Stranger in a Strange Land: James S. Spiegel
Taking Philosophy to the Masses
This is a guest column by James S. Spiegel, professor of philosophy and religion at Taylor University. With Steven B. Cowan, he is the author of The Love of Wisdom: A Christian Introduction to Philosophy (B&H Academic).
The impulse among professional philosophers to make their craft appealing to the masses might be as old as philosophy itself. In the ancient world, as today, motives for this varied. Some acted on a brute desire for profit—typified by the Sophists of the 5th century bc, among whom some, such as Gorgias and Hippias, essentially became celebrities. Others were driven by a self-sacrificing desire for eternal truth. Our exemplar is Socrates (not a true professional, since he consistently refused remuneration for his services). His commitment to taking philosophy to the streets secured his place as the founder of Western philosophy, as well as martyrdom.
In subsequent Western philosophical history, many major philosophers labored to make their ideas more accessible by publishing dialogues (most notably Plato, but also the likes of Augustine, Berkeley, and Hume), while others used alternative literary forms (e.g., Sartre's plays, Camus' novels) or produced shorter, less technical treatises so the common folk could grasp their ideas. Even Kant produced "simplified" versions of his philosophical ideas for a larger audience.
Fast-forward a few more centuries, and in the early 1990s Jostein Gaardner's Sophie's World—a history of philosophy in the form of a mystery novel—becomes a worldwide bestseller (now published in 53 languages). It was just a few years later that the current swell of popular-level philosophy books commenced with the Open Court volume Seinfeld and Philosophy (1999). Since then, Open Court has published more than 75 such volumes, on everything from the Beatles to The Simpsons. Blackwell has since gotten into the action with their own series, now totaling some 50 titles.
So now that the ...