The Simpsons and Philosophy

About.

The Simpsons and Philosophy course at the University of California, Berkeley was founded in 2003, and since then has been offered to thousands of students over the years. The purpose of the course is to offer Berkeley students an introductory look into philosophy, provided in a uniquely fun and engaging way through The Simpsons. During the course of the semester, students could expect to read Plato, Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and other major figures of western philosophy. The class is fun, but intellectually challenging – as one would expect any course at UC Berkeley to be.

The Simpsons can be a way for students new to philosophy to find it more relevant — yet the reason for The Simpsons and Philosophy class says as much about the nature of philosophy itself as it does about The Simpsons. As Julian Baggini puts it very well: “why cartoons are the best form in which to do philosophy is that they are non-realistic in the same way that philosophy is. Philosophy needs to be real in the sense that it has to make sense of the world as it is, not as we imagine or want it to be.”

Along the way, the course has drawn a surprising amount of popular attention, often cited as an example of the ways in which The Simpsons has become construed as a cultural phenomenon beyond the ordinary bounds of simply a popular long-running television show. The class seems to  appear with some frequency on lists for “coolest/most bizarre/college classes we wish we’d taken” — a testament of sorts to Berkeley’s proud tradition of academic freedom and intellectual creativity.

The Simpsons class has welcomed a number of visiting lecturers during its history, including distinguished Berkeley faculty members as well as an annual tradition of inviting directors from the show to visit the course at the Berkeley campus. Past lectures have featured visits from longtime Simpsons director David Silverman; as well as directors Edwin Aguilar and Raymond Persi.

Philosophy of The Simpsons?

The course was created not necessarily with the premise of finding a philosophy of The Simpsons, but rather to elucidate philosophy through The Simpsons. If such a philosophy of the show were to be found, perhaps it would be that seemingly anything can potentially be targeted by the show’s clever use of satire and parody, and therefore can be laughed at. What makes The Simpsons in particular such an instructive pairing with the concerns of philosophy is precisely because the show encourages a thoughtful kind of laughter, a questioning of commonplace assumptions about ourselves, others, and the world in which we live – not unlike the attitude of critical scrutiny that is the task of philosophy.

For example — when Homer says, “I’m a lonely, insignificant speck on a has-been planet orbited by a cold, indifferent sun!” did Simpsons writers intend any deeper existentialist meaning? Maybe, but probably not. But that certainly does not prevent us from discussing points about Sartre and Camus in the context of such funny moments (besides, Sartre should really lighten up). Did Shakespeare intend for Othello or Hamlet to be used today towards the purpose of gender studies, film studies, and postcolonialism? Of course not. Those weren’t even things in 1601. The question of how The Simpsons can interact with philosophy, if we know what to look for, delves into issues of intertextuality – the way in which texts interact with other texts to shape and produce meaning. (For a further discussion on intertextuality, check out William Irwin’s article, “Against Intertextuality”).

Links.

A nice article from the San Francisco Chronicle about The Simpsons and Philosophy class at UC Berkeley. Sure wish I had a better haircut in that picture.

The Simpsons as Philosophy – A fascinating BBC article by Julian Baggini, discussing philosophy in general, pointillist painting, and “Homer the Heretic.”

Al Jean has an equivocal yet amusing comment on the class in this article from the Belfast Telegraph.

An interesting PBS interview by Jeffrey Browne with Matt Groening and James L. Brooks. Brooks calls The Simpsons class an example of “a mad world gone sane.” I have no problem with that.

Suggested Readings.

The Simpsons and Philosophy ed. William Irwin – Required reading. The original inspiration for the course. Features a great collection of topics – from Homer and Aristotle; Bart and Nietzsche; Marxism in Springfield and others.

The Gospel According to The Simpsons by Mark Pinsky – Excellent discussions of religion and The Simpsons

Leaving Springfield: The Simpsons and the Possibility of Oppositional Culture ed. John Alberti – More theoretical than most Simpsons book, but very well done

Planet Simpson: How a Cartoon Masterpiece Defined a Generation by Chris Turner – One of the more comprehensive examinations of the show I’ve found so far

Watching with The Simpsons: Television, Parody, and Intertextuality by Jonathan Gray – An excellent examination of The Simpsons from the perspective of media studies

FAQ.

Do you think the writers of the show intended to include philosophy in The Simpsons?

The official answer would be no*. But, the writers of the show are very smart people and one of the keys to the long-running success of the show is unquestionably the fact that the episodes are written with depths of meaning and humor that encourage and reward rewatching. Part of the beauty of The Simpsons is that like any truly great text or work of art, it will inevitably mean different things to different people – that we are able to teach students about philosophy and find different meanings despite the fact that we are all watching the same episodes, says much about why The Simpsons has appealed to so many different people for so many years.

*However Matt Groening and I once had a chat in which he described his love of Nietzsche and in particular Walter Kaufman’s work with Nietzsche. Very interesting!

Questions about the class? Feel free to email me at: tyler@tylershores.com