Given the recent death of Terry Pratchett, I can’t help feeling that my review of this collection has taken on more significance—personally, at least—than it would’ve had otherwise. With one final book, The Shepherd’s Crown, to be published posthumously, the canon of his works is nearly complete. Pratchett was a beloved, prolific author whose early, affectionate mockery of the tropes of high fantasy steadily evolved into biting political satire without ever losing his trademark sense of humour, and as such, I agree wholeheartedly with the premise of Philosophy and Terry Pratchett: namely, that his work is worthy of both academic analysis and considerable intellectual respect.
I am unconvinced, however, that this particular collection was the best way to demonstrate that point.
In Small Gods, the god Om, who is rather inconveniently stuck in the body of a tortoise, defines a philosopher as “someone who’s bright enough to find a job with no heavy lifting.” Elsewhere in the same book—which has a great deal to say on the subject of faith and philosophy—he comments thus on the utility of philosophers in general:
That’s why it’s always worth having a few philosophers around the place. One minute it’s all is truth beauty and is beauty truth, and does a falling tree in the forest make a sound if there’s no one there to hear it, and then just when you think they're going to start dribbling one of ’em says, incidentally, putting a thirty foot parabolic reflector on a high place to shoot the rays of the sun at an enemy’s ships would be a very interesting demonstration of optical principles. (p. 152)
Curiously—or then again, perhaps not—Philosophy and Terry Pratchett makes no mention of these asides, nor of the many others like them, presumably on the basis that the anthology’s goal is a discussion of Pratchett’s philosophically relevant ideas, rather than a rebuttal of his perception of philosophers. This is not at all unreasonable, and yet I can’t help but think of it as a misstep, if only because there are times when particular essays seem to have determinedly conflated Pratchett’s consistently stated belief in the power of stories—in narrativium, to give the Discworld term—with an altogether different philosophical principle.
The whole time I was reading this collection, I couldn’t shake a nagging question: just who, exactly, is the intended audience? Though I’ve read enough academic philosophy to have a reasonable sense of when the content was being, not dumbed down, but simplified for the presumable benefit of a more general readership (my husband is an academic philosopher; I proofread his papers), that simplification seldom came in the form of explanations tailored to a lay readership. Instead, it often felt more like I was reading summaries or introductions to longer pieces whose audience was assumed to be conversant in the topics under discussion, and while I'm all for academic literature treating the audience as intelligent, when you're dealing with names and concepts that are part of a specialised field rather than general knowledge, there’s a need to include more definitions than you might otherwise.
Thus: if this is a book intended for philosophers who like Terry Pratchett, then it’s probably right on the money; but if the intent was to make philosophy more accessible to a wider readership by using Pratchett’s novels as an entry point, then... not so much. If the former, that strikes me as being a rather small, specific readership; if the latter, though—and I suspect this was more the goal—then we're left in a rather tricky place. Because while, ten or twenty years ago, philosophical interpretations of popular culture were an established niche literary market, the current ubiquity of the internet—and, more importantly, of a rich, vibrant, active culture of online criticism that routinely subjects pop culture and its narratives to academic analysis while bucking the strictures of formal academic writing—has rather diminished the appeal.
Which is, I suspect, a major reason why I struggled with this book: the very notion of it felt anachronistic. Week to week, I spend a not inconsiderable portion of my time reading thoughtful meta-analyses of various books, comics, films, and TV shows online, precious few of which are written in formal academic language, using academic citations, but which nonetheless are intelligent, well-sourced, and highly informative. The pieces in Philosophy and Terry Pratchett, by contrast, tend to be written either dryly or in a painfully forced approximation of Pratchett’s distinctive comic style, and while there were one or two exceptions, they didn’t quite compensate for having to wade through the rest of it.
And then there was the content of the essays themselves.
