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Book review: Philosophy and Terry Pratchett

Two professional philosophers — and Terry Pratchett fans — have produced a volume of essays examining the English fantasy novelist’s epistemological, moral and existential implications

By Alison Flood  /  The Guardian

Philosophy and Terry Pratchett, Edited by James South and Jacob Held.

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 75 million copies sold around the world, Pratchett is one of the UK’s best-loved writers. He published his first novel in the Discworld series, The Color 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.

Philosophy and Terry Pratchett, published yesterday, 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.”

Publication Notes

Philosophy and Terry Pratchett

Edited by James South and Jacob Held

328 pages

Palgrave Macmillan

Paperback: UK


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.”

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