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Paul A. Cantor

Critique of Pure Horse Sense

A philosopher makes the case for Hollywood Westerns.

One of the more surprising trends in publishing in recent years has been the "philosophy and popular culture" phenomenon. Three publishers—Blackwell, the University Press of Kentucky, and Open Court—have ongoing series in this vein, with multiple volumes already in print, a few of which have achieved best-seller status, especially by academic standards. Most people think of philosophy and popular culture as antithetical. They view philosophy as arcane and esoteric—the very opposite of popular. And they view films and television shows as mindless entertainment—the very opposite of the thoughtfulness we associate with philosophers. Yet as these three series have demonstrated, examples from popular culture can be used to illustrate and illuminate subtle and even abstruse philosophical issues. At the same time, individual films and television shows sometimes turn out, upon careful analysis, to grapple seriously with genuine philosophic questions. The philosophy and popular culture movement has helped to make a broader audience aware of what is at stake in philosophic debate, while at the same time offering interpretations of individual films and television shows that deepen their fans' appreciation of their artistry.

Robert Pippin's Hollywood Westerns and American Myth makes a significant contribution to the philosophy and popular culture movement. On the philosophy side, Pippin's credentials are impeccable. In his many books, he has tackled philosophical analysis at its most challenging, writing on the likes of Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche. As for dealing with popular culture, he has the best of all qualifications: he is a fan of the movies he discusses. In a charming admission—unlikely to score points at his home base, the University of Chicago—Pippin confesses: "I doubt that many of my students had Daniel Boone coonskin caps and fake Davie Crockett Bowie knives (I did) … or spent all day Saturday at the movies (10 in the morning ...

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