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Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle Ran Hogwarts
by: Wes

Okay, I'll admit it -- despite my intense loathing for Harry Potter, the trailer for the new movie wowed me. Of course, that's pretty much what trailers do these days, making even the very dullest of films seem exciting for all of two minutes, but even knowing this I started to question my previous attitude towards the books. Yes, I had read the first book and seen the first movie and been quite unimpressed with both, but was it possible that Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle Ran HogwartsRowling's successive books really did get better? Moreover, was it possible that the books actually contain the depth that people claim to have found in them -- that they deal with intellectual issues in a manner that justifies their excessive pagelengths? Yet because I don't have the time nor will to read a series of books that even fans admit are needlessly lengthy, I borrowed Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle ran Hogwarts from the local library in the interest of finding answers to my questions.

Did I get them? Not quite, but I should've expected that. See, while Open Court's Popular Culture and Philosophy series is an interesting endeavor in that it attempts to teach philosophy by drawing upon people's interests in various popular media, the books themselves actually do very little to highlight any true intellectual merit that the subject matter might possess. On the contrary, they merely utilize the respective media in the course of offering a general survey of various philosophical topics, referring to it only as a means of explaining the issue at hand. For example, during a discussion of Aristotle's definition of courage in Harry Potter and Philosophy, Harry's actions during certain conflicts are used to exemplify various aspects of what courage entails. When evil is discussed, Voldemort's actions are employed towards the same end. Et cetera.

At this point, you might be thinking that this is an unreasonable criticism. After all, the subtitle is "If Aristotle Ran Hogwarts", and if Aristotle ran Hogwarts, he'd probably teach a lot of philosophy, at times using the actions of his students to elucidate his points. But the content of almost any story could function as Harry Potter does in this book. In the metaphysics chapters that touch on the philosophy of free will and time travel, for example, any story involving destiny and time travel could provide a suitable segue into the subject -- a fact made manifestly apparent in the free will chapter, given that the problem was originally addressed by religious scholars who saw an incompatibility between free will and divine foreknowledge. To utilize an appropriate comparison in summing up the book's treatment of the Harry Potter series, if philosophy were the art of divination and I were explaining how I utilized the skill to uncover some dreadful future event, Harry Potter would be the a particular patch of clouds in the sky.

Which brings us to another point -- the dreadful, joking references to particularities of the Harry Potter universe that permeate certain chapters in the book. Hardly possessing even the usefulness of the above analogy, the various authors often employ Potter-inspired turns of phrase in the course of their writing. For example, they often refer to the reader as a Muggle, and rather than saying something along the lines of, "Let's put on our thinking caps," they might say, "Let's raise our magic wands." Granted, not all of the authors do this, and some integrate these references to somewhat clever and less annoying effect, but at times it's more irritating than that fucking house elf from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. (Hey, did I mention that I saw the second movie? Bored the crap out of me.)

Of course, I can see a Potter maniac eating this stuff up. Having met people that actually refer to themselves and others as "muggles" in casual conversation, having literally seen people clap their hands and squeal in delight upon preordering a Harry Potter book that wouldn't even be released until several months later, I'm sure that some people who otherwise care very little for philosophy might be moved to read this book from cover to cover -- multiple times -- simply because of the abundant (if insubstantial) references to Rowling's books. But what would they have learned? My final problem with the book deals with its expectations of its audience. Now, the Pop Culture and Philosophy volumes with which I am familiar (The Matrix and Philosophy and Buffy and Philosophy) more or less subscribe to the above problems -- in that they are primarily interested in reiterating philosophical problems with only tangential reference to the particular work denoted in their titles and often contain pointless references to the series in order to bolster their apparent relevance to the work -- but in addition to covering slightly more interesting subject matter, those books seemed to be written with a more discerning audience in mind. All of the books in this series, however, suffer from the same major flaw: in the course of presenting largely simplified versions of more complex philosophical difficulties, they leave out some premises that are essential to making sense of the arguments. For example, consider this simple syllogism:

1. Wes watched Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
2. Wes found Dobby to be exceedingly annoying and found certain sequences, such as the flying car scene, to be fairly pointless. Moreover, Wes nearly fell asleep multiple times while watching the film.
3. Wes didn't like the movie.

Now, this is a fairly simple argument, and it's worth noting that the premises here do not necessarily entail that I wouldn't like the movie. Perhaps I like being irritated and watching pointless things, and sleeping is always a relatively enjoyable pasttime. So here we see that making sense of this syllogism would require you to possess additional knowledge about me -- namely, that I don't like watching aggravating, trivial things, and while I may enjoy sleeping, I do not enjoy media that motivates me to do so (with the exception of lullabyes and audio recordings of nature). Also, note that the first premise is arguably implied by the second, which is really the most important premise of the argument. But in addition to possessing the above flaw, in that the arguments would require a reader to have outside information even in a more complex statement of the issue, Harry Potter and Philosophy might supply readers with the following --

1. Wes watched Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
2. Wes didn't like the movie.

-- and then proceed to say, "Clearly, Wes didn't like the movie because it bored him." But that isn't clear at all from the above syllogism, is it? And while I've noted that all of the books, due to their general nature, succumb to the difficulty of attempting to communicate complex issues while leaving out integral details, Harry Potter and Philosophy is the only one I've read that consistently used words like "clearly" and "therefore" to assure the reader that its content made sense, even in the absence of necessary information. Would a less discerning reader pick up on this, or would he/she merely be content with the authors' reassurance that the text did, in fact, contain all of the necessary premises for supporting its conclusions? Moreover, would reading this book motivate a Potter fan to take up further philosophical study? I doubt it.

Here at Hogwarts, Ron practices torturing babies.

But perhaps I expected too much of the book. After watching the films, there are a number of ethical issues that I'd have liked to have seen explored -- for example, given that the mandrake root bore decidedly human characteristics and even reacted in the manner of a newborn baby, wasn't killing them to cure the petrified students tantamount to infanticide? And how does this relate to the dispute concerning stem cell research? Or what is the place of Christianity (and religion in general) in the Potterverse, given that the students clearly observe it but nonetheless practice arts described as being evil in the Bible? -- but Harry Potter and Philosophy does not attempt to address these kinds of concerns. Instead of its primary title being "Harry Potter and Philosophy", the book might better be called "Introduction to Philosophy (with Harry Potter)", as the content of the Harry Potter books always takes a noticeable backseat to the philosophy. Still, the book is not entirely without merit. I found some of the references to the books to be interesting (however, recall that I have not read the books; to someone who is exceedingly familiar with them, these references may seem less curious), and the limited discussions of certain subjects may prove thought-provoking to some readers.

However, though likely to affect different classes of readers in differing ways, the book will probably miss its intended mark -- if its intended mark is to move its readers to pursue philosophical study. Those who most enjoy reading it will likely get little out of it, as they will derive more gratification from the numerous references to Harry Potter than the philosophical content (if they are not offended by the authors' admission that the Potter books, while being fun, hardly constitute classic literature). As Aristotle himself did not refer to Rowling's books ad infinitum, however, they will likely not be encouraged to read his actual works. More discerning readers with a less fanatical but still strong like in Harry Potter might find more intellectual stimulation from reading the book, but the simplified arguments will either frustrate or mislead them. These persons will probably be discouraged from further philosophical study for the former reason or deterred for the latter because, believing that they already understand these issues, they will see no need to explore them further. And given the highly general and fairly common subject matter, students of philosophy have likely already studied the topics presented here in far more detail -- and, as such, this book will strike them as being little more than a memory charm.

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