The first piece, “A Golem Is Not Born, but Rather Becomes, a Woman: Gender on the Disc,” by editor Jacob M. Held, ought to have been right up my alley, being a feminist analysis of the Discworld. Instead, it had me bristling almost from the outset. “Women challenge our understanding of personhood as much as any other fictional creation,” says Held; “[they] force us to consider the idea of gender” (p. 3). As an opening gambit, this is problematic for two reasons: firstly, because joking about women being fictional creatures and comparing them to “monsters” in your first paragraph is vastly less funny than it is othering, and second, because it commits the fallacy of assuming that “gender,” as a term, refers primarily to women; as though men are the default human, and women a subcategory whose existence necessarily entails a different kind of analysis.
Worse still, Held then blunders his way through a painful succession of cisnormative comparisons, partly because he’s trying to be glibly comic like Pratchett such that his choice of language badly undermines his own argument, and partly because he seems genuinely confused about the issues he’s discussing. “Some humans,” he writes, “are born with female bits” (p. 6), thereby tying gender to body parts in the same paragraph where he’s trying to prove the opposite, an error only rendered more embarrassing by lines like “sex is about whether you can pee standing up” (oh my god, NO), “vagina owners can behave in ways consistent with penis possessors” (behaviour isn’t contingent on genitalia) and “since it [gender] isn’t necessarily tied to our sex, there could be more genders than there are sexes” (this isn’t a question of “could be”; there literally are more genders, as one would expect a feminist academic to know already).
Held also says that “people just do possess gender” (p. 8), as though being agender isn’t an actual thing, and goes on to argue, rather callously, that “the problem with [gender] conformity isn’t that it might be unsatisfying to those that are asked or required to conform, it’s that conformity breeds complicity and obedience” (p. 11)—as though the extreme personal and emotional costs of being forced to suppress one’s identity are morally and functionally irrelevant. Despite being cognisant of the difference between gender and sex, he still talks about how “both Polly and Jackrum have girl parts and lack boy parts” (p. 14), and while there’s something extremely compelling about Held’s suggestion that Sergeant Jackrum “may be Terry Pratchett’s first transgender character” (p. 16), this is rather ruined by the fact that he seems deeply unfamiliar with trans issues and terminology. Within the space of a page, he describes Jackrum as “the trans-man, a transgender woman who transitioned to a man,” says he “returns to his son play acting a man” and asserts that “we don’t have a latent gender identity waiting to express itself” (p. 17), then spends the rest of the essay referring to Jackrum with a mix of male and female pronouns, concluding, rather bizarrely, that “drag shows that all gender is performance” (p. 20).
James B. South’s contribution, “‘Nothing Like a Bit of Destiny to Get the Old Plot Rolling’: A Philosophical Reading of Wyrd Sisters” is, by contrast, almost blissfully unproblematic. Though slightly dense, stylistically speaking, it’s one of the stronger pieces in the collection, in that it ignores neither Pratchett’s belief in the power of stories nor the significance of mixing literary and thematic analysis with the philosophical sort. Andrew Rayment’s “‘Feigning to Feign’: Pratchett and the Maskerade,” however, is more reminiscent of Held’s approach to gender: womanhood is portrayed as a performance in such a way as to uncritically situate manhood as the default human state, which rankles even without the inclusion of a Žižek quote to support it. There’s also, again, a cisnormative aside about Rupert being “the only real man” (p. 56) in Monstrous Regiment, followed by the claim that “when Rupert does dress up as a woman, he looks exactly like what he is—a man in drag” (p. 57)—which assertion is factually incorrect, given that Rupert not only successfully infiltrates the enemy camp as a woman, but gets a date with one of the male guards.
Rayment’s argument also involves the use of false equivalences, to say nothing of his rather unfortunate habit of comparing the prejudices faced by Pratchett’s fictional creatures with actual real-world racism. On p. 64, for instance, he says:
One is an Igor therefore one does Igorly things. The lisp, the limp, the scars are all expressive of the Igors’ given identity. One is an Arab therefore one does Araby things: the dishonesty, the excitability, the immaturity—these are all expressive of the Arabs’ given identity. One is a woman, and therefore one does womanly things. The lipstick, the dresses, the high-heels—these are all expressive of a woman’s supposedly given essence. It is no secret that, beyond the idea that one’s name or one’s nationality or one’s race can in any way be prior or essential to the subject, Pratchett also takes aim at the idea that there are any essential, prior gender qualities.
