Jim Henson and Philosophy: Imagination and the Magic of Mayhem

Kermit_MsPiggyBook reiew by Nadine Faulkner

It was not without skepticism that I began my task of reviewing Dale and Foy’s collection of short essays on philosophy and puppeteer Jim Henson. As someone who taught philosophy and had enjoyed the Muppet Show on television, I was more than a little concerned that an attempt to merge the two would do justice to neither. Kermit and Kant? Really?

But my skepticism melted into genuine enthusiasm just a few pages into Laurel Ralston’s “Go and Find Your Songs: Yoga, Philosophy and Fraggle Rock.” The article is an easy-to-digest analysis of social structures that inspires rather than preaches. Ralston applies the concept of dharma, which in lay terms can be interpreted (among other things) as sacred order, to the Fraggle Rock social structure. In Fraggle Rock there are the Doozers, who are dedicated to work and building, and the Fraggles, who are dedicated to play and fun. They seem diametrically opposed and are often in conflict, but both groups have purpose and are inter-dependent. One interesting concept explored is how the Doozers build for the sake of building and not the end product – after all, Fraggles always eat the Doozers’ buildings and the Doozers don’t mind. After reading this article, I found myself thinking about how much I do for the doing, and how much I do for the outcome.

I suspect the editors Dale and Foy chose the 10-page maximum for each article on purpose and it was a brilliant idea. Ten pages is just enough for the uninitiated and perfect for a Sunday coffee, bubble bath or bus ride. I have to admit that I read and fully enjoyed “Miss Piggy’s Feminism” while in the tub. Author Samantha Brennon explores Miss Piggy as a feminist icon. Miss Piggy is anything but stereotypical – she karate chops, embraces her corpulence and has a strong voice. As Brennan points out, “[s]he served as a size-positive feminist preaching body acceptance before that was even a thing.” But how can a lipstick-loving, heel-wearing, purse-carrying pig be a third wave feminist? To find out, you’ll have to read Brennon’s article.

Perhaps the only article that didn’t manage to work in the 10-page format is Kimberly Baltzer-Jaray’s “Rainbow Connection.” The Rainbow Song certainly has plenty of philosophical fodder. But Jaray tries to link metaphysics, epistemology and existentialism not only to the song but to each other. That’s too hard to achieve in a short space and the result was unfortunately an overly generalized, flat piece. Focusing on one area would have been more fruitful and interesting.

By contrast, parents in particular will find Sheryl Tuttle Ross’ “Finding Fallacies Funny” an informative and interesting read. Ross presents four theories of humour (each of which I knew nothing about) and then applies them to skits in Sesame Street. Looking behind the humour in Sesame Street is enlightening and brings a whole new way to look at Cookie Monster.

Natalie Fletcher’s “My (Un)Fair Lady: Power, Fairness, and Moral Imagination in Labyrinth” looks at Henson’s 1986 adventure musical fantasy film that became a cult hit after his death in 1990. In the movie, a girl of 16 has to solve a labyrinth to rescue her baby brother after the Goblin King, played by David Bowie, granted her wish to take her baby brother away. Fletcher draws out the development of a “moral imagination” in the young girl as the key to understanding her growth through the film. For those who haven’t seen this film yet, or whose children haven’t, you’ll want to after you read Fletcher’s piece.

imgres copy
Jim Henson and Philosophy: 
Imagination and the Magic 
of Mayhem
Timothy M. Dale 
and Joseph J. Foy, eds
Rowman & Littlefield 2015

Non-philosophy readers should not fear Rhona Trauvitch’s “Ontology and Superposition: Where the Muppets Meet and do not Meet Schrodinger’s Cat.” It’s a straightforward and accessible discussion about levels of existence; for example, what ontological status, e.g. real, fictional, etc., does a muppet have when it appears in a movie with humans? Is it a fictional character on par with one played by a human? Or is it a doubly fictional character? The article is an excellent example of how thinking can be fun in its own right and it’s the sort of topic that could be discussed with children as well.

The benefit of a collection of articles over a novel is that readers can have thoughts sparked about Doozers and dharma one day, followed by humourous logical fallacies the next. Readers certainly don’t need to be experts in either philosophy or Hansen’s work to appreciate this collection of 22 articles. Kermit and Kant? What a great idea.

Nadine Faulkner is a philosopher, author and humourist who contributes regularly to the Glebe Report.

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