Thinking in yellow: the philosophy of The Simpsons
Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, studied philosophy at college. Astute viewers will have noted the many references to philosophy in the show – Homer, for one, is so named as a nod to a great thinker (but he thinks it comes from baseball). Critics have noted for a long time that the show does more than merely play with philosophy. Rather than mentioning clever stuff in passing to show its creator’s erudition, the Simpsons actually does philosophy.
In the 1992 season 4 episode Homer The Heretic, Homer thinks for himself when he decides to renounce the Church and celebrate God in his own way: by watching TV, dancing in his underpants and slobbing out on the sofa. He justifies this by musing:
- "What's the big deal about going to some building every Sunday, I mean, isn't God everywhere?"
- "Don't you think the almighty has better things to worry about than where one little guy spends one measly hour of his week?"
- "And what if we've picked the wrong religion? Every week we're just making God madder and madder?"
These are all points that major philosophers have approached in far more long-winded ways, and the comic cartoon is the perfect vehicle for conveying these thoughts in simplified, and thus more vivid, format. The show is far more than a string of gags – it’s a chronicle of the human condition in our times. It has also predicted the future on many occasions, including Donald Trump’s presidency sixteen years before it became a reality. As the longest-running scripted series in US TV, it has become a monumental historical document.
Maybe we should start sending out the complete Simpsons on deep space probes. Few things explain humanity, with all its absurdities, with as much impact.
With the amount of serious attention paid to The Simpsons, it was just a matter of time before a university course appeared on the subject. First to the party was the University of Glasgow, with its short course ‘D’oh! The Simpsons Introduce Philosophy.’ Tutor Dr John Donaldson says of his course,
‘The Simpsons is one of the modern world’s greatest cultural artefacts, partly because it is so full of philosophy. Aristotle, Kant, Marx, Camus, and many other great thinkers’ ideas are represented in what is arguably the purest of philosophical forms – the comic cartoon.
This day-school will explore philosophy’s most inspiring ideas as presented in Matt Groening’s monument to the absurdities of human existence. Come along for a day of learning and explore some of philosophy’s most inspiring ideas as presented in The Simpsons.”
Groening’s brilliant comedy uses the residents of Springfield to explore philosophical ideas, playing them off against each other like chess pieces as they navigate the moral maze. With its 605 episodes so far, The Simpsons is as substantial a body of philosophical work as many of the great tomes. So why shouldn’t there be a course about it?