This entire section left me jawdropped. Never mind that there are no Arabs in the Discworld (there are Klatchians, but Rayment doesn’t mention them): not only does this conflate the chosen, familial/cultural identity of Pratchett’s Igors with the inherent qualities of a particular racist stereotype and a highly sexist view of women, thereby irreparably damaging the point—Igorness is literally a chosen identity, supported through action and ritual, whereas race and gender are not—but the idea that Pratchett is opposed to essential gender qualities is absurd. In Monstrous Regiment, for instance, he observes that “It is an established fact that, despite everything society can do, girls of seven are magnetically attracted to the colour pink,” and however much I might disagree with that particular statement—the colour pink only became associated with girls in the west post-WWII—you can’t deny that Pratchett said it. More saliently, however, his entire narrative arc about the development of dwarf womanhood is a searing counterargument to this claim; though Rayment misunderstands this point quite spectacularly:
That gender must be separated from biology is most obvious in Pratchett’s treatment of dwarf females ... In Pratchett’s dwarf culture (and in a none too subtle dig at Disney’s and Tolkien’s dwarfs) everyone must act male, a fact which is getting Cheery down. Refusing to be crushed by the weight of a culture that demands gender conformity, Cheery ... begins to perform as female ... Through this process she creates the category of “female.” Prior to Cheery there are no female dwarfs in the sense that there are no words in dwarfish for female categories and no performance of anything but maleness. (pp. 64–5)
In actual fact, the traditional performance of dwarfishness isn’t male at all, but ungendered: the lack of an overt category for female dwarfs only implies that the single existing category must necessarily be masculine if, like Rayment and Held, you assume that maleness is a neutral default. To quote Guards! Guards!, “All dwarfs have beards and wear up to twelve layers of clothing. Gender is more or less optional.” If Cheery is inventing femaleness, then she is also, in the same act, inventing maleness, the former by establishing herself as one thing, and the latter by establishing other dwarfs as another. Dwarf pronouns are, in their own language, gender neutral, only rendered masculine by dint of translation. Yet, as the events of The Fifth Elephant and Thud! make clear, the fact that dwarf culture largely ignores biological differences doesn’t mean there aren’t tensions about gender identity within dwarf communities. Some, like Cheery, want the option of identifying as female, while others do not, but the pressure on Cheery to conform is less because she wants to be female, specifically, and more because her wanting to be anything represents a visible change—and therefore a challenge—to traditional dwarf identity.
Thus: while biology and gender are, indeed, separate things, the fact that gender can be performed doesn’t mean it can’t also be innate. Indeed, this point is crucial to understanding the difference between drag acts and being transgender (though gender is, of course, complex enough that one may both do drag and be trans), and while Held and Rayment skirt this fact in terms of their examples, they never seem willing, or possibly able, to really address its implications.
Turning from dwarfs to witches, Tuomas W. Manninen’s “‘Knowing Things that Other People Don’t Know Is a Form of Magic’: Lessons in Headology and Critical Thinking from the Lancre Witch” makes some strong points about white knowledge and the way we absorb information. While the language is slightly stiff at times—and I didn’t agree with all of Manninen’s assertions—it nonetheless made for interesting reading.
Kevin Guilfoy’s “Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy on the Discworld” is a trickier proposition. On the one hand, it presents an interesting analysis of economics and politics—though as with Manninen, I didn’t agree with all of it—but on the other, there were yet more factual inaccuracies about Pratchett’s work. Specifically, Guilfoy thinks that Sam Vimes, a character who spends an extraordinary amount of time arguing about, observing and generally protesting, class distinctions in Ankh-Morpork . . . doesn’t actually do that. “Sam Vimes may muse about poverty as he marries the richest heiress in Ankh-Morpork,” he writes, “but his thoughts are about how hard he has worked. He is frequently angered by the condescension of the aristocracy, but rarely by the injustice of the socioeconomic order” (p. 124).
