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From Nytimes.com

Sopranos follows Buffy in "Popular Culture and Philosophy"

By David Bernstein

Tuesday 13 April 2004, by Webmaster

As if Tony Soprano did not have enough troubles: a looming F.B.I. investigation into his organized crime activities; a separation from his wife, Carmela; an infatuation with his therapist, Dr. Melfi, who rejects him; not to mention a brewing fallout with Johnny Sacramoni, an underboss in the New York family.

Now a bunch of philosophers have HBO’s beleaguered mob boss in their sights. These academic wiseguys are contributors to a new collection of essays called "The Sopranos and Philosophy: I Kill Therefore I Am" (Open Court Publishing, $17.95), which came out last month.

The 219-page paperback, edited by Richard Greene and Peter Vernezze, is the seventh in Open Court Publishing’s "Popular Culture and Philosophy" series. Previous books explored pop culture franchises including "Seinfeld," "The Simpsons," "The Matrix," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Lord of the Rings."

William Irwin, an associate professor of philosophy at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., is the series editor. Mr. Irwin, 33, calls the volumes "philosophy with training wheels." The goal, he says, is to make philosophy more accessible to nonacademics.

"Most people are turned off by philosophy not because they don’t like the ideas but because of the difficult, abstract, abstruse prose that it’s so often written in," he said. "Nothing gets across a philosophical point better than a well-chosen example."

The collections are not substitutes for the classics, Mr. Irwin said. "Just as science without math involved is not a replacement for science in its most rigorous form, neither are these books meant in any way as a replacement for philosophy."

The new "Sopranos" volume has 17 essays that examine the television show and elucidate concepts from classical philosophers, including Aristotle, Machiavelli, Nietzsche, Sun Tzu and Plato.

"The books aren’t necessarily for everyone," Mr. Irwin admitted. "Not everyone is given to discussion that goes beyond the water cooler kinds of comments."

Nor is all pop culture fit for philosophical examination, he said. For example, Mr. Irwin said he rejected book proposals on the long-running television shows "Friends" and "E.R." because they lacked the basic depth and literacy for a thorough philosophical discourse.

The book series has become an unexpected success for this small publishing company, which is based in Chicago and was founded in 1887 by the philosopher and editor Paul Carus. "The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’oh! of Homer" (2001) has sold more than 203,000 copies, more than all the other collections combined. But "The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real" (2002), with more than 67,000 copies sold, is the only one in the series to reach the New York Times best-seller list. The book benefited from a sharp spike in sales after the release of "The Matrix Reloaded," the second film in the blockbuster science-fiction trilogy.

"Any of the books in this series sell more copies per month than most of our other books sell in a lifetime," said David Steele, the editorial director at Open Court. "For more traditional philosophy monographs, you hope that in their entire lifetime they will sell 5,000 copies."

But Mr. Irwin said the books had also drawn the ire (and ridicule) of some people in his profession and of other traditional educators.

Writing for The Village Voice, Norah Vincent, a freelance columnist, described the "Seinfeld" book as "a collection of essays by mostly third-rate philosophers from mostly substandard institutions - a fact that should come as no surprise."

"Low culture," she continued, "is infiltrating the scholarly world, a curriculum of aptly `higher’ learning in which shallow amusements have no place."

Alexander Nehamas, president of the eastern division of the American Philosophical Association, said the tensions between philosophy and pop culture dated to ancient times.

"Greek tragedy is now considered high art," Mr. Nehamas said, "but intellectuals at the time were seeing popular culture and entertainment. It was very distasteful. Now think 2,500 years from now somebody could be talking about Jerry Bruckheimer or Aaron Spelling. To us that sounds quite strange."

Joss Whedon, creator of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and its spinoff series "Angel," said the academic attention given to his show is "a little surprising," but he said pop culture should be taken seriously, not trivialized.

"Popular culture is a thing on its own that needs to be examined very carefully, very philosophically," Mr. Whedon said by telephone from Los Angeles. "If someone has a Nietzschian bias or a Freudian bias or any kind of bias that they want to put Buffy into as a mold, it’s legitimate."

At the same time Mr. Whedon, who said he had not read any of the Open Court series, cautioned against getting too carried away with pop culture scholarship.

The trend among universities to offer courses in pop culture and media studies has certainly helped sales for Open Court’s series. A few of the titles are now required reading for some classes, and others are big sellers at college bookstores.

Open Court’s next book, "Woody Allen and Philosophy," is scheduled for release in August, "Harry Potter and Philosophy" is due in October, and a title on superheroes and philosophy is planned for next year.