop culture and daily lives.
"Cartoons don't have any deep meaning. They're just stupid drawing
that give you a cheap laugh." -Homer Simpson
It isn't just a cartoon. And it does have many deep meanings. It has influenced
us enough to have professors writing essays for a book about it; it has
influenced other professors to use it in their very curriculum; it has
us talking and laughing about each episode with co-workers, friends, and
family. There MUST be more to it then the two-dimensional characters and
absurdness that radiates from it into our living rooms. "(It) has
managed to be the only consistently funny, consistently smart source of
political humor in mainstream American culture," asserted essayist
David Kamp in GQ magazine ("Satire Still Superior On The Simpsons.").
Absurdness, yes; satire galore, yes; pop cultural influence in every 30-minute
session, yes. And insanely enough, we learn from ourselves more each time
we witness Homer and his family living their lives as we do. D’oh!
"Let’s go home kids."
"We are home, dad."
"That was fast."
"Allusion." Oxford American Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford U P,
"Bart Simpson in TIME magazine." TIME. 19 Oct. 2001.
French, Kevin. Rev. of The Simpsons and Philosophy. YBP Library Services.
Oct. 2001. <http://www.ybp.com/>.
Green, John. Rev. of The Simpsons and Philosophy. Booklist. 97.16.
Holt, Jason. Rev. of The Simpsons and Philosophy. Canadian Dimension.
LaCoe, Jean. "The Simpsons Give Philosopher Food For Thought."
Leader. 14 Oct. 2001. <http://www.timesleader.com/>.
Maurstad, Tom. "TV Philosophy Books Ponder the World According to
and Jerry." The Dallas Morning News. 01 Sept. 2001. 14 Oct. 2001.
Mulhauser, Dana. "Homeric Epic." Chronicle of Higher Education.
Nestor, James. "The Tao of Seinfeld." Salon.com Books. 19 Oct.
Paakinen, Jouni. "Meditations on Springfield." The Springfield
Times. 3 Nov.
Rev. of The Simpsons and Philosophy. Publishers Weekly. 19 Oct. 2001
Rev. of The Simpsons and Philosophy. Seminary Co-op Bookstores. 14
Oct. 2001 <http://www.semcoop.com/>.
"Satire Still Superior on The Simpsons." Las Vegas Sun. 25 Sept.
1998. 11 Oct.
"Simpsons Quotes." Life Is A Joke.com. 19 Oct. 2001.
The Official Simpsons Web Site. 10 Oct. 2001
Yenter, Timothy. Rev. of The Simpsons and Philosophy. RealMagazine.com.
14 Oct. 2001. <http://www.realmagazine.com/new/>.