I could cite any number of quotations and novels to prove the point—the fact that Vimes, when we first meet him, is paying for the police widows and orphans fund out of his own pay; his observations about growing up poor in Cockbill Lane, wearing pawnshop clothes and whitewashing houses to make them look cleaner; his awareness of the particular challenges of racism and assimilation faced by Klatchian immigrants; the improvements he implements throughout the course of his career to specifically address the way the poor of Ankh-Morpork are treated—but ultimately, it’s a single bone of contention. I mention it less to criticise Guilfoy, whose essay is otherwise strong, and more because the one thing I hadn’t expected to find in an academic anthology about Terry Pratchett was glaring factual errors about the content of his books.
Continuing the apparent pattern of strong pieces alternating with problematic ones, Dietrich Schotte’s “Plato, the Witch, and the Cave: Granny Weatherwax and the Moral Problem of Paternalism” had me wanting to tear my hair out. Given the undeniable extent to which paternalism as a concept has been historically associated with both sexist and racist ideologies—the treatment of the Aboriginal Australians by successive white governments and the forced hospitalisation of “hysterical” or non-conformist women in the eighteen and nineteen hundreds being cases in point—Schotte’s initial decision to define paternalism as “a sort of ‘beneficial lying’” (p. 133) set off warning bells. Traditionally, paternalism is a tactic employed by powerful groups as a means of maintaining control over those they deem less competent, generally due to their race, class, or gender, and that being so, I couldn’t help but be deeply cynical of Schotte’s aims:
The main goal of this chapter is to show that paternalism is a problematic, but also an indispensable, approach, even in liberal politics—while the basic assumption of the most anti-paternalistic arguments (if not to say resentments), that the right to autonomy or self-sovereignty is absolute, is anything but self-evident. (p. 133)
Schotte’s piece might well represent the most egregious failure to comprehend Pratchett’s work in the entire collection. Over and over, Pratchett has stated, both within the narration of his novels and on his own behalf, his overriding belief in the power of stories. By the same token, multiple Discworld books are devoted to the idea that witches create their own mystique, both through hard work and through “boffo"; a great deal of their autonomy comes from the fact that, when the villagers perceive them as adhering to witchy stereotype, they afford them more respect, and are therefore less inclined to challenge them. Partly, this is Pratchett’s satirical commentary on the idea of witches who are well-versed in their own historical/mythological perception, but it also ties in with his broader themes about narrativium and human belief as near-magical forces with power over humanity.
This, then, is a necessary lens through which to view Granny Weatherwax’s headology, and the white lies she sometimes tells to the villagers in the course of helping them. Granny doesn’t hold her charges to be incompetent or incapable of sound judgement; they have, after all, been sensible enough to ask for her help. Nor, as per the actual definition of paternalism, is she trying to limit their autonomy. Rather, she is acting in an awareness of their beliefs and expectations, not with the intent of denying them knowledge, but out of pragmatic respect for what, in her informed assessment of their personality and perception, they are likely to accept.
I therefore disagree, and strongly, with Schotte’s view of paternalism as applied to both the actions of Granny Weatherwax and more broadly, which states:
. . .paternalism comes in various forms (soft, hard, weak, strong), but its essence is that (a) it is always directed at its addressee’s well-being and that the means employed to reach this in effect is always (b) to substitute the agent’s judgement about what this well-being consists in or how it is best achieved for the addressee’s own judgement. (p. 137)
What this theory quite grossly ignores is the question of power dynamics; or rather, of power imbalance. Because paternalism, when wielded by privileged groups as a tool of oppression—as it has been historically, and as it still is today—is seldom if ever purely concerned, or even concerned at all, with the well-being of the addressee, but rather with keeping the addressee in a state of conformity and compliance that is of primary benefit to the agent. By crafting such a broad, deliberately benign remit for the concept of paternalism, Schotte conveniently shifts the dialogue away from the questions of abuse of power, sexism, racism, colonialism, and imperialism with which it has traditionally—and rightly—been associated, and recasts it merely as helping.
