The 'A Song of Ice and Fire' Domain


Game of Thrones and Philosophy: Interview with Henry O. Jacoby

A couple of days ago we announced a contest to win a copy of Blackwell’s forthcoming Game of Thrones and Philosophy: Logic Cuts Deeper than Swords (Pre-order:  US Paperback, US Kindle, UK), and there we promised an interview with Professor Henry O. Jacoby, editor of the book and one of its contributors.

You can find it below, as we ask him seven questions (starting to feel like a “thing”, having seven questions!) about his work, the book, and some of his thoughts on questions that concern the series. And after you’ve read it, please feel free to leave a comment… not least because your comments will be entered into the pool for winning a copy of the book!

Could you tell us a bit about this Philosophy and Pop Culture series, and how you ended up getting involved in this series?

The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series has been ongoing for six or seven years I believe. Its goal is to bring philosophy to a general audience. I think it’s good to teach people the value of philosophy, and it’s better when this is done by professional philosophers rather than by well-meaning amateurs. Academic philosophy has gotten so technical and jargon-loaded, that it’s impossible to read if you’re not a professional. Moreover, people who ask philosophical questions aren’t likely to go in a bookstore and buy a copy of something written by Descartes or Hume, or one of the other greats. But they will buy a book about their favorite television series or movie. Philosophers often use what are called thought experiments, where you imagine unusual situations that force you to stretch your concepts a bit. Good fiction and fantasy does this as well; so imagining your favorite characters brings these situations more to life, and makes them more fun to think about as well.
I got involved when I started getting e-mails asking for philosophers to submit abstracts for pop culture books that they were working on; we were also encouraged to submit ideas for books we’d like to see or even edit. I suggested South Park and Philosophy, but was told they were already doing that one, and that I could submit a chapter proposal if I liked. I did. After that, I suggested House and Philosophy, and after awhile they agreed to do it. We worked on that book in 2008, and it’s been reprinted in nine languages now I think.

Why Game of Thrones?

I enjoyed working on House and Philosophy, and especially working with series editor Bill Irwin and everyone at Wiley, and thought about doing another book. But I knew it had to be something I was passionate about, because it really is a lot of work. In the Fall of 2010 I read an article saying that HBO was going to be doing Game of Thrones, based on a famous series of fantasy novels. I had never heard of them, but it sounded interesting, so I began to read about A Song of Ice and Fire. Everyone’s review I read praised the books endlessly, so I bought and read A Game of Thrones. It was so good, I had to keep reading so I bought and read the whole series. As with so many others, I fell in love with the world that George R. R. Martin had created; and it’s a world so rich in ideas that demand philosophical attention. I had found something that I knew I would enjoy working on. I first pitched the idea for the book in December, but we didn’t get the go ahead until May after the first few episodes of the first season had aired.

3) As the editor for the book, did you notice any particular philosophical themes which seemed to draw the most interest from the contributors in relation to the series?

The Machiavellian nature of some of the characters, like Varys or Littlefinger, jumps right out at you, so I got lots of submissions on social and political philosophy. The ethical issues are right there too—Are the wars for the throne just? Is morality relative to culture? Does power lead to happiness?—so there were lots of those too. I wrote my chapters on mind and metaphysics, and Zen, partly because I’m interested in those topics, and partly to have a little diversity.

4) Part of what makes the series work is those fantastical elements that change the ordinary into the extraordinary. How well can philosophy engage with fantasy and things that aren’t real, either to explain why we indulge in it or to examine the underlying metaphors or meanings?

I think those elements help the philosopher out. For example, suppose we’re thinking about the nature of consciousness. Is it just brain stuff? Can it be physically explained? The existence of wargs who can transfer their consciousness into other bodies, for example, forces us to think about those questions a little differently! It brings the thought experiments I mentioned before to life. It’s also helpful in the classroom to have fun examples to engage the students. Your question also points to something else that’s interesting: Why do we find fantasy so intriguing? I think it’s partly because it raises questions that force us to examine ourselves and our world differently. Philosophy does that too, only in a more structured way.

5) In a setting where there are prophecies that seem to indicate what the future holds, can free will exist?

That’s a difficult question, but I’ll try to answer it this way. First, it depends on how one defines ‘free will.’ On some views, it means that not only is what happens in part up to you and the choices you make, but moreover that if the exact ‘you’ were taken back in time to the same exact situation, you could have chosen differently. So this seems to mean that the future is not set, and thus prophesies and free will would seem to be in conflict. But other views of free will allow for causal determinism, meaning the future is set. On these views, it’s what’s causing your decisions, not whether they’re caused, that explains whether or not you’re free. On this view, prophesy and free will would not conflict. Another way to think of it is this. Suppose I’m watching you, but not affecting what you do in any way. My watching what happens has nothing to do with whether you’re acting freely or not. Now suppose I’m able to watch you in the future, rather than just in the present. Again, it doesn’t seem that the watching conflicts with free will.

6) What do you think is the biggest challenge for the general readership when it comes to absorbing philosophy and learning to apply it to their understanding of the world around them?

You have to be open-minded and willing to let the logic of the arguments take you where they will. The views of many people are often the product of all sorts of irrational sources, rather than logic and evidence, and many of these views are also highly emotional. It’s hard to be objective when someone is offering reasons as to why your most cherished beliefs might be false or inconsistent. The other big challenge I would say is that philosophy forces you to think in ways that you’re not used to, and this requires both practice and patience. Technology has made us impatient; we want to be told the answers right now, and not have to work to figure them out on our own.

7) As someone who is a fan of the series… is there any particular character you’d love to have a philosophical discussion with?

There are lots of characters I would enjoy spending time with, but as far as philosophical discussions go, I guess Tyrion would be a good one since he’s well-read and has been through so much. And I would certainly love to pick the brains of those who teach the Faceless Men at the Temple of Black and White.

(Added a bit of spoiler protection for that last answer, for those who’ve not read through A Feast for Crows as of yet!)