Against “Gee Whiz” Philosophy

“Gee, Mr. Wizard …”
“… <heh, heh> we’re gonna need another Timmy.” (my eternal admiration for anyone who gets that reference.)

As in so many things in life, I find myself eternally situated between divergent spheres. This situation is most evident in my two great avocations in life, music and philosophy. I discuss my life in music here.

In philosophy, I earned my PhD, at the close of which it is customary to be admitted into the order of the learned faculty of institutional academia. I looked at that stairway to musty calcification and decided to walk a different path. I lamented about the state of academic obscurity in another article. My assertions in that article are being reaffirmed every day.

Great people forge their own paths. I’m not great yet but my own path is to walk away from the merry-go-round of institutional academia, teach philosophy part-time, and devote the rest of my time to writing and producing philosophy content on multiple platforms for a non-academic audience.

On the One Hand …

I reject the notion that philosophy is only for academics. Philosophy is an approach to life that is open to anyone. I also reject the notion that philosophy is a dry, opaque subject that requires an advanced degree. Philosophy is part of being human, an approach to life that we all at times take. Of course, like anything, the more one studies and practices a subject or activity the more one can excel in understanding and applying it. The more one delves into philosophy, the more one gets out of it.

There are different kinds of delving, though. Academic delving tends to be a narrowing in on minutia and self-absorbedly debating minuscule assertions about them. Lost in the pedantic tiffs over arcane trifles are connections of concepts to the world, life, and people.

Academics produce journal articles for other academics, not to solve problems in the world or to help people better understand ideas and solutions. I do not lump all academics into this, but those still connected with and interested in the real world are outnumbered by the Ivory Tower dwellers who look down on the rest of reality with condescending disinterest. I am not interested in engaging with such unproductive circinate activities.

On the Other Hand …

There are people who try to communicate philosophical concepts to non-academics. Unfortunately, these people tend to swing the pendulum too far in the direction away from the dry pedantry of the institutional academics. They dumb down philosophy to make it “palatable” and “entertaining.” In so doing, they lose touch with philosophy and even with the audience they are trying to reach.

My subtitle, “Gee, Mr. Wizard…” is a reference to the TV show, Mr. Wizard. It was broadcast long before my time, but while I was growing up it was still being widely parodied as a well-meaning but silly presentation of science to children. It popularized the term “gee whiz” that was often uttered by the children who were used as the audience for Mr. Wizard’s demonstrations. The demos were designed to elicit “gee whiz” moments - heavy on things flashing, foaming over, and sparking controlled explosions. It was science dumbed down to the level of elementary school children, which was fine for little children. At least they didn’t have a fat guy dressed up in a rat suit like an even sillier show in 1990s.

Mr. Wizard and the later gee whiz science TV shows it inspired didn’t teach much about science. It’s important to popularize science for people, but dumbing down science creates more misconceptions than knowledge.

The same is true for gee whiz philosophy, which has been a small but growing trend in recent years. In books, videos, podcasts, and online articles (including here on Medium), people are making cartoons and doing comedy trying to make philosophical concepts, so to speak, flash, foam over, and spark controlled explosions. Getting “gee whiz” expressions from people is perhaps a reasonable goal, but it isn’t teaching people philosophy.

Even more so than with science, dumbing down philosophy creates more misconceptions than knowledge. Turning philosophy into stand-up comedy, a kids’ cartoon, or some other warped concoction of nonsense is clickbait that does get clicks. I grant that, but still doesn’t get you an audience that is engaged. Playing the fool to get that opening ad view only creates more fools. You aren’t respecting your audience and you aren’t respecting philosophy.

The other thing that really annoys me about the gee whiz philosophy junk is the emptiness of its topics. Because these creatives are interested in clickbait they concentrate on fluffy motifs and avoid serious issues. They don’t discuss the difficulties of perception and communication, social injustice, political power, feminism, philosophy of race, and other contentious matters of great importance to people. Difficult and painful topics aren’t amenable to the gee whiz gimmicks.

A Middle Path

Philosophy often isn’t easy to understand, but it isn’t a mystical impenetrable subject either. There is no need to over-complicate it; there is no need to over-simplify it. Philosophy can be explained in simple-to-understand language when its concepts are connected to people’s lives. That’s respecting your audience and respecting philosophy. Those two areas of respect are attitudes I always keep in mind. I produce videos and podcasts without cartoons or comedy routines. I don’t add clickbait headlines to anything I produce. That’s just acting as a responsible adult should.

Philosophy can be fun. Talking about ways we can improve our society and our individual lives is satisfying. Informing people and improving their understanding of philosophy and how it connects to everything we experience and do is very rewarding. Gee whiz, you don’t need to junk that up.

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