He then becomes quite unbelievably racist:
. . .many relativist attempts to defend non-Western “traditional and authentic ways of life” are in one important way flawed: to be able to defend a certain way of life as worthy of protection from “cultural imperialism”, one has to prove that it is freely chosen, that means to prove that those living it could have done otherwise . . . (p. 148)
The level of hypocrisy here is staggering. The idea that western culture has any right to sit in judgement over other cultures is obnoxious all on its own, but just as repugnant is the implication that being the product of western culture—or of a western culture, rather; Schotte seems unconcerned with the fact that the west isn’t a monolith—somehow makes one culturally objective: as though these hypothetical westerners sitting in judgement have all freely chosen their own cultural identity. As though only backward foreigners are raised in environments that might dictate their beliefs from birth, while westerners like Schotte are, of course, intellectually neutral, able to assess the worthiness of other societies in comparison to their own without any sort of irony whatsoever.
And then it gets worse:
Just consider the examples of ethnic or social minorities in our societies and those of “traditional” African cultures that to this day perform the heinous and abominable practice of female genital mutilation. In the latter example, women that have been brought up in such a culture often neither question the rightfulness of their own “circumcision”, nor do they stop the respective practice—because “that is how it is done”. Similarly, traditional female role models are often established not only by male, but also by female members of society, who, being brought up this way, defend such role models as “natural” or “willed by God”. In a free society, where alternative role models are available and can with equal right be chosen, we may have reason to respect such choices. (p. 148)
Excuse me while I flip some fucking tables.
Never mind that this abhorrently colonial view is the absolute antithesis of Prachett’s self-professed humanism, and therefore a deeply implausible view to ascribe to his work; is Schotte honestly trying to argue that cultural sexism doesn’t exist in the west, or that if it does, it’s somehow more defensible because its participants must knowingly (by his logic) choose to enact it? Because the Steubenville rape case, for instance, which exists as part of a culture of silence around rape and sexual abuse, did not happen in a vacuum. The fact that there are prominent feminist figures and leaders in the west doesn’t mean that there aren’t born-and-bred westerners who still stubbornly believe that a woman’s place is in the home, and who successfully gain political office on the strength of such beliefs. One may subscribe to bigotry even in a culture that ostensibly decries it, not because they have chosen that path, in the sense of one making a calm choice between equally well-presented options, but because their personal beliefs and upbringing lead them to believe that the very notion of such a choice is erroneous. And as for the idea that Africa’s “traditional” communities are devoid of revolutionary or feminist figures—well. That is, if you'll pardon my French, some ignorant White Saviour bullshit of the highest fucking order.
Washing away the taste of Schotte’s bile, the next essay up, Ben Saunders’s “Equality and Difference: Just because the Disc Is Flat, Doesn’t Make It a Level Playing Field for All” is arguably the strongest essay in the anthology. Written cleanly, clearly and in such a way as to affectionately utilise the Discworld as a means of explaining the logic and theories of equality, it serves as an interesting introduction to a deeply relevant philosophical concept. Not only is Saunders the first author in the collection to demonstrate an understanding of intersectionality, his is also the only piece that manages to pay homage to Pratchett’s playful style without either undermining the argument or sounding like the written equivalent of canned studio laughter. Thank you, Ben Saunders: I was ready to throw the book at the wall after Schotte’s piece, and yours saved my sanity.
Susanne E. Foster’s “Millennium Hand and Shrimp: On the Importance of Being in the Right Trouser Leg of Time” is an engaging examination of Aristotelian virtue ethics in the context of Pratchett’s work, and though I had one or two niggles, I very much enjoyed it. Similarly, while I had some early issues with Jennifer Jill Fellows’s “Categorically not Cackling: The Will, Moral Fictions, and Witchcraft”—the history between Kant and Nietzsche referenced in the opening page, given its relevance to the topic, could have been explored in more detail—I otherwise found it to be an insightful, clever examination of Pratchett’s witches in the context of the Nietzschean abyss. (And though Fellows doesn’t try to mimic Pratchett’s style, her own is wholly engaging.) Erica L. Neely’s “The Care of the Reaper Man: Death, the Auditors, and the Importance of Individuality” was likewise a successful blend of Pratchett’s mythos and philosophical concerns, and a pleasure to read.
