introducing readers to writers since 1995

July 05, 2005

Author2Author: Kevin Guilfoile & Tom Morris, pt. 1

by Ron Hogan

Longtime readers may recall that I shared a college class with Kevin Guilfoile, the author of the quasi-futuristic thriller Cast of Shadows. When he and I were thinking about who we might convince to do an Author2Author with him, we turned to a former Notre Dame icon with whom both of us were familiar: former philosophy professor Tom Morris. Kevin actually got to study under Tom; I was routed into another class, but I heard about his guitar-wielding pedagogical technique all the same. Tom eventually left academia to work as a corporate advisor, but he still keeps his hand with the books--his most recent work is as the co-editor (with his son, Matt) of Superheroes and Philosophy, an anthology that combines insights from contemporary philosophers and comic book creators into the themes and concerns underlying some of today's leading comics titles. Because Kevin's novel is also a blend of pop culture tropes and philosophical reflection, the three of us figured there'd be plenty of interesting things to talk about...I hope you'll agree.

guilfoile.jpgKevin Guilfoile: In the terrific first essay of Superheroes and Philosophy, DC Comics' Mark Waid describes the task of coming up with a more psychologically complex Superman for the 21st century, and his deliberations are fascinating. How was Superman affected by the knowledge that his home planet and his family had been destroyed? How was he influenced by the parenting style of Jonathan and Martha Kent? What about Kryptonian nature vs. human nurture? Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs?

But isn't there something of a conflict in these stories (in all modern stories, I think, but especially in comic book myths) between philosophy and psychology? Superman, after all, is a classic existential protagonist: It is not his extraordinary powers that make him a superhero, but his extraordinary choice--against great temptation--to use these powers for good. Hasn't the example of Superman always been that the person we become is a choice? That, even though my subconscious substitutes food for affection, I refuse to eat that cupcake because the person I choose to be is two belt notches thinner? (The Kierkegaard Diet Plan! Eat that, Atkins!) If we replace free will with post-Freudian analysis, Superman becomes a more nuanced character, but is he still a real superhero to us?

tommorris.jpgTom Morris: The question you raise is a fascinating one. Philosophy and psychology can sometimes pull in opposite directions. Of course, what we now call psychology was once just a part of what was broadly known as "moral philosophy"--a complete exploration of human nature and the human condition--as distinct from "natural philosophy," which became physics, chemistry, biology and the various other "natural sciences. With the disciplines as they exist now, I think of psychology as a study into the functioning of the mind, as well as an investigation into the origins of human behavior, and I view philosophy as a more general pursuit of wisdom about the world, both theoretical and practical.

Superman has long been seen as a fairly one dimensional character. Despite his remarkable birth on another planet, and the dramatic details of how he got to earth to be raised by a farm family in Kansas, he has often been thought of as "plain vanilla," "emotionally bland," or "the Big Blue Boy Scout." He just seems to be this completely altruistic individual who uses all his amazing power to save and defend others for no reward greater than the sense of an important job well done. That's exciting to most kids, but unrealistic to many adults.

By contrast, so many of the other classic superheroes are clearly conflicted and psychologically complex characters. Most superhero stories begin with an accident or tragedy that changes the protagonist forever, launching him into a career of heroic acts in service to others. And it's clear in many of the stories that these traumatic origins have complex psychological consequences (see Peter Parker/Spider-Man for a classic example).

Superman never saw his parents die or his home world destroyed. The tragedy of his origin story was always at a psychological remove from his adult memories, personality, and mindset. But Mark Waid was sure there was more to Superman than has been explored in the past. So he set out to plumb the depths of what it would mean to know that you're an alien living on a foreign world, raised as one of us but not really one of us. What would his psychological needs be? How would they affect his choices to do good and serve as a superhero? Waid wanted to introduce more complexity into the character and, in our book, articulates for the first time exactly the philosophy and psychology behind the innovations in his recent and now famous graphic novel Superman: Birthright.

Many approaches to psychology over the past century-and-a-half have labored in a reductionist direction, describing and explaining human thought and behavior as nothing more than the products of various needs, urges, and reactions to external stimuli. In light of this, you pose an interesting challenge: Can Waid psychologize Superman without reducing his behavior to something other than the free choice that we see as necessary for true heroism? The notion of a hero is itself a moral or a normative category. The hero freely chooses right over wrong, for good reasons, and by the strength of his character overcomes any obstacles to that choice. But if the reductionist is right, heroes and superheroes are no different from the rest of us, in terms of moral praiseworthiness and stature, since we are all just the puppets of forces beyond our control.

I'm one of those philosophers who believes that we will never fully explain or explain away free will. I can't imagine what would count as a decisive case against our normal ability to make free, unfettered, and unforced choices. Because of that, while I welcome the results of brain science, I have no fear of reductionism. The best neuroscience tells us what's happening in the brain while we're seemingly making our choices, but it never proves that those neural events preclude the reality of choices. Freudians and proponents of other schools of human behavior may note interesting correlations, and sometimes even causal mechanisms behind certain human behaviors, but I can't imagine their ever making a compelling case that we are always compelled to act as we do.

I do see Waid as exploring both the psychology and the philosophy of Superman. He understands that, in line with Maslow's famous account, we all have various needs. But he also suggests a philosophical point of view whereby meeting some of our own needs can be done only in the context of caring about something beyond ourselves. He explores the connection point between self-interest and altruism, not in such a way as to diminish Superman's admirable concern for others, but to show how that relates to the normal psychological needs that Superman feels to develop and use his own distinctive talents in such a way as to provide the sort of personal fulfillment we're all seeking in life. The Big Blue Boy Scout has a complex psychological life after all, and yet still by his choices shows us all the path to genuine heroism. Life doesn't throw us a demand to choose between an utterly selfless life of service and a narrowly selfish self-fulfillment. With a proper philosophy of satisfaction, we can see that the only true fulfillment consists, in part, in belonging to a greater community and serving that community by developing and using our most distinctive talents for others as well as ourselves. The pleasant paradox is that, in serving others properly, we find that we have also served our own interests.

If you enjoy this blog,
your PayPal donation
can contribute towards its ongoing publication.