This latest entry in the Wiley-Blackwell "Philosophy and Popular Culture" series is geared to coincide with the start of Season 2 of HBO's "Game of Thrones", based on George R. R. Martin's series of fantasy books. ***Although there are a number of excellent essays, there are also a number of severe defects and failings that make this entry in the series lackluster and disappointing. *** These defects are (1) spoilers, (2) unexplored relevant themes, (3) weak essays and inconsistent segmentation, and (4) the recognition of three very peculiar yet persistent phenomena that appear to plague collections of essays of this type.
The "Editor's Note on Spoilers" advises "some readers" who are fans of the HBO series may not have read all five books upon which the series is based, and that they may wish to "delay reading" of six of the 20 chapters. First, most readers of this book most likely will only be fans of the HBO series, and not have read a single book, like myself. Asking them to "delay reading" almost one out of every three essays will most likely result in those essays never ever being read. For those readers that ignore this warning, the spoilers may be confusing at best, upsetting at worst. Second, I disagree with the Editor's Note that "[M]any of the philosophical quandaries can't be discussed without looking at events across the five books". Wrong. Everything covered in these essays is found in Season 1.
UNEXPLORED RELEVANT THEMES
I can think of two themes that should have been addressed in this book that were not. First off, where is the essay that deals with the morality of incest? The incestuous relationship of the Lannister fraternal twins is a persistent theme throughout Season 1, in fact, it is one of the major themes that drive much of the action. To not have directly addressed it, and in depth, is a grievous error. Would you like to know where this essay lies? Go to Wiley-Blackwell's "Arrested Development and Philosophy", Chp. 2, "Kissing Cousins" by Deborah R. Barnbaum.
A second theme that should have been addressed deals with the development of the social identities of two of the underdog characters: Arya Stark and Tyrion Lannister. Arya Stark is a young girl who rebels against the expected social identity for women, and Tyrion Lannister is a dwarf who shouldn't even be alive in the world of the Seven Kingdoms. How each fought against society's expectations for how they should behave and live was worthy of an essay exploring how social identity is formed. I'm thinking Heidegger, Sartre, and Foucault, and definitely some feminist philosophers too for Arya's case. Although Arya and Tyrion's plights were in a sense indirectly touched upon in a few essays, how they went about creating their own social identities contra society's expectations was not. (Although one may argue that the essay on game theory does this for Tyrion Lannister.)
WEAK ESSAYS AND INCONSISTENT SEGMENTATION
There are twenty essays divided equally among five parts. Each part tends toward a specific philosophical theme, but not every essay within each part adheres to this segmentation scheme. In general, the parts cover: (1) political philosophy, (2) morality, (3) metaphysics and epistemology, (4) morality (again), and (5) miscellaneous topics (fate and freedom, morality (again!), game theory, and insanity as a social construction). The essays started off strong; in fact, there are a number of very good to excellent essays herein, especially all of the essays in Parts 1 and 2. Even Don Fallis' essay on lying and deception was excellent, in addition to which I believe he broke his own record for most philosophers mentioned in an essay: fourteen! However, starting with Part 3, unsatisfying, bland, lukewarm, and weak essays appeared. A few essays seemed to be more social commentary than true to the mandate of books in this series.
Both of book editor Henry Jacoby's essays were poor. "Wargs, Wights, and Wolves That Are Dire: Mind and Metaphysics, Westeros Style" was unsatisfying, weak, and all over the place. In addition, his claim that "many animals have sophisticated languages" (p. 121) is incorrect. I hate to "appeal to authority", but animals have "call signs", only human beings possess true language. His second essay, "No One Dances the Water Dance", was an attempt to make "East meet West" as he tried to meld Aristotle with Zen, Taoism and martial arts. Mr. Jacoby's attempt at cross-cultural philosophical syncretism was a catastrophic failure. Oil and water do not mix, Mr. Jacoby, regardless of what your karate sensei may have told you. Wax on, but water stays off!
Katherine Tullman's essay on cultural relativism was very poor, no better than high school-level social commentary. Ms. Tullman also confused me when she claimed that there is no way to prove that one system of morality is superior to any other, yet, "In the end, we must reject moral relativism" (p. 204). Stacey Goguen's essay on the injustice of chivalry was also poor and more social commentary than philosophy. Ms. Goguen mentions the struggle against social norms, but would have served the reader better had she instead delved into the creation of social identity (unexplored relevant theme).
PECULIAR AND PERSISTENT PHENOMENA
I've had the opportunity to read quite a number of these "philosophy and pop culture" books, both from Wiley-Blackwell and their main competitor, Open Court. I've come across what I believe to be three relatively consistent and peculiar phenomena. First, it does seem, on rare occasions, that a handful of essays originate from professors at a single university. When this happens, it's understandable. But I question the wisdom of including multiple essays from contributors at the same university. Second, I find it more often the case than not that weak or poor essays tend to come in streaks, e.g., the essays in this collection that I found to be weak were chps. 9, 10, 15, 16, 17, 18, and 19. This is peculiar. To prove it, one would need a more objective definition of a weak essay, to have essays read and graded by multiple readers, and then have the data analyzed using non-parametric statistical analysis. That isn't going to happen. But I've observed this trend on many occasions. Finally, I have come to conclude that collections of essays of this type suffer from the "Curse of the Book's Editor". That is, essays contributed by the book's editor tend to be consistently bad. This phenomenon would only make sense if the editor didn't have the time and energy to both husband the collection of essays and write a good essay(s). I see this a lot.
And there you have it. Deduct one star for missing two very important relevant themes, and one star for the spoilers and the weak essays. Three stars. Not a "disaster", gentle reader, simply that some stars in the heavens may have "gone south for the winter". John V. Karavitis