J. Keeping’s "Yes, Susan, There Is A Hogfather": Hogfather and the Existentialism of Soren Kierkergaard,” though interesting, was undercut by the lack of explanation for several key points. On p. 256, for instance, Keeping claims that “we can only relate to God personally, as individuals. And like any personal relationship, its character is going to be formed by our unique personality and situation.” While this is certainly the belief of many western Christians, stating it uncritically as a universal truth does a great injustice to the variety of human belief systems. Similarly, the idea that “for a life to be meaningful, it must possess a coherence, a design, it must add up to something” (p. 257) struck me as being more personal preference than objective fact, and rather vague in any case without a proper definition of terms. Meaningful according to whom, and in what sense?
“If our life is to be more than a matter of satisfying appetites and impulses,” says Keeping on p. 259, “if it is to be a distinctly human life, then it must be a life lived in the service of some goal or ideal.” Ignoring the inherent cruelty in applying such a definition to those who die in childhood, for instance, before any such goal could reasonably be attained, and who this schema would therefore define as something other than “distinctly human,” this comes across as a distinctly Protestant worldview; one which prizes a work ethic above all else. The idea that living without ideology, without focus, for pleasure, or for oneself might also be human, even valuable, doesn’t seem to register; nor, for that matter, does the idea that one might live in service to a goal that ultimately serves only those same “appetites and impulses” that Keeping wants us to rise above. By the same token, the idea that “the only thing that can possibly make our chosen project worthy is the fact that we have chosen it” (p. 260) ignores the possibility of a life lived without choice. Are the victims of such coercion doomed to have a lesser humanity—a lesser worthiness—simply because their agency was denied by the ideals of others? Keeping doesn’t say, and in lieu of such an explanation, I'm afraid I can’t accept their thesis.
Martin Vacek’s “On the Possibility of the Discworld” was, though dense—and, I suspect, likely to confuse many lay readers despite the obvious care taken to achieve the opposite outcome— a fun read for me. As a fantasy writer married to a logician who deals with possible worlds, I'm always pleased to see a synthesis of the two, and while I still find the mathematical underpinnings of logic impenetrable, the ideas they ultimately support are always fascinating. And then, closing out the collection, there’s Jay Ruud’s “Pratchett’s The Last Continent and the Act of Creation.” I found this final piece to be quick, coherent, and inoffensive, with a nice dovetailing of philosophical and literary analysis in its focus on the structure of a single work.
All in all, then, Philosophy and Terry Pratchett is something of a mixed bag. Several of the essays infuriated me almost beyond belief, and given the ongoing and deeply necessary debate about the prevalence of sexism and lack of diversity in philosophy as a field, it didn’t escape my notice that, as well as being problematic in that respect with regard to content, only three of the thirteen authors were women, with the table of contents being, as best I could tell, either all or predominantly white. Yet there were also some interesting essays on offer, and while I found the overall collection something of a slog, given the many disheartening issues early on that drastically slowed my reading, individual writers certainly stood on their own merits.
Philosophy and Terry Pratchett is not an accessible introduction to the breadth of philosophical inquiry as filtered through the works of one of fantasy’s latest, greatest writers, nor is it a paean to Pratchett’s work. Rather, it comes off as an uneasy attempt to be both while somehow achieving neither, and while I can’t recommend the experience of reading through it from start to finish, as something to dip into, or as the starting point for a conversation about the place of philosophy in literary analysis, you could do a lot worse.
Foz Meadows is the author of two YA urban fantasy novels, Solace & Grief and The Key to Starveldt, as well as a critic and blogger. She writes about tropes, pop culture, feminism, politics, and SFF at her website, Shattersnipe, writes reviews and essays for a variety of venues, including Strange Horizons, and was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer last year.