Philosophy and……: An interview with William Irwin.

How should philosophers engage with the world? What is philosophy for? Should philosophy be something essentially academic? Or, is there a demand for a public, popular, engaged philosophy? Philosophers of all denominations will have a view on these questions. Here to share his views on them, and related matters, is Professor William Irwin, Herve A. Leblanc Distinguished Service Professor and Chair of Philosophy, King’s College, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. As well as being the author of a number of books, book chapters and articles in academic journals Professor Irwin is the General Editor of the The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series. If you’ve heard of Game of Thrones and Philosophy, Terminator and Philosophy, or, going back a little, The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’Oh! of Homer, then you’ve heard of William Irwin.

PT: Professor Irwin, you are perhaps best known as the originator of the Philosophy and Popular Culture genre. What motivated you to start what has become a very successful series of books?

WI: The first book in the series was Seinfeld and Philosophy in 1999. I referenced Seinfeld quite a lot when I first started teaching because all of my students knew the show and it was a helpful way to illustrate philosophical ideas. How is Jerry like Socrates? What Kierkegaardian stage is Kramer in? That kind of thing. To my delight, I found that other philosophy professors were doing likewise. So when it was announced that Seinfeld was in its final season, I had the idea to collect essays from various philosophy professors into a book to memorialize our favourite source of philosophical examples. Seinfeld and Philosophy was a success, and so there was interest in doing more books along similar lines.


PT: You have been called the “Chief Architect” of the Philosophy and Popular Culture movement. Is this a title that you accept?
WI: That sounds a bit too grand. I’ve been more like a ringleader. From the beginning, the books in my series have been a team effort. All of the books include contributions from a dozen or more writers. Mark Conard and Aeon Skoble, my co-editors for The Simpsons and Philosophy, were particularly important in starting things and have continued to be key players.


PT: Going back, can you tell me a little about your background and how you originally became interested in philosophy?
WI: I had an existential crisis in high school. I lost my faith and was wondering about the meaning of it all. With some helpful guidance from teachers and a lot of browsing in bookstores and libraries, I discovered that my questions and concerns were philosophical. With the “and Philosophy” books I feel like I’m reaching out to people like my younger self who are looking for an accessible and engaging way to learn about philosophy.


PT: In 2015 you published The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism without Consumerism. What motivated you to write this work?
WI: I suppose I felt alone, not just in the dark, despairing existential sense (though sometimes that too), but in the academic sense. It was existentialist philosophy, particularly Sartre and Nietzsche that spoke to me back when I first got interested in philosophy—and it still resonates with me. Part of what I find attractive about existentialism is that it is a philosophy of individualism—it’s about lived, concrete, individual existence. I’ve also always been attracted to another philosophy of individualism: political libertarianism, which says that the role of government should be restricted to protecting the citizenry from force, fraud, and theft. I’m the only person I know in the academic world who embraces both existentialism and libertarianism. It’s kind of a lonely place to be. That’s why the title of the book is in the singular: “The” Free Market Existentialist. So the book is an attempt to put existentialism and libertarianism together. It’s also an invitation to others to join me in dialogue and turn the singular into the plural.

PT: In The Free Market Existentialist you argue that Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism is more suited to capitalism than it is to Marxism. Yet, as we know, Sartre developed an Existentialist Marxism in a number of works. Given this, why do you feel that his thought is more suited to capitalism? How do you read his works?


WI: I think there is a major rift between early Sartre and later Sartre. Much is made of the difference between the early Wittgenstein and the later Wittgenstein, and rightly so. But I think the difference between the early Sartre and the later Sartre is nearly as great. But whereas Wittgenstein himself noted the difference in his work, Sartre never really did. Beyond that, many dedicated Sartre scholars attempt to demonstrate that Sartre was basically consistent throughout his career. As I see it, the early Sartre (up to and just beyond Being and Nothingness) was an individualist whose chief concern was individual freedom and individual responsibility. In fact, he was loathed and rejected by the leading French Marxists in the 1940’s for precisely that reason—his philosophy was “bourgeois” and individualistic. The later Sartre, by contrast (most prominently in the Critique of Dialectical Reason), is a collectivist. He no longer sees freedom and responsibility as primarily individual matters. The later Sartre is undeniably a good fit with Marxism. But, to my mind, the early Sartre is a fit with free market capitalism, the economic philosophy that puts a premium on individual freedom and responsibility. Sartre himself didn’t make this connection, but prior to World War II he simply did not give any substantive thought to economics or politics. As I make clear in my book, we have never had a truly free market in America (or perhaps anywhere), especially not today. Instead, we have crony capitalism or “crapitalism.” This is not a system that fits well with the early Sartre, but I think a genuine free market system would.


PT: Has Sartre’s role as a public intellectual influenced your own projects in philosophy and popular culture?
WI: I’ve always admired Sartre as a kind of rock star of philosophy. He wrote dense academic tomes, but he also wrote some accessible philosophy, as well as plays and novels. He managed to bring philosophy to the people, and in my estimation, he was the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century.


PT: Your most recent book, Free Dakota, is a ‘libertarian novel’. Firstly, can you tell me, what is it about? Secondly, what motivated you to approach this subject matter in the form of a novel rather than as, say, a philosophical monograph?
WI: The novel is a political thriller informed by political theory. Much of it takes the form of a Socratic dialogue in a North Dakota diner. The premise of the novel is that a great number of libertarians have moved to the large but unpopulous state of North Dakota with the aim of seceding and starting a new nation.
I’ve always wanted to write a novel. So much of my career has been spent analyzing stories told by others. For a change, I wanted to be the one telling the story.

PT: Finally, Professor Irwin, where do you see the Philosophy and Popular Culture movement going in the next few years?
WI: There is an endless supply of intelligent, literate, and witty popular culture that is ripe for philosophical analysis. I can’t even keep up with every good show on television. In a way, that’s the problem. There are so many options that we see fewer examples of popular culture icons that are universal. There was a time about fifteen years ago when every college student was familiar with Seinfeld and The Simpsons. There is nothing quite like that today. So although there are lots of good pop culture candidates for philosophical analysis, it’s harder these days to find an icon that will make an “and Philosophy” book commercially viable. I suppose a good recent example, though, is Game of Thrones, and there are certainly others out there and yet to come. On that note, let me say that I’d be glad to hear from readers who have ideas for “and Philosophy” books that they would like to see. And let me say thanks to you, Philip, for the chance to discuss all of this with you.

Professor Irwin, thank you!

The Simpsons and Philosophy: an interview with William Irwin on YouTube:


Professor Irwin’s page at King’s:

The Blackwell Philosophy and Popular Culture series: