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Philosophy and Terry Pratchett

James South and Jacob Held

(The Guardian)

Philosophers looking for fresh insights into metaphysics, epistemology and ethics can add another author to their reading list, as a study reveals the philosophical issues explored in the work of Terry Pratchett.

With more than 75m copies sold around the world, Pratchett is one of the UK's best-loved writers. He published his first Discworld novel, The Colour of Magic, in 1983. The 40th, Raising Steam, was released last year, with new work still coming thick and fast despite a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer's in 2007. But Philosophy and Terry Pratchett, published on 3 December, is the first study to explore the philosophical implications of Pratchett's imaginary world, which is perched on the back of a turtle.

Edited by philosophy professors and Pratchett fans James South and Jacob Held, the collection of essays examines questions including "Plato, the Witch, and the Cave: Granny Weatherwax and the Moral Problem of Paternalism", "Equality and Difference: Just because the Disc Is Flat, Doesn't Make It a Level Playing Field for All", "Hogfather and the Existentialism of Soren Kierkegaard", and "the Importance of Being in the Right Trouser Leg of Time".

South, associate professor of philosophy at Marquette University, is adamant Pratchett's novels "hold up to sustained philosophical reflection".

"Pratchett is a very smart man, a gifted writer, and understands as well as any philosopher the power of storytelling and the problems humans face in making sense of their lives and the world they live in," South said. "Or, as Death puts it so well: 'DO NOT PUT ALL YOUR TRUST IN ROOT VEGETABLES. WHAT THINGS SEEM TO BE MAY NOT BE WHAT THEY ARE.' This is a truth that Pratchett relatedly acknowledges and tries to get his readers to acknowledge as well."

For Held, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Central Arkansas, the best satire "understands the world it interrogates and offers a new or novel take or window onto that world".

Pratchett's character Death "is profoundly Kantian," Held continued. "He speaks to the need for a rational faith or belief in values like dignity, or even an afterlife .... Then you have Carrot and Vimes, or the relativist versus the moral absolutist. So much of Pratchett's writings deal with value in the world, its origin, its origin in our beliefs, in our desire and need to value the world, and how it needs to be rigorously maintained through our practices."

The academics have not approached Pratchett about the book, South saying they "figured he'd think it was all a bit of nonsense taking his work seriously in this way", although adding that "secretly, I think he'd be pleased".

"But, then I think about some of his expressed views about philosophers, especially in Small Gods and wonder what he really makes of us," said South, citing Pratchett's dictum that "whenever you see a bunch of buggers puttering around talking about truth and beauty and the best way of attacking Ethics, you can bet your sandals it's all because dozens of other poor buggers are doing all the real work around the place."

"Of course, some of these observations hit close to home," South added.

The book is aimed at both fans of Pratchett and philosophers, and South hopes it will "enrich people's appreciation of the impressive accomplishment of Pratchett's imagination and skill".

"If Pratchett is sometimes accused of literature, I hope this book makes the case that he can be accused of philosophy as well," said the academic.

Pratchett on philosophy

"Take it from me, whenever you see a bunch of buggers puttering around talking about truth and beauty and the best way of attacking Ethics, you can bet your sandals it's all because dozens of other poor buggers are doing all the real work around the place."

"The philosopher Didactylus has summed up an alternative hypothesis as 'Things just happen. What the hell.'"

"One of the recurring philosophical questions is: 'Does a falling tree in the forest make a sound when there is no one to hear?' Which says something about the nature of philosophers, because there is always someone in a forest. It may only be a badger, wondering what that cracking noise was, or a squirrel a bit puzzled by all the scenery going upwards, but someone."

"I used to think that I was stupid, and then I met philosophers."

"'What's a philosopher?' said Brutha. 'Someone who's bright enough to find a job with no heavy lifting,' said a voice in his head."

"His philosophy was a mixture of three famous schools - the Cynics, the Stoics and the Epicureans - and summed up all three of them in his famous phrase, 'You can't trust any bugger further than you can throw him, and there's nothing you can do about it, so let's have a drink. Mine's a double, if you're buying. Thank you. And a packet of nuts. Her left bosom is nearly uncovered, eh? Two more packets, then!'"

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I'm embarrassed by how long it took me to discover Terry Pratchett. I avoided him during much of my early reading career - I'd read the works of fantastical humorists before, and while I'd always enjoyed the experience, it wasn't something I intentionally sought out. I didn't realize I was missing out on what are arguably the best books fantasy has to offer.

It's hard to describe Pratchett to the uninitiated. His works mostly take place on a fictional world shaped like a disc, and the stories tend to be murder mysteries or thrillers mixed with a healthy dose of satire on the human condition. Like the best works of fantasy, a journey with his trolls, witches, and crusty night watchmen provokes inspection of our own world. But what other authors do with light allusions, Discworld does with a sledgehammer. And with light allusion too. Then it steals your wallet.

Discworld is story, humor, and philosophy all in one. Nowhere else have I been made to laugh so much while being forced to think so much, all while being given a wonderful plot. The closest thing to Pratchett out there is Shakespeare. Yes, really.

Here's the core of my argument, then. Pratchett isn't just funny, Pratchett is transcendent. There are lots of funny writers. Some are hilarious. A few are good at making you think at the same time. But most humorists, while brilliant, have trouble with story. If I put their book down, I remember the laughter, but feel no urgency to return. Those narratives don't get their hooks in me - they don't have that pull, like gravity, that a good plot builds. In short, they don't make me think—bleary-eyed at 3:00 a.m.—that I need to read one more chapter.

Pratchett, on the other hand, routinely makes me lose sleep. His best stories (I suggest Going Postal or The Truth) have excellent narrative urgency, but add to it a level of riotous wit. Then, if that weren't enough, they kick you in the head with moments of poignant commentary - unexpected, brazen, and delightful.

This has to be the highest level of fiction. It does everything that great fiction does - but then makes us laugh too.

Pratchett is by no means under-appreciated. His sales are solid, he has heaps of fans, and there's also that whole being knighted thing that happened to him. However, I can't help but notice a distinct lack of top-level literature awards in his pocket. One British SF Award, one Locus Award, but no Hugos, Nebulas, or World Fantasy awards (often considered the top three prizes in science fiction and fantasy) let alone any mainstream awards. Could it be that we're so comfortable with Pratchett that we take him for granted?

Maybe it's the humor. Long-standing wisdom in Hollywood states that comedies, no matter how brilliant, don't take top prizes. If you want to sell tickets, you make people laugh. If you want to win awards, you make them cry. As the poet once said, 'I can't get no respect.'

I spent years in a graduate literature program learning what makes great writing, and the only conclusion we came to was that the future of graduate literature programs was safe because nobody is ever going to agree on what makes great writing. However, there are some things that the true greats seem to share.

One of these is conscious use of language. Pratchett has that - boy does he. Each and every word is chosen with precision, stuffing in jokes like kids playing chubby bunny.

Another is subtle use of literary allusion. Again, Pratchett is a genius at this, though instead of alluding to Greek epics (well, in addition to the Greek epics) Pratchett's allusions tend to center on pop culture and history. (Have a look over at the fan annotations for one of his books on L-Space to get a feel for the level of allusion, often in the form of puns, you'll find in his books.

Another measure of great writing is great characters. While it would be easy to dismiss Pratchett here because of the numerous one-sided caricatures who populate Discworld, those aren't often the meat of the stories. The protagonists at the very center have real heart, emotion, drive, and growth. I find Vimes, Pratchett's unpretentious captain of the city watch, one of the most complex and endearing characters in fiction. (Night Watch is the height of the Vimes storyline, if you're interested.)

And then they're funny. Really, truly funny. The clown makeup distracts us. It makes us smile and draws our attention away from the majesty of the features. I maintain that what Pratchett does is not just great, but unparalleled.

In five hundred years, it won't be the Nobel laureates who are being studied. It's going to be this guy.

Thank you, Sir Terry.

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