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Can a philosopher EMPATHIZE with the reader, and tell himSELF what's REAL??? AY, THERE'S THE WUB!
on January 21, 2012
Philip K. Dick is a famous American SF writer. He is better known through the Hollywood movies that were based on his works. Dick's view of his work is revealed in his statement: "I am a fictionalizing philosopher, not a novelist." Indeed, the three fundamental philosophical questions that Dick raised and explored in his works are (1) What is real?, (2) What is the "self"?, and (3) What does it mean to be human? Dick's answers to these questions appear to be (1) One can never be sure, (2) One can never be sure, and (3) To be "human" is to have empathy for others. Given both the widespread exposure of P.K. Dick's life and works, and the philosophical issues that he raised and explored, it is perhaps understandable how this entry in Open Court's "Popular Culture and Philosophy" series stands out as being both readable and entertaining. It is far from perfect, and I feel that it succeeds where it does more due to the depth and richness of its chosen subject matter than to either the efforts of editor D.E. Wittkower or the writing and analytical skills of many of its contributors.
Broken up into nine sections, there are 34 essays, followed by two of Dick's short stories. The first 28 essays are "full-length" (a dozen or so pages), whereas the last six are just a few pages long, each devoted to a single one of Dick's short stories. Eleven of the 28 full-length essays failed for one or more of the following reasons: no philosopher was mentioned, and the essay was merely social commentary; philosophers were mentioned, but only casually (practically name-dropped), without weaving them into the theme; the prose was either meandering or ponderous. The full-length essays that I feel should have been left out are Chps. 1, 3, 9, 10, 12, 16, 17, 18, Murphy's unnumbered essay on the justification of pre-crime, 21 and 23. Thus, almost 40% of the full-length essays failed to meet the mandate of "Popular Culture AND PHILOSOPHY". Along with the six mini-essays, and the inclusion of two of Dick's short stories, I feel that HALF of this book should never have found its way to the printer.
Editor D. E. Wittkower's "Matt Damon Is a Vast Sinister Conspiracy" was basically social commentary for the first ten pages, and then it remembered to briefly mention Nietzsche and St. Anselm. Wittkower went off the deep end, however, with the last full-length essay, "Time in Unfixed Are You". This essay's sentences were all printed in reverse word order, so as to make a point and clarify a position raised in the previous essay by Peter Simons regarding the flow of time. All Wittkower did was give me a massive migraine headache as I parsed each and every sentence.
Richard DD Viskovic's "Grow, My Dears, the Eugenicist Said" actually angered me when he claimed that it would be better to tell children that they possess "limitless potential", as that would be the best way to have them "push ... as far as [they] can." The fact is that most people are average or below average. To encourage children to do what they cannot is cruelty at best.
Don Fallis retains the record for most philosophers name-dropped in an essay with "Lies, Incorporated". Matthew Mccall's "The Blob Necessitates" drowns the reader in Spinoza's incomprehensible view of the totality of reality (hey, you're either in the blob or outside of it, and nothing's outside the blob!). Ronald S. Green's "The Gnosis of 2-3-74" tries to draw parallels between Dick's "pink light revelation" and the writings of the Gnostics. All it did was to give the reader a basic re-telling of the Gnostic creation myth. John Sullins' argument re "faux" sexual relationships in "Replicating Morality" rang hollow, as human sex has always been plagued with some amount of "faux" transactions. Yes, John, you don't have to be an android to be "faking" it, didn't you know that?
The remaining essays ranged from okay and decent to two that were excellent. G.C. Goddu's "Will You Survive a Trip to Rekall, Inc.?" dealt with the continuity of identity. It explored three possible rules for tracking the continuity of identity, and developed the theme in depth. Paul Atkinson's "I Know What You Did Next Summer" identified the use of time in Dick's works and applied the philosophy of Henri Bergson. It represented a good weaving of the philosopher's ideas to the theme, even going to the extent of contrasting Dick's works with the movies made from them. These two essays were excellent in that they each identified a theme in Dick's works and applied and developed the theme in light of a philosopher. They were engaging, thought-provoking and entertaining.
The bottom line is that there are a number of decent essays in this collection. Fans of Philip K. Dick's works and the Hollywood movies made from them will enjoy reading this book. However, it's as good as it is because of the depth and richness of the subject matter, and in spite of the poor husbanding by the editor and the questionable writing and analytical skills of many of the contributors. John V. Karavitis, John Karavitis, Karavitis