Philosophy in Popular Culture


Philosophy tends to make its way into popular culture in relatively limited ways – take the wise words of Yoda in Star Wars, for example. At a recent Berkeley Connect Philosophy small-group discussion, graduate student mentor Eugene Chislenko asked students to consider how philosophy is represented in pop culture. “Popular culture characterizes philosophy as useless,” offered one student. Others pointed out how philosophy is often portrayed as being only for the old and wise, such as the aforementioned Yoda character. “The word philosophy has taken on a decentralized meaning,” added another student. It’s used broadly in pop culture to refer to much more than the actual study of Philosophy.

If these students had their way, philosophy would be represented a bit differently. To create this change, they would start by teaching philosophy in high school. “I would start by teaching students about ethics first,” suggested one student. He added, “How we should live is one of the most accessible and applicable topics.”

To further propel the discussion, Chislenko read aloud a passage from Roland Barthes’ Mythologies. In this book, Barthes incorporates philosophical thinking into ordinary life. He attempts to make meaning out of mundane objects and activities. Many students agreed that this book would be a good example of how philosophy could be read in high school. However, one student argued, “The Barthes essay isn’t what I’m used to with philosophy. I don’t feel the importance of the issue as much as what I read in class.” Due to the everyday content matter, he felt the writing had less gravity.

“Should all public philosophy be analytical and focused on finding conclusions?” Chislenko asked the class. One student answered in the affirmative, explaining, “Philosophy is a combative exploration of truth. It’s drawing attention to something others don’t necessarily see.” Another student commented, “If you dig deeply you can find philosophy in any subject.” Barthes’ writing provided a good example of this.

The conversation shifted as Chislenko asked students, “If you had kids, what would you want to show them from philosophy?” Several students brought up ethics, as parenting already involves a lot teaching kids what to do—and what not to do. One suggested reading Calvin and Hobbes or Dr. Seuss, as these popular works provide an easy introduction to philosophy for children.

The students seemed eager for more people to understand how much can be gained from the study of philosophy. “I think all of the good aspects of philosophy should be moving towards the public,” commented one student. “We just need a way to transmit this stuff without dumbing it down too much.”

Posted by Madeline Wells, Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant